Six Tudor Queens: Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen by Alison Weir

Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series aims to retell, in fictional form, the stories of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. This is the fifth book in the series so, as you would expect, the focus is on the fifth wife, Katheryn Howard. Having enjoyed the first three – on Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – I had been slightly disappointed by the one on Anne of Cleves, but I’m pleased to say that I thought this latest book was a return to form.

When Henry VIII sets aside Anne of Cleves and takes nineteen-year-old Katheryn Howard as his next wife, he believes her to be pure, innocent and virtuous, qualities he values highly in a woman. Telling her she is his ‘rose without a thorn’, he is delighted with his young bride and looks forward to her producing another son to secure his lineage. But what Henry doesn’t know is that Katheryn has had more experience with men than he has been led to believe.

Katheryn is surprised to find that, despite the age difference, she is becoming genuinely fond of her obese and ailing husband. The man she really loves, however, is Thomas Culpeper, one of the King’s courtiers, whom she continues to meet in secret even knowing that if they are discovered both of their lives could be in danger. Then there’s Francis Dereham, with whom she was sexually involved before her marriage to the King; Francis won’t leave her alone, insisting that she had been pre-contracted to marry him before she ever met Henry, and Katheryn lives in fear of the King hearing of their relationship.

Of course, history tells us that Katheryn (as Alison Weir chooses to spell her name) will fail to keep her past a secret, that her love affairs with Dereham and Culpeper will become public knowledge and that she will face the same fate as her cousin, Anne Boleyn – but that doesn’t mean there is no tension in this retelling of her story. We know from the start that Katheryn is doomed and we have to watch her make one mistake after another, choose the wrong people to trust and head irreversibly down a path which will lead her to the scaffold. Despite knowing what will eventually happen, though, we are kept in suspense waiting for the moment when she will be betrayed and her secrets will be revealed to Henry.

The novel sticks closely to the known facts of Katheryn Howard’s life; although obviously there are some areas where Weir has to use her imagination or make decisions as to how certain things should be interpreted, she doesn’t seem to invent large chunks of the story as she did in Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets. I suppose Katheryn’s life is more well documented than Anne of Cleves’ and already dramatic enough without the need for too much invention.

Although Katheryn is frustratingly naive and reckless, I did have a lot of sympathy for her. A lot of time is spent discussing her early life before her marriage to Henry, when she lived in the household of her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The household included several other young women who were also wards of the Duchess and it seems that there was very little supervision and discipline; Katheryn appears to have been easily influenced and sometimes even encouraged by the other girls to behave in a way that would have been seen as promiscuous in the 16th century. Because of the nature of Katheryn’s story, there is a lot of focus on her sex life and her liaisons with various men and this does become a little bit repetitive and tedious at times, but I still found it a more compelling read than the previous book in the series.

I am looking forward to the final novel, which isn’t available yet, but which I’m assuming will be about Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 8/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets by Alison Weir

This is the fourth book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series which aims to retell in fictional form the stories of all six of Henry VIII’s wives. I enjoyed the previous three – on Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour – but I was particularly looking forward to reading this one, on Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Before I began, all I really knew about Anne was that Thomas Cromwell was instrumental in arranging her marriage to Henry, that the King was disappointed when he saw her in the flesh as she didn’t live up to the Hans Holbein portrait he had seen, and that after their divorce she lived in comfort and was given the honour of being described as the King’s ‘beloved sister’. I knew there must be more to Anne’s story than this and I hoped to learn more about her from this new novel.

Alison Weir refers to Anne as Anna, so I will do the same for the rest of this post. She also uses the spelling Kleve rather than the Anglicised version, Cleves, and tells us that this should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘waver’. The duchy of Kleve, in what is now Germany, is the setting for the first section of the novel, which describes Anna’s life prior to her marriage. Her journey to England and brief time as Henry’s wife follows, and finally an account of the period after the divorce, taking us all the way through to her death in 1557 at the age of forty-one.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger

I’ve always considered Anna to be much luckier than most of Henry’s other wives: she wasn’t beheaded, she didn’t die in childbirth while providing the king with an heir, and unlike the other divorced wife, Katherine of Aragon, she was treated with respect and generosity (at least while the king still lived). Of course, this doesn’t mean that life was always easy for her – it can’t have been very nice, after all, to have to leave your family and friends behind and travel abroad to marry a man you’ve never met, only to be rejected by your bridegroom almost on first sight. As portrayed here by Alison Weir, she is a sensible, pleasant and good-natured woman and I did have a lot of sympathy for her, but her story is certainly less tragic and turbulent than some of the other wives’.

Bearing in mind that this is a novel with around 500 pages and that there isn’t really a lot of factual information available on Anna von Kleve, I felt that there was too much padding and at times I found the book quite tedious and repetitive. Because Weir takes us right up to the time of Anna’s death, towards the end of the book a lot of attention is given to the next two queens, Katheryn Howard and Catherine Parr, as well as various incidents and plots that took place during the reigns of Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey and Queen Mary. Unfortunately, by this point Anna is living away from court on her various estates, so she has little personal involvement and most of these events are described from afar which made them less exciting to read about than they should have been.

To flesh out Anna’s story and make it more interesting, Weir has imagined a romance for her in Kleve before she marries the king and this has repercussions that affect the rest of her life. I won’t go into too much detail, but looking at other reviews of this book, some readers liked this imaginary storyline while others hated it. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility as Henry did allegedly tell people that he ‘doubted Anna’s virginity’, but that could have just been an excuse for not consummating the marriage and demanding a divorce. However, even if it was true, there is no evidence to suggest who her previous lover may have been, so this aspect of the novel is entirely fictional.

Although this is my least favourite book in the series so far, I have a copy of the next one, Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen, on my NetGalley shelf and am anticipating a more entertaining read – and hopefully, given Katheryn’s much more dramatic life, one that needs to rely less heavily on fiction.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: A Tudor Christmas and Henry VII

I didn’t have time last month to write about all of the books I read for Nonfiction November, so I’m combining the final two into one post today, which I think is quite appropriate as they are both Tudor related!

First, A Tudor Christmas. If you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping yet, this lovely little book by historian and novelist Alison Weir and her co-author Siobhan Clarke, a guide for Historic Royal Palaces, could be the perfect gift for any history lovers in your life (or for yourself, at any time of year, of course).

Divided into twelve sections to represent each of the twelve days of Christmas, the book takes us through the origins of many of our favourite Christmas traditions, as well as some that were popular in Tudor times but have disappeared over the years. The text is interspersed with recipes, poems, carols and illustrations, so if you don’t want to read it straight through from beginning to end, you could just pick it up and read a page or two whenever you have a few spare moments over the festive period. This is much shorter than the other non-fiction books I’ve read by Alison Weir and obviously doesn’t have the same level of depth, but even so she and Clarke manage to cover a large amount of material, touching on almost every aspect of Christmas you could think of.

I enjoyed reading about the various ways in which St Stephen’s Day/Boxing Day was celebrated in different parts of Europe, ranging from hunting the wren and taking beribboned horses to be blessed by the priest, to distributing alms to the poor. There’s a discussion of when the turkey was first introduced to England, a fascinating chapter about the typical games that would be played at home or at court, and some eye-opening accounts of how much money Henry VIII would spend on celebrating Christmas. There are also descriptions of earlier traditions such as the burning of the yule log and the origins of holly, ivy and mistletoe being used as decorations and, although I would have preferred a tighter focus on the Tudor period itself (which is what I’d expected from the title), I did find the whole book an interesting and worthwhile read.

From a Tudor Christmas to a Tudor king…Henry VII by Gladys Temperley is a biography of the first Tudor monarch who reigned from 1485 to 1509. Originally published in 1914 (and reissued more recently by Endeavour Compass), it does feel a bit dated and dry in places, but I still found it perfectly readable.

I started to read this book shortly after finishing The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson, a fictional account of Henry’s life before he became king, so I was particularly interested in the earlier sections which gave the facts behind some of the episodes which were featured in the novel such as Henry’s time in exile and preparations for his return to England at the head of an army. However, all of this is passed over very quickly, to be followed by a much longer section on the rebellions, conspiracies and pretenders to the throne – including Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel – that repeatedly threatened Henry’s reign. As Temperley says, “He trusted few men, suspected many. He had plunged too early into the bitter waters of adversity, and as a fugitive exile, eating the bread of dependence at the courts of France and Brittany, had learnt to watch and school himself until repression had killed all spontaneity.”

Henry VII isn’t one of my favourite kings, but Gladys Temperley seems to have a lot of respect and admiration for him, which I think is a good thing – as long as it doesn’t lead to too much bias, I always think it’s better when an author likes and is genuinely passionate about their subject. Temperley highlights many of Henry’s lasting achievements, such as his ‘Mercantile System’, a policy which aimed to increase foreign trade and improve England’s economy, and the steps he took towards reforming the country’s judicial system.

The book feels thoroughly researched; there are footnotes throughout the text, three appendices giving more information on The Star Chamber, Perkin Warbeck and Juana of Castile, and a very impressive bibliography. You do need to remember, though, that this is a very old biography and that what we know of history is constantly evolving. For a more modern look at Henry VII, I recommend Winter King by Thomas Penn.

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

While Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were getting married at Windsor Castle yesterday, I have spent the weekend absorbed in reading about the lives of a much earlier royal couple…Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour. Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen is the third book in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series which aims to retell, in fictional form, the stories of all six of Henry’s wives. Having read the first two novels on Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, I have been looking forward to this new one; I’ve read about Jane less often than Katherine and Anne so I was interested in learning more about her and curious to see how she would be portrayed.

The novel begins by introducing us to Jane as a young girl, living with her parents and brothers and sisters at Wulfhall, the Seymours’ manor house in Wiltshire. For several years, Jane is convinced that she would like to become a nun but eventually she discovers that she has no true vocation for a religious life and she decides that her future lies at court instead. With the help of Sir Francis Bryan, a courtier and family friend, she obtains a place in the household of Katherine of Aragon as one of the queen’s maids-of-honour. Jane is devoted to the queen, but when Henry puts Katherine aside so that he can marry Anne Boleyn, she finds herself in the unwelcome position of having to serve Anne instead of Katherine.

When Jane catches the king’s eye, her ambitious brothers see this as an opportunity to make the Seymours the power behind the throne, while Jane herself is keen to use her new influence with Henry to help reinstate Katherine and her daughter, the Lady Mary. But then comes Anne Boleyn’s downfall and suddenly Jane, who has watched her younger sisters marrying before her and has almost given up hope of ever finding a husband herself, is elevated to the highest position of all: Queen of England, as Henry’s third wife. With only two daughters from his first two marriages, Henry is desperate for a son, but can Jane succeed where her two predecessors failed?

I have given a basic outline of the plot of The Haunted Queen in the two paragraphs above, but I’m sure none of it will be very surprising to anyone who already knows their Tudor history. Weir sticks closely to historical fact as far as possible although, as she explains in her author’s note, the information we have on Jane is limited and there are areas where she has to use her imagination and historical knowledge to fill in the gaps – for example, the possibility of Jane contemplating taking religious vows, the question of whether she could already have been pregnant at the time of her marriage to Henry, and the probable cause of her death shortly after giving birth in October 1537. There were enough new ideas and interpretations here to make this, for me, a worthwhile and compelling read.

Jane Seymour often comes across as one of the less interesting wives, particularly following Anne Boleyn, but I liked the way she was portrayed in this novel. Was Jane used as a pawn by Thomas Cromwell and her ambitious family, or was she as manipulative as they were in bringing down Anne Boleyn and taking her place as queen? Different authors and historians have different views on this, but Alison Weir’s version of Jane is somewhere between the two and I found it a realistic, convincing portrait of a quiet, compassionate young woman who did not set out to become queen but who seized the opportunity when it arose in the hope of using the power it would give her to help those she loved and to restore the ‘true religion’. Henry is depicted in quite a balanced and nuanced way too; we see a more loving side of him in his relationship with Jane, as well as his cruelty towards his previous two wives and his daughter, Mary. We also get to know some of the other characters who play a part in Jane’s story, including her brothers Edward and Thomas; I particularly liked the portrayal of Sir Francis Bryan, who is a good friend of the Seymour family, despite his reputation as ‘the vicar of Hell’.

I enjoyed reading about Jane’s early life at Wulfhall (marked by the scandal caused by her father’s affair with his daughter-in-law Catherine Fillol – something I have previously read about in Suzannah Dunn’s The May Bride) and, later in the book, her brief reign as queen, but the section in the middle which covers Henry’s attempts to divorce Katherine of Aragon and then his marriage to Anne Boleyn, was less interesting to me. This is because it’s the third time in this series that I’ve read about those same events. Obviously, the three women involved – Katherine, Anne and Jane – have very different views on the matter, but I still found it just a little bit tedious to read it all again. I was also not a fan of the supernatural elements which are suggested by the title, The Haunted Queen, but I’m sure other readers will disagree.

I am now looking forward to the fourth book in the series which will tell the story of Anne of Cleves, definitely the wife I know the least about!

Thanks to Headline Review for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley.

The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today by Alison Weir

This is one of several e-shorts – short stories published exclusively in ebook format – which form part of Alison Weir’s new series on the wives of Henry VIII, Six Tudor Queens. I hadn’t had much interest in reading them until I noticed that this one, The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today, was (and still is, at the moment) free to download from Amazon. It seemed a good opportunity to see what they were like.

Having read the first two full-length novels in the series (on Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn) and with the third one, Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, on my NetGalley shelf ready to start soon, this was the perfect time to read The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today because, chronologically, it provides a sort of bridge between the Anne Boleyn book and the Jane Seymour book.

The story is set in the modern day and is written from the perspective of historian Jo Maddox, who is taking a group of tourists around the Tower of London. Jo has arranged for a special guide to lead part of the tour and provide some history on Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, who was of course imprisoned and beheaded at the Tower. When the guide arrives, Jo is impressed by her resemblance to Anne herself – right down to the authentic Tudor costume and French accent. But then another dark-haired young woman catches her eye and Jo begins to feel as though she is seeing Anne Boleyn everywhere she looks.

This really is a very short story! I had expected it to be longer as the book was seventy pages long, but most of those seventy pages are actually devoted to the opening chapters of the first three Six Tudor Queens novels. I didn’t need to read these as I’ve already read the first two and am about to start the third, so the story itself is disappointingly short and can literally be read in just a few minutes. Maybe the other e-shorts in the series have more substance, which could explain why this one is being offered for free.

Having said that, the story is quite entertaining, providing some information on the history of the Tower and separating the facts about Anne Boleyn from the myths. There’s even some humour:

‘Didn’t Thomas Cromwell play a large part in bringing down Anne Boleyn?’ a guest asked.

‘Cromwell!’ The guide’s eyes flashed. ‘Oh yes! He hated me, for he feared I would ruin him. So he pre-empted me. He was a man without scruples.’

‘Not if you read Hilary Mantel!’ muttered one of the group.

The other e-shorts in the series so far are Arthur: Prince of the Roses, The Blackened Heart, The Chateau of Briis, The Grandmother’s Tale and The Unhappiest Lady in Christendom, all of which fit before or after one of the three main novels. It seems that they are currently not available outside the UK, although according to Alison Weir’s website her US publisher is including some of the stories in the paperback editions of the novels. I think that’s a better idea anyway as if all of the stories are as short as this one I don’t think it’s really worth spending money on buying them all separately. I’m not planning to read any more of them, but I’m looking forward to starting Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen.

Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir

In Alison Weir’s new non-fiction book, Queens of the Conquest, she explores the lives of the five queens of England who followed the Norman Conquest of 1066. These five, in the order they appear in the book, are Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Conqueror), Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain (the two wives of Henry I), Matilda of Boulogne (wife of King Stephen), and the Empress Maud, Henry I’s daughter, who was never actually crowned but called herself Lady of the English. Lots of Matildas, then – Maud is also referred to in many sources as Matilda – but with each queen discussed chronologically (apart from where their stories overlap), things aren’t as confusing as you might imagine!

Apart from Maud, whom I have read about several times in fiction, I knew very little about the other queens whose stories are covered in this book. Considering the general lack of information available to us today – we don’t even have a clear idea of what these women looked like due to the absence of contemporary portraits – I think Weir still does a good job of providing as full and comprehensive an account of each queen’s life as she possibly could. There is inevitably a lot of padding – facts about medieval life, descriptions of castles and long passages quoted from letters – but if you don’t know a lot about the period, most of this should still be of interest.

I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of this book as my own knowledge is very limited, but Weir does provide references to back up most of what she says. In fact, the additional material which includes the references, sources, maps etc takes up about a quarter of the book! There are still times, though, when she is forced to speculate and make assumptions about how one of the queens may have felt or behaved, and resorts to using words like ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’. Usually I prefer more certainty when I’m reading non-fiction, but in this case, I do understand that with the primary sources being so sparse, some guesswork was necessary to round out the characters of the queens and to make this into an entertaining read rather than a dry textbook.

15th century depiction of the Empress Matilda/Maud

The most enjoyable part of the book for me was the section describing the period of civil war known as the Anarchy during which Maud (who was named as her father Henry I’s heir) and Matilda of Boulogne (whose husband, Stephen, was Henry I’s nephew and another claimant to the throne) found themselves on opposite sides. As I’ve read several novels which have this period as a setting, it was good to read a factual account this time instead of a fictional one, while still recognising some of the most interesting episodes, such as Maud’s escape in the snow from the besieged Oxford Castle.

Maud certainly didn’t seem to have made herself very popular, having a reputation for being proud, haughty and arrogant, but I have always assumed that this was probably due to the prejudice of the male chroniclers of the time against a female ruler who didn’t behave the way they expected a woman to behave. Weir points out that Matilda of Boulogne often acted in a similar way but her actions were seen as acceptable because she was taking them on behalf of her husband, King Stephen, rather than for herself, but she also suggests that Maud’s overbearing attitude and poor decision-making may have been due to mood swings caused by early menopause or a long-term illness she suffered following childbirth. This was the one place where I thought there may have been some bias creeping in, as Weir clearly seems to like Matilda of Boulogne much more than the Empress – and I couldn’t help wondering what caused the aggression and lack of judgement of some of the kings mentioned in the book!

18th-century impression of Matilda of Flanders

I was also interested to read the various theories and legends behind Matilda of Flanders’ marriage to William the Conqueror and the controversies surrounding Matilda of Scotland’s marriage to Henry I (she had previously spent some time in a convent so it was debatable whether or not she was free to marry). I felt that I learned very little about Adeliza, though; while she is described as being particularly beautiful and helping to promote the arts, it seemed that she had less power and political significance than the other queens.

Although I sometimes felt that too much time was devoted to the general history of the period when I would have preferred more analysis of the specific lives and characters of the five queens, I did find Queens of the Conquest a fascinating read. Apparently this is just the first of four volumes which will take us through the rest of the medieval queens to the end of the Wars of the Roses. I will be looking out for the next one.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

This is the second novel in Alison Weir’s new series telling the stories of the six wives of Henry VIII. I read the first book last year – on Katherine of Aragon – and enjoyed it; now, as you would expect, it’s the turn of the second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Like the first novel, this is a straightforward account of Anne’s life, beginning with her early years and taking us right through to her beheading in 1536. Whether you only have a basic knowledge of Anne’s story or whether you’ve read about her many times before, you can expect to learn at least something new from this book as it’s very long, very detailed and very thorough, leaving little out. As with the Katherine of Aragon book, I question whether it was really necessary to include such a lot of detail, but I did enjoy the book overall so won’t complain about that too much!

I found the opening chapters of the book particularly interesting because this section covered the part of Anne’s life with which I was least familiar – her time spent in the Netherlands at the court of Margaret of Austria, and in France serving first Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor, then Queen Claude, wife of the French king Francis I. Her experiences at these courts had an important influence on Anne’s life and character; she was able to observe the rule of these three very different women, she was exposed to new ideas and literature – including the works of women writers such as Christine de Pizan – and she began to develop her interest in religious reform.

Once Anne returns to England and catches the eye of Henry VIII, I felt I was on much more familiar ground. Perhaps for this reason I found the middle section of the novel tediously repetitive as Henry attempts to have his marriage to Katherine annulled, leaving him free to marry Anne. Of course, Alison Weir is only following historical fact here: the King’s Great Matter, as it became known, did go on for years and must have been very frustrating, to say the least, for Anne and for Henry – but it doesn’t make for exciting reading.

While this is very much Anne Boleyn’s own story, all of the other historical figures of the period are here, from statesmen such as Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell to Anne’s brother and sister, George and Mary. You may or not may be happy with the way these characters and others are depicted, depending on your own interpretation of events and on where your sympathies lie. When it comes to Anne, though, I think Weir has done a good job of making her feel convincingly human – not a heroine and not a villain, just a flawed and complex woman who loves the idea of being queen more than she loves the king himself.

As I’ve said, Alison Weir does stick closely to historical fact for most of the novel and I had no problems with the accuracy, although I accept that I am not an expert on Tudor history by any means – I read a lot of it, but not as much as some readers! She does take some liberties in imagining Anne’s feelings for Henry Norris – one of the men implicated in her trial – but with a lack of primary sources allowing us to access Anne’s own thoughts, how can we know how she really felt? There is also a scene in which Anne meets Leonardo da Vinci which I didn’t believe would be true, but in her notes at the end of the book Weir explains why she thinks it could have happened, while confirming that there is no real evidence for it.

The final chapters of the book describe Anne’s downfall and even though I knew what would happen to Anne, it was still sad to watch her story move towards its inevitable end. I found the closing scene slightly bizarre, but Alison Weir does talk about that in her author’s note! We also see the increasing prominence of Jane Seymour in the king’s life – Jane will be the subject of the third Tudor Queens book and I’m already looking forward to seeing how she will be portrayed.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.