The Fifth Queen

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The Fifth Queen
Author Ford Madox Ford
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Katharine Howard
Genre Novel
Publisher Alston Rivers, Nash
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback)

The Fifth Queen trilogy is a series of connected historical novels by English novelist Ford Madox Ford. It consists of three novels, The Fifth Queen; And How She Came to Court (1906), Privy Seal (1907) and The Fifth Queen Crowned (1908), which present a highly fictionalised account of Katharine Howard's arrival at the Court of Henry VIII, her eventual marriage to the king, and her death.

Plot summary[edit]

The Fifth Queen trilogy has an omniscient narrator. Katharine Howard is introduced in the first book as a devout Roman Catholic, impoverished, young noblewoman escorted by her fiery cousin Thomas Culpeper. By accident, she comes to the attention of the king, in a minor way at first, is helped to a position as a lady in waiting for the then bastard Lady Mary, Henry's eldest daughter, by her old Latin tutor Nicholas Udal. Udal is a spy for Thomas Cromwell, the Lord Privy Seal.

As Katharine becomes involved with the many calculating, competing, and spying members of Henry VIII's Court, she gradually rises, almost against her will, in Court. She is brought more to the attention of the King, becomes involved with him, is used by Cromwell, Bishop Gardiner and Thomas Cranmer as well as the less powerful though more personally attached Nicholas Throckmorton. Her connection to the latter puts her in some peril, as in January 1554 he is suspected of complicity in Wyatt's Rebellion and arrested, during which time Katherine is briefly implicated too.

Katharine's forthrightness, devotion to the Old Faith and learning are what make her attractive to the King, along with her youth and physical beauty. This is in direct contradiction to the way historians view the historical personage herself; that is, as a flighty and flirtatious young woman with few other redeeming qualities.

Historical accuracy and as a work of historical fiction[edit]

"History, that great fictitioner, surely did not create the honest, stubborn, beautiful, and saintly Katharine Howard, so richly realized she might have had some other life outside imagination, yet so near perfection we could not wish for her a lesser world to drag a dress in", so says William Gass in the afterword to a 1986 edition of the novels.[1]

Gass goes on to say that Ford "habitually goes beyond the evidence, oversteps the bounds of probability, and invents occasions, speeches, feelings, thoughts, and scenes, which no doubt never were nor could have been, simply to enliven his narrative and entertain, rather than instruct, his readers."[2]


The main strengths of this trilogy are considered by many writer admirers and critics—notably Graham Greene, Alan Judd and William Gass—to be its impressionistic qualities, its creation of a believable approximation of Tudor English and its successful creation of atmosphere.

"The style of this novel cannot be escaped, and readers who prefer their literature to be invisibly literary should shun it."[3]

Graham Greene has written that "in The Fifth Queen Ford tries out the impressionist method...The whole story of the struggle between Katharine and Cromwell for the King seems told in shadows – shadows which flicker with the flames of a log-fire, diminish suddenly as a torch recedes, stand calm awhile in the candlelight of a chapel: a cresset flares and all the shadows leap together. Has a novel ever before been lit as carefully as a stage production?"[4]

Alan Judd, in his 1991 biography of the author, states that "He creates a version of Tudor English that is not only effective but does not in any way hinder the sense of reality. This is a considerable achievement; the use of a dated form of one's own language always sounds the contrivance it is, unconvincing, artificial and slow. In order to work it needs to sound natural and in order for that to happen the author needs to have created a world or an atmosphere in the context of which it can be natural...The result in The Fifth Queen is vigorous and convincing, sometimes compressed poetic speech."[5]

Cinematic qualities[edit]

"The Fifth Queen, then, is like Eisenstein's Ivan: slow, intense, pictorial, and operatic. Plot is both its subject and its method. Execution is its upshot and its art."[6]

"The whole book has the atmosphere and particularity of film. It is set in static scenes and drenched in suggestions of power, fear, sex, longing, guile and fate."[7]

Critical assessment of achievement[edit]

For Judd, "This is the first of Ford's books of which one can say with reasonable confidence that, if he had written nothing else, it would still have a good chance of being in print today. Is it a masterpiece? Yes, of its kind – [as a distinctive example of the genre of historical fiction]."[8]

Greene concludes: "It seems likely that, when time has ceased its dreary work of erosion, Ford Madox Ford will be remembered for three great novels [The Fifth Queen trilogy, The Good Soldier, and Parade's End], a little scarred, stained here and there and chipped perhaps, but how massive and resistant compared with most of the work of his successors."[9]

Collected Editions[edit]

  • The Bodley Head Ford Madox Ford: Vol. 2: The Fifth Queen; Privy Seal; The Fifth Queen Crowned (1962) eds. Graham Greene and Michael Killgrew, London: Bodley Head.
  • The Fifth Queen (1963) With an Introduction by Graham Greene, New York: The Vanguard Press.
  • The Fifth Queen (1986) With an Afterword by William Gass, New York: The Ecco Press.
  • The Fifth Queen (1999) With an Introduction by A.S. Byatt, London: Penguin.


  1. ^ Ford, Ford Madox; Afterword by William Gass (1986). The Fifth Queen. New York: The Ecco Press. p. 595. 
  2. ^ Ford, Ford Madox; Afterword by William Gass (1986). The Fifth Queen. New York: The Ecco Press. pp. 600–601. 
  3. ^ Ford, Ford Madox; Afterword by William Gass (1986). The Fifth Queen. New York: The Ecco Press. p. 597. 
  4. ^ Ford, Ford Madox; Introduction by Graham Greene (1963). The Fifth Queen. New York: The Vanguard Press. p. 4. 
  5. ^ Judd, Alan (1991). Ford Madox Ford. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 160–161. 
  6. ^ Ford, Ford Madox; Afterword by William Gass (1986). The Fifth Queen. New York: The Ecco Press. p. 598. 
  7. ^ Judd, Alan (1991). Ford Madox Ford. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 162. 
  8. ^ Judd, Alan (1991). Ford Madox Ford. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 162–163. 
  9. ^ Ford, Ford Madox; Afterword by William Gass (1986). The Fifth Queen. New York: The Ecco Press. p. back cover. 

External links[edit]