Book review: The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory
But Henry’s sixth wife – intelligent, quick-thinking and scholarly – came perilously close to dying at the stake, and only outlived her scheming, volatile husband by the skin of her teeth.
This most fascinating of royal consorts moves centre stage in a riveting and atmospheric new novel from another much-admired Tudor ‘queen,’ Philippa Gregory, an author who has made this period of history her own.
The Taming of the Queen is a breathtakingly intimate portrait of Katherine (Kateryn) Parr, daughter of Sir Thomas Parr, lord of the manor of Kendal in Westmorland. She married four times, helped to heal the rift between Henry and his daughters, and was the first woman to publish work under her own name in English.
Through Kateryn’s own powerful account we share the terrors of four years of marriage to her man-mountain husband Henry, a menacing journey into the dangers and dramas, sacrifices and achievements, traumas and tensions of life with the ageing, irascible king.
In 1543, 52-year-old Henry, the king that every girl in England once dreamed of, is now a ‘rotting body’ with yellow teeth and ‘old-dog breath’ but that doesn’t stop him looking for a new wife.
When his beady eyes light on 30-year-old Kateryn Parr, recently widowed, his proposal of marriage is ‘a gamble with her life’ but one that she knows she cannot refuse even though the only place she really wants to be is in her new lover’s ‘warm bed.’
Kateryn has no illusions about the danger she faces; the previous queen, Katherine Howard, lasted only 16 months before she was executed. ‘He has buried four wives,’ she muses, ‘why not another?’
Her clothes and jewels are ‘dead women’s goods’ and she is now on permanent display in ‘a court schooled in the bad habit of watching Henry’s queens.’
But Henry adores his new bride and Kateryn’s trust in him grows as she takes the royal princesses Mary and Elizabeth under her wing, creates a radical study circle at the heart of the court, and rules the kingdom as Regent while Henry is fighting a war in France.
Meanwhile, Protestants are increasingly under threat for their faith and Henry’s dangerous gaze turns on Kateryn. The queen has powerful enemies and traditional churchmen and rivals for power accuse her of heresy. The punishment is death by fire… and the king’s name is on the warrant.
Gregory brings us the Tudor court in all its extravagance, political manoeuvring, religious unease and treachery. Henry, now just a travesty of the golden prince who wooed the nation, is a gross, stinking hulk whose unpredictably and suspicions make him as deadly as a viper in the grass.
Steering a course through these dangerous waters and hiding the secrets of her heart, Kateryn dare not say a word out of place, relying on her diplomacy, quick thinking and intellect to keep her head above the waves that could break her.
She knows that however discreet she tries to be and however carefully she might tread around her slowly dying husband, he still has the authority and the will to despatch her in the blink of an eye.
The gripping story of a remarkable woman…
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £20)