Born into an impoverished branch of the noble Howard family, young Katherine is plucked from her home to live with her grandmother, the Duchess of Norfolk. The innocent girl quickly learns that her grandmother's puritanism is not shared by Katherine's free-spirited cousins, with whom she lives. Beautiful and impressionable, Katherine becomes involved in two ill-fated love affairs before her sixteenth birthday. Like her cousin Anne Boleyn, she leaves her grandmother's home to become a lady-in-waiting at the court of Henry VIII. The royal palaces are exciting to a young girl from the country, and Katherine's duties there allow her to be near her handsome cousin, Thomas Culpepper, whom she has loved since childhood.
But when Katherine catches the eye of the aging and unhappily married king, she is forced to abandon her plans for a life with Thomas and marry King Henry. Overwhelmed by the change in her fortunes, bewildered and flattered by the adoration of her husband, Katherine is dazzled by the royal life. But her bliss is short-lived as rumors of her wayward past come back to haunt her, and Katherine's destiny takes another, deadly, turn.
In the books about Katherine Howard she is either portrayed as the sluttish Queen who cheated on Henry VIII or a young and hapless girl who was never taught proper behaviour and ended up dead at her family's ambition. The author casts Katherine in this book as a bit silly, over enthusiastic with her feelings and a victim.
I have always liked Jean Plaidy as a Tudor writer because she really brings the characters to life and takes time to develop them through the story. This book is the same. Katherine is sent away from her family to live a better life with the Dowager Duchess who barely remembers she is there and has little time to bother about her education. She is much more focused on Anne Boleyn's rise and fall from power. She knows nothing of what is happening at Court, has not had the same education or life experience as the other girls and feels stupid all the time. It is easy to see how she fell for the flattery of Henry Mannox. She feels betrayed and used when she discovers what his intentions really are-and you feel as if you are watching a sad puppy as poor Katherine vents her feelings.
Her misery leaves her ripe for the seduction of Francis Dereham and her lack of guile means she tells everything to the other girls, including the decision to marry. The portrayal of Francis in this book is not the boastful braggart who gets Katherine into trouble at Court, but instead is a man who loves her deeply and will do nothing to betray her or cause her trouble. I liked seeing a different version of him. Of course the relationship is broken up and the Duchess will hear nothing of Katherine's pleas about being betrothed, telling her to pretend none of it happened. Katherine is broken hearted...for about five minutes, and then the excitement of a real betrothal to Thomas Culpepper and a position at Court serving Anne of Cleves has her forgetting Francis and being ashamed of her behaviour with him.
Katherine is shocked to discover that she was used to bait the King and that he will be her new husband. Despite her growing love for Thomas, Katherine finds herself as a mostly happy wife, treated well by Henry. I liked the portrayal of Henry as a sad and lonely old man who thinks that nobody could love him as a man if her wasn't King. Katherine has sympathy for his feelings and does everything to make him feel young and happy. Thomas and Katherine are portrayed as being deeply in love and conflicted over whether to start an affair, which is different from a lot I've read about the cruelty of Culpepper. It can be nice, however, to see these different versions of a person in the different books.
The other interesting character in the book is Jane Boleyn, who befriends Kathrine as soon as she comes to Court. Jane is shown here as someone who loves to gossip and meddle, and who is excited by the intrigue of helping Katherine meet Thomas. It is a dangerous game made worse when people from Katherine's murky past come looking for work at Court. She is horrified to have Mannox and Dereham anywhere near her for fear of the gossip from her women who knew her at the home of the Duchess. As her past catches up with her, Katherine fears for everyone she cares about, Jane included.
The story is well told and kept me interested the whole time. I had sympathy for a lot of the characters including Henry and the crusty old Duchess! I recommend all of this author's Tudor books very highly.