Katheryn Howard, The Scandalous Queen – by Alison Weir – independent book review – Historical Fiction (British)

Note: The publisher gave me early access to this novel in exchange for writing an impartial review. Publication Date: May 14, 2020.

Like any devotee of Tudor fiction, I have dutifully read bestselling author Alison Weir’s series of lengthy historical novels SIX TUDOR QUEENS as each has become available. This one is #5 and I look forward to the final one about Katherine Parr. Taken together, they are an impressive achievement – not even considering all those remarkable non-fiction works Weir is so famous for. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

Weir’s Katheryn Howard is fully fleshed out. She’s attractive, fun-loving, immature, irresponsible, flighty, and passionate. And NOT very bright. She lives superficially, caring primarily about her own pleasure and comfort, repeatedly succumbing to male attention — even when the man’s reputation is known to be questionable. She makes blunder after blunder, always naively confident there will be no long-term consequences. She has little loyalty, lies easily, and is quick to blame others. Only when she is finally cornered does she seriously begin to contemplate her own responsibility for her own actions.

Katheryn Howard
Portrait by
Hans Holbein the Younger
(from Wikipedia)

The book begins with Katheryn as a young girl just before her mother’s death. Katheryn is then separated from most of her siblings and moved around from relative to relative, until she is deposited in the home of her remote step-grandmother (the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk) — where she winds up getting into lots of trouble. The details and instability of her early home life (including the absence of her father) helps make Katheryn a sympathetic figure and, to my mind, provides a reason for her becoming so susceptible to the attentions of older men. Of course now, those early attentions of Henry Mannox, and perhaps even Francis Dereham, would more likely be construed as child abuse, with the men being held more accountable than the victim.

The attraction between Katheryn and her cousin Thomas Culpepper is established early and it felt believable to me that they would have likely married, if Katheryn had not caught the eye of the King and fallen victim to her ambitious uncle, the Duke of Norfolk.

Throughout the novel, Weir remains committed to keeping the reader true to Katheryn’s perspective, a decision I appreciated. Weir explains in the Afterword that she used her extensive research, including the original testimony from the Privy Council investigation into Katheryn’s misdeeds, to piece together this narrative — but, like Katheryn, readers are kept in the dark. Finding out about events (like the fate of the “other” men in her life) only when Katheryn does.

And finally, the author also does a skillful job of describing — quite convincingly — what was likely going through Katheryn’s mind as her downfall began. Her desperation rings true — complete with frantic second-guessing, emotional hysterics, and panicked shifting between hope and fear.

Author Alison Weir (courtesy of her website)

Not surprisingly, there were moments when I felt Weir’s background in non-fiction and commitment to historical detail went overboard — making for some awkwardly inserted tangents and contrived dialog. Like when a boatman casually recounts the history of Syon Abbey where Katheryn is about to be imprisoned. Really? Hardly a conversation a mere boatman would likely have had with a condemned Queen.

But of course, I recommend the book to all lovers of Tudor history. Oddly enough, and somewhat surprising, King Henry VIII comes off as quite a nice guy. That turned out to be a nice change of pace.

More about the author, Alison Weir.

You may also be interested in my reviews of other books by Weir:

Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession

Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen

Anna of Kleve, the Princess in the Portrait

Katharine Parr: The Sixth Wife