If you are the kind of person who is fascinated by Henry VIII’s six wives then Philippa Gregory’s books could make for an interesting read. Although the books are not written in strict chronological order or even like a series, the correct order to read them would be The Constant Princess followed by The Other Boleyn Girl, The Wise Woman, The Boleyn Inheritance, The Queen's Fool, The Virgin’s Lover, and The Other Queen.
The first book in the series, The Constant Princess introduces one of Gregory’s most unforgettable heroines - Katherine of Aragon. Known to history as the Queen who was pushed off her throne by Anne Boleyn, here is a Katherine the world has forgotten, the enchanting princess that all England loved.
The best part of the novel is easily the depiction of Katherine’s childhood in Spain. Her early years were spent on the battlefield, as her parents drove the Moors from Spain, and later in residence at the Alhambra. Since her infancy Katherine was betrothed to Henry VIII’s older brother, Arthur. When at 15 she makes the journey to England, she is shocked by the comparative barbarity of the people (though she admits that the luxuries she’s used to—indoor plumbing, hospitals, good food—were introduced by the very people her parents have tried to exterminate). At first she dislikes Arthur,
“When I first saw him I thought he was as beautiful as a knight from the romances, like a troubadour, like a poet. I thought I could be like a lady in a tower and he could sing beneath my window and persuade me to love him. But although he has the looks of a poet he doesn't have the wit. I can never get more than two words out of him, and I begin to feel that I demean myself in trying to please him.”
Katherine is infuriated by the ungraceful ways of Arthur, especially when he boasts that he has been in Spain all night after spending the first night together.
“In Spain," indeed! He would have got no closer than the Indies if I had not showed him how to do it. Stupid puppy.”
Gregory masterfully captures the trials and tribulations of a new bride in a foreign country, in the home of a rude and lecherous father in law and a weak husband. With time however, Katherine’s passion turns their arranged marriage into a love match. Soon the young couple is full of plans for a progressive England. Unfortunately, even before they could celebrate their first anniversary, Arthur dies. On his deathbed, Arthur forces a promise from Katherine - tell the world the marriage was unconsummated, marry little brother Henry and carry on with Arthur’s dreams.
The merciless English court and her ambitious parents, the crusading King and Queen of Spain -- have to find a new role for the widow. Ultimately, it is Katherine herself who takes control of her own life by telling the most audacious lie in English history, leading her to the very pinnacle of power in England. This lie becomes the turning point of the novel and eventually in the later novels the reason of Katherine’s downfall.
In a cruel twist of fate, while Katherine is eyeing Arthur’s brother, she catches the eye of her father in law. At first the lecherous king makes a play for his daughter-in-law, but Katherine holds out for ten-year-old Henry. After years of living in poverty, she finally becomes Queen. Of course, our Catalina is not destined for a happy ending, but the early years of her marriage to the devoted Henry are joyous.
The Constant Princess is strongly informed by historical events, but is more engaging and exciting than most historical novels. At its heart, The Constant Princess wants to be a love story about the Spanish princess and her first husband, and her efforts to keep a promise she makes to him.
Gregory’s Katherine is a consummate actress, a head strong, role defying woman who has the audacity to lead a king like Henry VII, her father in law to boot. Ambition is the sole driving force of her life, for which she is ready to marry even her father in law at one point of time. Yet she is an endearing woman and beloved of the people whose constancy helps her endure betrayal, poverty, and despair, until the inevitable moment when she steps into the role she has prepared for all her life - Henry VIII's Queen, Regent, and commander of the English army in their greatest victory against Scotland.