Sister Queens is a biography — or rather, two parallel biographies — of the well-known Katherine of Aragon and her slightly less well-known sister, Juana the Mad. Except that she may not have actually been mad. Fox argues that Queen Juana’s supposed insanity was probably invented or at least exaggerated, first by her father and later by her son, to prevent her from reigning as a sovereign queen and to consolidate their own grips on power.
Both sisters’ lives were sad: Juana spent most of her adult life under house arrest, and after Henry VIII decided he wanted a divorce, Katherine was pretty much a prisoner too, with her beloved daughter Mary not even allowed to see her as she was dying. It’s understandable that a writer would want to compare these two women’s lives, all the more so because they were sisters. The parallel presentation is somewhat weakened by the fact that after leaving home to marry, the sister had only one brief meeting and no further contact, not even by letters, nor is there any evidence that either was concerned about the other’s plight. The presentation is also, of necessity, a little imbalanced: the letters Katherine wrote throughout much of her life survive, but there is little extant evidence that Juana ever wrote a letter, or anything else, after she was incarcerated. Her story has to be told from an outsider’s view, with few glimpses into how she herself might have felt about her situation, which is frustrating for the reader.
Despite its limitations, this is a very readable and informative biography, and I was interested both to learn more about Juana, and to learn more of Katherine’s well-known story from her point of view.