In what has become an annual adventure for me, I turned to the latest novel by Alison Weir depicting the six wives of Henry VIII. The fifth wife, Katheryn Howard, is the central focus of this piece, though Weir uses her extensive research and narrative abilities to paint a complete picture of the Tudor Court throughout the woman’s (albeit short) life. Katheryn Howard was a sweet child who lost her mother around six years of age. With a father unable to care care of her, Katheryn was shipped off to live with an aunt, who raised her as her own. Katheryn remained with this relative, even as her father married a few more times and presented new step-mothers. Into her teens, Katheryn was a curious but somewhat shy girl, who did not fall for all the wiles of those who would court her, though she seemed to fall under the spell of her music tutor, who did all he could to rid her of the virginity she held dear. Realising her status (as well as her connection to a former queen, Anne Boleyn, a first cousin), Katheryn was primed for a position at court with the soon to be fourth wife of Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves. Katheryn served the queen as well as she could, but also found herself falling for Francis Dereham, to whom she eventually gave her virginity. The secret relationship between Katheryn and Francis serves as an underlying foreboding that returns throughout the story. While Francis did play an important role in Katheryn’s life, it was Thomas Culpepper, a gentleman in Henry VIII’s court and a close friend to Richard Cromwell, who won her heart most. The connection between Katheryn and Culpepper grew as the king’s fancy turned to replacing his fourth wife with a new one. Katheryn seemed the obvious choice, as the king did extend much of his time with her and (as series fans and those with a penchant for Tudor history will know) once the monarchical radar locks in, there is no getting away. Katheryn did seek to rebuff him and remain true to Culpepper, but eventually acquiesced and agreed to become the fifth wife of Henry VIII, around the age of seventeen. Weir describes the time and court between the two, including Katheryn’s ‘faking’ her loss of virginity so as not to raise issue with Henry VIII. Though she tried, Katheryn was unable to bring forth a child for her husband, citing the advanced age and corpulence of the king. While advocating for some within her family, Katheryn reunited with Thomas Culpepper repeatedly in secret, eventually falling into a sexual relationship. When wind of the encounters emerged, Katheryn found herself in much trouble with her husband (much like Cousin Anne did), which was further exacerbated by the revelations of her sexual relationship with Francis Dereham. Thus began the quick downfall of Katheryn Howard and the end of the fifth queen in Henry VIII’s group of six. Weir depicts this quick fall and the eventual acceptance of errors by Katheryn, even though her final change of heart is in line with that of a young woman who realises how truth cannot always set her free. With a new moniker for Katheryn Howard written in blood, she truly became the scandalous queen. A brilliant piece by Alison Weir that will likely keep all her fans excited. Recommended to all those Tudor fans who enjoy a little fiction, as well as readers who love history coming to life on the page.
I never tire of learning about all things Tudor, especially when Alison Weir is guiding the experience. I have tried to read many of the books, both fiction and non-, and take something away from them all. Weir does a masterful job as usual, while injecting some degree of fiction to the life and times of Katheryn Howard. From her early life as a motherless girl, Katheryn rose through the ranks and offered a degree of modesty, while still likely being the typical teenage girl of the times, with curiosities and pressures from young men around her. Weir seemed to depict her as being less the flirty and sexually free-spirited young girl that I always thought her to be (thank you Tamzin Merchant for your depiction of her on Showtime’s The Tudors), but rather a young girl caught up in the pressures before being snagged by the King of England to be his latest conquest. The lies she told to protect her honour caught up with her and she was forced to face the consequences, though I am not here to dissect or pass judgment on whether it was right or wrong to see her imprisoned and executed. Weir offers a wonderful depiction of this rise and fall, as she has done many times before, while adding a great deal of insight through the various characters that she places throughout the narrative. Both those of historical significance and the characters who serve as vessels to move the story along help to enrich the reading experience for the interested reader. The story is one that Weir surely knows well, including how some of the events repeated themselves between Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard. Weir does a masterful job in her telling of it, with the imagined dialogues being one of the likely sole reasons this is a piece of fiction. Grabbing hold of the reader from the early pages, Weir paints a formidable picture throughout and keeps the reader focussed. With a mix of shorter and long chapters, Weir paces her story well, which is further helped by dividing the book into parts of Katheryn Howard’s life. As with the four previous books, there are some crossover moments and some early ‘cameos’ by those who appeared in the past or will again later, which links the series together nicely. I cannot wait to finish off the series with the final queen and see just how much drama came to pass, as well as how Weir will handle the eventual death of Henry VIII and all the shenanigans that came with it. Alas, I must wait a year, though Weir has more to keep me sated until then!
Kudos, Madam Weir, for a stunning depiction of the young 5th queen. My perspective has surely changed, though I can see see why ‘scandalous’ fits nicely in this novel’s sub-title
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons