I’m surprised that Philippa Gregory chose to call this book “The Taming of the Queen”, because Katherine Parr deserves to be remembered as a scholar, a religious reformer, a clever courtier, a kind woman who created a family for her stepchildren, and a survivor, not as someone whose spirit was broken. The book doesn’t really show her as being “tamed”, and Philippa Gregory says in her afterword – I’m so glad she now includes afterwords to explain which parts of her books are fact and which are fiction, because the absence of those explanations in her earlier books really annoys me! – that Katherine was “tenacious” and “an educated and highly intelligent reformer” … so why give this book, in which she is the central character, narrating it in the first person and in the present tense, such a negative title?!
Oh well! Despite the title, I think this is one of Philippa Gregory’s best books. For a start, there’s nothing in it which is historically inaccurate, or far-fetched. There are things which have obviously had to be fictionalised because we can’t know what really happened, such as whether or not Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour were lovers before her marriage to Henry , and what went on behind Katherine and Henry’s bedroom door – there’s one distressing scene in which Henry whips and beats Katherine but, sadly, it’s not hard to imagine that happening – but the political and Tudor family events are all portrayed accurately. No wild flights of fancy involving Perkin Warbeck really being Richard of York, Catherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur having a passionate marriage, Henry being the father of Mary Boleyn’s children or Elizabeth and Robert Dudley being lovers!
She also says in the afterword that she doesn’t know why Katherine Parr isn’t better known. I certainly agree that Katherine Parr deserves to be better known. It’s ridiculous that Jane Seymour, who seems to have said next to nothing on the subject of religious reform, is regarded as some sort of Protestant heroine, whereas Katherine Parr gets overlooked. It’s also very sad that her scholarship isn’t recognised. However, I suppose her story just doesn’t have the human interest value of a king dumping his loyal wife in favour of a glamorous younger woman, the Gothic horror of the way in which Mary’s “Turn or Burn” reign is portrayed, or the glory of Elizabeth’s triumph over the Armada. I once, rather bizarrely, ended up having a discussion about Katherine Parr and Anne Askew with a National Trust volunteer at Lyme Park, and we both said afterwards how much we’d enjoyed it, because neither Katherine Parr nor the last few years of Henry VIII’s reign in general get anything like the attention they deserve.
The fear and uncertainty of those years, Henry’s vacillation between different attitudes towards religious reform, and different factions at Court, come across very well. Henry himself is portrayed well too. There are so many different images of him, some better known than others – Bluff King Hal, a monster and a tyrant, a romantic, a suffering man in poor health in his last years, a king removed from reality and obsessed with crazy ideas about conquering France, a scholar, a Catholic, a reformer, a megalomaniac- and really we get all of them in this book, without the combination of all those different facets ever seeming unbelievable. The book is told from Katherine’s viewpoint and so it does show a Protestant view of things and a … I want to say “feminist”, but that word doesn’t really work for Tudor times, but I can’t think of one that does so it’ll have to do! A Protestant view of things and a feminist view of things! The people who come across as “baddies” are Archbishop Stephen Gardiner, Thomas Wriothesley, and the Duke of Norfolk. The reformers, even John Dudley, are all shown favourably. And, incidentally, I think that putting the words of the Tilbury speech into Katherine’s mouth was going too far, but I think we can accept that Katherine did have a great influence on Elizabeth, and on Lady Jane Grey as well.
Another point well made is that Katherine was a Northerner. That always tends to be overlooked, which annoys me! It’s also interesting how much is made in the early part of the book about the fact that Katherine didn’t come to court until shortly before her marriage to Henry, and that she therefore wasn’t that well-informed about what was going on there, and maybe not even about the religious issues, before then. I’d never really thought of that before, but it’s a valid point.
Katherine’s tragedy is that she died so soon after Henry’s death set her free, and that her short marriage to Thomas Seymour was marred by his pursuit of her stepdaughter Elizabeth. What would her life and her influence have been like, had she lived longer? We’ll never know that, but she deserves a lot more recognition than she gets and hopefully this book will draw more attention to her. I can never quite make up my mind about Philippa Gregory, largely because of the way she’s included wild flights of fancy in some of her books and not explained that she’s done so, but that isn’t a problem with this book; and I think it’s one of her best.