Katheryn Howard – The Tainted Queen by Alison Weir
Katheryn was probably only a teenager when she became Queen of England and Wales. For those who are unaware of her fate, there will be revelations in this review, but I have worked on the assumption that her story is well known in outline.
Katheryn was the chosen fifth wife of the by now older Henry VIII, and a lot of people know little more about her than she was the second of Henry’s wives to be executed. Alison Weir has used her skills as a historian and a novelist to give us a much clearer picture of a young woman who was beheaded at the age of twenty one. She goes on in an historical note at the end to point out that she may have survived in strict seclusion had it been left to the besotted Henry, but that she was probably the victim of those who wanted to push religious reform at the expense of the old faith which her supporters favoured. Weir works hard to present a picture of a girl more sinned against than sinning in terms of responsible adult supervision when growing up, but who probably chose to make the most of the opportunity to see another man provided by a jealous Lady Rochford. Either way she was a victim, and one who genuinely had little ambition to be Queen, only enjoying the jewels, fine clothes and the ability to promote certain friends. This book presents a vivid picture of a young woman who was probably very attractive, but that fact does not excuse those who sought to use her for their own ends. Weir has explained that she chose to write this novel as a third person narrative which focuses totally on Katheryn, and consequently only deals with what she would have actually known at the time, while others dealt in her secrets off stage, and with fatal consequences.
The novel begins with the death of Katheryn’s mother when she was seven years old. As it was her mother’s second marriage, Katheryn was left with many siblings in two generations, including the ever-loving Isabel who is forced to take charge as Katheryn’s father retreats from view. After a relatively brief stay with a loving Aunt, Katheryn is dispatched to the household of her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. As the daughter of a feckless second son, Katheryn has impressive family links but no marriage portion or money to speak of, and the supervision of the young women and girls at the big house is lax, even negligent. When Katheryn develops a crush on her music master the situation can evolve into intimate behaviour very quickly, which is quashed, but a far less scrupulous man, Francis Dereham, manages not only to fully seduce the young Katheryn, but also claim that they were married in an informal ceremony. When Katheryn later catches the King’s eye she is surprised and shows little ambition to make use of her opportunity, even if it is because she does not wish to usurp Henry’s current wife, Anne. Too young to know and understand what happened to her cousin, Anne Boleyn, there is a certain inevitability about her fate as she suffers for the ambitions for others.
This is a book written with great insight into the naivety of a noticeably young woman who suffers from the attentions of men and their own ambitions. It suggests that she comes to feel real affection for her much older husband, but that she never really understands what is happening around her. Weir presents her as a young woman who lived in the moment, desperately seeking affection without much thought for consequences until she is hopelessly enmeshed. Weir has, as with the other novels in this series, fleshed out the small amount evidence that exists of what Katheryn actually wanted, and it amounts to a tragic story of a lack of understanding, ambition, and simply being a victim. Those around her, with the exception of her sister Isabel, used her for their own ends, and her sad story is well recorded in this vivid and moving book.