Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Intractable Heart of Katherine Parr

 Judith Arnopp

Katherine Parr, Henry’s last queen, was a scholar and a reformer, publishing books and entering the male world of theological debate, just as Anne Boleyn had before her. This won the queen enemies, the conservative faction resenting her influence over the ageing and increasingly disabled king.

Just as with several of her predecessors, moves were made to bring her down and the task promised not to be difficult. It is possible that Katherine was just too clever for the king’s liking, perhaps she bested him with her arguments, perhaps she reminded him just a little too much of Anne Boleyn. Whatever the reason, after several years of marriage, Henry came to resent her unfeminine attitude, providing her enemies with the opportunity they needed.

When Henry complained, in Gardiner’s presence, of the nature of the queen’s conversation Gardiner lost no time in convincing the king to agree to a coup against her. Her women and her books were to be seized and the queen arrested and sent to the Tower.

Luckily for Katherine, one of Henry’s physicians got wind of the plan and tipped her off. Katherine went straight to the king but had the sense not to remonstrate with him outright. Instead, when the subject turned to religion, she pretended ignorance, preferring to ‘defer my judgement in this, and all other cases, to our Majesty’s wisdom, as my only anchor Supreme Head and Governor here in earth, next under God.’ 

When he looked doubtful as to her honesty, she went on to claim that she had only ever disputed with Henry to take his mind from his pain, and to try to learn from his own great wisdom.

His ego salved and his faith in women restored, Henry and Katherine kissed and made up.

It must have been a triumphant moment for Katherine when Wriothesley arrived the next day to arrest her. The king and queen were walking in the garden, and Henry furiously berated him, calling him a knave and a beast. Wriothesley fled the royal presence.

On this occasion Henry’s wife managed to escape the ultimate penalty for displeasing the king but as Henry’s health began to deteriorate further the couple spent more and more time apart. Henry spent his last Christmas in London, while Katherine was at Greenwich. He died in January 1547, leaving Katherine free to marry again.

Below is an excerpt from Intractable Heart.

It is the summer of 1546 in the royal palace garden:

Much later we are seated in the shelter of the laurels, watching Rig pestering Homer who is trying to sleep in the sun. Rig has no desire to lie down; he darts around, every so often rushing back to his friend to snatch at his long ears. “Look Henry,” I say, drawing his attention to their antics. “Rig is such a pest.”

Henry chuckles and squeezes my knee and I try to savour the moment. At least I can feel a little secure again, and sure of his affection.

The sun is deceptive and a lively wind ripples the surface of the fountain bringing with it the scent of roses and honeysuckle. Anne and Lady Tyrwhit are laughing at some joke, their heads close together, and their brightly coloured kirtles merging. Courtiers stroll together; some are lovers, some are friends, some are probably conspiring against their foe.

My hand is clasped in Henry’s and after a while it grows hot and clammy. I long to remove it, wipe my palm on my gown but I tolerate it. I remind myself that I am lucky to be here, back in his favour.

After his efforts last night he once more holds hopes of a son, but I am less convinced of success. I try to turn my mind from the indelicate procedure required to stir the king to perform the required act. I try to just be grateful for my freedom.  I may have drawn further away from the heretical fires but recent close proximity to them has made sleeping with Henry seem not so great a penance after all.

Henry is telling me a story about a day in his youth when he jousted incognito and astounded everyone with his prowess. I smile at the picture his words evoke. Had I known him when he was in his prime I might have loved him in earnest, but the days he is talking of were before I was even born.

Henry ceases suddenly, cocks his ear, alerting me to the sound of tramping feet approaching along the gravel path.

When Wriothesley and a company of the guard emerge from an archway cut into the yew hedge I give a little scream. My security has fled. I leap to my feet, darting behind Henry’s back as if he will jump up and lay about him with a sword in my defence.

“What the devil …?” Henry lumbers to his feet, stands wavering, leaning heavily on his stick. “What is the meaning of this?”

I remain behind the king, his velvet bulk protecting me from the worst of the chancellor’s ire.

“I have a warrant for the queen’s arrest.” Wriothesley booms. “And have come to take her for questioning.”

Henry wavers. I increase my grip. He could change his mind. He could hand me over: discover the truth. My hand slides up the back of his doublet and comes to rest on his shoulder. To my great relief, after a few heartbeats Henry covers my hand with his.

“Get from my sight, Wriothesley. What are you about, you Knave! You are a beast and a fool!” He makes to cuff the chancellor around the head, but the man ducks away, backs off.

The rumpus has drawn the attention of the courtiers and one my ladies titters behind her hand. At the sound of her amusement the party relaxes, one of the gentlemen guffaws and soon they are all laughing. Henry and I remain unsmiling as a scarlet faced Wriothesley recovers his hat from the path, bows low before the king, and makes humble apology.

 I hold my breath as he flees the scene and when he has gone, release it slowly. My women cluster about us, exclaiming and laughing in relief while my heart resumes its normal process. Gratefully, I squeeze my husband’s hand and he draws me close to his shoulder, kisses the top of my head. But despite the hilarity of our courtiers the day is spoiled, the sun suddenly not so warm. I suppress a shudder.

“Come along, my love,” says the king. “Accompany me back to the palace.”


To read more of Intractable Heart click here if you are in the US
And here if you are in the UK

Judith Arnopp is the author of historical fiction. Her books include:

The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII
The Song of Heledd
The Forest Dwellers