Thoughts on the Tudors and ‘The Taming of the Queen’ by Philippa Gregory

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.

The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

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.

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Two Excellent BBC Drama Offerings: Wolf Hall and A Casual Vacancy

Michael Gambon & Julia McKenzie in the BBC's The Casual Vacancy
Michael Gambon & Julia McKenzie in the BBC’s The Casual Vacancy

We’ve recently seen two very good dramatizations on BBC TV: Wolf Hall, and The Casual Vacancy.

Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC's Wolf Hall
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall

The casting was brilliant, particularly Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, and Michael Gambon as Howard in The Casual Vacancy.

You may think think the two novels on which these dramatisations were based, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and A Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, could hardly be more different; one story set in the sixteenth century Tudor Court, and the other in our contemporary society. And yet I found striking points of similarity.

In the world in which the two novels are set, we see how central tribalism is to human nature. The historians I have read on the subject of the Tudor Court have emphasised how everything revolved around factions. In Thomas Cromwell’s world he had to navigate the changing fortune of the factions: when the Boleyn faction was in the ascendancy, he advanced the cause of Anne Boleyn; but when the Seymour faction  began to gain the upper hand, it was politic for Thomas to bring about Anne’s downfall to make way for Jane Seymour. After all, in that “dog eats dog” world his own life was always at stake.

In The Casual Vacancy we see how the wealthy and privileged, in our most favoured and idyllic villages, gather together and dominate the local council and influence decisions about the local community in their own favour, so that the poor and marginalised are separated from them even further. JK Rowling is showing us something of how this same principle of tribalism, is replicated in English society today:how members of one group gather together to increase their power over the other: those who consider themselves socially ‘superior’ cluster together and fend off those who are perceived as failures, the socially dysfunctional.

Humans are tribal and we see this in every sphere of our lives.

In today’s western societies we might not turn to genocide and massacres of the kind we have seen in other countries of the world in the past few decades, because our ‘veneer of civilisation’ is still strong enough to prevail; but we are certainly capable of expressing the same dark undercurrents in our hearts and minds, by using other, more subtle methods, to achieve similar ends. The same tribalism is there, deeply rooted in our psyches.

Click here and here to find my own reviews of both books.