“she had been in her tender youth, too frail to resist her wanton appetites, too greedy for carnal delights. How blind the young can be!”
Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen, by Alison Weir, is the fifth installment in the author’s Six Tudor Queens series. Like its predecessors, it is a fictionalised biography of one of Henry VIII’s wives based on extensive factual research. Written as a story, it offers a window into the life of a young woman raised in privileged households. Katheryn is always aware that she is a Howard and that her family are both wealthy and influential. She was regarded as very beautiful but is not portrayed as particularly bright.
Opening in 1528, when Katheryn was seven years old, the tale begins with the death of her mother in childbirth. Katheryn is sent to stay with a kindly aunt, along with her half-sister, Isabel, who will become a lifelong friend. Katheryn’s father lives beyond his means and goes on to marry wealthy widows. He is not well regarded by the wider family but they are still willing to help raise his children.
In 1531, Katheryn is sent to live with her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Unhappy with this change, Katheryn’s stepmother comforts her by explaining why.
“It is quite usual for noble children to be reared in great households, and you are now of an age for that. Under the Duchess’s rule, you will learn the skills and graces that will help you to make a good marriage or even obtain a place at court.”
Being a Howard, Katheryn is given her own room, unlike the other young ladies placed in the Duchess’s care. They must sleep in a dormitory where they get up to all sorts of shenanigans, including sexual antics with the young men of the household. By the time Katheryn is a teenager, she is joining in.
This activity is preceded by a crush Katheryn has on her music master. The sections describing their affair – when they would ‘pleasure’ each other in secret – were disturbing to read.
Katheryn’s regular fumblings and tumblings during the years she lived in the Duchess’s house grew tiresome to read due to repetition. There was little attempt at discretion during lascivious activity, much to the chagrin of some of the young ladies who were forced to bear witness. There is risk but this only adds to the frisson.
In 1539, Katheryn’s father dies. Following this, she is finally found a place at court serving the King’s latest wife, the Lady Anne of Cleves. Although basking in the opulence of the royal palaces, and enjoying the sumptuous gowns she is given, Katheryn grows bored by the quiet manner in which the new Queen mostly lives.
When it becomes clear that the King no longer wishes to be married to Anne, Katheryn’s powerful uncles concoct a plan to place her on the throne. She must present herself as virtuous, keeping secret the life she led while under the care of the Dowager Duchess. The King is smitten by her youth and beauty, and she grows fond of him.
Once again, Katheryn’s sex life is described in repetitive detail – key to her role as Queen is that she produce a royal heir. When she rekindles an affair with one of her previous lovers, it is frustrating to read of the foolish risks she takes. Yes, she is young and vivacious, but her actions were always bound to lead where they did.
Portrayed as an admired young woman who has been offered little moral guidance growing up, Katheryn’s behaviour can be understood despite its repercussions. In this marriage at least, Henry appears the victim.
I enjoyed the historical aspects of the novel – the lives led by the noble families of the time and those who served them. Political maneuvering was ruthless and added interest. It is a shame that, while understanding it was Katheryn’s sexual antics that led to her undoing and therefore they had to be included, the many pages devoted to describing them became tedious.
Katheryn was young, fell easily in love, and was used by those looking for preferment. That she couldn’t control her urges, despite being adored by her aging husband, makes it harder to sympathise. Nevertheless, the author does a good job of presenting choices made through the lens of desire – which has, after all, caused regret in many.
An author’s note at the end explains the facts she used as the basis for the story and where she chose to use her imagination. Having read each of the books in this series, I am glad to have read this one for completeness. I do, however, hope that the final installment will contain less carnal content. I look forward to learning more about Henry’s final Queen.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.