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Ford Madox Ford: The Fifth Queen

Ford’s trilogy on Henry VIII‘s fifth wife, Katharine Howard is less well-known (as, sadly, are many of his books) than it should be, though it has been praised by the likes of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, A S Byatt and William Gass. Ford’s great skill is bringing to life not only a little-known queen – she was no more than twenty-one when she was beheaded and probably less – but giving us wonderful fictional portrayals of many other historical characters, both major and minor (including a few who are fictitious). How accurate these portraits are is open to doubt but it makes for fine reading.

The first novel in the trilogy introduces us to Katharine (there are various spellings of her first name). She is still young – in her mid-teens, though the date of her birth is unsure. Anne of Cleves has just arrived in England, prior to her marriage to Henry. Henry (in disguise) has been to have a look at Anne and apparently he is not impressed. Katharine has just arrived in London with her cousin, Thomas Culpepper. She is the niece of the powerful Duke of Norfolk and cousin of the late Anne Boleyn. Initially, we see Katharine as somewhat petulant but she soon reveals herself to be perhaps more of an ideal character than she was in real life. She is devoted to the Catholic Church, devoted to Lady Mary, the very serious Catholic daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, kind and forgiving. She even dares speak out to Henry when their paths cross and it is undoubtedly this, at least in part, that attracts him to her. However, she does have a past. In real life, she apparently had a sexual relationship with Culpepper and Ford hints very strongly at this. Culpepper seems to be little more than a rough and ready man. He is sent to Paris to kill someone (he thinks) but, in reality, is sent there because his drunken behaviour will frighten the intended victim away from Paris. Much of this novel shows the total chaos in England as Catholics and Protestants (and the various factions of Protestants) seem to be permanently at each other throats, arguing over both weighty matters of state and over what seem to us to be little more than doctrinal trivialities. Behind them all is Thomas Cromwell, officially Lord Privy Seal but, in fact, the man with the most power after Henry. He is a thoroughly Machiavellian character in Ford’s portrait of him, with spies everywhere and always plotting both in Henry’s interest and against the Catholics, as well as in his own interest. Henry more or less stands aloof from the religious disputes, though intervening now and again. He is more interested in his own love life and very disappointed with Anne of Cleves. Apart from the plots and counterplots, the main thread of this first part is Katharine’s gradual acceptance by both major and minor characters.

The second novel is, as the title implies, mainly about Cromwell and, in particular, his plotting. Much of it follows various minor characters, particularly Culpepper, as they try to follow the rise of Katharine Howard and, in the case of Cromwell and his spies, derail her rise. Cromwell is well aware that Henry has not taken to Anne of Cleves and that Henry is looking for an excuse to punish him for the marriage. Cromwell is determined that if Anne of Cleves is to go, she should not be replaced by a Catholic. Katharine, however, manages to win Henry’s heart, though, according to Ford, more by her inherent goodness and innocence than by guile.

The final novel which, of course, leads to Katharine Howard’s death, is, in my view the least successful of the three. We follow the plot to get rid of Katharine Howard. It is orchestrated by Thomas Cranmer, Cromwell now having been executed over the Anne of Cleves affair. However, others are willing to jump on the bandwagon, primarily because she has not provided them with various favours and, as Ford points out, things seem to be much more settled in England. And this may well be the failure of the novel. Katharine Howard is just too saintly and not only is this probably historically inaccurate, it also makes for less than interesting reading. She does all that she can to reconcile Lady Mary with her father and with her brother (the future Edward VI). She is kind to her maids (which is later misinterpreted) and generally kind to others, which shows a complete change of heart from the somewhat irascible young woman we met at the beginning of the first novel. Her life also intersects again with her cousin, Thomas Culpepper, who ends up in her room, drunk. We do see more of Henry in this novel and he seems to do what he can to protect her and seems to love her, though again this might not be historically accurate. What is historically accurate and permeates all three novels is the struggle between Catholicism and the new Protestantism and it is well told in this novel, though even the Catholics (including Katharine’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, who has already sent one niece – Anne Boleyn – to the scaffold) turn against Katharine when she does not give them the power and wealth they seek. Overall, Ford gives us an interesting portrait of Katharine Howard, even if she is, by the end, just too good to be true.

Publishing history

The Fifth Queen and How She Came to Court
First published 1906 by Alston Rivers
Privy Seal
First published 1907 by Alston Rivers
The Fifth Queen Crowned
First published 1908 by E. Nash