In Cannes, expectations for the film Firebrand, which marks Karim Anouiz‘s debut on the international market and features Alicia Vikander and Jude Law as Katherine Parr and Henry VIII, are high. Firebrand is the name of the adaptation of the book The Queen’s Gambit, the bestseller that recounts the story of the last queen to marry Henry VIII.
The change of name of the work has two reasons: the 1st to differentiate it from the Netflix series, of course, and the 2nd to reinforce that “marked by fire” makes it more than clear that the narrative will be focused on the violence of the reign of Henry VIII. The feature premieres at Cannes and marks one of the rare productions that speak of the reign most often reported in the history of Anne Boleyn. And who was Katherine Parr?
Well, her greatest achievement as Queen was surviving an unstable and violent husband, no doubt. Initially portrayed as an almost servant woman, who took care of the King in his last years of life and an affectionate stepmother, she is also shown as an effaced woman and led by her lover, Thomas Seymour, if the version is to emphasize the cunning of Elizabeth I who lived one of the biggest scandals of her life when she was with Katherine Parr.
For many years portrayed as a matron and a luxury caretaker of a sick and overweight king. Others see her as a humanist, pro-Religious, and insightful intellectual. Having paid attention to what happened to her five predecessors (the first of which was her baptismal godmother), Catherine cautiously avoided repeating in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the two queens who lost their heads. Starting with the family, ‘adopting’ the three stepchildren (each from a different mother), with extreme affection, she helped her husband to reconcile with them. She was also the first Englishwoman to publish a book in English under her own name, an audacious step at a time. None of this was highlighted for many years. In the book, author Elizabeth Fremantle profiled the Queen from three different perspectives. In the film, the story will have suspense and tension.
Katherine was not born to be a queen, just to circulate among the nobles. Her father was a courtier and her mother, Maud Green, was a close friend and lady-in-waiting of Catherine of Aragon, 1st wife of Henry VIII. Therefore Katherine had reliable witnesses of how the King acted with the Spanish princess and how volatile relations with him were. Katherine’s father, Sir Thomas Parr, was said to be handsome and one of the King’s friends, with suggestions that he was popular with Henry’s sister, Princess Margaret, who was married in Scotland against her will (as shown in The Spanish Princess). That is, when decades later Katherine Parr found the King, already twice widowed, she was more prepared than her predecessors.
Sir Thomas died when the children were still small and therefore their education was left to Maud, who made sure that her daughters would have the same access to information as her son, William, which already made the future queen a remarkable woman. and different from others of her time, being fluent in several languages and an excellent chess player. Born Catholic, she converted to Protestantism and, like all ladies, had to marry to guarantee material and social security. Without much information if her marriage to Edward Borough, son of the Baron of Gainsborough Hall, was happy or not, many bet that not because she was isolated, far from the Court, and had no children. In particular, she had problems with her father-in-law, who interfered with their marriage. She only got better when they got away from him, but Katherine was widowed in a year, at about twenty-one.
The second marriage, a year after losing her first husband, is what actually made her better financially comfortable. John Neville, 3rd Baron Latimer was over 20 years old with a wife and two children. She became attached to the girl (not so much the boy) and, even away from Court, she seems to have been content with what she had. The first ‘risk’ of Katherine’s life happened when, in 1536, John was ‘forced’ to participate in the revolt known as the “Pilgrimage of Grace”, pro-Catholics and, even guaranteeing that he did what he did to save his family, its reputation was tarnished for many years.
Widowed again at age 30, she went on to be one of the wealthiest women in England. It was around this time that she approached Princess Mary Tudor, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, becoming one of the closest people to her. At Court, she caught the attention of two men: Thomas Seymour, the King’s former brother-in-law, and – to ‘bad luck’ – Henry VIII himself.
Katherine’s ‘bad luck’ is that, after being married to a boy and then an ‘old man’, it is no surprise that she was in love with the seductive Thomas Seymour, but when the King was enchanted with a woman, no one could refuse it. Thomas was dispatched abroad and, in the meantime until his return, Katherine became the sixth Queen of England in 33 years.
Katherine Parr was everything Henry was looking for and still hadn’t found: a companion, young (enough), beautiful, dedicated, and intelligent. She was directly involved in raising the King’s children, being close to all three (but especially Elizabeth I). But life at Court was anything but peaceful, even as it was praised by Thomas Wriothesley, the King’s secretary, later an opponent. Part of the problems was in the King’s poor health, who had outbursts of anger alternating with docility, leaving everyone always attentive and not knowing how he would be from one day to the next.
Like her godmother, Catherine of Aragon, Katherine was appointed “regent and governess of the realm” when Henry declared war on France. It was precise because she proved herself capable, reliable, and astute but also ended up winning enemies such as Stephen Gardner, Thomas Wriothesley, and William Paget, men who began to fear her influence on the King, especially in the matter of religion. She, a reformer, could consolidate the dubious movement started by him 10 years earlier: when he broke with Rome but maintained few Catholic practices and Church traditions. When Katherine began to feel comfortable ‘discussing’ matters about God, she reminded Henry VIII of how it had been with Anne Boleyn and the King was then vulnerable to criticism from those who did not like the current Queen.
She was almost arrested, but a mistake (someone sent her the arrest warrant that still needed to be signed by her husband) helped her to get around the situation and convince her husband that she was submissive. If Henrique believed, the same did not happen to the conservatives who knew that the Queen and her companions circumvented the rules and studied the Bible together. It was what defined the tragic fate of Anne Askew, arrested, interrogated, tortured, and killed without delivering any evidence that Katherine Parr was a heretic and a conspirator against the Crown. Anne Boleyn did not have the same loyalty. Still, it was a time of panic for her who knew her husband would have no qualms about having her head cut off. This is the main plot for Firebrand, by the way, with Erin Doherty interpreting Anne.
With the death of Henry VIII and the accession of her son, Edward, Katherine was ‘free’ for the first time and wasted no time. Within weeks she was secretly married to Thomas Seymour, creating scandal and creating new opponents who questioned their haste. The one who suffered the most from the consequences of the hasty decision was Thomas, as everyone considered that agility came from him, wanting to secure himself in a position of influence with his nephew now king, but having the opposite effect.
This period is the heart of the plot of the series Becoming Elizabeth, which brought actress Jessica Raines as Katherine and Tom Cullen as Thomas Seymour. Still caring for Elizabeth like her own daughter, Katherine was accused of having covered up and even participated in the sexual abuse that the girl suffered by Thomas, tarnishing both their reputations forever. The 9-day-old future queen, Jane Grey, was also under Katherine’s guardianship when it all happened. As we saw in the series, Elizabeth was interrogated and denied any involvement, but Katherine – pregnant for the first time – banished her from her home anyway. Many historians cite that the coexistence between the two had a direct impact on the example of female leadership that Elizabeth would establish when she became queen, years later.
Unfortunately, Katherine’s destiny was not to survive long after Henry VIII: she died six days after the birth of her daughter with Thomas Seymour, because of puerperal fever, common in postpartum and which had already claimed the life of Jane Seymour.
Katherine Parr’s memory was preserved with the values of the time, in other words, with the image of a religious woman dedicated to her husband, almost like a caretaker, but with rare mentions of her political or cultural sagacity. In fiction this was repeated, with versions like those of Becoming Elizabeth portraying her as a dubious and seductive woman, to alleviate or even innocent. the future Queen Elizabeth I from any improper relationship. In this way, critics were harsher on actress Jessica Raines, but I enjoyed seeing Katherine alive, sensual, and yet firm. The version of Alicia Vikander in Firebrand is not yet known, but she will hardly miss the tone and Oscar buzz has already started.
What matters is recovering the narrative about the Queen, who knew how to coexist like none of her predecessors and circumvent the dangers of politics and religion, perhaps not so much, from the heart…