Review: ‘Katherine the Queen’ by Linda Porter

Methinks love maketh men like Angels

– Queen Katherine Parr.

Before beginning my review, I must confess that Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr languished on my bookshelf long enough for certain aspects of the material to become obsolete. For example, the portrait that author Linda Porter describes as Katherine Parr during her marriage to Lord Latimer has since been, through careful restoration and examination, re-identified as Catherine of Aragon (a queen who, ironically, had a marked influence on the advancement of the Parr family). Now that I’ve had the opportunity to dive into Dr. Porter’s biography of Katherine Parr, I can willingly admit that I am rather irritated with myself that I never picked it up sooner, and would recommend Katherine the Queen to anyone with an interest in the Tudor period.

Traditionally thought to depict Catherine Parr, this portrait was in 2013 re-identified as Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon

Linda Porter’s biography on Katherine Parr comes on the heels of her earlier, equally original work, The First Queen of England: The Myth of “Bloody Mary”, 2008. This natural segue has equipped Porter with an already rich and established cast of characters who dominate the later chapters of Katherine’s remarkable life – and, as we will see, her afterlife – including Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, a young Elizabeth I, Edward VI, and the ever-charming Thomas Seymour.

Katherine the Queen opens with an overview of the Parr family, stretching back to the divisive period of civil strife known as the Wars of the Roses, and later charts the role of Katherine’s mother, Maud Green, as a redoubtable power-broker in negotiating advantageous marriages for her three surviving children. Porter presents the Parrs as a well-connected brood, with a far-reaching network spanning across England, from the family’s northerly territories to the heart of the King’s own court in London. 

However, Katherine the Queen is far from an unoriginal account of Katherine’s relations, or of the wider Tudor world. Porter fearlessly plunges into the most intriguing and controversial topics of the era, exploring the tumultuous affair between young Elizabeth Tudor and Thomas Seymour, the intricate dynamics of Katherine’s relationship with reformist Anne Askew, and the dramatic and near-fatal fallout between Katherine and Henry in 1546, in which Porter convincingly argues that Katherine’s own shrewdness saved her life. 

Porter brings readers up to speed on the tumultuous religious upheavals of the mid-Tudor period, and navigates through the web of intrigue, marriages, and beheadings that make the Henrician court so captivating to read about. Unlike many biographies that dwell on well-trodden facts about more notorious figures, such as Anne Boleyn, Porter avoids filling Katherine’s story with redundant information and instead asserts Katherine as a colourful and interesting woman in her own right. Porter presents a sympathetic overview of surrounding characters and vidly captures the nuanced, often-overlapping nature of court loyalties. 

Katherine Parr, attributed to Master John, oil on panel, circa 1545

The Tudor world was rarely black-and-white, and throughout her book, Porter recognizes that matters of religion and personal allegiances rarely prevented courtiers from allying for personal gain. In this, Porter paints a realistic and multifaceted portrait of the era – resulting in a power-hungry hothouse that, for women in positions of authority, could be perilous.

Where Katherine the Queen rather surprisingly excels, however, is its balanced portrayal of Henry VIII, the King who rose our titular heroine to the foremost echelons of the Tudor world and who is, by far, one of the most  infamous figures of history. Linda Porter evaluates Henry’s upbringing – from a second son suddenly vaulted into the role of heir – in his treatment of his own children, which, to our modern eyes, may appear exceedingly cruel, but as Porter astutely points out was necessitated, if not expected, by conventions of the time. 

Henry VIII emerges not simply as an obese and unpredictable monarch desperately clinging to the waning years of a calamitous reign, but rather, as a complex individual with glimpses of compassion, someone who reveled in music and theological debates (as long as his opinions prevailed), and who lavished both gifts and affection upon his sixth and final wife. Porter does not crown Katherine Parr as the sole motivator behind the decision to usher Henry’s two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, back into the line of succession, but recognizes Katherine’s fluid ability to use Henry’s rapidly changing moods regarding religion and family to her advantage.

Detail of a portrait by Master John of Katherine Parr as Queen of England

While Katherine the Queen is an engaging read overall, there are moments where the book slightly loses its allure, particularly during the coverage of the Pilgrimage of Grace. This period, although crucial in Katherine Parr’ss life, can be rather dry in historical accounts, and it occupies a generous chunk of Porter’s work. Later chapters, particularly those delving into Katherine’s influence as both a queen and celebrated author, are considerably breezier.

Throughout her work, Porter portrays Katherine Parr as a diligent and devoted stepmother to her husbands’s children, an industrious queen with an eye for royal spectacle and grandeur, and a passionate and attractive woman whose impact on one of England’s greatest monarchs, her stepdaughter Elizabeth I, was great. Porter does not miss a beat in asserting Katherine’s importance during the culminating months of Henry VIII’s reigns and in the lives of her royal stepchildren, all of whom would go on to rule England. Katherine’s importance is not only evident to modern readers, but something her contemporaries, including Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, would have certainly agreed with.

Whether you are a newcomer to the Tudor period or a seasoned reader eager to dive deeper into the lives of its captivating figures, this book is an excellent choice. Katherine the Queen offers an engaging and immersive reading experience that caters to both those newly interested in this historical era and those seeking a more comprehensive exploration of its most intriguing (if not unsung) personalities.

You can order your own copy of Katherine the Queen, and other works about Katherine Parr, at Tudor Extra’s bookshop.

Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr by Linda Porter is not to be missed

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