Reviewed by Ian Lipke
The story of Katheryn Howard is the fifth in the Six Tudor Queens series that Alison Weir seems to turn out so effortlessly. While the contents of the books are fiction, they are so carefully researched as to persuade the reader that the events are factual and the characters true revelations of once living historical figures. According to this account, Katheryn Howard was a flighty, sex-charged and gullible creature to whom the concept of behaving with decorum was entirely foreign. Weir’s portrayal of Henry VIII as a gross, selfish, ego-driven monster is consistent with her portrayal of him in earlier books.
Many critics are tempted to regard Katheryn Howard as a naïve woman. I can’t concur with this view. Naivete presupposes innocence of intent and she was never thus. At the same time, she was never calculating in the sense that she saw political advantage and acted to improve her situation. That would imply that she was capable of weighing outcomes and making rational judgments. I think it closer to the mark to regard Katheryn as a plaything of devious powerful men who fed their deep-seated misogyny by treating women as pawns. In Katheryn’s case, the worst offender title must go to Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk, one of the worst blackguards of history. Katheryn’s uncle.
Weir opens the present volume with the death of Katheryn’s mother, she closes it with Katheryn’s execution. Death defines the boundaries. Weir is superb at melding personal feelings and political manoeuvrings within the boundaries laid down by accepted historical truth. Katheryn faced no parental stability. She figured very little in the life of her irresponsible father who cuts a ridiculous figure in Weir’s account. She recognises her insignificance in his world early in life. She finds her way to Court and is dazzled by the glitter, the earthly show, but she is incapable of detecting the shallowness of Court life. The lack of intellectual honesty in the father is reproduced in the daughter.
Weir describes Katheryn Howard as the tainted queen. That is a particularly apt description. Katheryn is tainted by her manipulative family, specifically her uncle. She is tainted, and will forever be known by, her sexual indiscretions. She is tainted by association with a diseased and obese king more than thirty years her senior, whose behaviour at the execution times of his queen and minions can only be described as cowardly. She is tainted by her marriage for advantage rather than for love. She is tainted with the responsibility for the execution of Thomas Culpepper and the gut-wrenching cruelty of Francis Dereham’s end.
Katheryn Howard – the Tainted Queen is a disturbing book. Alison Weir does a convincing job of revealing that her character is a dope. One forgets in the authoritative glory of Weir’s prose that this story is fiction. It is so easy to accept that this is an accurate account of Queen Katheryn when, strictly speaking, this is all made up. However, Weir’s acknowledged erudition in Tudor ways, customs and history suggests that historical fact (on which we can rely) has simply been given a costume of fiction. Mutton dressed as lamb is still mutton.
Inside the book’s front and back covers are rich portraits of Katheryn (presumably by Holbein). The opening pages show, as of date 1538, the pedigrees of members of the House of Tudor, the Howards and Tilneys, and the Culpeppers and the Leighs. Following the story of Katheryn Howard is a mass of reference material that explains a great deal. It ends a very satisfying publication. Wrapped in rich colours the book is decorative without and authoritative within.
An excellent buy.
By Alison Weir
$55.00; 483 pp [hardback]