Discussion Questions – ‘The Constant Princess’ by Philippa Gregory


Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte
Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte

1. The novel opens in Granada, Spain, as five-year-old Catalina witnesses her parents, Isabella and Ferdinand, conquer the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain. What does this chapter reveal about Catalina, as well as about her mother and their relationship? In what ways did having this portrait of Catalina as a child help you better understand some of her later decisions and motivations?
I think it really sets up the influences on Katherine throughout her life. The key influence is her mother, Isabella I of Castile, as it really shows that a woman can rule a country. This is the influence which drives Katherine to such lengths to protect her daughter’s claim to the throne. Although Henry VIII doesn’t believe that a woman can hold a throne, Katherine has seen it first hand, and it drives her to educate her daughter as befitting a future monarch, not just a consort. The first chapter shows how much Katherine looks up to Isabella, as a mother, a queen and a woman. It is also Katherine’s mother that gives Katherine her dedication to Roman Catholicism and why she opposes the English Reformation to such an extent. The first chapter does help to understand these decisions because the Spanish conduct themselves entirely differently to the English and don’t seem to have the same gender phobia as the English. I think childhood is really what shapes us into adults, even today. If you’re brought up to love reading then that is something that will stay with you for the rest of your life, and Katherine’s devotion to her faith is exactly the same – it’s something she grew up with that stayed with her to the end.


2. “I did not expect [Arthur] to be so handsome! He is so fair and slight, he is like a page boy from one of the old romances” (34). Why does Catalina’s romantic view of Arthur disintegrate after their wedding? How does their journey to Ludlow Castle – and their first evening there when Catalina acquaints Arthur with some of the customs of her homeland – become the turning point in their relationship?
I think Katherine’s romantic view of Arthur disappears after the wedding because her view had been built up in absentia – they had been writing letters to each other and had only seen portraits. They hadn’t had the chance to get to know each other properly. I think Katherine had quite an idealised view of him, and I think that Arthur put on a lot of bravado, which teenagers are wont to do in front of their peers. I don’t think Arthur really truly felt that way, but I think he felt the need to display some of his power as Prince of Wales. I think the journey to Ludlow Castle is really the low point in the relationship as Arthur doesn’t seem to really talk to or make any effort to connect with Katherine. She is pretty much left to her own devices. I think when they arrive at Ludlow away from the court it is easier for them to spend time together and connect, which makes their relationship more comfortable, especially as they aren’t being watched by all the eyes of the court, and the king and queen. I can’t imagine being constantly watched makes for a very comfortable or enjoyable relationship.
3. On his deathbed, Arthur asks Catalina to marry his brother and rule England in his place. What prompts Arthur to ask this of Catalina? Does Catalina promise Arthur for his sake or for her own? How does she justify telling the lie that makes it possible for her to wed Harry?
I think that Arthur asks this of Katherine because he regrets that he won’t be there for her, and she travelled hundreds of miles to marry him and be Queen of England. I think in a way he feels guilty about his own death. I think he also knows that Katherine would be a good queen, and that she might be able to calm Henry, who even at a young age was exuberant. I think that Arthur wants to secure England’s future as much as he can before he dies. He has been brought up to believe that his future is England’s future, and he is trying to safeguard that. I think Katherine promises Arthur for both his sake and her own. I think she wants Arthur to die in peace, knowing that he has done what he can to safeguard England’s future, but I think she also wants to be Queen – she travelled a long way and if she returned home, another foreign marriage would be arranged for her, and she would have to do it all over again in a new land with new people and a new language. At least she knew Prince Henry a little so wouldn’t be starting from scratch again. I think Katherine justifies the lie because it was a deathbed promise. In the religious age of the early 16th century deathbed promises were seen as binding. I think she also wanted to do what was best for England, and she thought she could be a good queen. But I think at another level it was selfish; she wanted to be queen and had been brought up to see it as her destiny.
4. After Arthur’s death, Lady Margaret Pole suggests that perhaps God wills that Catalina accept her fate as Dowager Princess. “He does not,” Catalina responds. “I shall insist on what is mine. I know what is my duty and what I have to do” (164). Why is Catalina so certain that it’s God’s will she become Queen of England? Is this conviction a result of her faith, her upbringing, or something else?

Anonymous portrait of Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York c.1501.
Prince Arthur by Unknown Artist c.1501

I think that Katherine feels so strongly about her destiny because it was drilled into her from such a young age. She wasn’t even old enough to understand when the negotiations first began, and had been raised as Princess of Wales. It’s difficult to overcome so many years of certainty. I think it is also her faith and belief in God that means she can’t accept another future for herself. However, I think that it is also a selfish action – she wants to be queen because of the wealth and power, and I think she also wants to do some good and make Arthur proud of her. I think that it is also a result of the deathbed promise she made to Arthur. In the religious environment of the 16th century a deathbed promise was binding, and Katherine probably felt that God would help her to fulfill this promise. Katherine never accepted her fate as Dowager Princess of Wales because she didn’t believe it was what God wanted. I think she was so stubborn that nothing could have stopped her from that path.
5. How is Catalina used as a political pawn by her parents? What is your opinion of Isabella of Spain, both as a monarch and as a mother? How about King Ferdinand?
I think that it is the fate of all princesses to be used as political pawns. Their fate is being decided sometimes before they are even born, before they can walk, talk or understand what is happening. Many princesses are betrothed from the cradle, so Katherine’s situation wasn’t so unusual. I think Isabella is a loving mother and often lets her love for her children cloud her political judgment. She kept trying to delay Katherine’s departure for England. On the other hand, I think Ferdinand looks always at the advantage situations can offer to him. After Arthur’s death, Katherine becomes sidelined while her father and father-in-law try to obtain the best deal for themselves, largely fighting over Katherine’s dowry. It can’t be an easy situation for anyone to be in, but the fighting meant that Katherine had to sell her things to survive and her servants went without pay. She was trapped in a foreign land and had no one to support her.
6. While at Ludlow Castle, Arthur and Catalina make plans for their future reign as king and queen of England. “You are a tactician,” Arthur tells Catalina during one of their conversations. “I wish to God I had your childhood and knew the things you know” (129). What tactics did Catalina learn as the child of two powerful monarchs? How does she put these skills to use in her rise to the throne?
I think that Katherine’s childhood wasn’t conventional for princesses of the time. Most were raised at one or two palaces surrounded by servants with a governess, and didn’t see much of their parents. Katherine’s childhood was totally different. She spent a lot of time with her parents and siblings, and was present at the fall of Granada. An event like that must have been very influential on a young Katherine. She saw that women could rule and fight. She uses this knowledge to push forward the claims of her daughter, Mary, to the English throne. She sees the Moorish medicines and knows that these people are different, but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. She also experiences grief in her childhood – the premature deaths of her brother, Juan, and sister, Isabella. I think that gives her a sense of life and to enjoy it, and achieve what you can. I think that is also where Katherine’s sense of destiny comes from – she has seen what death can do and is determined to make the most of her time. Her destiny to be Queen of England has been drummed into her since she was old enough to understand it, and she takes strength from that.
7. When it’s realized that Catalina is not pregnant with Arthur’s child, her mother sends an emissary to escort her home to Spain. Why does Catalina, who was raised knowing it’s a princess’s duty to obey her parents, defy her mother and remain in England? Why is it so important to her that she not return to Spain? Are her reasons more political or personal?
Katherine’s main feeling is that of her destiny – even after Arthur’s death she remains convinced that it is her destiny to be Queen of England. The only way to do that is to marry Arthur’s brother, Prince Henry. That would be much harder to arrange if she returned to Spain, and if she wasn’t in the country, Henry VII might organise another match for his son, and Katherine would lose her chance. I think Katherine chooses to defy her mother because she believes so strongly in her destiny. Without that faith I think she would have gone home. I think that, although Katherine would have loved to see her mother again, she is thinking about the future rather than the past. Her reasons for remaining in England are both personal and political – she loved Arthur and needs to be in England to fulfill his dying wish, but she also wants to be Queen of England, and I think she was quite attracted to Prince Henry early on. Most of all, however, I think she felt she had to fulfill Arthur’s dying wish.

Philippa Gregory's 'The Constant Princess' (2005).
Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Constant Princess’ (2005).

8. Why does Catalina first accept King Henry VII’s marriage proposal and then refuse him? The king vows that Catalina “will regret the day she tried to lead me on as if I were a lovesick boy” (230) and exacts revenge by a false betrothal to Harry. When does Catalina realize that she is being used as a pawn in the king’s scheme? Does she have any recourse other than to remain a “constant princess” for six years?
I think Katherine at first accepts the king’s marriage proposal because she sees it as her destiny to be Queen of England. However, I think she then refuses it because she has had more time to think about it, and realises that her mother would never give her permission for the match, especially when there is the prospect that she can marry the young Prince Henry and live a long and happy life with him. I don’t think Katherine realises that she is being used as a pawn until the betrothal is revoked. I think she likes to believe that everyone is good inside, and so she can’t believe that the king would do something so cruel. I think that is also the moment when she realises that she needs to stop being so naïve and thinking that things will just happen and she needs to fight for them herself. I don’t think she really has a choice about how she spends the next 6 years. Her father won’t send an escort to bring her home, and her father-in-law won’t let her return home, so it’s a stalemate with Katherine caught in the middle with no one to turn to for advice.
9. On his deathbed, King Henry tells Harry that the young man is free to marry whomever he chooses. Why does Harry decide to honor his betrothal and marry Catalina? What actions does Catalina take to make Harry want to marry her? What is the significance of Catalina changing her name to Katherine when she becomes queen?
I think Henry likes to be the knight in shining armour rescuing the damsel in distress. Katherine hadn’t had an easy time of it, and I think Henry wanted to make her happy. I think, however, that he also wanted to go against what his father wanted. His father told him he could marry anyone i.e. that the betrothal to Katherine shouldn’t be held as binding. He honours his betrothal to Katherine as a way of going against his father, which he continues for the rest of his reign. I think that Katherine uses Henry’s resentment towards his father to make him marry her. I think she sees it as part of a greater good, and her destiny, so she does what she can to make it happen. I think Katherine changes her name because she wants to distance herself from the girl she was when she married Arthur and start afresh with her marriage to Henry. However, I think she also wants to distance herself from her father, who didn’t help her in her time of need.
10. How does Katherine usurp power from the king’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, and then, “slowly but surely,” draw the “management of the entertainments, then of the household, then of the king’s business, then of the kingdom, into her hands” (286)? How much control does Katherine eventually come to have over the kingdom?
I think that Henry wants to break with the past, with the legacy of his father and grandmother. I don’t think he minds that Katherine pulls business into her hands, because he must know that his grandmother won’t survive much longer and he himself had no interest in the boring affairs of state, so I think Henry encourages Katherine to do so. I also think Henry liked commanding women – his grandmother had been a commanding presence throughout his childhood and I think Katherine taking power unto herself made Henry feel at home and comfortable. Anne Boleyn was also a commanding presence, possibly why Henry VIII was so attracted to her. The pinnacle of Katherine’s control is in 1513 when she wins the Battle of Flodden Field. At that point, she seems to have control over government affairs, and Henry’s advisors listen to her. I also think at that point, her father has reunited Spain under his leadership and so Katherine is a force to be reckoned with.
11. On two occasions Katherine consults in secret with Yusuf, a Moorish physician. What does she come to realize about Yusuf during their clandestine meetings? How about the Moors in general and her mother’s treatment of them in Spain? How does this realization impact her later decision not to lay waste to Scottish lands after she defeats them in battle?
I think that Katherine comes to realise that the Moors aren’t really that different from themselves apart from the colour of their skin. They seem to have different beliefs and methods of doing things, but in essence they want the same things. I think it’s a revelation to Katherine after her mother’s treatment of them in Spain. I think she realises that her mother wasn’t perfect but that she did what she believed was right at the time. Katherine was well-known for her grants to the poor and needy, and perhaps she sees the Moorish community as being in need of her help too. I think she regrets that her mother forced the Moors out of Spain, and realises how much people can learn from them, especially about medicine. I think she compares the defeat of Scotland with the defeat of the Moors in Granada, and the Moors became quite resentful of the Spanish, but Katherine doesn’t want the same thing to happen with the Scots.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540
Henry VIII by Hans Holbein 1540

12. Describe Katherine and Henry’s marriage. How is the age difference (Henry is six years Katherine’s junior) a factor? How does Katherine’s first confinement – for what turns out to be a false pregnancy – change their relationship and her standing in the court?
I think the marriage of Henry and Katherine begins as signalling the dawn of a new age. There is a young king on the throne with a beautiful queen by his side, and an alliance with Spain which secures the new Tudor dynasty. Katherine is the physical representation of that alliance. I don’t think at the beginning of their marriage age is a factor. I think it is only as Katherine’s child-bearing years come to an end that it becomes a problem, as Henry can still have children, and the age gap becomes more apparent. I think after Katherine’s first confinement it sews a seed of doubt, especially in Henry’s mind, about whether Katherine can have children and whether their marriage is in fact blessed by God. But I think at this point that he also believes that Katherine can still have children, and that it will happen. I think it does change Katherine’s standing in the court, because people expected her to have a son, and she didn’t have a child at all. I think the fact that it was a false pregnancy makes people believe that she can’t have a child, and her body just mimics the symptoms.
13. “I have no tears for the husband who is going away because he has left me with everything that I have ever wanted (374),” Katherine says when Henry sets sail to face combat in France. In what ways is this a triumphal moment for Katherine? Later, on the brink of going to war with Scotland, why does Katherine refer to the impending battle as “the moment of my destiny” (375)?
I think the moment Henry leaves Katherine as regent when he goes off to fight the French is her moment to shine like her mother, and prove that women can rule a country. It gives Katherine the chance to prove herself as a ruler, even though she hasn’t yet been able to prove herself a mother. I think Katherine relishes the chance to regain some standing at court after her failed pregnancies because Henry is drawing away from her, and Wolsey is beginning to take over much of the governance of the realm. I think Katherine feels sidelined and wants to regain some power and glory. The prospect of a battle with Scotland seems to excite Katherine, and she rides out at the head of an army, obviously hoping to see the battle herself. It is the moment when she can prove herself as a ruler, just like her mother did at the fall of Granada in Spain. Katherine is definitely her mother’s daughter in this regard. I think she wants to regain some credit in the eyes of her husband in particular – prove that she can do something right and get glory for her adopted country. I think that her Spanish blood comes to the surface as well, as Scotland is allied to France, the age-old enemy of Spain.
14. Sixteen years after her historic victory over the Scots, Katherine is summoned to face another battle – a fight against the dissolution of her marriage during a papal legate sitting. Why, even under this intense scrutiny, does Katherine remain steadfast in her lie that she was a virgin when she married Henry? What final impression does this scene give you of Katherine of Aragon?

Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory

I think that, in some ways, Katherine has deluded herself that her first marriage to Prince Arthur was more of a dream, or that it wasn’t consummated at all. But I also think she still remembers that deathbed promise she made to Arthur and is determined to stand by it until she dies. I think she believes that God will understand her lie to the court and still accept her soul because of the deathbed promise, and the religious beliefs attached to that. I think that she is also thinking about her daughter, Mary, because if she admitted that her first marriage was consummated, then Mary would lose her rights to the English throne. I think that there is also some hatred there for Anne Boleyn, the woman who would replace her on the throne – she’s not of royal blood and has a dubious reputation. I think the final scene shows how incredibly stubborn Katherine is, and how strong her convictions. I think there is also an element of the support she gets from the English people – they don’t want Anne Boleyn as Queen, so Katherine is determined not to let it happen. There is also Katherine’s belief that the Pope is the representative of God on earth. He dispensed to allow the marriage, even allowing for consummation, so there is no way to undo it.

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