by Philippa Gregory
‘ “….He is a madman, Kateryn, he has been mad for years. ….And you will be his next victim.’ “
This is the stark warning delivered to Kateryn Parr by Thomas Seymour in Philippa Gregory’s brilliant novel reconstruction of the marriage of Henry VIII and his sixth wife. Set in the 1540s, The Taming of the Queen is the story of a serial killer and the woman who managed to survive him.
Twice married Kateryn Parr is chosen by Henry to be his consort after the execution of Katherine Howard. She does not want to marry him. What woman would? He is twenty years older than she, a grotesque monster with rotting teeth, bad breath and a suppurating leg wound that bleeds stinking pus. He has divorced two wives and murdered two, along with countless others of his subjects who have dared to disagree with him. Besides, Kateryn is desperately in love with Thomas Seymour.
But Henry is the king and usually gets what he wants.
‘I can see the drain from the wound dripping the vile pus into a bowl on the floor, the stink of it worse than carrion. I can see a great glass jar with black hungry leeches crawling up the sides.’
Kateryn does her best to keep her marriage vows and to hold the king’s affection. But she must always be on her guard against a careless word or look that would betray her true feelings. Steered towards the cause of Church reform by her own beliefs and those of her family, she gathers around her a group of court ladies to say prayers, listen to sermons and read the bible (which Henry has permitted to be translated into English). Of course, women are not allowed to have opinions, but Kateryn is the queen and her husband does not seem to mind – as long as she is only doing what HE wants.
Henry seems to favour her, making her Queen Regent and allowing her to bring his children, Mary, Elizabeth and Edward, together as a family for the first time. When Kateryn displays a love for scholarship, he lets her – under his own watchful eye and that of Thomas Cranmer – develop her talents and publish her works of translation. However, Henry is whimsical. He is in pain from his leg wound and has moments of violent anger. We know his past, and that he is at any moment liable to turn on those he loves.
‘ “But you love your children,” I say quietly. . . . . “Not particularly,” he says, and his voice is like cold glass. “Who loved me as a child? No-one.” ‘
Just as Kateryn begins to believe the reformers are winning the argument, the tide turns. One by one, supporters of the reformist cause are arrested, including Anne Askew, a woman preacher known for her outspoken views. The king signs new laws making it a criminal offence to read a Bible in English. The queen must get rid of all the evidence that might brand her as a heretic. Though she uses her superb wit and intelligence to refute every challenge, the net closes around her. We know the outcome of history, yet we begin to believe that, just like Anne Boleyn and Kitty Howard before her, her time has come. When words and arguments fail, she must grovel, be humiliated, and do what no woman – no human being – should have to do to save her life.
Philippa Gregory views the events of 1543 to 1547 from Kateryn’s point of view. Her first person, present tense narrative is intimate and puts us, the readers, right in the middle of the action. Her character studies – of Henry, of the prince and princesses, and of Kateryn Parr herself – are beautifully written, not perhaps as historians have written them, but credible enough to convince us that history could be wrong. Surprising perhaps is Gregory’s portrayal of the much wronged Princess Mary as an attractive and loving child, of Elizabeth as a twelve-year-old flirt, setting her cap at Kateryn’s one-time paramour, Seymour . . . and of Seymour himself, less of the adventurer, more of the faithful hero than he truly was.
We have to remember these are Kateryn’s opinions. However, we wonder whether (like the behind-the-scenes glimpses of life in her, and the king’s bedchamber), they might be as near to the truth in this novelistic treatment as those of any (and mostly male dominated) historical accounts of the period.
Truth or fiction, the novel throughout paints an unforgettable picture of an age, of the corruption of power, the hypocrisy of religion and above all of the warped mind of an unscrupulous man who believes he is God on earth.
As she displayed in The Other Boleyn Girl and The White/Red Queen, Philippa Gregory has a talent for getting inside the minds of the lesser known women of history and bringing them to life as real human beings rather than as accompaniments to the men in their lives.
Like Henry’s first queen, Katherine of Aragon, Queen Kateryn Parr was much loved and respected by the people. Much less has been written about her. It is good to see the balance redressed somewhat, even in a piece of fiction.
The Taming of the Queen, published only in 2015, is one of the most engrossing historical novels I have read for some time. The clever plot is well-spaced and well-timed to make the ending seem, like the dénouement of any work of fiction, far from inevitable.