The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is an author whose work I not only thoroughly enjoy but wait with great impatience for her next book to appear. Her historical works of fiction, which take an intimate look at the lives of often overlooked as secondary women – those behind, beside and under the throne, if you like, are fascinating. Some I like better than others but this latest, The Taming of the Queen, ranks (in my very humble opinion) among the best.

25106926This time her subject is Kateryn Parr, Henry VIII’s last queen and already, at the age of 30, twice widowed. Despite loving another man, Thomas Seymour, when Kateryn is offered the toxic chalice of becoming Henry’s next wife, like any woman Hnery sets his sights upon, she has no choice but to accept.

Dismayed at how her future appears to be unfolding as the sixth wife to an arrogant, spoilt and morbidly obese man – a serial killer by any other name – with a propensity to change wives, policies, friendships and even faith as one does underclothes, she determines to make the best of things, even if it means stifling her feelings for Thomas.

Uniting the fractured Tudor family is no easy task and yet she undertakes this, feeling sorry for Henry’s estranged daughters from his earlier marriages (Mary and Elizabeth) and his over-protected son, Edward. With no real political or religious convictions, she soon learns that a neutral position, while safe, will not do and sets about to not only educate herself in these matters, but form a very important study circle at the heart of the court, something Henry initially indulges.

Clever, Kateryn is soon writing her own religious tracts and debating fiercely with some of the finest minds of the time and those she trusts, all the while her eyes and mind are also focussed on not displeasing her mercurial and hot-tempered husband. What Kateryn hasn’t bargained for is the machinations of those closest to Henry, those who don’t like the influence this wise and wonderful woman has over the sovereign and what this represents to them in terms of the power they currently wield.

All too soon, danger stalks Kateryn and the grim realisation that she might soon meet the fate of Anne Bolyen and Katherine Howard faces her.

Even knowing this period of history so well, I was spellbound by this book. The challenges Kateryn faces (no less having sex with her husband), the pride she must continuously swallow and what she does to both survive and with her dignity in tact is phenomenal. The tension is wonderfully built and the first person narrative aids this, breathing a different life into this era and this passionate, honourable woman about whom we know very little.

In this portrait of Kateryn Parr, Gregory has worked a particular kind of magic, recreating the era, representing Henry as the monster he surely must have been, yet also imbuing him with qualities and insecurities that somehow prevent him from being utterly detestable.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves history, Gregory’s work, or just a damn fine read.

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Book Review: The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

I am a huge fan of Alison Weir’s non-fiction so turned with great interest to this, her second work of fiction, and was not disappointed. When the story opens, the future Queen Elizabeth I is only three years old. Tall, slender, with the red hair that marked her as a Tudor, she was already showing signs of the intellect and perspicacity for which she would become renown. In this novel, Weir chooses to focus on Elizabeth’s early years and adolescence against the backdrop of her father’s tempestuous marriages, other relationships and struggles with the church and his nobles. All the characters familiar from history appear only, this time, the reader sees them mainly through Elizabeth’s eyes, thus painting them in a new and often fascinating light.
Though a strong young woman, it’s made clear that luck played a huge role in not only Elizabeth’s survival against all odds, but also her ascension to the throne. The manoeuvring and play for power of other families and individuals in the constant jostle for the throne of England and the spiritual welfare of its people is mind-boggling and when viewed through young eyes, takes on sinister implications – what some of the nobles will do for favour, power and the promise of more. Ripe for exploitation, the royal children are simple pawns in a never-ending game and it’s not until they learn this (some never do), that they are able to begin to steer their destiny. Of great interest is the way the relationship between Mary, Elizabeth and Edward is depicted – closer and more loving than is generally thought, laced with regret and sadness, it is the heart and soul of the novel in many ways – they spring literally from the same seed and yet are more rivals than siblings. Their burgeoning awareness and deliberate ignorance of this fact is delicately explored. Another surprise in the novel is the notion of Elizabeth’s “virgin queen” status which is given, as historians of the era do too, a different and very powerful meaning. Headstrong Elizabeth is revealed to be a young woman with a big heart as well, one that is poised for breaking.

This may be fiction, but it keeps close to the facts as they’re known, offering wonderful insights and imaginings into the female mind, the endless machinations behind the throne of England and the woman who became one of the greatest monarchs in British history. A terrific read.

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