Katharine Parr must have thought when she buried her second husband that now she could marry for love and not for the advancement of her family but, in 1543, when Katharine caught the eye of an ailing King Henry VIII, her fate was decided and she became his sixth wife. These are dangerous times to have beliefs that stray towards Protestantism and Katharine is seen by some of that faith as a beacon of hope. That means she has enemies and they seek her ruin. Even more dangerous, perhaps, is the love that hides in her heart for a man close to the King – at the end of that path, if found out, would lie the axe.
And so we come to the sixth and final novel in Alison Weir’s ambitious and spectacularly-presented series, a series that I have read and loved for almost six years now. Where has the time gone?! It naturally ends with the last of Henry VIII’s wives – the one that survived and also, on a personal note, the one that I’m named after! Visiting her grave at Sudeley Castle is one of my earliest memories and I’ve visited it many times since. Katharine Parr is very special to me. It also means that I know a fair bit about her, which can be a hindrance when going into another novel about this fascinating and rather overlooked woman and queen.
I did enjoy reading the novel. Alison Weir, as a historian, clearly knows her stuff and the novels are packed with historical details of Tudor life and its setting. These are very immersive reads and they are rich with sumptuous fabrics and jewels, grand buildings, music and feasting, love and death. Katharine Parr is an attractive figure who gives her love easily. It was good to read more about her earlier life with her first two marriages, each of which is just as interesting as her third marriage to Henry. I particularly liked the section during which Katharine is married to John Latimer – the Pilgrimage of Grace makes an appearance. It is in these scenes that Katharine is most alive.
Throughout the series I have been intrigued by the author’s interpretation of the character of Henry VIII. It’s fair to say that I’m at odds with it, particularly so in this final novel. Henry is effectively exonerated of his deeds, the blood is wiped from his hands, and the blame is passed to those around him, to his victims. Henry is pitied for having to execute his young fifth wife, Kathryn Howard, for example. When Katharine Parr almost faces the same fate and is about to be arrested, it is Katharine’s fault. She doesn’t blame Henry even though it’s his signature on the warrant. We’re told about the stench and foulness of Henry’s diseased leg as well as his immense size, but Katharine is happy to share his bed and do her duty. Katharine’s considerable intellect is hinted at but I’m not sure that the novel does her justice, just as it plays down the abject fear she must have felt at marrying such a man, who had executed two of his wives and treated others, and his children, terribly.
Thomas Seymour is another problematic character for his relationship with Katharine’s step daughter, the child Princess Elizabeth. Personally, he’s one of my least favourite figures in Tudor history. Here, it’s as if Katharine doesn’t allow herself to feel too deeply. What did she really want? To have a child or to be free of marriages and be religiously and intellectually independent at a time when this was just not permitted? Katharine is a fascinating, deeply intriguing woman, who stood out during her own time – her Meditations was the first book published in England by a woman using her own name and in the English language. She played a deadly game with Henry through their marriage and it is arguable that it was his death that saved hers.
Katharine Parr is a thoroughly entertaining novel, it’s fun to read and it brings the splendour of the Tudor court to life. I will really miss these books. Each has been engrossing and, at times, tragic as well as light. For me, though, there have been two themes that have fascinated me the most – the early lives of these women before their royal marriages and the personality of the one constant of the novels, Henry VIII.
Without doubt, this is about the most beautiful series to be published in recent years. The covers and the endpapers have been truly stunning throughout. It’s a fine collection to read and own and admire. You can read my reviews of the previous five books below.
Six Tudor Queens I: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen
Six Tudor Queens II: Anne Boleyn, a King’s Obsession
Six Tudor Queens III: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen
Six Tudor Queens IV: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets
Six Tudor Queens V: Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen