“She shall do as she is told and be glad of it.” Not the first time a powerful man has uttered such confident words, only to find himself thwarted by the will of a woman. In this case the woman is Catherine Howard, the man the Duke of Norfolk, Lord High Treasurer of England in the court of Henry VIII. The year is 1540.
The plan appears perfect: take advantage of Henry’s obvious distaste for his forth wife, Anne of Cleves, and draw his attention to the nubile beauty of Catherine Howard, niece of the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. Like those who thought to control Anne Boleyn as she captured a king’s heart and tore a kingdom apart, Norfolk’s arrogance will prove his undoing, such men viewing women only as pawns for their ambitions.
A seasoned author of historical fiction, Haeger strikes gold once again as she recreates Catherine’s rise from insignificance to unfortunate bride of an insatiable king long past his prime, his hubris growing apace with his physical infirmities. His heart battered by disappointment and the betrayals of his body, Henry grasps at Catherine’s beauty like a dying man, a panacea for his lack of sons and the ruthlessness of time. While important men jockey for the king’s favor and the advancement of family ambitions, Catherine comes to London to join the queen’s court, unaware of the plans made on her behalf.
Haeger perfectly captures court intrigue, her young protagonist instructed in the ways of seduction long before her arrival. Anne of Cleves, a kind woman betrayed by fate and a lack of beauty, is portrayed as out of her depth in a sophisticated court, married to a man who has grown gross and rude with overindulgence. Another notable character: Lady Jane Rochford, wife to George Boleyn, who testified against her husband and sister-in-law and now befriends a naïve Catherine.
Catherine harbors no particular aspirations save a good marriage, mistaking romance in her youth for a serious commitment only to find her indiscretions flaunted in her face at a time of great personal danger. Catherine is young and beautiful but deeply flawed, caught up in foolish notions, repulsed by a king she has remembered differently and ultimately betrayed by one who never should have been trusted: “I am a prisoner of my past and future.”
Knowing this story well, it is a pleasure to read Haeger’s interpretation of a tragic life from youthful exuberance to fallen queen, yet another of Henry’s disposable attempts to procreate an heir and resist the ravages of time. Like Henry’s other wives, Catherine Howard is captive to fate and the ambitions of men, all justified by religious fervor. No matter which character seeks to use Catherine, religion is the cloak that covers a multitude of sins. While Boleyn was savvy, complicit in her own demise, Catherine Howard is no match for Henry or his court, her heart too easily distracted by passion, her slender neck destined to feel the executioner’s blade.