I first came across Philippa Gregory when I was given a copy of Wideacre years ago in the 80s when I was doing some temping work at Penguin Books. I started reading it, and was completely hooked. Couldn’t put it down. The sequels never quite had the same thrill and page-turning effect of that first book, but later on I started reading her books about the queens of the Medieval and Tudor periods, and while some are better than others, I think she has a real talent for conjuring up the feel of the royal courts of the times. I have recently just finished reading The Taming of the Queen, the story told in first person about Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife.
The Taming of the Queen
I already knew most of historical facts about Katherine, as I have always been fascinated by the Tudors, and have read Antonia Fraser’s excellent work, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, so I knew that Katherine had already been in a relationship with Thomas Seymour before she married Henry, and that she married Thomas after Henry’s death. I also knew that she was something of a scholar, and was very much for religious reform.
What any good writer of historical fiction does is to take the facts, and then fill in the human side; the part that historical documents cannot tell us: the relationships, the hopes and fears, the thoughts and feelings, the misery or joy, the intimacies and secrets. Of course, it is fiction, but if the writer has done her research well, then the fictional parts of the story will come across with a feeling of truth; a sense that this is quite probably how it felt to be that person within this historical period.
And Gregory really does do her research very well. You have only to read the long list of publications at the end of her book to know that her research is painstakingly detailed. This is why, in The Taming of the Queen, she is able to create a very real feeling that we are walking through Henry VIII’s palaces at the side of Katherine Parr, getting that sense of unease that must have been rife towards the end of his reign, with no-one knowing which way he might turn next, and whether you would one moment be in his favour, or next moment be on trial for heresy and fighting for your life.
Her Henry is that fascinating tyrant that history has always had a love/hate relationship with: a bloated narcissist who was unable to see himself as ever in the wrong, a great child of a man, whose country went back and forth between reformation and the old church upon his every whim, and who sent wives, family, friends and churchmen to the pyre or the block when they displeased him.
Gregory gets under the skin of how it felt to be the sixth wife of this frightening man, who was sick both in body and mind, prone to bouts of bad temper, had beheaded two of his previous wives, and who knew no boundaries of self-indulgence.
Katherine herself is a passionate woman, twice-married previously, but secretly in love with Thomas Seymour. However, when Henry asks her to be his wife, she knows she has no choice but to give up her true love, and become a queen. How will she survive being wife to such a man? Will she be able to hide her true feelings, and support Henry fully as his official helpmeet, supporter, lover and queen?
The Taming of the Queen is cleverly told, so that the early stages of Katherine’s life as queen is pleasant enough. She is able to study, to listen to the preachers of reform that she is so keen on, and to become regent when the king goes to fight his wars in France. There is even an initial feeling of tenderness and loving companionship between her and her husband. But gradually, the tension builds as Henry’s views on reform are shaken, and his closest advisers (the influential Howards, and the notorious Stephen Gardiner) begin to twist things back to their own benefit, and to the old church, and once again, reform becomes a dangerous thing to be seen to be supporting.
Despite the fact that we know how history ends, Gregory still is able to build this story up like a thriller, so that we suspend our disbelief and become fearful for Katherine’s life at the hands of the biggest tyrant in English history.
We also get the real sense of this highly intelligent woman, who was the first female named writer and translator of religious texts at a time when women were mostly thought of as only useful as wives, mothers and bargaining tools.
I always come away from a Philippa Gregory novel, not only having enjoyed a good story, but feeling that I’ve learned something, which is always a bonus!