Jean Plaidy’s Murder Most Royal tells the story of cousins Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, second and fifth wives to Henry VIII and the ones with the dubious honour of being the two that he had beheaded. The historical narrative of this book is a little disjointed – it skims over the third and forth wives, Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves, although if you’re not mad about Tudor history like I am, it’s probably not as significant an omission. But what I really loved about Murder Most Royal is the way Jean Plaidy has fleshed out two women who have largely been vilified by history and been reduced to the stereotypes of being a ‘bitch’ (Anne) and a ‘slut’ (Katherine).
To provide a historical context: Henry left his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, for Anne, who refused to sleep with him without being married to him. Because the Vatican wouldn’t sanctify the annulment, Henry broke with Rome, tore apart England and reset the course of its history over Anne. Anne has frequently been portrayed as a heartless, manipulative bitch by historians and historical writers alike. For example, in Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne taunts Katherine of Aragon over her age and infertility and takes every opportunity to throw Henry’s affection for her – and lack thereof for Katherine – in her face. And Gregory is among Anne’s kinder critics. She is routinely presented as a woman who didn’t care whom she hurt with her actions, and her downfall is often seen as karmic retribution.
But Plaidy portrays Anne as a kind young woman, vivacious and enchanting, who attracts the attention of many men – including Henry. She discourages his attention, but Henry, used to getting what he wants when he wants regardless of such nuisance concepts like ‘consent’ and ‘desire’, pursues her doggedly, much like a stalker. Anne, seeing that Henry will get his way in the end, sets the conditions of her submission high – marriage. We see her thoughts on the courtship, and the fact she likes and admires Katherine of Aragon and regrets what Henry’s obsession with her has put her through. I liked that Plaidy raises the possibility that Anne might simply have making the best of a bad situation and would actually have rather gone unnoticed to pursue love with a real suitor. She’s devoted to her daughter Elizabeth and dignified in death.
Meanwhile, Katherine Howard grows up in genteel poverty and meets her own love – Thomas Culpepper. She, along with half a dozen or so other girls, are raised under the guidance of her grandmother. Supervision is somewhat lax, with several of the girls, Katherine including, taking lovers. Katherine is a silly, vain girl, but one who means well, and eventually she makes her way to court where she attracts the attention of Henry – enough so that he gets rid of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, to be free to marry her. She doesn’t particularly want to marry him – he’s old enough to be her grandfather, obese, smelly and temperamental to boot – but she’s putty in her ambitious family’s hands. Katherine is presented as a victim of her family’s ambitions and an old man’s lust, while Henry is depicted as an aging fool to think that an attractive young woman wants him for himself.
Katherine’s more girl than woman – Plaidy puts her age at sixteen, and Henry at fifty – and entirely without pretences, completely out of her depth in a court based on lies and manipulation. Eventually Culpepper comes back into her life, and they become lovers again. She’s committing treason by committing infidelity on the King, but she’s lonely and starved for attention and affection. I liked how Plaidy portrays Katherine’s infidelity as a case of ‘well, what do you expect of a girl married to a cranky, lecherous man thirty years older than her? Of course she would want to be with someone her own age’. Katherine is routinely portrayed as completely lacking in the moral sexual standards of her day – or, by her defenders, that the infidelity never happened – but instead, Plaidy presents to us a young woman who enjoyed sex for whom it was only natural to seek Culpepper when married to a man like Henry.
The affair is found out, and Katherine and Thomas, along with others, both go to the block. Katherine’s last words are that while she died the wife of a king, she would rather have died the wife of Culpepper. To me, this sums up both Anne and Katherine’s stories; they were women who would rather have married the men they loved, but, when faced with the unwanted attentions of an all-powerful man hell-bent on getting his way, tried to make the best of an undesirable situation. If they failed in that, the fault lies with Henry for trying to make them something they were not rather than them for failing to meet unrealistic expectations.
It’s impossible to know what actually happened – everyone involved is long dead, and records were preserved or destroyed according to the whims of whoever was in power at the time. But I love the way Plaidy suggests that, far from being the ugly gendered stereotpes that they are routinely portrayed as, Anne and Katherine were flawed but basically kind women who were at the mercy of an all-powerful stalker and the ambitions of their families. I suppose it’s easier to reduce women to words like ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ than have an in-depth look at the ruthless treatment of women and, God forbid, that any damnable behaviour might have come as a result of having no other options left to them because of that ruthless treatment.