Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure to read quite a few of Tony Riches’ books, knowing that I am guaranteed a well-researched and enthralling ride through the past. Of late, his focus has been on the rise of the Tudors, starting with a book about Owen, the obscure Welshman who married Henry V’s widow before carrying us all the way through to a book about Mary, Henry VIII’s sister.
Mary was a headstrong character, which is how she ended up marrying Charles Brandon without her brother’s permission. Knowing Henry, this could have ended very badly, like “off with their heads!” badly, but apparently Henry held genuine affection for both Charles and Mary, so after some time he grumpily forgave them.
In 1533, Mary died. Some months later, Charles Brandon married his ward, the fourteen-year-old Katherine Willoughby. He was pushing fifty. I have always been intrigued by little Katherine and I am rather pleased that Tony’s new book, is a book about her!
Attractive, wealthy and influential, Katherine Willoughby is one of the most unusual ladies of the Tudor court. A favourite of King Henry VIII, Katherine knows all his six wives, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and his son Edward.
When her father dies, Katherine becomes the ward of Tudor knight, Sir Charles Brandon. Her Spanish mother, Maria de Salinas, is Queen Catherine of Aragon’s lady in waiting, so it is a challenging time for them all when King Henry marries the enigmatic Anne Boleyn.
Following Anne’s dramatic downfall, Katherine marries Charles Brandon, and becomes Duchess of Suffolk at the age of fourteen. After the short reign of young Catherine Howard, and the death of Jane Seymour, Katherine and Brandon are chosen to welcome Anna of Cleves as she arrives in England.
When the royal marriage is annulled, Katherine’s good friend, Catherine Parr becomes the king’s sixth wife, and they work to promote religious reform. Katherine’s young sons are tutored with the future king, Prince Edward, and become his friends, but when Edward dies his Catholic sister Mary is crowned queen. Katherine’s Protestant faith puts her family in great danger – from which there seems no escape.
Katherine’s remarkable true story continues the epic tale of the rise of the Tudors, which began with Mr Riches’ best-selling Tudor trilogy and concludes with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
An enticing blurb, is it not? I asked Tony if he’d found it difficult to describe a relationship between what to us is mostly a child and an old man. Tony admitted to having found it challenging, especially when it came to the intimate scenes. He also sent me two portraits, one of Katherine and one of Charles at the time of their wedding…
I look at them and I suspect little Katherine – at least initially – must have kept her eyes affixed on the tester and thought of other things!
So what did I think of this book? Well, I am somewhat amazed at the amount of life Katherine Willoughby managed to cram into her years on this earth. Mr Riches presents us with a very young woman who is thrown into the deep and murky waters of Tudor intrigue, having to use her wits to navigate a world in which Henry VIII’s capriciousness and the growing religious fervour fomented by the Reformation has everyone on their toes. I like how seamlessly Mr Riches inserts the political and religious aspects into his narrative, how well he depicts a time when people must have been genuinely confused when it came to matters of faith. People lean this way, they lean that way. When the court is dominated by Reformers, those who hold to the old ways sort of blend into the panelling. When instead the supporters of the Holy Church have their moment in the limelight, those preaching a reformed faith wisely hold their tongues–or risk a terrible death. For Katherine, a known Reformer, this causes a lot of potential danger.
Mr Riches Katherine is a woman of honour, loyalty and intelligence. Her first marriage is no passionate affair–in fact, Katherine is uncertain as to what she feels for her husband beyond some sort of warm affection. Instead, Katherine reserves her stronger emotions for her sons and her mother–and her religious convictions. Charles Brandon dies long before Katherine turns thirty, after which she devotes herself to raising their sons. Life, it seems, will revolve round her maternal duties going forward. Except I am happy to report there will be both love and passion for Katherine in her second marriage. Together with her second husband, Katherine will face the most dangerous times of her life, becoming something of a Renaissance globetrotter in her efforts to evade the long arms of (the very catholic) Queen Mary.
All in all, Katherine, Tudor Duchess is an excellent and elucidating read, shedding light on a very complicated time in English history. As always, Mr Riches thorough research shines through, whether it be in descriptions of divestment of garments, of furnishings and interiors, of opulence and food. First and foremost, he is an excellent guide through the political quagmire that defined the times. I especially enjoyed Mr Riches depiction of the up-and-coming William Cecil and hope we will meet him again in Mr Riches’ future books. While at times I wished for less tell and more show, I imagine this is very much due to Mr Riches desire to share as much as possible of his knowledge.