Suzannah Dunn’s latest novel, recounts the compelling story of Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of Tudor King Henry VIII. The story unfolds through the first person narrative of her companion and lady-in-waiting, Cat Tilney, and is told in three parts based on the affairs of Katherine Howard.
In the first part of the story, Katherine Howard and Cat Tilney live with the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, a woman who took on the children of poor aristocratic relatives for education and training.
Dowager Duchess of Norfolk
Because the Duchess was often away, she left her young charges to their own devices which resulted in too many freedoms and a very licentious household indeed. Katherine, a passionate young girl with a keen interest in men and sex, soon became embroiled in her first affair with her music teacher, Henry Mannox.
A short time thereafter, Katherine abandoned Mannox to take up with Francis Dereham. That affair cooled when a position was arranged for Katherine in King Henry’s court as lady in waiting to the new queen, Anne of Cleves.
King Henry VIII
Anne of Cleves
Henry lacked interest in Anne and instead found himself quite taken with Katherine. So much so that the king annulled his marriage and married Katherine only three weeks later.
Meanwhile, back at the Dowager’s household, an abiding friendship developed between Cat and Francis Dereham that blossomed into love. Before long, Queen Katherine summoned them both to court. It was then that Cat discovered Katherine was conducting an affair with Thomas Culpepper, a favorite courtier and a gentleman of the king's bedchamber.
Katherine’s indiscretions soon became known. Cat tried to warn Katherine to put an end to her affair or it could result in her death, but Katherine continued to manipulate and set out to fix matters by her own hands. To keep her ex-lovers silent, she hired them into her household – Henry Mannox as a musician and Francis Dereham as her secretary.
Mary Hall, an embittered chambermaid at the Dowager Duchess’ household and witness to Katherine’s torrid affairs, revealed the information to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a friend of King Henry.
Archbisoph of Canterbury
Cranmer, fearful that any contract made between Katherine and Francis Dereham would invalidate the marriage to the king, revealed this information to Henry. A secret investigation was launched which resulted in Dereham’s and Culpepper’s imprisonment. Under torture, the two men confessed and ultimately Katherine was charged and executed.
Suzannah Dunn has penned an intriguing tale of a queen’s self-inflicted downfall. Filled with lush descriptions, the prose is easy to read and the story moves along in an interesting way. The novel focuses quite heavily on the adolescence of Katherine and Cat, whereas I longed for more details about Katherine’s troubles during her marriage with the king and her subsequent imprisonment and execution, like the title suggested. I think the story might have been much stronger in Katherine’s viewpoint rather than that of Cat who is too far removed from true conflict.
Even so, I found the novel to be well written and a wonderful depiction into the treacheries of court life during the 16th century. It is an enjoyable read with plenty of historical accuracy and details to keep readers interested.