The best books that restore vilified early-modern European queens and noblewomen

The Books I Picked & Why

Catherine of Aragon: Infanta of Spain, Queen of England

By Theresa Earenfight

Catherine of Aragon: Infanta of Spain, Queen of England

Why this book?

Displaced by the fascinating Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), first queen of Henry VIII, is often depicted as a bitter old woman. Not so, says Theresa Earenfight. Although this book will not appear in print until December 2021, queenship scholars have a good idea of what is coming: Earenfight has been lecturing on Catherine for several years now, and we can hardly wait to get our copies. By exploring inventories of Catherine’s material belongings, Earenfight, a meticulous and imaginative scholar, reveals a whole new side to this allegedly drab and austere queen. We already knew that Catherine was intelligent and loyal, but she turns out to have been stylish and fashion-conscious, a vibrant woman with many interests and connections.


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Queen, Mother, and Stateswoman: Mariana of Austria and the Government of Spain

By Silvia Z. Mitchell

Queen, Mother, and Stateswoman: Mariana of Austria and the Government of Spain

Why this book?

Mariana of Austria (1634-96) has long been underestimated. Regent for her young son, Carlos II, last Habsburg ruler of Spain, she is reputed to have been pig-headed, incompetent, and not very bright. The famous Velasquez painting showing her in a skirt too wide to fit through a door and hair stretching out like an accordion has not helped her reputation. But Silvia Mitchell has mined the archives and produced a wonderful revision of this queen’s regency, showing how, over the course of her regency, Mariana led the Spanish monarchy into transformative military and diplomatic alliances with the English and the Dutch and, through her style of ruling, helped bring about a new political culture. This study makes clear how much our picture of pre-modern politics has been distorted by the failure to take female roles seriously.


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Juana the Mad: Sovereignty and Dynasty in Renaissance Europe

By Bethany Aram

Juana the Mad: Sovereignty and Dynasty in Renaissance Europe

Why this book?

Older sister of Catherine of Aragon, Juana the Mad (1479-1555)— infamous for her bizarre attachment to the remains of her dead husband, Philip, son of Holy Roman Emperor, Philip—has been even more badly treated by history. Bethany Aram offers a complex portrait of Juana, who unexpectedly inherited the throne of Spain after the deaths of the first three heirs. I especially love Aram’s description of the resistance that Juana met when she first moved to Burgundy as Philip’s wife. Noblewomen were expected to further their family’s interests in their new homes. But Juana never had a chance: her household was sent back to Castile and replaced with Burgundian attendants. Was she truly insane? Aram gives us a nuanced response, showing that much of what observers took for madness were really strategies to preserve the throne for her son, who would become Charles V.


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Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy

By Sarah Bradford

Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love, and Death in Renaissance Italy

Why this book?

My first three picks are scholarly studies. This book is more popular history in the sense that it lays out Lucrezia’s family and cultural contexts in detail for non-specialists. Bradford brings the period to life and shows the extent to which Lucrezia’s reputation was the inevitable product of the intrigues that surrounded her. She was nothing like the promiscuous, depraved, monstrous creature she is supposed to have been. The contrast that Bradford gives us between the bloodthirsty legend and the cultured and intelligent human being is so stunning that you will never take anything you read about an infamous woman at face value again.


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The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors' Most Notorious Queen

By Susan Bordo

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: In Search of the Tudors' Most Notorious Queen

Why this book?

This book is a delight, from start to finish. I read it in one sitting. Like Lucrezia Borgia, it is both popular and erudite, but it does not recount the titular protagonist’s biography. Instead, it goes through all of the myths that have been floating around this unfortunate queen since her own lifetime. Bordo separates contemporary slander from fact, but then goes on to follow how the legend of Anne Boleyn was developed over the centuries in histories, fiction, and film. This study is also explicitly a study of how a legend takes hold and evolves.


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