Widowed for the second time at age thirty-one Katherine Parr falls deeply for the dashing courtier Thomas Seymour and hopes at last to marry for love. However, obliged to return to court, she attracts the attentions of the ailing, egotistical, and dangerously powerful Henry VIII, who dispatches his love rival, Seymour, to the Continent. No one is in a position to refuse a royal proposal so, haunted by the fates of his previous wives—two executions, two annulments, one death in childbirth—Katherine must wed Henry and become his sixth queen.
Katherine has to employ all her instincts to navigate the treachery of the court, drawing a tight circle of women around her, including her stepdaughter, Meg, traumatized by events from their past that are shrouded in secrecy, and their loyal servant Dot, who knows and sees more than she understands. With the Catholic faction on the rise once more, reformers being burned for heresy, and those close to the king vying for position, Katherine’s survival seems unlikely. Yet as she treads the razor’s edge of court intrigue, she never quite gives up on love.
Katherine Parr was Henry VIII’s sixth queen and one I’m not as familiar with as, for example, Catherine of Aragon or Anne Boleyn. So this novel covering her rise to queen and her life after Henry’s death was a welcome look at Tudor history from an angle I hadn’t encountered before. The impression I had from what I had read about Katherine Parr was that she was a dutiful wife, caring and patient, and perhaps after Jane Seymour the queen that most pleased Henry. The Queen’s Gambit has shown me that while all of this may have been true, Katherine Parr wasn’t a meek and obedient helpmeet to care for Henry in his dotage. She’s shown to be a resourceful, educated, smart woman, and – together with the first Catherine – was the only one to have been named regent. The story is told from two different points of view one Katharine’s own and one from one of her servants, Dot Fownten. I found this an interesting choice as it gives us the story from the horse’s mouth and from the perspective of someone in the thick of things, but mostly invisible to those around her, which allows for a curious mixture of insider’s perspective and someone looking in for the outside.
The book gives us a sympathetic portrayal of Katherine. It shows us a woman forced to marry the king against her wishes, both to keep her life and to further her family’s ambitions. While the ones in power are the men – Henry, Gardiner, Wriothesley, and Hertford among others – this is a women’s story, focusing on what the decisions of those in power have on women. From Katherine being forced into an undesired marriage, to the two princesses Mary and Elizabeth, to the various aristocratic wives and even the common servants around the castle, they all are subject to the whims and decisions of men and any influence they wield has to be well-disguised and indirect. We see the constant fear Katherine has to deal with due to Henry’s unpredictable nature and her struggle to stay on the good side of the king. In Sister Anne, Katherine’s younger sister, we find a woman who has served all of Henry’s queens and her inclusion in this story emphasises the tragedy of all of Henry’s wives and I found Anne’s sadness over Catherine Howard’s fate quite touching and it made me think how hard it must have been to have served as one of the Queen’s ladies all those years, always remaining, while those unfortunate queens came and went. How frightening must it have been for her to see her sister be singled out for Henry’s favour and put in a position that hadn’t ended well for its inhabitant ever before.
The narrative also showed how much politics and religion were interwoven in Henry’s reign. Katherine is a reformer, a staunch Calvinist in a country still torn apart by religious debate, where one could be a Catholic or a Protestant of the Lutheran variety, but anything further removed from the old faith was dangerous. I enjoyed seeing how this influenced Katherine’s reign, but at the end of the day, I still don’t know the difference between a Lutheran and a Calvinist, perhaps a little more explanation would have been preferable. Tellingly, where both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn where directly or indirectly set aside due to their inability to give Henry a son, Katherine Parr’s only brush with the headman’s block wasn’t due to her not falling pregnant by Henry, but due to her religious beliefs and her discussions of these with the king.
And, of course, there is the love story; two of them actually. I enjoyed the romance between Dot and her Will. Her infatuation with Will, one of the scribes at court, was sweet and the way they got together was laced with danger and also quite charming. I wasn’t such a fan of Katherine’s paramour Thomas Seymour, who throughout the book is portrayed as a peacock and I found him becoming more and more unpleasant as the book went on. It was hard to see Katherine falling under his spell so thoroughly that she couldn’t see him for what he was, particularly as we have Dot’s perspective to see him as he appears to those around Katherine. But then again, he must have been such an enthralling figure, especially after having been wedded and bedded by two old men, so her bedazzlement isn’t hard to understand.
The Queen’s Gambit is a solid debut, which shows off Fremantle’s ability to tell a well-known story from a new perspective and with its own identity. I truly enjoyed this look at a remarkable queen, who did much to influence two future monarchs of England, King Edward VI and Elizabeth I. The Queen’s Gambit is a great addition to the many books on the Tudor era already out there and if you have any interest in that era at all, this book is definitely worth a read.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.