The Fifth Queen Trilogy by Ford Madox Ford - Thomas Culpepper

The Fifth Queen and How She Came to Court1906

Privy Seal: His Last Venture - 1907

The Fifth Queen Crowned – 1908


Fifth Queen Culpepper

Thomas Culpepper stood in the doorway, his sword drawn, his left hand clutching the throat of the serving man who was guarding her room. ‘God help us!’ Katharine said angrily; ‘will you ruin me?’

‘Cut throats?’ he muttered. ‘Aye, I can cut a throat with any man in Christendom or out.’ He shook the man backwards and forwards to support himself. ‘Kat, this offal would have kept me from thee.’

Katharine said, ‘Hush! It is very late.’

At the sound of her voice his face began to smile. ‘Oh, Kat,’ he stuttered jovially, ‘what law should keep me from thee? Thou’rt better than my wife. Heathen to keep man and wife apart, I say, I.’

‘Be still. It is very late. You will shame me,’ she answered.

‘Why, I would not have thee shamed, Kat, of the world,’ he said. He shook the man again and threw him good humouredly against the wall.

observations: Should be read in conjunction with earlier entry on the book.

Thomas Culpepper, on hearing something he likes the sound of:
‘That is the best hearing,’ Thomas Culpepper said. ‘I do absolve thee of five kicks for being the messenger of that.’
One thing that Ford does very well is show the sheer annoyingness of his version of ‘the alarming Thomas Culpepper’ as AS Byatt calls him - Ford regularly refers to him as T. Culpepper. He’s the man who is in love with Howard, probably has an adulterous relationship with her, and will be executed because of it. Ford’s Culpepper In this version (not particularly historical) has known her for many years, and is obsessed with her: he hangs around, causes trouble, speaks always at the wrong time and says the wrong thing. He is always getting angry, and insulting people, and threatening them, as the scene above shows. He compromises her fatally. And though we may not be Tudor Queens, I think all women have known someone like that – he has decided he is in love and constantly wrong-foots her. He claims to consider her above all things, but actually does the opposite.

In fact, Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies does an equally good job on the annoyingness of Harry Percy, who goes for a similar role in the life of Anne Boleyn but is turned away before being part of her final destruction, although his own and his wife’s lives are both completely messed up. (Down through the hundreds of years, it still hits home when you read that he was ‘too ill’ to be part of the panel of lords on the last day of Anne Boleyn’s trial and death sentence, he could not be part of the verdict.)

Ford’s version of the final scenes of Howard’s story resembles the end of Othello, and he also gives her a final decision which is like something from King Lear – and makes you think, yes, she is Cordelia.

There is no certainty of Howard’s date of birth – it’s something scholars have fought over – though there seems little doubt she was a teenager when she made her disastrous marriage. In this book Ford has invented a reason for confusion: that she can be made to look more guilty of early sexual activity by being made older.
He will prove against her certain lewdnesses when she was a child in your mother’s house. If then she was a child of ten or so, knowing not evil from good, this might not undo her. But if you can make her seem then eighteen or twenty it will be enough to hang her.’
Now there’s the authentic Ford touch – he has a line into forms of waywardness and lies that would shock anyone. Some of the trilogy is like walking through mud, but then something will turn up that makes you see his brilliance.

Ford uses plenty of archaic language, but then he does that anyway, Parade’s End is full of strange words. Here I liked spadassins – duelists or swordmen, and surely a great name for a band: T Culpepper and The Spadassins. There is also talk (several times) of someone being ‘a made man’ – it’s not entirely clear what it means, but it seems to be not a long way from the modern Mafia sense. (As in books – I have no knowledge of actual Mafia life.)

In the previous entry I mentioned AS Byatt’s introduction to the Trilogy. She says:
‘The Fifth Queen is concerned with sex, love, marriage, fear, lying, death and confusion – it is also concerned with the idea of the balance of power as a real force in men’s lives.’
She also warns against seeing Howard as the doomed virtuous heroine, brought down by the wicked world, and quotes a nice piece from another work by Ford in her favour. Her argument reminded me of the wonderful description in Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That – in the English Civil war, the Cavaliers were Wrong but Wromantic, the Roundheads were Right but Repulsive. She thinks Ford is lamenting the lost world, where Howard (Wrong but Wromantic) belongs, while seeing that it was a world that had to go. That is not, of course, to imply that anything, ever, could justify the beheading of this young girl.

More on Tudor books here, and on wolf references in this book here.

The picture shows the Canadian actor Torrance Coombs, who plays Thomas Culpepper in the British TV drama The Tudors - known for its historical inaccuracy and good-looking actors. But it seems pretty clear that the original Culpepper was a very handsome man: people commented on it in contemporary documents.


  1. Moira - What an interesting perspective on this period of Tudor history. Ford's got so much detail here, and his perspective is fascinating. Interesting point about the archaic language too. It's hard to know what to do (if one's an author) in those cases. Using the most archaic (but perhaps historically accurate) language can be off-putting for modern readers. But using modern language doesn't go with the rest of the story.

    1. Yes, authors are damned if they do, damned if they don't, there's no easy answer. In this case I found the language difficult, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the book.

  2. I don't think I'm going to be converted any time soon....

    1. I thought you might like the spadassins and the made men, but prob not enough to read the books....

  3. Moira: And I thought the modern world of relationships was complicated. I think you need charts for the Tudors.

    1. Yes, you are so right - their complex relationships and - shall we say, unfamiliar morals and attitudes do make for compelling reading though.

  4. Moira, you continue to rouse my curiosity about Ford Madox Ford. I'll see if I can squeeze in a full-length novel or two, perhaps not this trilogy to start with.

    1. Prashant, I would start with The Good Soldier if I were you. It is one book, and not too long, and will tell you if you like this author or not....

    2. Moira, thanks for the recommendation. The length is appealing.

  5. Someday I will get to this. Or at least have a shot at it. It seems that if I can break it into its parts, I should be able to manage it.

    1. Yes, they are distinct books and not too long. Once you get used to the style they become easier to read.


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