This historical novel is the last in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series, each one a fictional version of the lives of Henry VIII’s wives. It has been an epic undertaking, as the books were published annually over a six-year period, during which Weir has also continued to write her non-fiction collection about the medieval queens of England. Such an output of a consistently high standard and careful research is an extraordinary achievement, but it is also something more. Historical fiction, when well done, can bring the past alive. So, too, should non-fiction that isn’t avowedly academic, but many readers have discovered an interest in history through the fictional medium first. Weir’s novels are an excellent example of how effective this process of gentle encouragement can be, and Katharine is no exception. Again, she succeeds in portraying people and events with freedom but also without lapsing into wildly inappropriate depictions of the emotions of her main characters.
The last of Henry VIII’s wives, whose first name Weir has chosen to spell as “Katharine”, presumably to distinguish her from the much-married monarch’s first and fifth queens of the same name, in fact signed herself “Kateryn the Quene”.
That she found herself in a position to do so surprised no one more than herself. The daughter of a family of northern Yorkist knights, Parr was well-educated but could not have aspired to become queen. She had survived two husbands by the time she came to the attention of Henry VIII and was being courted by the charming if shallow Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of the king’s third wife. Indeed, it may have been Seymour’s pursuit of Parr, a comely widow of 30, that brought Katharine to Henry’s attention. It was clearly not a situation that she had in any way desired or anticipated but a king, and particularly Henry VIII, could not be refused. The prospect of advancement for her family was a major inducement. Though it is often said that a zeal for religious reform steadied her resolve, there is no evidence of her interest in new ideas before she married Henry and her second husband, Lord Latimer, remained committed to the old faith.
Katharine adapted to her new role and its many privileges with aplomb. She determined that Henry should not overlook his family, especially his daughters, and was able to improve the lives of both Mary and Elizabeth, who blossomed under her influence. There also seems to have been genuine affection between the royal couple and Weir’s touching depiction of their relationship is one of the many strengths of her novel.
The queen’s growing fascination with new religious ideas, perhaps nurtured by Archbishop Cranmer, eventually made her unpopular with religious conservatives. How deliberately they plotted her downfall remains a matter of conjecture. The story that Henry had been willing to countenance her arrest and even execution only surfaced in the 1560s in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, by which time all of the major protagonists were dead. Circumstantial evidence does, however, give it credence and there appears to have been a cooling in the royal marriage in the summer of 1546 that was repaired by the autumn, when Henry resumed showering his wife with jewels and finery. She did, though, put her publishing projects on hold until after his death. Her writings continued to be popular well into the 17th century. Katharine’s was one of the most important female voices of the Reformation.
After Henry’s death, the dowager queen rather lost her way. Free to make her own choices at last and disappointed that she was not appointed regent for Edward VI, she finally married Thomas Seymour secretly. It was an ill-judged act. Seymour was resentful of being excluded from political power by his elder brother and probably saw Katharine as a means of retaining some influence over the young king. Together, they tried to forge an alternative power base, acting as guardians for both Elizabeth Tudor and Lady Jane Grey.
But Thomas was a jealous husband and the marriage did not bring Katharine the joy she had hoped. Instead, she was to die in childbed, aged 36, in the late summer of 1548. It was a tragic end to a remarkable life.
Weir’s latest work relates all the key episodes of Katherine’s life in an entertaining way, solidly based on the facts. Except for dialogue and some speculation on relationships with her husbands, it’s faithful to the historical record. Overall, this is an affectionate portrait of an appealing woman that Weir’s fans will greatly enjoy.
Weir’s fictional Katharine is everything a biographer could want. It gives her a strong voice and perfectly balances what we know with what she might have thought and felt.It is written with economy and elegance – and, I might add, as a minor aside, mercifully not in the present tense, which has become such an irritating faux-literary trope these days.
Linda Porter is the author of Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr (Macmillan, 2011).
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.