Lucy Worsley, one of the country’s leading historians, tells Georgette McCready why she’s written a novel for young readers about one of the doomed wives of Henry VIII
The story of the British king who married six times and had two of those wives put to death never ceases to capture our imagination. Myths and legends surrounding Henry VIII and his wives have continued to fascinate generation after generation, as they are told and re-told on screen, stage and paper.
As a young teenager Lucy Worsley devoured historic novels by Jean Plaidy, whose stories also revisited the Tudor court. Now chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, which includes Hampton Court, and TV historian, Lucy has turned from writing strictly factual books about the past to writing a fictionalised account of life as it might have been in the court of Henry VIII, as seen through the eyes of a teenage maid of honour. The young adults book, Eliza Rose, has been delighting audiences of all ages since its publication in the spring.
It explores a fictional version of what might have caused Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard, to end up losing her head on the execution block. We were lucky enough to secure a chat with Lucy.
I asked her whether she feels that Katherine Howard, who was only about 19 when she died, has been unfairly treated by history? “Absolutely,” she says firmly. “Katherine Howard has been depicted as a bimbo, a silly girl who didn’t know what she was doing. In fact she was a teenage girl who found herself in what could be a very dangerous place, in a court of powerful people.
“There is certainly an argument for saying that she really didn’t have the power to make choices. After all this was a time when everyone believed in the Great Chain of Being, which saw everyone in their place, from the king right down through the household to the lowest serf.
“Girls didn’t have the opportunities or choices that we have today. Maids of honour, like Eliza Rose, would have been expected to hang around and look decorative, which must have been very boring. But then you’d only have to hear the wrong thing or get caught up with the wrong people and you could be in real danger, like Katherine.”
If a young queen under pressure to produce a male heir failed to get pregnant by her ailing, overweight middle aged king, would she turn to other men to try and give her king and country the baby that was required?
Lucy says the novel is factual in its background detail, about dress, custom etc, but that she has taken one ‘flight of fancy’ and that was that perhaps that Katherine Howard was completely controlled by others into the acts which led to the accusation of adultery and subsequently to her violent death.
Lucy was inspired to write about Queen Katherine by her own daily walks through the corridors of Hampton Court to her office. She has written about how, sometimes, while walking along the Haunted Gallery she thought about the story that Katherine Howard’s ghost is supposed to be seen and heard running, screaming along the gallery begging her king for her life.
Lucy doesn’t believe in ghosts but she did believe that Katherine had been unfairly judged by time and so wrote this new version of her life.
She also explains that for years historians had said there was no way that Katherine would have come along this gallery to try and reach the king, but that theory has been debunked. In fact the projection of a woman in Tudor dress onto a wall has been set up in the Haunted Gallery, catching out unsuspecting visitors who get a fright when spotting it out of the corner of their eye.
Eliza Rose is an absorbing tale of intrigue, power and scandal. It tackles some fairly adult themes, such as virginity, adultery and lecherous older men. But then, as Lucy wryly points out: “These are all themes that young women still face today.”
Eliza herself is a fictional character but the author has given her the golden red hair of two of her own favourite heroines from the period, Elizabeth I and Bess of Hardwick. Eliza’s home of Stoneton was inspired by South Wingfield Manor in Derbyshire.
I asked Lucy about which period of time she would most like to be transported back to. “Ideally it would have to be after the invention of anaesthetics I suppose, but if I were safe, then it would be fascinating to visit the Tudor court and see if it was really as we have imagined it.”
She muses about whether life in the past was easier or worse than it is today: “Life in the past was better: discuss.”
Lucy has embarked on writing a second teenage historical novel, set in the 1830s and featuring a young Princess Victoria and her childhood companion Miss Victoria Conroy, set against the background of Kensington Palace. “The palace is another of the historic places I work in and it has inspired me, although it’s the people as much as the buildings. This was where Queen Victoria was born and where she grew up in a semi-abused childhood.’
We’ll be able to read more about the young Victoria when that novel is published in 2017. Lucy Worsley is best known as a presenter of historical documentaries on subjects as various as the history of dance, of romance, the Russian tsars and the royal bedchamber.
What is she working on next for television, I ask? She gives a delighted whoop of joy: “Jane Austen! And yes, I know Bath well and have recently stayed at Sydney Place, where Jane Austen spent the longest time at any address in Bath, as part of my research.”
I venture the much held view that Austen was unhappy during her time spent in Bath. “Well you can argue the case that there are not so many letters written during her time in Bath because she was having far too much fun to be busy writing letters.”
Whatever the conclusions we’ll be able to enjoy Lucy’s take on Bath’s famous resident writer next year on our screens, as part of the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death.
Meanwhile, what response has she had from young readers of Eliza Rose? “I’ve had some really lovely letters, a lot of them heartfelt.”
And what can her young fans expect when they come and see her at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival? “It’s going to be fun. We’ve got a Tudor costume, fit for a queen, that we’ll get modelled by a member of the audience. There’ll be a quiz, I’ll be doing some reading and there’ll be a chance to ask questions.”
Lucy Worsley will be in Bath on Sunday 2 October 5pm, at the Guildhall. Tickets: £7.50, bathfestivals.org.uk, tel: 01225 463362.