The King’s Rose
Alisa M. Libby
Grade 8 and up
In Tudor England, 15-year-old Catherine Howard catches the eye of King Henry VIII. Or should I say, beautiful Catherine is paraded before the king any chance her scheming family can get. Those in the court know how disappointed Henry is with his new German wife, Anne of Cleves. And the Howard family, who had first tried for power with Anne Boleyn, see a new opportunity for wealth and position through Anne’s cousin Catherine.
No matter that Catherine is not a virgin and the king wants a beautiful virgin bride. They remake Catherine’s image, telling her that her past no longer exists. All that matters is that she please the king. Despite her misgivings, Catherine obeys and before long is married to Henry the VIII.
When I began this book, I knew very little of Catherine Howard’s tale. In fact, I kept Henry’s wives straight with the common rhyme—”divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.” Once I realized that Catherine was number five and therefore another one to lose her head, I was bummed. After all, I knew the ending, right? How good could the book be?
Well, I’ll tell you the answer. Very good. Author Alisa Libby has drawn a compelling portrait of a young girl who is a pawn to her family’s machinations. She shows Catherine to be politically naïve and unable to share her thoughts with anyone as she fulfills her duty. This sense of isolation while being what others expect pervades the novel. In a scene early in the story, Catherine has taken off her cream silk betrothal gown after alterations:
I pull a linen nightdress over my head and plop heavily onto the bed. The silk gown lies beside me, unfolded like the petals of a rose. In my nightdress I feel smaller, diminished. I am merely the model upon which the gown was held, the gown’s mode of travel. I can only hope to play my part well and live up to the gown’s expectations of the girl I must become.
Catherine does her best to make King Henry happy. And she seems to succeed. Henry calls her his “rose without a thorn” and even shows affection for her in public. In the midst of this success, she struggles to fight her romantic dreams of being with Thomas Culpeper, her cousin and the young man she fell in love with just as she caught the king’s interest.
As Catherine navigates life with an aging king—he is nearing 50 when they marry—she does not become pregnant. It is the one thing that can assure her position and keep everyone pleased. After months of this, her grandmother, the dowager Duchess of Norfolk, tells her to take Thomas to her bed in order to become pregnant. Catherine is both shocked and scared, but complies. Thus begins a brief period where she is living out her romantic dreams. And still, no pregnancy.
It all falls apart, of course. In Libby’s deft hands, Catherine is a sympathetic character, even with her faults. I found myself wishing the novel were not based on a real person so there could be a miraculous escape. But no. It is Catherine Howard’s story and well worth the read.
Be sure to check back this week. We’ll have a contest to give away a copy of The King’s Rose and an interview with Alisa Libby.