“She had a loving, attentive husband, who might be a little eccentric and overpowering at times, but who was at heart a decent man.”
Katherine Parr, The Sixth Wife draws to a close Alison Weir’s excellent Six Tudor Queens series. As with the previous five books, known facts have been meticulously researched and then woven into a fictionalised story that brings to life the times and places in which the protagonist lived. Katherine married four times so only a portion of the tale directly involves her most famous husband, Henry VIII. That said, the decisions he made, especially during The Reformation, reverberated throughout his kingdom.
Katherine was born in London and lived during a time when many, including her father, would be struck down by plague. As her mother served the Queen at the royal court, Katherine and her siblings were subsequently raised by relatives. It was a happy childhood and the uncle whose properties she lived in proved a wise and loyal advisor throughout her life.
Katherine’s mother was ambitious for her children, placing them within influential households and arranging marriages she believed would be of ongoing benefit to the whole family. Aristocratic children were betrothed young as their parents vied for suitable matches. Katherine, unusually, made it to seventeen before she was first married, her husband four years her elder. He proved a kind young man but was incapable of making her entirely happy. Nevertheless, she mourned his death, although being a wealthy widow gave her freedoms few women at the time could enjoy fully.
Her second husband was an older widower but, again, proved a considerate as well as a loving man. The couple’s main concerns were due to the King’s religious diktats which did not sit well with the local population. It was during this marriage that Katherine came to realise how precarious life could be however carefully one tried to speak and behave. By the time she was widowed for a second time they were living in London, her husband being required to sit in parliament.
The troubles that erupted around them in the north of England where he preferred to spend time are covered well in the story. I had not previously been aware of such uprisings. They did, however, drag on a little in the reading – my interest in such politics is, perhaps, limited. Other notable elements of the story are the details recounted of women’s clothing. How they dressed, particularly in and around the royal court, were important markers of wealth and status.
Of course, it is not just the adults in these times who die or are put to death. So much hope is placed on sons, the heirs, yet so many babies did not survive even into childhood. Katherine longs for a baby yet must make do with mothering her various stepchildren, something she is depicted as doing well.
Having been a good wife, careful and necessarily discrete, Katherine then took risks when she mistook lust for love with her third suitor. That the King was by now also showing an interest made this even more foolish. It felt out of character given everything she had been through to date – sometimes it seems passion really can be so blinding. Katherine does, of course, end up marrying Henry and is once again blessed with a husband who cares for her. These years in her life story lead to the King’s death and the political machinations surrounding such a momentous and anticipated event are woven in well.
Katherine believed herself fitting and able to be appointed Regent to the next young King. Given how she behaves when believing her life at risk – she becomes hysterical – such ambition looks to be over reaching. She does not come across as clinically controlled enough to hold and wield what power meant in those times. There were always many – men and women – mercilessly plotting for their own ascension.
One such person is Katherine’s fourth husband, an obvious knave. It seems a shame she did not appear to appreciate how her previous husbands had demonstrated true love in how they treated her, especially as so many women at that time were required to put up with appalling treatment in their marriages. Katherine appeared blinded by passion and the excitement of lively sex, even when blatantly informed of seriously errant and politically dangerous behaviour.
Having to read of her foolishness made the denouement somewhat frustrating and I was glad when the story ended. Having said that, I wanted to know what happened next to those who lived on. I therefore found this by the author of much interest. It also helped make sense of Katherine’s skewed judgement and her final husband’s thinking.
“a man of much wit, and very little judgement”
Weir is clearly a skilled writer of historical fiction and brings to colourful life a much covered dynasty in a way that still entertains. A long but interesting tale that provides a fitting ending to an ambitious yet successfully wrought series.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline Review.