I am a huge Tudor fan. The jaunts of good old Henry VIII and his six infamous wives never fail to intrigue me. Thankfully I am not alone in this and there are many, many books and films devoted to this period, including two of my favourites, The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory and Showtime’s The Tudors series. (Yes, the historical accuracy is questionable in the latter, I know, but Henry Cavill more than makes up for that, don’t you think?)
These examples of what-I-call Tudorisms are fairly recent, so it is interesting to note that my love affair with all things Tudor began well before Anne Boleyn wore her hair with a side part and Jonathan Rhys- Meyers sported a pair of silky medieval Davenports. It began when I was eleven years old, with a slim, second-hand 1967 paperback copy of Katheryn, The Wanton Queen by Maureen Peters.
I don’t really recall how this book came into my life. Possibly I saw it on a table of old books at a garage sale, and, attracted by the cover (even as a child I loved long medieval dresses) persuaded my parents to cough up the fifty cents needed to buy it. Clearly they did so without glancing at the cover – parental warning bells should have been going berserk over that title- because I took the book home with me and proceeded to devour it. I loved it so much that soon after, when I had to write a speech at school about a famous person, I did mine on Catherine Howard.
If you’re not familiar with Henry VIII’s fifth wife, let me say to you, firstly, that you need to go and grab yourself a copy of The Tudors on DVD right now (see the above photo of Mr. Cavill if you need further persuasion). Suffice it to say that at the time King Henry married Catherine he was a fat old man with a smelly, ulcerated leg and she was a vivacious seventeen year old. Not too surprising, then, that she played up a bit (remember that title? She wasn’t the queen of Chinese dumplings, people!) This resulted in her arrest and she was beheaded at the Tower of London on the 13th February 1542. Catherine was buried in St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower, where her cousin and predecessor Anne Boleyn was also interred after her execution six years earlier.
Katheryn the Wanton Queen is told from the point of view of Geraldine Lyle, Katheryn’s lady in waiting, and Geraldine is present during both Katheryn’s imprisonment and execution. The final execution scene haunted my young mind and became the focus of my school speech- I can only imagine what my fifth class teacher thought when I finished it by doing a dramatic reading of the entire execution scene for my class. Here’s a highlight:
The Queen turned and motioned me forward to remove her headdress. I must have done her bidding but I cannot remember. I remember only that she put her arms round me in the old coaxing way and kissed me. Then she knelt down and laid her head in the provided hollow. Her small white hand lifted in a signal both graceful and mocking, then fell as the gleaming blade described its sinister semi-circle. The executioner caught the head and held it by its tail of red hair, so that it swayed gently in the fresh breeze while blood gushed from the severed neck, and the slanting green eyes gazed, wide and sightless, at the Council.
That is totally normal subject matter for an eleven year old, right?
There is a famous story about Katheryn Howard and it goes like this: during the early stages of the young Queen’s fall from grace she was confined to her rooms at Hampton Court Palace and placed under guard. The King, understandably, would not see her. Desperate to see him and plead for mercy, the Queen escaped and ran down a corridor toward the royal chapel, where Henry was going to Mass. She almost made it. Legend states that she saw the King before he entered the chapel and screamed out to him, but was caught and dragged back to her apartments by guards. Legend also states that the Queen’s ghost haunts that corridor to this day, earning it the title ‘Haunted Gallery’. This corridor, and the young queen’s desperate flight along it to beg for her life, has haunted my imagination since I was a young girl. I’ve seen it, and Henry, and Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth I, and Jane Seymour, and Anne of Cleves, and Cromwell and Cramner – and all the other familiar Tudor faces- in countless books and films in the years since. You can imagine my excitement, then, when I arrived at the gates of the glorious red capital of Tudor Land, Hampton Court Palace.