British writer Philippa Gregory has been telling the story of England’s most infamous king—and his equally famous coterie of wives—for nearly 15 years. In Taming the Queen, she brings Henry VIII’s final wife, Kateryn Parr, to the forefront. We asked Gregory a few questions about her latest book, the TV and film adaptations of her works and what readers can expect next.
You’ve written about all of Henry VIII’s wives, and Kateryn Parr is the last. Did you have a favorite? Which one did you identify with most?
All of Henry’s wives mean a lot to me—they were so much more than just wives and nothing like the stereotypes history has led us to believe. Take Katherine of Aragon for instance. I felt certain this successful queen militant, a daughter of Isabella of Spain, was far more interesting and active than the “old” wife that Henry put aside for Anne Boleyn. I wouldn’t say I identify with one in particular, but I admire parts of all of them.
What about Henry? Do you feel like you know him better after writing about him in so many books?
I have spent more that 20 years writing and researching Henry; but as a character in history it’s impossible to say I know him: All I have to go on, all anyone has to go on are the accounts which were written about him during his life, and the evidence of his actions. These show us a young man of remarkable talents, energy and charm who fell under the influence of a series of advisors and each time, turned against them. When I think about his later years I see a man disappointed in love and in his work who became delusional and progressively psychotic. There is some very exciting new research into Henry’s health—a suggestion that he may have carried the Kell positive gene with McLeod’s Syndrome as a complication. That may have been an explanation for the many miscarriages his wives endured and his paranoia.
For me, my time with Henry means I see him not as the jolly king who composed “Greensleeves,” but as a wonderfully promising boy who became a dark and dangerous man, descending into madness.
What (if anything) is different about the relationship between Henry and Kateryn, versus his relationships with his previous wives?
This was a brief marriage, cut short by Henry’s death, but Kateryn was not a nurse to a failing husband. He married her for love, in the hopes of getting another heir, and she undoubtedly married him because she could not refuse the king of England. If he had not died I think he would have sent her for trial and execution—this was a time of major religious controversy and Kateryn was a reformer who and made enemies at court. They hoped to see her tried for heresy and wanted the king married to a woman who would not influence him at all. Henry even signed a warrant for her arrest. Kateryn was the only one of his victims who was able to talk herself out of trouble. She was an older bride—in her 30s, very aware of her situation and so much wiser than his previous wives. After all, she had seen him behead two predecessors and divorce one. Like Anne of Cleeves, she had a life after Henry—but unlike Anne, she married for love.
Do you ever have qualms about imagining the emotional lives and motivations of real people, especially those who are relatively well documented by history? What do you think is the greater responsibility of a historical novelist: telling a good story, or telling an accurate one?
The emotional lives of the people of the past is exactly what historical fiction is supposed to relate—a novel based in history is supposed to take this risk. The form is a hybrid, and as luck would have it I am a trained historian who became a novelist and I love both research and imaginative writing. I don’t think it is a good historical novel if the facts are sacrificed for the story—I would never do that. But sometimes we don’t know the facts, even of well-recorded lives, and often there are differing historical theories. The medieval records did not record thoughts and motivations—the inner lives of even famous people—that comes later in history. My job is to look at what we do have—dates; letter; Ambassador reports: birth records; building plans; and wardrobe records—and imagine emotions and the motivations that sit behind them.
Why do you think readers find the Tudor era so endlessly fascinating?
That’s the million-dollar question. I know why I love them but I don’t think I can answer for everyone else. I think the period is a time of terrific change and uncertainty and that’s always interesting as a background. It’s a time when the modern world comes into being, so very interesting in terms of monarchy, nationalism, law and empire. For many people it will be the extraordinary characters—the Tudor dynasty is a usurping power in England and all of the Tudors are extreme characters in dangerous circumstances.
You’re best known for writing about the Tudors, but you’ve also written about pre-Tudor history, the Industrial Revolution and modern-day life. Is there another time period you’d like to dig into?
I am constantly finding new and interesting characters and I’m not restricted to a particular time period. Of course, the research builds and builds so if I am moving to another period it is a new challenge. My more fictional series, The Order of Darkness, has taken me further into Europe, which has been a wonderful to research. Looking ahead, I am staying in the Tudor period for at least another two books—then who knows? I have some ideas but it’s too far ahead for me to predict.
Much of your work has been adapted for TV and film. What is it like to go through this process? Do you have a favorite adaptation of your work?
When I write and love a book, sometimes working on it for years—the book is always going to be my favorite medium. When I have to open it up to allow a huge team of writers, actors, directors and producers to work on it too, it’s always a disturbing process. But TV and film can also do things that the books can’t: For instance, the beauty of the landscapes and the clothes have more impact on screen than they do on the page and the performances of great actors can be transformational for a character. I love also how when I see something on screen it’s like the first time—I too can get caught up in the magic of the story.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be doing?
I think I would still be reading and writing—it’s something that I have always done. I first trained as a journalist, and then I did a degree in history and a PhD in the 18th century. I have a fascination with history that is constant, and I love the form of the novel. I enjoy many other things too—animals, conservation, nature, and my family; but I think I was always going to be a writer.
What are you working on next?
I am having a terrific time with Henry VIII’s sister Margaret. She’s a typical Tudor: larger than life, self-righteous, spoiled, brave, energetic and she has a life which is nonstop drama and tragedy—much of it of her own making. I had not known much about her before and I am reading and thinking about her all the time. I shall go to Scotland later in the summer and see the wonderful palaces where she lived. It’s early days so I don’t yet know how the novel will turn out, but I really like her—and that’s the main thing for someone that I will be working on for more than a year.
Author photo by Santi U.