British Heritage Travel caught up with the author Philippa Gregory in 2015, just after the publication of The Taming of the Queen, the story of Kateryn Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII of England.
The "queen of royal fiction” entered the Edinburgh Book Festival in keeping with her title—that is to say, entirely adored by her subjects, many of whom brought some, though not all, of her books for signature. (She has written over 30.) Yet when I mentioned the honorific, Philippa Gregory broke her unusually strong eye contact and shifted the focus to other writers—Living writers! Competitors!—like Antonia Byatt, Hilary Mantel, and Tracey Chevalier with admiration. After selling millions of books, she can afford to be generous, as there’s nothing left to prove, though still more to do.
Gregory’s, The Taming of the Queen (2015), gives voice to Kateryn Parr, Henry VIII’s last and only surviving wife—plus Gregory’s personal favorite. “Because they’re all my favorites,” she clarified. “Whichever one I’m working on at the time is my favorite.” Even after hours of reading and signing, she was still kind enough to sit down with British Heritage to discuss history, propaganda, the passionate urgency of a short-lived life, and the power of her genre. She answered all questions—even the dumb ones!—with patience and respect. Because a true noble, that kind who’s earned her position, is gracious like that.
British Heritage: Walking onto that stage, you looked more relaxed and comfortable than I do in my own living room.
Philippa Gregory: This is the penultimate event of what's been a fortnight, so every day I've been walking out. And I do actually [feel comfortable]. You know that you're basically going to sit down and talk about your own work with people who like it. What's not to like?
BH: You're fresh out of Henry’s wives! Are you sad?
PG: I am out of wives. No, I'm glad really. I really wanted to get to her, and finally, I have. And she's so interesting, and such a surprise. There's so much about her which I really didn't expect. Yeah, I’m going on to sisters now, so the next book is going to be on Margaret Tudor, Henry's sister.
BH: Can you talk about that idea you spoke of for teaching history to gradeschoolers? A lot of our readers are teachers and historians.
PG: It's surprisingly difficult to teach history, because you're talking about a period which, to many people, is unimaginable. My job is actually to do the imagining for people. So, it’s very difficult to make it lively and exciting and full of jeopardy. That is the story of it, but because everybody knows the endings, and because teachers and historians know how these battles end, it's very hard to teach them as if they're exciting as if they're unfolding.
The thing I was saying, which was totally off the cuff, is that I think one of the ways of teaching history so that it would have an immediacy to people, is let them do what people obviously like to do, which is discover the history of their own parents and their grandparents. See how far they can get back in time. And inevitably, when you discover the history of your parents, you will discover events which are actually of world significance. Because we all, all of our lives, are affected by historical decisions. Most kids today, if they're in school, go back two generations, go back to their grandparents, they'll find someone who fought or didn't fight, or was involved or not, in the Second World War, or was a refugee from the Second World war, or came to this country to avoid Hitler's Nazi Germany. So immediately, you're into a historical period, but with something that would make the students feel its immediacy and its importance.
Read more: Five things you never know about Henry VIII
BH: You're going to be getting calls, I heard a group of teachers discussing how they want to start a program with you.
PG: Oh God, that would be really interesting actually, yes!
BH: Maybe that would make history less distortable. Like when you called Henry a “serial killer,” I thought, "Of course!”
BH: But that image of a jolly fat guy chomping on a giant turkey leg is embedded in my head!
PG: Absolutely. The Tudors were terribly good at propaganda, so you have all of this iconography. I love using portraits of them. So there's this glamorous, joyful, red-and-gold colored happy family, and you go, “He called that daughter a bastard and beheaded her mother. That daughter he cut out of the line of succession and he abandoned her mother. This little boy's mother died in childbirth, and Henry was nowhere near at the time. He left the palace because he was frightened of getting plague when Jane Seymour went into childbirth." Yet here you've got this lovely golden family! It's so interesting to look at it fresh, as if you were looking at it for the first time, and interrogate it.
BH: Why do we want to sanitize the past, as you said, “to our disservice”?
PG: Partly, we're following the lead of the Tudors. The Tudors themselves wrote propagandist history which defended their right to usurp the throne in the first place. Then they have the magnificent dramatist and propagandist Shakespeare writing about the previous family and explaining how the Tudors came to the throne, how awful Richard III is, so that the Tudors arrived to save England from Richard III. Then you have the other historians that follow, particularly the Victorian historians who loved the Tudors, because what they see there is the arrival of Elizabeth, a Queen who's on the throne when they have a Queen on the throne. It the start of Empire, the start of, in a sense, the modern world. Victorians read themselves into that, so what they want to read is peace and prosperity, and a sort of England that they like to imagine. That's where the romanticization and the sanitization of the story start with the subjects themselves, that they produce propaganda, and subsequently, the historians follow them.
BH: USA Today calls you 'the queen of royal fiction'. How has the perception of historical fiction changed? Especially in recent times?
PG: It's very interesting. When I was a child and reading as a little girl, historical fiction was really quite popular and I used to read people like Georgette Heyer and Anya Seton, and they were very well-known. Jean Plaidy, very well-known, very popular, very popular genre. Then it really went out of fashion, and people just didn't buy it anymore, and it became much more regarded as a romantic, unrealistic and sort of almost—I mean definitely genre fiction. Because history is my life's work, because I'm only really interested in history—not really interested in anything else half as much as history—I naturally write historical fiction.
And in the time I've been writing, I've certainly seen the whole form of historical fiction being used by all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. Among them, Nobel Prize winners: Antonia Byatt's Possession is a historical novel, and that's moving back in time. Hilary Mantel has a historical novel that is regarded as literature. There isn't any more belief that if you write historical fiction, you're writing genre fiction, you're not writing literature. That means that lots of people who undertake it—Tracy Chevalier is talking here today—people who are very serious as novelists can work in the area of historical fiction without sacrificing any of the quality of their writing.
BH: You spoke about the historical silencing, or overlooking, of women. By writing in first person, forcing the reader to be in the mind of that character...
BH: That choice seems to dovetail very gracefully with this subject, in that she’s someone who was humbled. Yet you give her a voice.
PG: Yes. It really matters to me that she has her own voice. It's extraordinary that she published three books. There is her voice, but we, in these days, don't read medieval theology. We simply don't. With a novel, it's possible to reach a huge audience of people—I mean, an unbelievably large audience of people—to say to them, "Here's an interesting woman. This is how she thought, this is the life she lived, this is the danger she ran, in order to publish, in order to speak out, in order to have her opinions." To be able to do that, that seems to me to be actually something way beyond what you could do with a fictional novel, a purely fictional novel. It is recovering someone from the grave, almost—from obscurity.
BH: A noble thing. So Kateryn Parr was regent, a scholar, a reformer. Would you call her his most extraordinary wife? Is that a stretch?
PG: In a way, it's just to compare her to the other wives. She's certainly the most educated and the most scholarly, though Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn are scholars as well. We shouldn't be comparing these women with each other, because that is to fall into the Henry trap. He married six really quite extraordinary women, very, very diverse women. She's certainly worth the attention that the others get. She certainly can carry that sort of interrogation.
BH: Pretty good stepmom too.
PG: Pretty good stepmom. What's really nice is when you find, in the historical period, something which speaks so clearly to the modern world. Any woman who has tried to put together a blended family knows how difficult that is to do. In this case, one of the children’s mothers died because the other mother moved in, so there would be a natural, terrible rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth, which actually doesn't come out until much, much later. They do live together and they seemed to live together with a lot of affection.
BH: Parr married again, out of love, and as a result died a year after Henry—in childbirth. "Passion against her best interest,” you said. Does that sum up the Tudors in some way? The tragedy of the Tudors?
PG: They're very passionate people, and they all die young, so you don't have a lot of received wisdom and cautious living. Most people are dead by 45, so the time for reflection and going slowly doesn't occur. People know that 45 is the average age of death, so you know when you're married at, say, 14, which they were, you're starting an adult life which is not going to be very long. There's a sort of urgency about privileged, prosperous people who know they won't live long. You want to do a lot in the time you've got available.
BH: The blood disorder thing you mentioned, I remember my seventh-grade teacher saying it was probably his fault, but she was just talking Y-chromosomes, but this is something ...
PG: There's been a new book published which suggests this theory, and it's that he suffers from Kell, a genetic blood disorder, which would mean that if he tried to have a child with a woman who was—you could be Kell-positive or Kell-negative—if he was with a woman who was the opposite to whatever he is, then the woman would be disposed to miscarry, the babies would be disposed to stillbirth. If they lived, they would be quite sickly in the first years of life.
BH: Last question: Since this is a travel and history magazine, can you tell us one location you love? Not, you know, Hampton Court but something overlooked, that you find particularly...?
PG: One of the places I love very dearly is Middleham Castle in Yorkshire. That's Richard III's principal home in the North, and it was where he made his palace. That's where he lived for most of the time that his brother was on the throne when he didn't have to come to London. If you want out of London, it's a fabulous little castle, very, very seldom visited, tucked away a long way away. It's a long drive to get to it, but it's a beautiful place.
Read more: Six old wives tales of Henry VIII
* Originally published in 2016.