The Taming of the Queen | Philippa Gregory | 2015, Pb 2016 | Simon & Schuster | 436p | Review copy | Buy the book
Having buried two husbands before she reached the age of 31, Katherine (Kateryn) Parr might have thought that she had earned the right to control her own destiny, even marry for love. But Kateryn had caught the eye of Henry VIII and, with all sense of decorum banished, Henry married the widow before her late husband had barely settled into his grave. It seemed appropriate, though, that Kateryn should go from mourning weeds to bridal colours in just one day. Kateryn inherited more than the husband of four dead queens (plus the lucky one, Anne of Cleves, who got away), she also inherited their homes, their jewellery and clothes, even their bed. All except for the pearls of Jane Seymour, the blessed wife, the one who died giving the king his only legitimate son, and yet had died alone. Kateryn is haunted by Jane’s spirit even more than she is by the ghosts of Henry’s murdered queens. Although, wearing the heavy crown of Anne Boleyn on her head, Kateryn never forgets.
Kateryn has little comfort but she takes what she can from the loving relationships she forms with Henry’s motherless children. For the first time they live as one family under one roof. For the first time they spend a Christmas together, instead of each child spending the day alone, with their own household. Kateryn’s other solace comes from her studying. She becomes the first queen to publish a book. She finds herself immersed in the religious debates of the day, daily inviting preachers into her rooms, even discussing reforms with her husband. But no matter how many monasteries he has closed, how many times he has been excommunicated, Henry is as unstable in religious thought as he is in everything else. As the court watches, it is clear to all that it is a waiting game to see who will die first – the ageing king with his repulsive greed and pus-oozing sores or his young, clever and frightened queen.
I have always been fascinated by Katherine Parr, almost more than any other figure (I was even named after her), and so I was anxious to read The Taming of the Queen. My relationship with Philippa Gregory’s books has been up and down to say the least but any doubts I might have had were blown away with the first few pages of this absolutely wonderful novel. The Taming of the Queen tells Kateryn’s story in her own words, in the present tense, and this gives us a powerful interpretation of what it was like for this young woman to live through years of suppressed terror. It is an astonishing, at times pitiful portrait. We are taken deep into Kateryn’s life. We see her hopes, her secret love, her awful fear and dread, her strong affection for Henry’s children, even her pity for Henry, and, perhaps above all, her satisfaction at testing her intelligence, becoming a scholar in her own right, a woman eager to support the cause of the reformed faith. She becomes regent for a while while Henry is in France fighting a pitiful, ridiculous war and she does it very well indeed. Kateryn is an extremely accomplished woman at a time when most women were not permitted to be. An excess of learning, especially an active interest in the religious debates of the day, were cause for divorce if not much worse. What Henry wants in a wife is near impossible to fathom and changes with the wind.
While Kateryn’s character is marvellously drawn, so too is that of Henry VIII. We observe him through Kateryn’s eyes, we hear whispers about him, Kateryn receives warnings from those who care about her. Everyone is in no doubt at all that the time will come when he will kill her. Henry is a monster in every way possible. He is disgusting in behaviour and appearance and stench – a travesty of the golden prince he once was. Before he went mad. There are some fascinating insights into Henry’s relationships with his children as, very occasionally, Henry lets his guard down. At rare moments like those, he also talks about his ministers, friends, churchmen and advisers. With all his original friends murdered, Henry rules a strange, grotesque government. With all but one of his wives dead or murdered, his daughters disinherited, Henry’s personal relationships are bizarre to say the least. They are certainly cruel. Henry is rotten to his core but Gregory doesn’t revel in his monstrousness. This is no pantomime ogre. Gregory has created a remarkably realistic and utterly compelling portrait of a man that we still struggle to understand.
We meet some other memorable characters along the way, notably Will, Henry’s wise fool, Princess Mary and Anne Askew. Kateryn’s enemies remain as shadowy figures in the wings watching. Perhaps the only character that didn’t ring true for me was Thomas Seymour but that might be because I know too well what was to come. I will never be able to think of Thomas as a romantic figure.
The Taming of the Queen is a novel of words rather than action. At the outset I wondered how the quality could be maintained through a substantial novel covering several years in which Kateryn did – or was allowed to do – relatively little. But it is done perfectly. The tension of Henry and Kateryn’s marriage never drops, the insight never dulls. There are glimpses into moments from history that we know – such as the sinking of the Mary Rose and Henry’s war with France – but for much of the time this is a drama contained within the walls of a palace, primarily in its bed chambers and its feasting halls. The novel is rich in the colour and flavours of a Tudor court – the exotic endless feasting, the extravagance of the clothes, the furnishings and the buildings themselves. There is a strong sense of theatre.
Just when I think that I’ve read all that I could ever want about the Tudors, especially Henry VIII, a book like this comes along. While I read The Taming of the Queen I wanted to do nothing else and straight afterwards bought The Boleyn Inheritance, this novel’s predecessor in Philippa Gregory’s Tudor Court series. Quite simply, I cannot praise The Taming of the Queen enough. I absolutely adored it.