Whenever I have the chance to read something by Alison Weir, I take note, be it a lengthy piece of non-fiction or her well-paced novels of historical fiction. Weir is able to breathe life into the Tudor Era (as well as other times in English monarchical history) and provide the reader with a stellar account of things that took place. In this, Weir’s final novel related to the wives of Henry VIII, the author depicts how King Henry VIII continued to rule over England, in search of yet another wife. Young Katharine Parr was no simple woman, having been married before and suffered great loss. However, it is the interaction between the King and his sixth wife that brings life to this story and provides an intriguing ending to the long-winded narrative of Henry’s wives. Weir does a fabulous job at illustrating things here, offering up some great storytelling and wonderful dialogue to leave the reader feeling as though they were in the middle of the action. While the series has ended, the impact is sure to remain long after.
Katharine Parr was born into a well-established family with ties to past monarchs. Her upbringing was full of privilege, though Parr never sought to flaunt herself to others. Rather, she dove into learning to quench her desire to expand her mind and better comprehend the world around her. This included trying to understand her place in the world, or at least the complex placement within England at a time when many had claims of royal blood and lineage.
After her first marriage at seventeen, Parr discovered the trials and tribulations of trying to fit into the lifestyle. Her husband, Sir Edward Burgh, held secrets that could not make their way to Court, for fear of tarnishing the family name. Still, Katharine pined for a family, something Burgh could not deliver. Upon his death, Katharine wondered what might become of her and how she could rectify the blunder of her marriage with little to show for it.
When she married John Neville in 1534, Parr hoped to make a name for herself and truly understand what it was like to have a family, now graced with a handful of step-children. However, it was around this time that King Henry VIII chose to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, creating a massive schism with the Church in Rome. While Henry VIII pushed for the dissolution, he also developed the Reformation and the Church of England. Neville, a staunch Catholic, fought hard against the change and he was soon deemed troublesome to the king, an issue that Katharine would have to face head-on.
There were conflicting accounts as to how involved John Neville might have been in the push against the Reformation, leaving Henry VIII to make some interesting decisions regarding how to treat the man. Katharine’s future was left in the king’s hands, as she had little to support her and the children under her care. All the while, Katharine sought to marry for love, though she could not see how this might occur, having no means of finding a man who stole her heart while saddled with her current responsibilities.
Her saving grace might have been a connection with Princess Mary, the king’s eldest daughter, in whose household she served. While at Court, Katharine caught the eye of the king, though she did not seek his affections. Rather, she found herself enamoured by Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the late queen, Jane Seymour, the only wife to bear Henry VIII a legitimate son. While Katharine hoped to marry Thomas, it was not in the cards. Henry was without a wife and seemed keen to find a sixth, with Katharine his first choice. As has been seen throughout the series, what Henry wants, he gets.
After marrying the king, Katharine found the stability she had long sought, though there was still a lack of love in her marriage (at least on her part). Katharine bonded well with her new step-children and sought to connect with them whenever possible. It would seem that she was a glue that past queens could not be between the royal offspring and their father, as she welcomed them and was apparently loved by all three, even though she was only a few years older than Mary.
While Henry grew older and sicker, Katharine did her best to serve as queen and regent when time required it. She sought to make the most of her life and did whatever was asked of her, within reason. Katharine knew that Henry’s time was limited, as he became less and less active and his ailments caught up with him. She knew that it would be only a matter of time before the country was forced to accept the end of the reign of their long-serving ruler, but what of the Tudor dynasty?
It is this latter portion of the book that tackles not only the waning period of Henry VIII, but Katharine’s struggle to be named regent to serve as technical ‘monarch by proxy’ until Prince Edward came of age. Katharine uses her power to try lobbying Henry, as well as members of the Privy Council, all of whom will help to shape the future of England and the direction in which the monarch will turn. Add to this, Katharine has struggles of her own about a future that is not clear. Will she be able to turn to the man she sought before being chosen as a sixth wife? How will it play out and which pieces must move in tandem for all this to happen? A powerful end to the queens of Henry VIII, while also providing a key period in the larger Tudor narrative. Weir ties things off splendidly and many fans of the series will likely agree.
There is something about the writing of Alison Weir that has captivated me for many years. I always know that when I pick up one of her books, it will be an educational experience, no matter the topic. While there are both fiction and non- books from which to choose, both offer such insight into the lives of past English monarchs and how their lives changed the history books. Weir’s use of dialogue is likely one of the only reasons this series is called ‘fiction’, but that is an argument I will not broach, as I am sure Tudor historians would leap on the chance to crucify me with examples. All the same, it was a thoroughly enjoyable novel and stellar series. While it has come to an end, I hope to be able to return and learn more with another reading at some future date.
Katharine Parr was an amazing protagonist throughout this piece, offering up insights and intriguing vignettes throughout the narrative. While she came to reach her zenith after many struggles and personal hurdles, Katharine does not skimp on the action or development throughout this time. Weir provides her with a thorough and well-rounded story, adding the twist that she was the only one to outlast the monarch and saw England post-Henry VIII. This would prove poignant, as the chaos of fickle decision making, both in matrimony and leadership, had finally come to an end.
Weir uses a handful of stellar supporting characters to keep the story lively. The story spans quite a time period and much of Katharine Parr’s life needs hashing out, which requires thorough narrative footprints. Weir effectively shapes the Parr story with names and faces who push the story along, sometimes recurring throughout to offer a few twists, even as the history books have long closed on how things would cement themselves. I could not find myself leaning towards any single character or time period, but was highly impressed with all that was packed into this single novel.
It is no shock that the book (and series) turned out to be so stellar. There is so much going on and yet Weir keeps the narrative pushing along at a decent pace. Details drip from every page, some needed and others that permit a visualization that could not otherwise be made (as these are the centuries before photographs). Long and thorough chapters fill the book with needed details, each segmented in an effective manner, as the push towards the end of one Tudor era and into a rockier time to come. Using history and fiction together, the novel came across as a gritty piece of entertainment, though there is surely so much to learn throughout, keeping the reader from skimming too much. I have always loved Weir’s work for this reason and cannot wait for the next project, hoping it will lure me in as effectively.
Kudos, Madam Weir, for another winner. The series, the book, the concept… all worked so well. I loved it and am also a little sad to see it all come to an end.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons