The Tudors have been popular for the last few years, in books and films and TV programmes. And whatever we think of Henry VIII as a man, he was certainly a gift to history. For he must be one of the most memorable of all characters in the story of Britain. Never mind that he was a monster and a psychopath. It seems that Tudor propaganda has won out through the centuries, and many prefer to think of him as a colourful over-the-top character who started up the Church of England, ate an enormous amount, and killed a few wives on the way.
Although I myself love history, and read history books as well as historical fiction, I know that many, perhaps, learn most of history through reading historical fiction. That is why I believe our high quality historical novelists are so important to us, because they engage us in history and encourage us to imagine what it must have been like to be there, and to deal personally with characters like Henry VIII.
Such is the case with ‘The Taming of the Queen’ by Philippa Gregory which is the story of Henry’s last wife, Kateryn Parr. This novel was published in 2015 and although I have read several books of historical fiction by other authors, I haven’t read many Philippa Gregory novels, other than ‘The Boleyn Girl’. However I found this story of Kateryn compelling, and Gregory drew me in so that I felt I was there with Henry’s sixth Queen, navigating the mercurial character of the monster she was forced to marry, while keeping her love for Thomas Seymour a secret.
I was also captivated by Kateryn’s passion and intelligence, and her commitment to religious reform, as she led a theological study group in her palace rooms. Kateryn’s tragedy was, in the world of the Tudor court, “Nobody likes a clever, passionate woman.” We see that in the case of the religious reformer and courageous preacher Anne Askew who was ultimately tortured on the rack then burned at the stake.
One of my favourite characters in the novel is Will Somers, the King’s Fool. He is so witty and clever, an acrobat, a juggler, a commentator and observer of the action rather like the Chorus in ancient Greek tragedies. He made the King laugh, he lightened the mood, then when his political satire became too close for comfort, he acted silly to relieve the tension.
“It is easier to stand on your head than keep the king in one mind,” he says. At another point, he remarks, “If I were a wise man I would be dead by now.”
In reading the story of Kateryn, I think the best safeguard any Queen of Henry might have would be her ladies-in-waiting and her gentlewomen of the bedchamber. All the queens depended on their ladies’ 100% loyalty and trustworthiness, their ability to sniff out danger ahead, and to warn of conspiracies in the making. Kateryn relied on Catherine Brandon, Anne Seymour, and her own sister Nan.
Nan, we are told, has served six of Henry’s queens and buried four. Nan forewarns Kateryn she is being targeted for criminal proceedings against her on the grounds of heresy; and as we can see from this novel, Henry changed his mind week by week about what constituted heresy. Bishop Stephen Gardiner (one of the top nasties of the Tudor court, along with the Duke of Norfolk) is assembling a case against Kateryn.
“He’s coming for you, Kat,” warns Nan, “and I don’t know how to save you…. they are changing the law ahead of me. I can’t make sure you obey the law because they are changing it faster than we can obey.”
Thomas Seymour, the man Kateryn loves and believes she has lost, tells Kateryn that he must marry; the Seymours need an alliance at court and he needs a wife who will speak for him; his choice is 12 year old Princess Elizabeth whom Kateryn knows “has a childish adoration for Thomas.”
Alongside this we are constantly brought face to face with the volatile, psychotic King – obese, an addictive over-eater, tormented by the pain of his leg ulcer and his inner demons.
Meanwhile conspiracies continue, and the question of what religion Henry believes shifts daily. A Howard plot to remove Kateryn, replace her with Mary Howard, and bring the country back to Catholicism, is revealed.
When Kateryn is forewarned that Henry has signed a warrant for her arrest, she is able to make her case to him. She submits to him and presents herself as an ignorant, subserviant woman, for the safety not only of herself, but also “of all who depend on this tyrant for their freedom. I can rack my pride. I can dislocate my shame.” Thus the Queen is “tamed”. He then physically abuses her; he whips and humiliates her in a shocking scene (I am not sure if historical evidence exists for this).
But by her willingness to appear “tamed,” Kateryn wins her life, and ultimately survives her marriage to Henry. The novel concludes after Henry’s death with Kateryn exalting in her freedom; she says she is free to be herself at last, may pursue her passions and interests, her commitment to religious reform, and write her books.
I must admit that reading this story I feel surprised that Kateryn didn’t suffer from post traumatic stress disorder afterwards; and perhaps she did. Tragically she only lived a further 18 months because (foolishly, we may believe, taking the long view) she married Thomas Seymour; and having become pregnant, she died shortly after childbirth. The fate of her little daughter Mary Seymour, following the execution of Thomas the following year, is unknown to history. It is thought she died around the age of two; but no evidence of this exists. Perhaps the truth will come to light one day.
Ultimately I found this book an emotionally engaging, enlightening and intellectually stimulating read, and Philippa Gregory’s reputation as ‘the contemporary mistress of historical crime’ is well deserved.