The Taming of the Queen was released about a year ago and is part of Philippa Gregory’s highly acclaimed Tudor Court series. Gregory has written about all of Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives with sensitivity and sensationalism. Yet for me, this novel about Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr, seemed to have another layer to it – something deeper and more personal for the author.
Katherine Parr was different to Henry’s other wives in many ways. Most obviously, she survived him. She was not cast off by him and nor was she executed like two of her unfortunate predecessors. Gregory leads with the idea that Katherine ensured her fate through her own skill, wit and courage and I have to say that after the research I have carried out, I would have to agree. Parr was not a young girl like Henry’s other wives, but a mature woman in her thirties when she married him. She was a writer and was the first woman in England to publish something original in her own name, yet this, as Gregory describes is one of the things which leads her into danger when the novel reaches its crisis. The achievements of Katherine Parr are little known and this is perhaps because her marriage to Henry is remembered more as one of peace than of turbulence. It is therefore commendable that Gregory still manages to make this novel just as compelling as her others and also brings to light the danger which stalked Katherine Parr, just as it stalked everyone at Henry VIII’s court.
The novel begins with Katherine’s brief love affair with Thomas Seymour after the death of her second husband and before the king has asked her to marry him. We first meet Katherine as a vivacious, passionate, flesh and blood woman and this characterisation of her is continued throughout the story, even when, as queen of England, she has to conform to the submissive and passive Tudor ideal of femininity. We accompany Katherine throughout her marriage to Henry, sympathetic listeners to her inner thoughts and desires – those which she must keep hidden from the eyes and ears of the court. As Katherine starts to find her feet as queen of England, the pace of the novel picks up terrifically. We read about the magnificent meals she attends with her husband, the jewels and clothes that she wears and her religious writings and studies carried out in the quiet of her own rooms. Yet the sense of fear and of being unable to trust anyone is pervasive all the time and is what makes this novel a real page turner.
In The Taming of the Queen, Gregory has managed to create a very physical and believable heroine– one who is very present even though she lived almost 500 years ago. As one reads this novel, the admiration and affection that Gregory seems to feel for the brave, learned and self-denying Katherine Parr is entirely tangible. The anger I think she feels towards the husband who tried to suppress her along with so many others also leaps out from the pages from time to time. I hope that Gregory has a sense of freeing Katherine’s voice after so many years, for that is certainly the feeling that I was left with. This is a truly inspiring and moving story, and a real must for anyone who enjoys an earthier historical novel.