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Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox: A Book Review

Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile
Author: Julia Fox
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography, History
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: 2012
Pages: 370
Source: Personal Collection
Synopsis: The history books have cast Katherine of Aragon, the first queen of King Henry VIII of England, as the ultimate symbol of the Betrayed Woman, cruelly tossed aside in favor of her husband’s seductive mistress, Anne Boleyn. Katherine’s sister, Juana of Castile, wife of Philip of Burgundy and mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, is portrayed as “Juana the Mad,” whose erratic behavior included keeping her beloved late husband’s coffin beside her for years. But historian Julia Fox, whose previous work painted an unprecedented portrait of Jane Boleyn, Anne’s sister, offers deeper insight in this first dual biography of Katherine and Juana, the daughters of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella, whose family ties remained strong despite their separation. Looking through the lens of their Spanish origins, Fox reveals these queens as flesh-and-blood women—equipped with character, intelligence, and conviction—who are worthy historical figures in their own right. 

     When they were young, Juana’s and Katherine’s futures appeared promising. They had secured politically advantageous marriages, but their dreams of love and power quickly dissolved, and the unions for which they’d spent their whole lives preparing were fraught with duplicity and betrayal. Juana, the elder sister, unexpectedly became Spain’s sovereign, but her authority was continually usurped, first by her husband and later by her son. Katherine, a young widow after the death of Prince Arthur of Wales, soon remarried his doting brother Henry and later became a key figure in a drama that altered England’s religious landscape. 

     Ousted from the positions of power and influence they had been groomed for and separated from their children, Katherine and Juana each turned to their rich and abiding faith and deep personal belief in their family’s dynastic legacy to cope with their enduring hardships. Sister Queens is a gripping tale of love, duty, and sacrifice—a remarkable reflection on the conflict between ambition and loyalty during an age when the greatest sin, it seems, was to have been born a woman.

     My review: Sister Queens is a dual biography of Queen Isabella of Castile’s daughters, Katherine of Aragon, the famous first wife of Henry VIII whom he divorced, and Juana of Castile, who is known as Spain’s Mad Queen. The author chronicles their lives in Spain and to their tragic fate. These sisters thought that they would have a happy future, only to realize that they would face hardships that they would have never dreamed of. However, these sisters prove to be intelligent, strong, and good at politics. The only thing they had against them that shaped their fate was their gender.

     While it is a dual biography, the author mostly focuses on Katherine of Aragon. This is because there is more historical information available on Katherine than on Juana. However,  the lesser mentioned story of Juana was fascinating. The author portrays her as a tragic figure. Unlike the popular myth of Juana la Loca, Juana was not mad. Instead, she had a strong political acumen. It was because of her gender that no one took her seriously. Her father, husband, and son betrayed her so they could have the throne for themselves. I could not help but pity poor Juana, and I wished the author had written more information on her.

     The author reminds us that Katherine of Aragon was not the poor, heart-broken, weak discarded wife of Henry VIII that the popular myth had lead us to believe. When she was the widowed wife of Arthur, Henry VIII’s brother, she struggled with poverty but worked hard to overcome it. As a queen she was intelligent with an impressive range of politics. This was proven when Henry went to war in France, and he appointed Katherine as regent. Katherine was Henry’s equal, and she helped advise him in state affairs. Because she could not produce a male heir to the throne, Katherine was a failure and disappointment in Henry's eyes. When Henry was trying to divorce her, Katherine’s fight for her position made it extremely hard for Henry. Yet, no matter how long she fought, she lost simply because she was not the king.

     Overall, this refreshing biography takes away the popular misconceptions to what we have previously thought of these sisters and gives them a different perspective. The novel is full of danger, suspense, court intrigue, and tragedy, but it also shows the women’s strength, determination, and their unwavering faith in God as they fight for their crown. The writing is very engaging and comprehensible. Fans of Alison Weir and anyone interested in the Tudor era will eat this biography up!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


  1. After reading the blurb and your review, Lauralee, I get the feeling that this book has been carefully researched, in which case, it could be quite interesting. I was not aware that Katherine had a sister, and it could be interesting to read about her, more especially seeing that both of the sisters experienced the same kind of male-dominated treachery and abandonment.

  2. Thanks. It is carefully researched. They both had the same kind of tragic experience.


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