[Queen Katherine Parr has sat for what she thinks is a family portrait including her]
I am eager to see how I look. After trying many colours I chose to wear my red undergown, with an extravagant overgown of cloth of gold trimmed with ermine. The painter himself selected it from the royal wardrobe. He said that he wanted the colours of the picture to be all red and gold, to show our wealth, to show our unity, to show our grandeur in royal colours. I did not say that red is my favourite, but of course I know that it sets off my white skin and my auburn hair. He asked me to change my headdress, from my favourite French hood, a semi-circular frame that I wear set back on my hair, to the more old-fashioned gable type…
‘I would never wear this!’ I exclaim, but he pushed it gently back so that my hair showed a little, so that it framed my face.
‘It is a privilege to paint a beautiful woman,’ he said quietly…
commentary: Philippa Gregory, running through the Tudors, has reached Katherine Parr, 6th and last of HenryVII’s wives. There’s been a lot of Gregory on the blog, with The Other Boleyn Girl my all-time favourite, and this one – her latest, just out – was a good read too. The story begins with Henry VIII proposing marriage to the reluctant widow – we get very little of her backstory, we are just put in the middle of events. Gregory does a great job, as ever, of trying to imagine how a 16th century woman might have thought and felt – we know so little of the reality, because at the most basic level women didn’t leave records.
Katherine Parr [as ever, the spelling of her name isn't fixed: I usually go with whatever the author of the moment uses] did publish religious commentary and translations, which is pretty startling for the time, and led her into trouble. She was in danger for most of her reign, always at the mercy of her husband, who by this time was aged, terrified of dying, and untrusting of anyone. He kept changing his mind, which sounds harmless but wasn’t, and he had absolute power. A horrifying combination, and the book makes you feel for Parr, and for everyone else at his disposal.
There is a lot of religious detail in the book, all of which sounds authentic (Gregory is a proper historian) alongside quite a lot of sexy detail, not at all erotic. It’s all much bleaker, surprisingly, than the story of Anne Boleyn, even though it ends slightly more happily. There is a description of torture which is hard to read, but completely lacking the uneasy relish that sometimes comes with the territory. The story of the woman preacher Anne Askew is plain horrific.
The book starts with the proposal of marriage, and ends with a death. I actually wanted more of the story, both before and after - perhaps there will be another book? She didn’t live for many years after Henry, but they were eventful times. And in passing Katherine – who narrates – tells something of her brother William’s life. I looked up his wife Anne Bourchier on Wikipedia and it is a strange and fascinating story, if rather sad, and one that surely would make a great historical novel.
Pictures of Tudors often have uncertain provenance – these two are thought to be Katherine Parr.
CJ Sansom’s Lamentation, part of his Shardlake series, also features Katherine Parr.