Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen (UK) / Katheryn Howard, The Scandalous Queen (US)

Written by Alison Weir
Review by Carol McGrath

This is a superb novel about a young queen who was the victim of powerful and ambitious persons around her. Neglected by her grandmother, she was used by the ruthless Duke of Norfolk to further Catholic and family ambitions, and the enigmatic Lady Rochford played a sinister role in her downfall. Francis Dereham became her stalker, although at one time Katheryn was in love and wanted to marry him.

After Henry VIII’s disappointment over the Kleve marriage, Katheryn is thrust in his way at a banquet manipulated by her uncle Norfolk, and he is immediately besotted with her. After his divorce the king immediately marries Katheryn, his ‘rose without a thorn’. However, this particular ‘rose’ comes with a past of which Henry is unaware, and which she must keep secret. Guarding it leads to blackmail.

Katheryn was around nineteen when she was executed for adultery after less than two years of marriage. Weir portrays a needy young girl looking for love and independence who is undone by her past. She is depicted not as foolish and uneducated but as a woman who adored music, was probably dyslexic and was emotionally and intellectually ill-equipped to become Henry’s fifth queen.

Weir explores these characters’ motives convincingly. The personalities leap from the page. We cannot know if Katheryn had full sexual relations with her kinsman, Thomas Culpepper, but Weir is plausible as she exposes their assignations on the 1541 Northern Progress. Lady Rochford is the least sympathetic character, who in Weir’s interpretation eggs Katheryn on to become caught up in a web from which there is no disentanglement. Every base in this story is admirably covered by Weir’s impeccable research. Every character is drawn so vividly and accurately that I felt they had entered my living room. Of the three of Weir’s excellent novels about Henry VIII’s queens I have read and reviewed, this is my favourite.