Following rozk's advice, I read Ford Maddox Ford's trilogy on Katherine Howard, The Fifth Queen. The individual volumes are titled "The FIfth Queen: How she came to court", "Privy Seal: His last Venture" and "The Fifth Queen Crowned". Privy Seal, in case you're wondering, is Thomas Cromwell; it's what people in this trilogy call him in two third of all cases, which can be a bit irritating at the start. But then you accept it as part of Ford's version of the Henrician world. He actually pulls of plausible 16th century English in his characters' dialogues (lots of thees and thous are the least of it, the rhythm of it feels right, which is the hardest thing to imitate, and the language all round, descriptions and all, is drop dead gorgeous. The man can paint with words.
On the downside, the main character is an OC. (Original Character.) I'm not exaggarating. You know those fanfiction AUs which take it so far that all the characters share with the originals are the names, because, say, Magneto instead of a Jewish Holocaust survivor is suddenly captain of the football team on an American High School? Ford's Katherine Howard takes it that far. Down to the externals - historical Katherine was small and on the plumb side, Ford's Katherine is tall and slender. Historical Katherine loved to dance, loved dresses and if the Royal accounts are anything to go by was the most gift receiving of Henry's queens who wore a new dress practically every day; Ford's Katherine never dances, refuses most gifts and wears only three dresses (after she arrived in rags in the first place). Only one letter from historical Katherine Howard survives, this one, in which she comes across as a young girl in love who makes the occasional grammar mistake and seems to find writing painful. Ford's Katherine Howard, on the other hand, is such a scholar of Greek and Latin that her tutor, supposedly best in the realm, freely admits she surpasses him, and she has such a gift of languages that she learns German in only a few months. Speaking of her education, historical Katherine Howard grew up at her stepgrandmother's the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk's place in Lambeth, in circumstances which kinder historians have compared to a high school dormitory and more hostile ones to a high class brothel, because the girls were visited by the male members of the household there at night all the time, leading to much "puffing and blowing" (description from witness against poor Katherine later). You can actually easily make a case for sexual abuse there because Katherine was eleven or twelve when her music master Henry Manox first laid hands on her. Ford doesn't exclude the Duchess of Norfolk's house (that's impossible because of the role it played in her death) but refers to it as a brief interlude in Katherine's childhood, after which she grew up in the North in splendid isolation and with her tutor teaching her all the knowledge of the ancients. Historical Thomas Culpepper (the guy the one surviving letter is addressed to) was a young member of Henry's household; he was responsible changing the dressing of the king's leg every day. (Henry was suffering from ulcers by then, and the leg stank horribly),; Katherine only met him when she came to court. He also had a less than savoury past; he raped a woman and killed a man, which the King forgave him for. Ford's Thomas Culpepper, on the other hand, is Katherine's cousin who spent years of that Northern adolescence with her; he's a drunkard, has an explosive temper and not entirely sane, but he's utterly devoted to Katherine, and has no affair with her after her marriage. Historical Katherine came to court as Anne of Cleves' lady-in-waiting and quickly caught Henry's eyes; Ford's Katherine comes on her own initiative to London and ends up in the Lady Mary's household, not in Anne of Cleves. And so forth, and so on. Now Ford's Katherine actually is a good character in her own right; but except for the name, she has nothing to do with Katherine Howard.
I was briefly wondering why Ford didn't just write about Katherine Parr when he wanted to write about one of Henry's queens who was a scholar. (Katherine Parr even wrote and published books.) Or about Anne Boleyn (not a scholar, but definitely very well read and due to those seven years in France at least bilngual). Either of them also qualify as queens with a definite religious agenda. And then it dawned on to me: they were both reformers. Ford's Katherine Howard, otoh, is a faithful Catholic who tries to bring Henry and England back to Rome. (This is actually not outside the realm of possiblity in that most of the Howards - though not all - were religiously conservative and anti reformist; certainly Ghastly Uncle Norfolk and Bishop Gardiner were pushing the Catholic agenda during the time of Katherine's queenship. What religious opinions Katherine herself held is simply not known, one way or the other.) Ford's famously a Catholic writer, though he's too subtle to play the reiligious divide entirely black and white. Ghastly Uncle Norfolk and Gardiner are both repellent and egotastic; Katherine is quickly disillusioned with them, and they contribute to her downfall when they realise her idea of bringing the Catholic religion back also includes everyone who profited from the Dissolution giving all that money back as well. Otoh the Reformers are mainly presented as bible thumping somewhat hilarious fanatics, by Archbishop Cramner who is written an ineffectual, sometimes well meaning coward, and by Cromwell who is pro reform not for religious conviction but because it's useful as a force against France and Spain and to remodel England into an absolute monarchy.
Cromwell is also hands down the best character in the trilogy. I hadn't expected him to be around much at all, given he died on Katherine Howard's wedding day, but she doesn't agree to the marriage until the end of volume II, so for the first two volumes he's not just around but the main antagonist. This is Cromwell as a villain, but hands down the most entertaining villain!Cromwell I've yet encountered either on the page or on screen. He's also quite plausible (minus those 700 spies he commands - did someone do a headcount or where did they get that number from?). The fun kind of villain, smart, gregarious, very affable (when he's around, even people who loathe him, including our heroine, find him oddly compelling), and like Mantel's Cromwell a modern man in a world decidedly unmodern he's trying to transform, only in Ford's universe this is not a good thing, but a bad one. (He's not just anti modernist here; inventing the absolute monarchy, what Cromwell calls kingcraft, has an obvious downside. Not only if your monarch is Henry VIII.) He almost reaches Worthy Opponent territory, and when he does fall, Katherine never stops to regret that he's charged with treason because she knows he's innocent of that charge, and wanted him to fall for the right reasons (i.e. lots of dead and ruined people), in a just trial. Henry to this says the Tudor equivalent of "you sweet summer child". Anyway, Cromwell and Katherine in this trilogy are the two characters who truly have world changing ambitions - she wants to turn England back to the idealised place she imagines it was pre-Anne Boleyn, he wants to turn England into a modern dictatorship, essentially, with everyine functioning as a cog in the wheel - as opposed to everyone else, who isn't in it for the big picture but more for what they personally can get, or in Mary Tudor's case for vengeance on her father for all he's done to her and her mother. (Mary, btw, is also a plausible interpretation on the woman, though not mine, and she has some excellent scenes with Katherine and with not so dear old dad.) They're the two visionaries, and you get the sense that Ford is really really sorry he can't do what the Spanish Chronicle did and keep Cromwell around longer, making him into the one who brings Katherine down. Reluctantly, he does kill him off on schedule but not before Cromwell hands over his very own copy of Il Principe by Machiavelli to Cramner's sidekick Lascelles and tells him to keep up the good work; Lascelles in the third volume becomes the character mainly responsible for providing the testimonies against Katherine. (Which in the Ford-verse are false or falsified.)
However, the ultimate responsibility comes down to Henry himself, and this is something very well foreshadowed in the first volume where Katherine starts by seeing him as misled by evil advisors and as basically a pitiable bottle of emotions, and at the end has to realise he cold bloodedly planned and executed the main intrigue of the novel. In direct contrast to the scene usually in every telling of the Katheirne Howard story - Katherine, about to be arrested, tries to reach Henry on the great gallery of Hampton Court and fails, her screams providing today's tourist guides with a ghost, here Katherine's final confrontation with Henry is quiet and seething, yet dignified, on her side as by that point she's thoroughly disillusioned and rips him a new one with an absolutely scathing speech, which includes the information that she'd rather die than be with him any longer (that's where Ford uses the "I die a queen but I would rather have died the wife of Thomas Culpepper" legend of Spanish Chronicle fame). It's Henry who runs and screams after her.
On the one hand, this is emotionally satisfying. Ford isn't the only fictionalizer of the Tudor saga who gives in to the temptation of letting one of Henry's wives tell Henry just what she and a good deal of posterity think of him. (Maxwell Anderson's Anne Boleyn in Anne of the Thousand Days does it twice, once early in the play when he first makes a pass and she actually means her No, emphatically so, making her point by declaring: "I've heard what your courtiers say and I've seen what you are. You're spoiled and vengeful and bloody. Your poetry is sour and your music is worse. You make love as you eat with a good deal of noise and no subtlety." And the other time in the Tower, in a fictional encounter, the "Elizabeth shall be queen" speech you'll find on Youtube.) On the other hand, it, like any of the Katherine scenes in the Fifth Queen trilogy brings me back to the essential problem I have. Now Katherine Howard in Tudor fiction usually comes across in one of two variations: either she's a good natured stupid good time girl, or she's a bad natured stupid good time girl. (Mean girl Katherines are rarer, but they exist, including the Cat in Katherine Longshore's novel Gilt who feels like she's directly ripped off Philippa Gregory's Anne Boleyn, as a manipulative selfish monster to contrast with the saintly exploited heroine.) I would have welcomed a take on Katherine Howard which offers a third interpretation! If it had been provided in a way that makes me believe the character as Katherine Howard. Instead, it feels as if the author in order to write her as "good" felt he had to take away everything not compatible with a laterday Saint Joan, including her love of dancing and dresses, or her lack of education compared to Henry's previous (and subsequent) wives or her early sexual experiences (if you want to use a neutral term for what really sounds like abuse at least in the Manox case - Franices Dereham when she was a bit older sounds more consentual), when the fact that subsequently Henry had parliament pass a law that made it high treason for any woman marrying the king to NOT tell him her entire sexual history within 20 days says so much about Henry (not Katherine). It doesn't make me feel that Ford is defending Katherine Howard. It makes me feel Ford looked at Katherine Howard, found her unworthy to be a lkeable heroine, and replaced her by a completely different character, and so joined the ranks of her judges.
(Though at least I have a suspicion as to why he changed Katherine so thoroughly. I'm a bit mystified about what he did with Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. Instead of being Anne's thirty something sister-in-law, she's Anne's really old cousin with a wrinkly face, white hair and gout, barely able to move and eternally frightend by her cousin (not sister-in-law) Anne Boleyn's fate. She's also supposedly in charge of Mary Tudor's household but in reality incapable of handling Mary's wilful ladies who run circles around her. Katherine later, when becoming Queen, takes her into her own household because she feels sorry for the old dear. When her enemies try to set her and Culpepper up by planting a drunken Culpepper in her rooms so the King can catch them, Katherine, thinking quickly, tells old Lady Rochford to stay because that way she'll be able to prove she was never alone with Thomas Culpepper. (Who is her cousin. In conclusion, cousins.) Which is about the most original explanation for the Katherine Howard - Thomas Culpepper - Lady Rochford situation I've ever encountered. Now on the one hand, this makes Ford's Lady Rochford a rarity - a non villainous Jane Rochford written before Julia Foxe's biography came out. On the other hand, ????? How on earth did Ford even get this idea, based on just about any source he could have had? Where does Grandma!Rochford come from?) (There's also an old knight Rochford, a good guy, no Boleyn relation, who marries one of Mary's maids just for extra confusion, so there are two Lady Rochfords about. The other one is called Celia.)
All this being said? These are still three fascinating books. And while Ford's Katherine is essentially a tragic saint, he also has a sense of humor about her; Katherine's early frustration when everyone in the Lady Mary's household thinks she must be Cromwell's spy (which Cromwell totally has counted on, which was why he was very obvious about planting her there), with her every protest only confirming everyone's conviction that she must be working for him, is a case in point. And his entertaining Machiavellian Cromwell is just what you need if Mantel's Flawless Cromwell has grown a bit too much. Finally, as mentioned: it's always emotionally satisfying to have one of the wives give Henry a "the reason you suck" speech. You can download all three books for free at Gutenberg.