Philippa Gregory’s The Taming of the Queen


You could hardly go wrong with this tale about the last wife of Henry VIII, Katheryn Parr, first published one year ago. As if the title weren’t enough of a clue, the author has previous form too.

There’s more than a touch of ’50 Shades’ about it, but I’m guessing only historical purists will complain about that. Unusually, the scene comes near the end of the book and represents the climax of the relationship between King and Queen. A few pages later Henry dies. This popular author has had a number of her books turned into films and if this one makes it to the screen it seems impossible that they could leave the scene out.

There’s even a walk on part for Lady Jane Grey at the end who was also used to gingerly lowering herself on to seats!


I straighten my beautifully embroidered night robe of dark silk, and take a seat at the fireside until he invites me to approach his enourmous bed. I think, nervously, that it is like my wedding night when I was so dreading his touch. Now I have become accustomed, he can do nothing that would shock me. I will have to accept his damp caresses; I know I wil have to kiss him and not flinch from his fetid saliva. I think that he is in too much pain from his leg and too drugged to expect me to mount him so I will have to do nothing worse than smile and seem ardent. I can do that. I can do that for my own safety and for the safety of all who depend on this tyrant for their freedom. I can rack my pride. I can dislocate my shame.
‘So we are friends,’ he says, putting his head on one side to admire my dark blue silk robe and the glimmer of white linen beneath it. ‘But I think you have been a naughty girl. I think that you have been reading books that were banned and listening to sermons that were not allowed.’
Being addressed as a child for my work as a scholar – this too I can endure. I bow my head. ‘I am sorry if I have done anything wrong.’
‘Do you know what I do with naughty girls?’ he asks, roguishly.
I can feel my thoughts whirling. I have never heard him speak like this before, diminishing me, and being a fool himself. But I must not challenge him.’I don’t think I have been naughty, my lord.’
‘Very naughty indeed! And do you know what I do to naughty girls?’ he asks again.
I shake my head. I thnk he has slipped into his dotage. I have to endure this too.
He beckons me to the side of the bed. “Come a little closer.”
I rise from the chair and go to the bed.I move grtacefully, like a woman. I take the few steps with my head held high, like the queen that I am. I think, surely he cannot maintain this game that I am a child for scolding, but then it seems that he can. He takes my hand and pulls me a little closer to the bed, ‘I think that you have read books that Stephen Gardiner would say are heretical, you bad child.’
I open my eyes wide as if to assure him of my innocence. ‘I would never go against Your Majesty’s wishes. Stephen Gardiner has never accused me, and has no evidence.’
‘Oh, he has accused you,’ he says, chuckling as if this is funny. ‘Be sure of that!’ And he accused your friends, and the girl preacher, and indeed he had all the evidence that he needed to prove to me – or even to a jury, a jury, Kate! – that you are, alas, a very naughty little girl.’
I try to smile. ‘But I have explained…’
I see the gleam of his irritation. ‘Never mind all that. I say you are a naughty girl and I think you have to be punished!’
At once I think of the Tower and the scaffold that they can build on the green. I think of my ladies and the preachers who have spoken before me. I think of Anne, waiting in the Tower for release from her agony. ‘Punished?’
He reaches across his huge barrel of a body and extends his left hand to me. I take it and he tugs me roughly, as if he would pull me across the bed.
I yield. ‘ Your Majesty?’
‘Kneel on the bed,’ he says. ‘This is your punishment.’ He sees my aghast face and he laughs so much that he coughs, and tears come in to his piggy little eyes. ‘Oh! Were you thinking that I would behead you? Oh LOrd! Oh Lord! What fools women are! But kneel to me.’
I gather the skirts of my gown in my free hand and kneel up on the bed beside him. He lets go of my hand now I am positioned where he wants me, kneeling beside him, the stench from his woumded leg wafting up into my face. I put my hands together as if to swear fealty.
‘No, not that,’ he says impatiently. ‘I don’t want you to beg for pardon. Go on your hands and knees. Like a dog.
I shoot one disbelieving look into his face and I see that he is flushed and intent. He means it. As I hesitate I see that his eyes harden. ‘I’ve told you once, he says quietly. ‘There are guards outside and my barge will take you to the Tower tonight if I say just one word.’
‘I know…’ I say quickly. ‘It’s just that I don’t know what you want me to do, my lord husband. I would do anything for you, you know that. I have promised love…’
‘I’ve told you what to do,’ he points out, reasonably enough. ‘Go on your hands and knees like a dog.
My face is burning witht the heat of my shame. I go on my hands and knees on the bed and I drop my head down so that I don’t have to see the bright triumph in his face.
‘Lift your gown.’
This is too much. ‘I can’t,’ I say; but he is smiling.
‘Up over your buttocks,’ he says. ‘Lift your gown right up, your linen too, so your arse is as bare as a Smithfield whore.’
‘Your Majesty…’
He raises his right hand as if to warn me to be completely silent. I look back at him, I wonder if I dare to defy him.
‘My barge…’ he whispers. ‘It is waiting for you.’
Slowly, I pull my gown up to my waist, the silk cool in my fingers. It folds around my waist, leaving me naked from the waist down, on my hands and knees on the king’s bed.
He fumbles in the bedclothes and for a horrible moment I thnk that he is fondling himself, aroused by my nakedness, and that there will be worse for me to do. But he brings out a whip, a short horse’s whip, and shows it to me, bringing it to my burning face.
‘D’you see?’ he asks quietly. ‘it is no thicker than my little finger. The laws of the land, my laws, say that a husband may beat his wife if the stick is no thicker than his finger. D’you see that this is a thin little whip that I may legally use on you? Are we agreed?’
‘Your Majesty would not –‘
‘It is the law, Kateryn. Like the law of heresy, like the law of treason. do you understand that I am the law giver and the law enforcer and that nothing happens in England without my will?’
My legs and buttocks are cold. I bend my head to the stinking covers of the bed. ‘I understand,’ I say, though I can hardly speak.
He brings the whip closer, then thrusts it in my face. ‘Look!’ he says.
I raise my head and look at it.
‘Kiss it,’ he says.
I cant’t stop myself from fliching. ‘What?’
‘Kiss the rod. As a sign that you accept your punishment. Like a good child. Kiss the rod.’
I look at him blankly for a moment as if I wonder if I can disobey him. He returns my gaze, completely calm. Only his scarlet colour and his rapid breathing reveal that he is aroused. He holds the whip a little closer to my lips. ‘Go on,’ he says.
I purse my lips. He puts the leather plaited thong to my mouth. I kiss it. He puts the thicker leather stem to my face. I kiss it. He puts his clenched hand holding the handle before my mouth, and I kiss his fat fingers too. Then without changing his expression he raises the whip behind me, and brings it down hard on my buttocks.
I cry out and flinch away, but he has tight hold of my upper arm and he strikes me again. Three times I hear the whistle and then feel the blow as it comes down and the pain is quite terrible. There are burning tears in my eyes as he brings the whip to my face againn and whispers: ‘Kiss it, Kateryn, and say that you have learned wifely obedience.’
There is blood in my mouth from where I have bitten my lip. It tastes like poison. I can feel the hot tears pouring down my cheeks and I cannot choke down a little sob. He waggles the stick in front of me and I kiss it, as he orders. ‘Say it,’ he reminds me.
‘I have learned wifely obedience,’ I repeat.
‘Say thank you, my lord husband.’
‘Thank you, my lord husband.’
He is quiet. I take a choking breath. I can feel my chest heave with my sobs. I assume my punishment is finished and I pull down my gown. My buttocks are stinging raw and I am afraid they are bleeding, and my white linen shift will be stained.
‘One other thing,’he says silkily, still holding me on my hands and knees. I wait.
He pushes back the covers of his bed and I see, like a monstrous erection, he is wearing the ivory silk codpiece from the portrait strapped on his fat naked belly. It is a grotesque sight, huge on his rolling belly, pointing upwards out of the sheets, embroidered with silver thread and stiched with pearls.
‘Kiss this too,’ he says.
My will is broken indeed. I rub my tears from my eyes with the back of my hand and I feel the snot from my nose spread over my face. This, too, I will do for my own safety.
He puts his hand on it and he caresses it as if it can give him pleasure. He giggles. ‘You have to,’ he says simply.
I nod. I know I have to. I put my head down and I put my lips against the encrusted tip. With a single cruel gesture he takes a handful of my hair and thumps the back of my head, so my face is smacked by it and it bangs against my teeth and the pearls scrape my lips. I don’t pull back from the pain. I hold my face still as he works it in a parody of abuse against my mouth over and over again till my mouth is bruised by the jewels and the embroidery and my lips are bleeding.
He is exhausted, his face flushed and sweating. The ivory cod-piece is smeared with my blood as if he had deflowered a virgin with it. He drops back on his pillows and sighs as if he is deeply satisfied.
‘You can go.’


Later there is a short can’t-sit-down scene…

Shaming me has cheered the king back to health. Suddenly he is well enough to dine with the court and this afternoon he is wheeled into the garden with me at his side. Nan, Lady Tyrwhit and little Lady Jane Grey walk with me, the rest of my ladies stroll behind us, and the king holds my hand as I walk beside the chair. There is a spreading beech tree in the centre of the king’s privy garden and he stops the chair in the shade and someone fetches a stool for me to sit beside him. Gingerly I lower myself to the seat. He smiles as he sees I cannot sit without pain.
‘You are amused, my lord husband?’
‘Now we’re going to see a play.’
‘A play? Here?
‘Indeed yes. And when it is over you can tell me the title.’


The title of the play turns out to be “The Taming of the Queen” presumably without any credits to Shakespeare who hasn’t been born yet!

 Another apparent anachronism is the law about being beaten with a stick that is no thicker than a finger. Such a law did exist but I believe it was brought in during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter.

4 thoughts on “Philippa Gregory’s The Taming of the Queen”

  1. It’s good to be king! Even a king who is aging, obese and whose wounds stink up the sheets. The deal about the stick no bigger than a finger was going to send me into intensive research so I’m glad you mentioned it as being non-existent at the time – although if you’re a near absolute despot I suppose it’s the law if you say it’s the law.

  2. The “rule of thumb” had nothing to do with what stick a man could use to beat his wife. It was a carpenter trick, as the average length ofthe thumb below the knuckle is around 1 inch. I deed, that is how the Foot was defined. A parallel to this is the Biblical cubit, which is the length of a mans arm from the elbow to the middle finger – any where from 18″ to 24″, usually the lower number.

    We need to stop passing on urban legends.

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