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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1695

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.

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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. Cromwell, however, had risen to power through his betrayal of Wolsey and now looked to the future: to an absolute monarchy in which the king’s word would be supreme. With his treachery, his network of spies throughout England, he is a revolting figure; yet readers cannot help admiring his vision of a realm set free from a renewal of the anarchy of the Wars of the Roses. He favors the Protestant cause less from doctrinal than from political reasons; he is politically astute enough to sense that the new Protestantism will offer a firmer base for an absolute monarchy than the old Catholicism. He served Henry by treachery and cruelty, but he served him well; yet he is such a horrifying man that the reader rejoices in his downfall.

Among the characters of the second rank stands out the figure of Princess Mary—the future “Bloody Mary” of history books. Ford Madox Ford gives an unusually brilliant picture of her: a girl so bitten to the soul by her mother’s divorce and her own subsequent proclamation as a bastard that she is now only a rigid figure of hate. To good Catholics, she is almost a saint; to her father, she is a frozen block against which even his imperious will is shattered; and to any reader who may be interested in her reign, little more than a decade in the future, this portrait gives an illuminating psychological insight into the causes that made her the ruler that she was to become.

Above all, however, there is the figure of Henry VIII, this giant of a man whose vast shadow stretches over the whole story. As depicted by Ford, he resembles nothing so much as a half-tamed wild animal—at one moment pathetically docile, and at the next, tearing into pieces those whom he had seemed to love. He is haunted by the fear of damnation for his persecution of the old faith, yet he cannot return to it. In the final dramatic scene between him and his fifth wife, she tells him what he is: a man who blows hot in the morning and cold at night, a straw tossed by every conflicting wind. For all of his absolute power and cruelty, he is a pathetic and tragic man.

Katharine has been called lewd, deceitful, grasping, and pitiable in her frailty. She had only a brief moment in history, and historians seem to agree that she was “probably” guilty of the crimes of unchastity charged against her. Ford gives the reader a very different interpretation. His Katharine Howard is a girl too honest and too deeply religious for the world in which she had to live. She sees men as only all white or all black; she sincerely believes that the old faith can be restored. Indeed, her brief reign did mark the return to power of the reactionary group, a momentary reversal of the triumphant march of Protestantism. Nevertheless, she is betrayed by everyone; even her uncle Norfolk, a hater of the new age, betrays her; and so Henry, who deeply loved her but who could never stay of one mind, sent her to the block on Tower Hill.

The real protagonists of this novel, however, are not Henry VIII and his queen; they are the old Catholicism of the Middle Ages and the new Protestantism of the Renaissance. The novel is set on one of those great dividing lines of history; and Henry himself has a foot, in its great square-toed shoe, on either side of it. He was half Catholic, half Protestant; he turned away from Latin because it reminded him of the old language of the Mass that he had destroyed, yet he wanted to be head of the English Church. The hands of the clock could be briefly stopped, but they could not be turned back. As Katharine is bluntly told, there is the inescapable fact that too many people in England have by now grown rich from the spoils of the Church and that these men will never give up the lands and goods that they have obtained. Even her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk and head of the Catholic party and of the old nobility, wears in his hat a jewel taken from a chalice in the Abbey of Risings. The new nobility, come up under the Tudors, is founded on wealth stolen from the Church. Here is a hard economic fact against which theology and even Katharine’s faith will be shattered.

Katharine, “mazed,” as she says, by the reading of old books, moves toward her tragic end because she expects men to be better than they can be. Her world is not peopled by heroic figures from classical antiquity. In the end, however, it is she who triumphs; and Henry, who sends her to execution, is defeated.

This long, elaborate historical novel has an immensely complicated plot—intrigue is piled upon intrigue, incident upon incident, and hardly a character in the story can be trusted. Each is utterly false, thinking only of himself, endlessly shifting sides, betraying and being betrayed; but at least these are full-blooded people, not the hollow men who flit, twittering like bats, through most contemporary novels—“these unfortunates,” as Dante calls them, “who never were alive.” The style fits the book. Readers are at one moment in the glare of torches and in the presence of the enormous scarlet king; at the next, plunged into the darkness of a corridor of one of the vast palaces. The warhorses, sheathed in iron, solemnly prance; the state barges slide up and down the Thames; Norfolk’s tucket is blown in a triple convolution of sound. It was a magnificent and a terrible world, and Ford makes it live again in all of its terror and splendor.

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