Philippa Gregory’s latest Tudor novel covers much the same territory as C. J. Sansom did in Lamentation — the last years of Henry VIII’s reign, during which he was married to his last queen, Katherine Parr. In The Taming of the Queen, Parr is the first-person narrator, an unwilling royal wife who is in love with another man and constantly aware of how perilous her position is, as the fifth wife of a man who has beheaded two wives, divorced two others, and now idolizes the one who died in childbirth, Jane Seymour.
As with the last Philippa Gregory book I read, The King’s Curse, and also with Sansom’s Lamentation, the view of the aging Henry here is a very negative one — a paranoid, suspicious bully, wracked by physical and mental illness, terrorizing all around him, especially his last wife. There are some glimpses, though, of another side of Henry in this novel, of the kindness he was capable of showing to someone he approved of — as long as being kind to that person fit his schemes. After reading this book, I went back to my definitive Henry VIII novel, Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII, and read the last chapters, which cover those same last years of Henry’s reign. As I’d remembered (and as you would expect), the story as told from Henry’s point of view portrays the king and his motives very differently, but even in George’s novel, the last year is summarized with a brief journal entry, and the notes by his fool Will Somers, suggest that Henry’s memory of those final months is quite different from the reality. Henry VIII’s behavior during those last months of his reign and his life was so erratic and irrational that even a novelist sympathetic to Henry would find it hard to depict kindly. For a novelist like Gregory, whose sympathies here are all with Katherine Parr, Henry comes across as a monster, and marriage to him terrifying.