Philippa Gregory

The Taming of the Queen

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The Taming of the Queen Summary

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Philippa Gregory’s The Taming of the Queen is a historical fiction novel published in 2015. The fifth book in Gregory’s Tudor Court series, it tells the story of Tudor Queen Kateryn Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, and how she survives a dangerous husband who killed or cast aside all but one of his previous wives. Gregory is a historian and writer with a particular interest in the Tudor era. The first book in the Tudor Court series, The Other Boleyn Girl, about Anne Boleyn’s sister, was a bestseller and adapted into a major motion picture. Gregory’s other notable novels include The White Queen and The Boleyn Inheritance.

Kateryn Parr is in her thirties and a widow at the beginning of the novel; by the standards of the day, she is considered middle-aged. Nonetheless, she is in the midst of a passionate love affair with Thomas Seymour, brother of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife.

Henry has a poor track record with marriage. He changed English law and split the church in two to divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. His second wife, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded on trumped-up charges of treason. Jane died shortly after giving birth to Henry’s only male heir, a sickly boy named Edward. His marriage with Anne of Cleves was annulled after he apparently found her too unattractive. And at the beginning of the novel, wife number five, Katherine Howard, has just been executed on charges of adultery.

By Gregory’s reckoning, Henry is akin to a serial killer or a Bluebeard rather than an absolute monarch wielding his power. And now, this murderous man has expressed a desire to make Kateryn Parr his sixth wife. Kateryn is aware of Henry’s reputation, of course, but Henry is her king, and that makes him difficult to refuse. Though she loves Thomas Seymour, she feels it is her duty to accept Henry’s offer of marriage.

The two wed, though Kateryn is physically repulsed by her new husband. Henry is ill, aging, and decrepit. He is morbidly obese, with an ulcerating wound on his leg that festers and refuses to heal. He belches and farts; his breath is unpleasant; he is so large that it is physically difficult for the two to consummate their marriage.

Kateryn is decked in hand-me-downs from previous wives, a reminder that she must be cautious if she is to survive the marriage. Henry is capricious, changeable, and always vain. She must be careful of every word and every action so that she does not rouse his anger. Her head may be at stake.

Thomas Seymour is given a posting in Brussels following Kateryn and Henry’s marriage, so her lover is now across the sea. The separation may be better for their continued existences, but Kateryn longs for Thomas often.

Meanwhile, she finds ways to keep herself busy. She is kind and motherly to Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, particularly the latter. Young Elizabeth has been growing up far from her father; her mother was executed when she was barely more than an infant and she is in need of a stepmother. Henry is a cold father; he has repudiated them both and had them declared illegitimate, though he was legally married to their respective mothers at the time of their births. Kateryn, however, helps reconcile Henry with his daughters and re-establish a relationship with them.

As Kateryn grows more comfortable—though perhaps not more secure—in her position, she discovers an interest in scholarship and religion. Though Kateryn was raised as a proper Catholic, she is intrigued by reformation. Kateryn finds meaning in scholarly work: she decides to translate religious works from Latin into English so that any commoner can read them. She considers this project her life’s work. She publishes her first book, Psalms or Prayers, anonymously.

In 1544, Henry embarks on a campaign to France and appoints Kateryn regent in his absence. Kateryn takes the position seriously, using her temporary power to do good. She competently signs royal proclamations, handles delicate relations with Scotland, and handles provisions and finances for Henry’s campaign. In her spare time, she holds scholarly and spiritual discussions with her ladies-in-waiting.

However, her interest in religious pursuits catches unwanted attention. Rumors are swirling that Kateryn is a secret Protestant—and therefore a heretic. Kateryn makes an error when she agrees to a meeting with Anne Askew, an outspoken Protestant who is subsequently charged with heresy. Anne is burned at the stake, and Kateryn must answer for her apparent support of the woman. The Bishop of Winchester and Lord Wriothesley work to turn Henry against her, and actually draw up a warrant for her arrest.

Kateryn must act shrewdly to save her own life. She appeals to Henry’s vanity and submits herself to his will, though she has to grit her teeth to do it. Henry calls her “naughty” but forgives her so long as she submits to “punishment”: if she gets on her knees, bares her buttocks, and allows him to whip her. The scene is unpleasant, but Kateryn bares it rather than follow Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard to the chopping block. Afterwards, she continues to act docile and submissive; she lets Henry “tame” her.

Kateryn continues to write translations, and in 1545, she publishes Prayers or Meditations under her own name. This is the first book to be published under a woman’s name. She is proud of her accomplishments.

Henry’s health has been failing for much of their marriage, and he dies in 1547. Kateryn is free, and has survived their marriage.

The Taming of the Queen received mixed reviews. The book won the Woman & Home Readers’ Choice Award for Best Historical Saga of the Year, but many readers noted major historical inaccuracies in the portrayal of characters and situations. Gregory continues to write historical fiction about the Tudor era, including Three Sisters, Three Queens in 2016 and The Last Tudor in 2017.