Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Fifth Queen

Amid the current inundation of Tudor films, biographies and novels, I thought it would be worth revisiting Ford Madox Ford's masterpiece The Fifth Queen, which offers an unconventional look at the tragedy of Katherine Howard. It has been hailed as being the among the best English language historical novels of the twentieth century; I am close to agreeing with the assessment. It is certainly one of the finest historical romances that I have ever read.

The Fifth Queen
is a trilogy of three novels rolled into one, detailing Katherine's rise and fall in a manner which authentically conveys the era. Ford contends that that Katherine, as a Catholic, was trying to get Henry VIII to reconcile with the Church of Rome. She was close to succeeding; the reformers did not want that to happen. Having been raised in a motherless and unprotected environment, Katherine's adolescence could not bear close scrutiny and she was easily framed. Her male friends were tortured until they admitted to dallying with her before marriage and after her marriage. Her servants were tormented as well. Getting other people to agree with the testimony of the tortured men and serving maids was no difficult feat. And so Katherine was condemned as a slut and whore.

Ford alludes to the fact that while Katherine may have been violated in some way as a young girl. In The Fifth Queen it is clear that Henry is aware that she has a Past but does not care. Ford's Katherine is about eighteen years although Alison Weir in The Sixth Wives of Henry VIII says she may actually have been only fifteen. Ford portrays her as witty and bright, which makes sense since Henry was not generally attracted to stupid women; he enjoyed the repartee with a lively, clever damsel, especially over theological matters. Katherine had the charm of her cousin Anne Boleyn, with a great deal more sweetness; she also had the magnificent red-gold hair of the Plantagenets. Henry was repeatedly drawn to women with such hair, such as all three of his Katherines.

Ford brings Katherine to life as no one else - engaging, impulsive, and valiant. This portrayal coincides with what Alison Weir writes about her efforts to help imprisoned Catholics, especially Henry's cousin Blessed Margaret Pole. Katherine is loving to her much older husband, to whom she becomes deeply attached, in Ford's novel. As her tragedy unfolds, she is ready to immolate herself for what she sees as a higher cause. Henry's heartbreak when he sees he must lose her is captured by Ford in a very moving manner. Henry does not believe the charges of adultery (Katherine was never officially found guilty of breaking her marriage vows). The King hopes to annul his marriage to her so that at least she can live as his mistress. Katherine must choose either dishonor in life or dishonor in death.

There seem to be few if any portraits of the fifth queen; what portraits still exist are dubious. Those who destroyed her also tried to destroy all evidence that she had lived, even as the altars of the old religion were being broken and defaced. However, Katherine lives in Ford's amazing trilogy, which is as vivid a work of art as any painting.

Katherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger Share


Gareth Russell said...

I think this trilogy is a fabulous read, but I'm still not convinced that the historical Catherine was quite the way he portrayed her. She doesn't seem to have been particularly devout and in a fit of pique, she punished her stepdaughter Mary for her rudeness to her by having Mary's favourite maid-of-honour banished from Court.

But aside from that, I think Ford's book on this period is absolutely heartbreaking. His character of Catherine is one of the literature's truly lovely creations and the final segment makes for harrowing reading. Thank you so much for posting about this novel, Elena. I had completely forgotten about it, last having read it when I was 13. I will be ordering it again tonight.

Alison Weir had been toying with the idea of writing a novel on Catherine Howard, after her two on Lady Jane Grey and Elizabeth I, but instead she's now working on a non-fiction account of Anne Boleyn's last three weeks alive called "Lady in the Tower."

Has anyone read Jean Plaidy's two treatments on Catherine's life, "Murder Most Royal" and "Rose Without a Thorn?" I enjoyed them.

Are you ever tempted to tackle the Tudor period yourself Elena?

Ms. Lucy said...

thank you for this wonderful post, Elena. I too believe that she must have been about 15 years old. If there was any mention of her any frivolty it's probably due to her still being a child , after all. But none can dispute the fact that she was caring, givng, deeply devoted and religious. Her attachment to her husband was also obvious. And, like you mention, she was raised without the care of her mother. Her grandmother was also instrumental in using her for power. It was a tragic end for this child-queen.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Gareth, it is definitely a fictionalized account, although based upon some remarkable research. I want to read it again, too. It is the kind of book that can be read any number of times and each time fresh insights can be gleaned. It don't recall the portrayal of Katherine being ultra-religious~ she was not represented as pious as Katherine of Aragon~ to me she was shown as being a a bit feisty and sharp-tongued. It is known that she tried to help the Catholics who were imprisoned for their faith. Anyway, when we look at ordinary Catholics in the past, sometimes they seem super devout to us just because of the way we all are now.

I have not read Jean Plaidy's novels about Katherine Howard but I am sure that they are good like most of her other novels, especially if you say so.

Gareth, I don't know, there are so many novels about the Tudors out there.... I always wanted to write about the Stuarts, though, beginning with Mary Stuart and you know, I have long been planning a novel about Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Yes, Lucy, Katherine's story is sheer tragedy. She was placed in a situation which the most skilled courtiers would have found challenging to navigate. She was a child, and especially vulnerable because of her past.