'Please it be your Grace,' Lascelles said softly, 'what beast or brute hath your Grace ever seen to betray its kind as man will betray brother, son, father, or consort?'
The last book in Ford Madox Ford's Katharine Howard series (1 2), as the name suggests, opens on a scene of victory: Katharine is crowned Henry's queen, and the return of her cherished Catholicism is nigh. How you read this development hinges probably on your religious affiliation; for me there is something unseemly about Henry's playful needling of the Archbishop Cranmer early in the book about the church's return, especially now that Thomas Cromwell, the Protestant villain of the first two books, has been put to death. I read in the second book a more ambivalent stance than I was able to find in this one. What are we to make of a Henry VIII who is only good to the extent that he is Catholic?
Katharine remains the series' moral center, which bodes poorly for Henry's soul, since we know that by the series' end she must be executed. (Spoiler alert.) I found the machinations by which Katharine is brought down to be pretty disappointing, although the intrigue was the best part of the first two books. The death of Cromwell leaves a pretty immense gap that the ambitious knight Lascelles, a pale Cromwell substitute, fails to fill. In The Fifth Queen Crowned, subterfuge gives way to slander: The courtiers, peeved by the Queen's power and at Lascelles' urging, gin up a lie about Katharine's infidelity with her cousin Culpepper and force Henry's hand. In the end, she gets a pretty nice speech at the King's expense:
If I have wounded you with these my words, I do ask your pardon... I would have you wounded by the things as they are, and by what conscience you have, in your passions and your prides. And this, I will add, that I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of my cousin Culpepper or of any other simple lout that loved me as he did, without regard, without thought, and without falter. He sold farms to buy me bread. You would not imperil a little alliance with a little King o' Scots to save my life.
But the book as a whole was neither as fun or nuanced as the previous two. In the end, I stand by my judgment of the first book: that The Fifth Queen books are Ford still struggling with both what he wanted to say and how.