(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Written in the grand Victorian manner, THE FIFTH QUEEN is a full-bodied historical novel of the brief and tragic marriage of Katharine Howard to Henry VIII. Many readers will remember Henry’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon, because of Shakespeare, and Anne Boleyn, his second, because she was the mother of Queen Elizabeth I; but the others—Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katharine Howard, and Katharine Parr—are only dim ghosts flickering through the twilight of history. Moreover, the reign of Henry VIII has not been a favorite topic with historical novelists, for it is overshadowed by the greater age of Elizabeth, which offers so much more to an imaginative writer. The period of Henry is also much more difficult for a modern reader to understand; it was not the high Renaissance of Elizabeth’s time but, again, a twilight between the Middle Ages that were dying and the new age that was struggling to be born.

The story opens in the bitter winter of 1539 as the barges of the great officers of the Crown sweep up the river toward Greenwich in the wake of the king’s barge. The new queen, Anne of Cleves, has landed in England, and already the rumor is that the King has said she resembles a pig studded with cloves and that her body stinks so vilely that no man can endure it. The inoffensive Jane Seymour had died two years before, having given Henry his long-desired son, the sickly Prince Edward; and the Cleves alliance was the next move in the complicated political chess game. It would present a strong Protestant front against France and the Empire. On the success of this alliance, the Protestant faction at Court had staked their political futures—and their heads; and now, the whole scheme was about to be wrecked upon the King’s dislike for his new queen. It was no wonder that the Chancellor of the Augmentations, standing in the stern of Cromwell’s barge, shivered with more than the winter wind.

To the court, as it lay in the palace at Greenwich, comes the heroine of the novel, Katharine Howard (in the charge of her cousin, Thomas Culpepper); she has come to seek the protection of her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal of England and the victor of Flodden Field. She is the daughter of poverty-stricken Lord Edmund Howard, a younger son of the ducal family, whose house, far in the north in Lincolnshire, had been burned in one of the all too frequent local uprisings. By chance, she is injured in a riot outside the palace between Lutherans and Catholics; again by chance, she meets the King and attracts his attention. She is appointed one of the ladies in waiting to Princess Mary, an appointment that will inevitably bring her into further contact with Henry. From that moment, her life becomes a part of English history, with the headsman’s block on Tower Hill standing grimly only two short years away.

THE FIFTH QUEEN is in the tradition of Shakespeare’s historical plays. In most novels of this type, the main characters are the author’s inventions, while the figures from actual history appear in the background to give color and verisimilitude; but here, all the characters are real figures from history, even down to the Magister Nicholas Udal, author of the almost forgotten play, RALPH ROISTER DOISTER. So it is with Shakespeare’s histories. Therefore, a reader familiar with the history of the period is aware of much dramatic irony as the story moves along: Bishop Latimer, for example, exhorting to repentance a friar who is to be burned for heresy. When the sinister figure of Cromwell appears, readers know that the axe is waiting even for him.

Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Privy Seal, dominates the larger part of the book as he had dominated Henry for years. Hated by the old nobility because of his low birth—he was the son of a brewer—and by the Catholics because of his destruction of the monasteries, he represents the “new men” whom the Tudors brought forward to do their work for them. The few noble families that had survived the Wars of the Roses could not be trusted; they looked back to a feudal past wherein their ancestors had set up and pulled down kings....

(The entire section is 1695 words.)