I read Elizabeth Fremantle’s Girl in the Glass Tower two years ago and, ever since, I’ve meant to get round to her other Tudor novels. While Glass Tower focused on Arbella Stuart and Aemilia Lanyer, Queen’s Gambit is set considerably earlier, at the very end of Henry VIII’s reign. Obese, unpredictable and narcissistic, the king rules over a nervous court employed in the unpredictable task of catering to his favour. He has just executed his fifth wife, the giddy and silly Catherine Howard, and the great families of the realm are hopefully pressing their nubile daughters under his nose. But Henry has had enough of young women. His eyes have turned to maturity and good sense: the twice-widowed Katherine Lanyer, born Katherine Parr. Katherine is bright, gentle and wise: wise enough to want nothing less than to become queen. But, when the King calls, he must be answered; and soon Katherine finds herself at the heart of the Tudor web, ministering to a man whose precarious favour can disappear in a flash. Thoughtful and well-crafted, this novel brings the claustrophobia of the late Henrician court to life.
At over thirty years old, Katherine does not expect to attract the king’s attention. She has lost two husbands, the last much older than herself, and the last thing she wants is to become nurse to another ailing elderly man. But the king’s word is law, and so Katherine must uproot her household, taking her beloved stepdaughter Meg and her bright servant girl Dot with her as she joins the court. Through Katherine’s and Dot’s eyes, Fremantle shows us different aspects of being a woman in Tudor England, whether that’s in the freedom (or lack thereof) to choose a lover, or the chance to have an education. In fact, education – and most especially reading – plays a key role, in the sense that Katherine is a committed supporter of English bibles and religious works, which allow people to understand their faith in their own language. The presence in the novel of the courageous preacher Anne Askew emphasises the thirst among women to understand, preach and discuss religious matters – and the concomitant dangers. Katherine must find a way to combine personal integrity with survival, in a court which dances to one old man’s whim, and where one day’s favour can be another day’s condemnation.
Fremantle says in her author’s note that she was attracted to Katherine because she has been overlooked by other authors; and this is true. Against the dignified torment of Catherine of Aragon, the seductive allure of Anne Boleyn, or the flighty fickleness of Catherine Howard, Katherine Parr has always seemed less immediately gripping at first sight. But Fremantle shows us a woman of remarkable and subtle depth, whose intellectual curiosity brings her into the circles of Reformation theologians, and who was the first English queen to publish her own work in English. Katherine also seemed, to me, more in control of her own fate than earlier queens had been; that’s not to say she had nothing to fear from Henry’s unpredictability, for Fremantle shows us that no one is safe, but she is not the tool of an ambitious family (she gives her brother, Will Parr, short shrift). However, just because she can control her own fate doesn’t always mean that she makes the right decisions, and her complicated relationship with Thomas Seymour is one very good example of that.
The greatest strength of the book, for me, is that way that Fremantle evokes the stifling, suffocating fear at the end of Henry’s reign: true despotism, in a world where the rules might change without warning. In a similar vein, I’ve spotted a history book which compares Henry to Nero – rather dramatic, I thought initially, but perhaps not all that extreme in light of this all-pervasive walking-on-eggshells fear. Naturally I now need to complete Fremantle’s Tudor trilogy with her book about the two younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey, Sisters of Treason, and Watch the Lady, which focuses on Penelope Devereux. I also have her recently-published book The Poison Bed waiting on my TBR pile. If her other novels are anything to go by, these will be extremely good, so I’m rationing them out a bit. You’ll have noticed that otherwise, I do tend to steer away from novels set at the Tudor court – I always fear they’ll cover well-trodden ground – but Fremantle has really won me over. Focusing on fascinating, lesser-known protagonists, with vividly engaging atmosphere, her books come highly recommended.