The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory
Touchstone, $14.99 hardcover, 464 pages, 1476758794
This summer, I picked up a book that I couldn’t really get into a few years ago – Philippa Gregory’s The Taming of the Queen, a novel recounting the life of Catherine Parr (sometimes spelled Katherine, or even Kateryn, as Gregory uses, though I’ll stick with the common modernized spelling for clarity in this review) and her marriage to Henry VIII. Parr was the sixth wife of the Tudor king, whose fate we recall through the following mnemonic device – “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Indeed, survival is a pressing theme in Gregory’s novelization of Parr’s life at court. Not only does Catherine need to survive a husband who has put away two queens and ordered the deaths of two others, but as a scholarly-minded Protestant, Catherine must also survive the fluctuations of power by competing factions at court. Her position is never secure – rumors abound that Henry is actively planning to put her aside or arrest her for heresy. As reformist Protestants (led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and the Seymours) jockey for power against the Catholic-leaning practitioners of the so-called “Old Ways” (represented by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the Howards, and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich) Catherine feels under threat.
“The husband I have just buried was forty-nine, the king is fifty-one, an old man, but he could last till sixty. He has the best of physicians and the finest apothecaries, and he guards himself against disease as if he were a precious babe. He sends his armies to war without him, he gave up jousting years ago. He has buried four wives–why not another?”
After the twice-widowed Catherine finds her affair with Thomas Seymour abruptly halted by the king’s proposal of marriage, she must put away her passion and devote herself to caring for an ailing, regal husband. Before long, preachers begin to visit her rooms to deliver sermons and Catherine ardently commits herself to the cause of reform, even allying herself with a female preacher, Anne Askew (herself a fascinating figure!). She sets about translating sacred texts into English just as the King contends with removing the English Bible from parishes across the nation. As Catherine enjoys pursuing a newfound passion for scholarship, she must balance considering the ever-changing and sometimes inscrutable opinions of her husband with the fluctuating fortunes of her position at court, all against a backdrop of forbidden love and religious fervor.
“I pray for guidance, for God’s will, not my own, for the bending of my own obstinate desires to His purpose and not mine. I don’t know where God is to be found–in the old church of rituals and saints’ images, miracles and pilgrimages, or in the new ways of prayers in English and Bible readings–but I have to find Him. I have to find Him to crush my passion, to rein in my own ambitions. If I am to stand before His altar and swear myself to yet another loveless marriage, He has to bear me up. I cannot–I know I cannot–marry the king without the help of God. I cannot give up Thomas unless I believe it is for a great cause. I cannot give up my first love, my only love, my tender yearning passionate love for him–this unique, irresistible man–unless I have God’s love overwhelming me in its place.”
The first time I tried to get into The Taming of the Queen, I put it down without finishing it. I found the development of Catherine’s blasé regard for her religious practice to her ardent pursuit of reform to be quite abrupt, in a way that was off-putting. However, after starting the book again and finishing this time, I found that Gregory nicely developed Catherine’s religions inclinations blossoming alongside her interest in writing and scholarship, each passion feeding on the other.
“My book of psalms, beautifully bound, is tucked deep in my locked box of books. I think of it as my treasure, my greatest treasure, one that I have to keep secret. But seeing those words that were first written, and scratched out, and rewritten again in print and bound into a book, I know that I love the process of writing and publishing. To take a thought and work on it, to render it into the clearest form possible, and then send it out into the world–this is work so precious and so joyful that I am not surprised that men have kept it to themselves.”
Fans of Gregory’s perhaps most well-known Tudor novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, may find The Taming of the Queen lacking in romance and passion (save some stolen glances and bits of conversation between Catherine and Thomas Seymour). And Henry’s cruelty is laid bare in a brutal scene of “taming” from which the book takes its name. Gone is the handsome lover we got to know in his days of courting the Boleyn sisters, in his stead is an aged, decrepit, and mean-spirited despot taking stock at the end of his life (though his amorous tendencies still abide – he often remarks on his hopes of having another child with Catherine). Indeed, he is a man haunted by the past, and Catherine, too, finds herself similarly haunted by the past wives who once filled her place. Gregory artfully portrays this in Catherine’s visceral reaction to wearing the clothes of her predecessors and staying in the room where King Henry’s purported only true love, Queen Jane, died of puerperal fever. Despite retaining some elements of romance, this book is far from a bodice-ripper. Rather, the novel emphasizes the ever-changing vicissitudes of court life, and the tumultuous, back-and-forth nature of religious reform in sixteenth-century England. It’s a tale of political intrigue (captured brilliantly in dialogue, where Henry’s form of double-speak never quite reveals his true intentions, but conveys subtle threats); religious upheaval; familial reconciliation (Catherine deserves credit for bringing together the king’s three children from dispersed households) prolonged suspense; and an insight into a fascinating woman ruler and writer.
I’ll be following up with a post on Catherine Parr’s life of letters – from her translations to her epistles and poetry – in a later post!
Until next time,