A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, The Aragon Years
Book one of The Henrician Chronicle
Publication Date: February 2021
‘A king must have sons: strong, healthy sons to rule after him.’
On the unexpected death of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, his brother, Henry, becomes heir to the throne of England. The intensive education that follows offers Henry a model for future excellence; a model that he is doomed to fail.
On his accession, he chooses his brother’s widow, Catalina of Aragon, to be his queen. Together they plan to reinstate the glory of days of old and fill the royal nursery with boys.
But when their first-born son dies at just a few months old, and subsequent babies are born dead or perish in the womb, the king’s golden dreams are tarnished.
Christendom mocks the virile prince. Catalina’s fertile years are ending yet all he has is one useless living daughter, and a baseborn son.
He needs a solution but stubborn to the end, Catalina refuses to step aside.
As their relationship founders, his eye is caught by a woman newly arrived from the French court. Her name is Anne Boleyn.
A Matter of Conscience: the Aragon Years offers a unique first-person account of the ‘monster’ we love to hate and reveals a man on the edge; an amiable man made dangerous by his own impossible expectation
I am often asked why I chose to write about the Tudors and the honest answer is, I didn’t; the Tudors chose me. When I first began to write professionally, I’d been told so many times that the Tudor era has been done to death I took that advice on board and set my books in the early medieval/Anglo Saxon period. It wasn’t long before I was asked if I’d written anything set in Henry VIII’s reign and the more readers asked that question, the more I wondered why I hadn’t. I have loved the Tudors since I was teenager (eons ago), and I was so glad to return to an era I genuinely loved and felt at home.
There are some big authors writing in this period and it is important that a writer finds their own place in an already busy market. Unfortunately, I am not Hilary Mantel, I am myself. So, instead of being intimidated by the competition, I just sat down and wrote the Tudor court as I imagined it. In my books I attempt to answer the questions I had asked as a reader. You know those irritating toddlers that ask ‘Why? Why? Why?’ – I am a bit like that.
I started out writing about the plight of Tudor women. History has often been unkind to the women and fiction has been unkinder still. We know the barest facts of their actions, and almost nothing of their inner thoughts and feelings. Contemporary sources should be treated warily; one must ask who wrote the record, why they wrote it … who they wrote it for. Every writer in every age has an agenda – even today history is a fluid, changing thing that ebbs and flows as society alters. As a writer, I try not to reach a foregone conclusion about my protagonist before I pick up my pen. I read widely before I begin, taking on board as many historical views as possible. The main question in my head as I begin the journey is, ‘how did it feel?’
I don’t have a ‘favourite’ Tudor and my representation of them alters from book to book, depending on who is telling the tale. It is all about perspective. In A Song of Sixpence, Elizabeth of York’s view of the events at Henry VII’s court is quite different from Margaret Beaufort’s in The Beaufort Chronicle because, although they were both there, they would have perceived things differently. Just as Anne Boleyn’s experience of the King’s Secret Matter is the opposite of Mary Tudor’s. Neither perspective is wrong, they are just on opposing sides. So, when it comes to my latest novel, A Matter of Conscience, written from the point of view of Henry himself, the narrative shifts again.
The Tudor era was splendid. The clothes, the palaces, the innovations, the politics, the romance … I could go on. Although I include all those things in my novels, (how could I leave them out?) I more concerned with the whys and wherefores, the psyche of my characters, if you like. When I began writing The Beaufort Chronicle, I had no idea if the Margaret Beaufort I was creating was going to emerge as good or bad – I rather hope she is more complex than that.
As the story opened up, the experiences we went through together shaped Margaret’s character. I came to understand her much better. The world she lived in was vastly different to ours, the choices she made, far outside my experience, or the experiences of any of us. The resulting character is neither kind nor saintly, but neither is she evil, or particularly ambitious. She grows from a frightened girl into a loving mother; a grieving mother who campaigns to bring her son out of exile. It is not until she finds herself faced with the possibility of claiming the throne for Henry that she moves against Richard III. Ultimately, Margaret becomes the most powerful woman in England, and I think she deserved it.
She fought, worried, and when the tide of war was against her, she tried to keep her chin above water. My Margaret is terse, critical, and vitally intelligent, far more intelligent than most of the men around her. Her charity, her education, her piety is often disregarded or sneered at in the world of historical fiction. She is often portrayed as obsessed, a little mad but the course of my research revealed nothing to suggest she did more than survive. The Margaret I discovered was simply better at life than her enemies.
Anne Boleyn is another woman of the era who has been painted with a heavy hand. She appears variously in fiction; sometimes as a witch, an ambitious floosy who stole the king from his beloved wife, and sometimes as a saintly, reluctant girl who could not resist the overtures of the king or the machinations of her family. The Anne that emerged from my studies for The Kiss of the Concubine is something in between; she is clever, wise, and reluctant at first to marry Henry until she is left with no choice and so chooses to make the best of it. Her end, of course, is well-known but the questions remained.
How did it feel to be young and witty and energetic in the restrictive household of Catherine of Aragon? Anne was a lover of music and dance, she loved to perform, she loved to hunt; she loved life and lived it to the full. How did it feel to be condemned to death for crimes you did not commit? I can’t imagine I would face death as bravely as she did. I don’t think it is fair on Anne to remember her only for her end. She should be given credit for her intelligence, her wit, for her championing of church reform, and of course, for giving us Queen Elizabeth.
The Kiss of the Concubine is written from Anne’s point of view, her first-person voice explains each episode of her life with Henry, and the woman who emerges is confident and strong – strong enough to manipulate the king until she was overpowered by her enemies.
The Heretic Wind is the story of Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, and her view of Anne is quite different, as you might expect. Mary is seldom viewed sympathetically but, of all the women I have written about so far, I think she is the most tragic, and since I’d always judged her quite harshly, I hadn’t expected that.
The main aspect of her character that stands out for me is her isolation. Mary had no friends, no equal. She had faithful servants in Susan Clarencius and Jane Dormer, but they were not her equals – they serve her, they love her, but they can never quite understand. Throughout her entire life she experienced loss after loss; her father’s rejection, the separation from Catherine of Aragon, the loss of her title, status, the death of her mother, the horrific deaths to a string of stepmothers, the fight for her crown, and finally her doomed marriage to Philip of Spain and the humiliation of duplicate phantom pregnancies. She endured relentless misery and after over a year of imagining her pain, her hopelessness, disappointment, and her fury, I was exhausted. I made a mental note to choose a less traumatising Tudor head to inhabit next time – and then I chose to write about Henry!
Or rather he decided that I should write about him. I have always been fascinated by perspective and I love the way all the stories I’ve told previously are completely altered when told from Henry’s point of view.
Written in the first person, A Matter of Conscience, imagines Henry’s inner thoughts and turmoil. The careful construction of the ‘perfect prince’ is blemished by misfortune and Henry, losing his grip on his life, fights to live up to his own impossible imperfection. Henry was vulnerable, easily manipulated, and sentimental. When he ascended the throne, he expected his life would be perfect and when it turned out to be anything but, he couldn’t cope. The realisation that he was not a ‘perfect prince’ slowly eroded his promise. When he looked in his mirror, the man he saw was blemished, imperfect, flawed and he spent his life trying to hide from that fact.
To answer the question – what makes the Tudor era so fascinating, it is the complexity and nuances of Henry and those who shared his life.
A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith holds a BA in English/Creative writing and an MA in Medieval Studies.
She lives on the coast of West Wales where she writes both fiction and non-fiction based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women but more recently is writing from the perspective of Henry VIII himself.
Her novels include:
A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, the Aragon Years
The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England
Sisters of Arden: on the Pilgrimage of Grace
The Beaufort Bride: Book one of The Beaufort Chronicle
The Beaufort Woman: Book two of The Beaufort Chronicle
The King’s Mother: Book three of The Beaufort Chronicle
The Winchester Goose: at the Court of Henry VIII
A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York
Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers
Judith is also a founder member of a re-enactment group called The Fyne Companye of Cambria and makes historical garments both for the group and others. She is not professionally trained but through trial, error and determination has learned how to make authentic looking, if not strictly HA, clothing. You can find her group Tudor Handmaid on Facebook. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.
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