Ford Madox Ford is best known for his WWI-era novel The Good Soldier, which has been on my reading list for several years, but on Mark's recommendation, I went ahead with The Fifth Queen. The fifth queen is, of course, Kathryn Howard, who married the nearly 50 year old, obese, gout-ridden and foul-tempered King Henry VIII when she was 19, a mere three weeks after he divorced Anne of Cleves, whose Teutonic stoutness he couldn't abide.
Most historians concur that Kathryn was foolhardy and promiscuous. Unlike the dubious evidence cooked up against her cousin, Anne Boleyn, there seems to have been little question that Kathryn was carrying on an affair under Henry's nose. He was devastated -- he genuinely seemed to revel in her high-spirited company -- but he sent her to the executioner at age 21.
Thomas Cromwell was beheaded not long after the Cleves marriage ended, but he permeates every page of The Fifth Queen, a sinister omnipresence with eyes and ears in every dark corner of the kingdom. Hilary Mantel presents Cromwell as at least a more balanced and reasonable character; Ford joins the legions of authors who present him as evil personified -- a manipulative megalomaniac who, in his cunning power games, cost thousands their lives. On the other hand, Ford paints Kathryn Howard less as a flighty, frivolous girl and more as a pawn in the ruthless politics of Henry's court.
The Fifth Queen is the first novel in a trilogy: The second is Privy Seal: His Last Venture, and The Fifth Queen Crowned is the third. (They are available for free download from www.gutenberg.org.)
Cromwell rose to the rank of Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal in 1536, and he managed to stay in this post (one of the five highest in the Court) for four years. In April 1540, Henry advanced him one step further, to Lord Great Chamberlain. In June of the same year, he was executed, and Henry married Kathryn Howard in July.
Mantel and Ford share the same gift for finding a narrative voice that is just archaic enough to be consistent and credible without being onerous for the modern reader. They are both talented story-tellers, but a reader with no background whatever in Tudor history will struggle. Mantel expends most of her energy on her characters; Ford invests a great deal in his setting.
Graham Greene, a faithful admirer, astutely observes Ford's attention to light: "He tries out the impressionist method...The whole story of the struggle between Katharine and Cromwell for the King seems told in shadows – shadows which flicker with the flames of a log-fire, diminish suddenly as a torch recedes, stand calm awhile in the candlelight of a chapel: a cresset flares and all the shadows leap together. Has a novel ever before been lit as carefully as a stage production?"
And in the warmly lit chamber at Austin Friars, previously an Augustinian friary which fell into Cromwell's hands when the Crown seized all the Church's property, Ford gives us our first and very telling glimpse of the Lord Privy Seal.
His plump hands were behind his back, his long upper lip ceaselessly caressed its fellow, moving as one line of a snake's coil glides above another.
With the generosity of his wine and the warmth of his fire, his thoughts went many years ahead. He imagined the King either married to or having repudiated the Lady from Cleves, and then dead. Edward, the Seymour child, was his creature, and would be king or dead. Cleves children would be his creations too. Or if he married the Lady Mary he would still be next the throne.And then Kathryn Howard appears one day, out of the blue, upon an exhausted mule led by her cousin Culpeper. They've been accosted by angry mobs outside the palace when Henry and Cromwell come upon them. The young and lovely damsel in distress catches the King's attention, and he orders that the weary pair and the mule be given lodgings.
Kathryn is a niece of the Duke of Norfolk; she is from the north country -- a region that has been slow to give up the Old Faith and which has felt Cromwell's bloody wrath as a consequence. Kathryn is far from a rustic innocent, however. Although unaccustomed to either the sophistication or the shenanigans at the royal Court, she is a polymath in her own right. Culpeper, her adoring firebrand cousin, is clearly an albatross around her neck, but he had in many ways taught her to cope with men and their associated aggravations.
...to her all these things had seemed very far away. She had nothing to do but to read books in the learned tongues, to imagine herself holding disquisitions upon the spiritual republic of Plato, to ride, to shoot with the bow, to do needlework, or to chide the maids. Her cousin had loved her passionately; it was true that once, when she had had nothing to her back, he had sold a farm to buy her a gown. But he had menaced her with his knife till she was weary, and the ways of men were troublesome to her; nevertheless she submitted to them with a patient wisdom.When Kathryn arrives at Henry's Court, Cromwell and one of his lackeys, Viridus, realise all too quickly how bright she is, and how useful that might be to them. Particularly as Cromwell carries on that endless battle of wills with the Lady Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon -- as long as she is the figurehead to those of the Old Faith, plots are likely to be brewing which would present a threat to Henry's rule.
[Kathryn's] fair and upright beauty made Viridus acknowledge how excellent a spy upon the Lady Mary she might make. Papistry and a loyal love for the Old Faith seemed to be as strong in her candid eyes as it was implicit in her name. The Lady Mary might trust her for that and talk with her because of her skill in the learned tongues. Then, if they held her in their hands, how splendid a spy she might make, being so trusted! She might well be won for their cause by the offer of liberal rewards, though Privy Seal's hand had been heavy upon all her kinsfolk. These men of Privy Seal's get from him a maxim which he got in turn from his master Macchiavelli: 'Advance therefore those whom it shall profit thee to make thy servants: for men forget sooner the death of a father than the loss of a patrimony' -- and either by threats or by rewards they might make her very useful.Kathryn is savvy enough to see through many of these men, to see them as the lackeys that they are, but she's also savvy enough to grasp that she, too, is little more than a puppet.
She had been minded to mock him in the beginning of his speech, but his dangerous pale-blue eyes made her feel that if he were ridiculous he was also very powerful, and that she was in the hands of these men.Bishop Gardiner of Winchester sneaks into Kathryn's quarters at night, well-disguised, to discern for himself how true is her bond to the Old Faith. If it's solid, she could prove a very useful tool to him in his own power struggles with Cromwell. She convinces him of her Catholic devotion, but whether she will serve him or serve Cromwell is less certain.
'Why, God keep you,' he moved his fingers in a negligent blessing. 'I believe you are true, though you are of little use.' ...
He muttered: 'Think you Privy Seal knoweth not the King's taste? I tell you he hath seen an inclination in him towards you. This is a plot, but I have sounded it!'
She let him talk, and asked, with a malice too fine for him to discern: 'I should not shun the King's presence for my soul's sake?'
'God forbid,' he answered. 'I may use thee to bring down Privy Seal.'If, by the end of the book, we are horrified on Kathryn's behalf at the extent of the skullduggery, we also realise that Henry is exhausted by it. He, of course, is unlikely to be the victim of his ministers' plots and schemes, but he is aware that they are jockeying for their own power and advancement and not solely for the good of the realm. A sobbing Kathryn falls at his feet and pleads with him to let her leave the snake pit of his Court, but Henry looks down and sees a young woman who might provide him much solace.
'Body of God, Body of God,' he muttered beneath his breath, as they went, 'very soon now I can rid me of these knaves,' and then, suddenly, he blared upon Katharine: 'Thou seest how I am plagued and would'st leave me. Before the Most High God, I swear thou shalt not.'
She fell upon her knees. 'With each that speaks, I find a new traitor to me,' she said. 'Let me begone.'
He threatened her with one hand. 'Wench,' he said, 'I have had better converse with thee than with man or child this several years. Thinkest thou I will let thee go?' She began to sob...Whether the historical Kathryn was the frivolous young woman that most historians present or the more substantial and erudite character that Ford draws, the result is the same: for a woman in the Tudor Court, life is never safe. Spies and opponents are everywhere, and the only question is with which party one casts one's lot. He who is in the King's good graces today may be in the Tower tomorrow, and traitors rarely die alone. True virtue is all but irrelevant.