Before I begin this review about Alison Weir’s latest historical novel about the six wives of Henry VIII, I would like to commend Recorded Books for doing a fantastic job of cutting the audio tapes so that the story flows seamlessly without any ugly jerks (which is what happens when no space is given between one section and the next.) I also want to compliment narrator Rosalyn Landor for her outstanding achievement in conveying the personality of the characters. She does a very good Henry VIII (he always sounds as if he’s making a speech) and conveys the youth and beauty of Katheryn, with the beauty of her voice. So I highly recommend this piece as an audiobook.
Now to the way in which Alison Weir chose to tell her tale. Of course I have great respect for the amount of research that she always does as well as her narrative style, which has become more compelling over the years. But I have to say I was somewhat disappointed in the tale she chose to tell. IMHO there is a much more compelling and darker narrative about Katheryn Howard, the tragic fifth wife of Henry VIII, which Ms. Weir just plain ignored.
First of all, it is my understanding that we are not quite sure when Katheryn Howard was born. Ms. Weir chooses the traditional date of 1521 and places her birth in the month of February, which would make her 19 when she married Henry in July 1540. However, other sources suggest that she was born in 1523 or 1524, possibly in late November (St. Katherine’s Day is November 25) which would have made her 15 or 16 when she married Henry.
The other issue has to do with her upbringing in her grandmother’s establishment. Poor Katheryn lost her mother in 1528 when she was very young, and her father was a feckless sort who was constantly away (he spent several years in Calais, France.) So she was shipped off to her father’s stepmother Agnes Howard, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. This seemingly was a wonderful opportunity for Katheryn, who was a poor relative. Unfortunately, Agnes had many poor female relatives in her establishment, and she may have considered them to be an undue burden as it was her duty to find husbands for them all AND to give them dowries. For whatever reason, Agnes preferred to spend her time at court, and let these women while away their existence in a kind of gilded captivity, as they were unable to do anything with their lives while husbandless. As many of them realized that Agnes was NOT going to find them husbands, they took it upon themselves to find men, whom they would invite into the “Maiden’s Chamber” (where they all slept) late at night, entertain them with stolen food and wine, and of course one thing led to another…
This situation was ripe for child abuse, especially as Katheryn was much younger than many of these women, but Ms. Weir chose to treat Katheryn as a typical teenager with raging hormones who willingly acquired one lover after another. However, there is a darker story to be told. It is possible that Katheryn was an unwilling victim of these much older men (some of whom were in their late twenties or early thirties) and that she may have been raped and abused first by her music master Henry Mannox, then by her cousins Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpeper.
If this scenario were true, then Katheryn’s story is a tragic tale of child abuse followed by forced marriage to a man who was over 30 years her senior, a heady rush to power followed by blackmail on the part of her rapists who brought her (and themselves down.) Predictably this story ends on the chopping block both for Katheryn and her tormenters. This unspeakable tragedy also explains why Katheryn was so eager to see husband Henry VIII when her world came tumbling down in early November 1541 (when she was 16 or 17.) But Henry never heard about her child abuse, because his guards dragged her away screaming.
I was so hoping that Alison Weir would devote her powers of research to this story, which has been proposed by historians Retha M. Warnicke and Conor Byrne. But it was not to be. Three stars. #alisonweir #kathrynhowardthescandalousqueen