Katheryn Howard was always my favourite of Henvry VIII’s wives. Not that any of them was exactly the pinnacle of happiness, but I definitely think she got the rawest deal. Fifteen years old, in love with someone else, forced by her family to marry the old, smelly, bad-tempered man who beheaded her cousin. Lovely. So when my favourite historical fiction author, Alison Weir, began her series Six Tudor Queens series (beginning with Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen), I simply could not get hold of them fast enough.
Plot summary for Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen:
Alison Weir, historian and author of the Sunday Times-bestselling Six Tudor Queens series, relates one of the most tragic stories in English history: Katheryn Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth queen.
A naive girl, thrust forward by her ambitious family. A pretty girl, who has captured the heart of the King. Katheryn sings, she dances, she delights in the pleasures of being queen. The King tells the world she is his rose without a thorn.
But this young woman has a past of which Henry knows nothing. It comes back increasingly to haunt her, even as she courts danger yet again. For those who gather roses must beware of the thorns.
Star Rating for Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen: * * * * (four stars)
On the face of it, this series does not need to be read in order. After all, most people with only a glancing interest in English history are aware that it doesn’t really end well for any of Henry VII’s wives, aside from maybe the last one. There can’t therefore be any real spoilers and there’s hardly an overarching plot to keep track of… except there sort of is.
What has fascinated me most about this series is watching Henry devolve from the charming, strong, handsome Lion into a grotesque, cruel tyrant, having already murdered or neglected three of his wives before we enter the story at the point of Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen. For that reason, it actually is worth starting this series at the beginning to really feel the true effect and impact of Henry’s decline.
Alison Weir’s writing is so evocative that it’s easy to forget is historical fiction, not sheer Game of Thrones-style fantasy. Obviously Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen is fiction, but it’s based on historical events and it feels like the author makes a concerted effort to strive for accuracy. There is a thirteen page Author’s Note explaining which aspects she has embroidered, nine pages of ‘dramatis personae’ and a further four pages of chronology. I am always impressed with the responsibility Alison Weir clearly feels in ensuring her readers are able to draw the distinction between fiction and reality. I imagine it’s a difficult balance to strike, but Alison Weir is a master of combining story-driven excitement and historical detail.
Katheryn herself is a very sympathetic character. Whilst all the previous novels have excelled in demonstrating both the strengths and flaws of each Queen, it’s difficult not to feel for Katheryn as her ambitious family, youthful beauty and neglectful chaperone all lead up to her eventual traumatic downfall.
The writing is somewhat formal, which requires the reader’s full attention – especially given the numerous, alternating titles bestowed upon each person. During descriptive pages it is easy to lose interest slightly, although the writing becomes more emotive at the appropriate times, which means the dramatic scenes really have an impact on your heart. The tension that seeps out from the pages of Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen is very, very real.
Having read all of Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series thus far, The Tainted Queen is the installment that affected me the most emotionally. Whilst I perhaps preferred Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen in terms of enjoyment of the plot (and the author can hardly be blamed for a plot that was derived 500 years ago!), Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen is the most beautifully crafted of them all.
I should also note that that there are quite a few novellas that fit in between the main six novels of this series. I wasn’t aware they existed until I started writing this review, but they cover some really interesting topics – The Tower is Full of Ghosts Today, for example, follows a modern-day historian on a tour of the Tower of London, where ‘something spectral is lurking in the shadows.’ I’m definitely going to start looking into these, possibly starting with Arthur: Prince of the Roses, about Henry’s older brother, original heir to the throne and first husband of Katherine of Aragon.