Mary Tudor: England's First Queen, By Anna Whitelock

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The Independent Culture

On the morning of 18 February 1516, at the royal palace in Greenwich on the banks of the River Thames, the daughter of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was born. On 14 December 1558, she was buried in Westminster Abbey. This rigorously researched book brings back to life the period in between; a period in history in which unprecedented events took place.

Anna Whitelock's greatest achievement is her portrait of Mary as a woman as well as Queen – sketching her private tragedies, rejections and physical illnesses – but she always retains the context in which these personal struggles unfolded: the 16th-century struggle for power in Europe. The peculiarities of governance are fascinating, while the age-old struggles of the human heart are still as resonant today.

The painful relationship between daughters and fathers is traced through the generations. We see Catherine petition her father to come to her aid, having lost her status upon the death of her first husband, Henry's brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, and being "in the greatest trouble and anguish in the world". Years later, doubts grow in Henry's mind: was his brother's wife valid? Was Mary legitimate?

How swift and brutal is death, how fragile life, is evoked by the succession of miscarriages Catherine has before, as a fortysomething and after 24 years of marriage, she is cast off in favour of Anne Boleyn. Although Henry once doted on his daughter as a "pearl", she is used as a pawn to prise her parents apart. Mary must mature quickly, learning courage and self-preservation in the face of her hostile new stepmother, while her own mother is banished to Buckden. In a complex, compelling character study we see Mary's determination to regain her rights as Queen.