Who (or what) provoked current audience’s fascination with all things Tudor? Was it Philippa Gregory and her book The Other Boleyn Girl published in 2001? Does it go back even further to the film Elizabeth (1998)? It’s hard to pinpoint when the modern day obsession actually began, but with television shows like The Tudors, Philippa Gregory’s continued success, the critical and commercial success of books like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series, it seems pretty clear that the 15th and 16th centuries continue to occupy readers’ (and viewers’) minds.
Enter Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit, which eschews some of the more popular targets— Anne Boleyn or Queen Elizabeth—and instead focuses on Henry’s last wife (often referred to in both fiction and non as the “Sixth Wife”) Katherine Parr.
Parr’s story involves almost as many marriages as King Henry’s. She was married four times, with King Henry being her third husband. The book begins as her second husband is dying and ends with Parr’s death, as her fourth husband, the unfaithful but charming Thomas Seymour, watches on.
Fremantle makes Parr the primary story, but faithful servant (and close friend to her step-daughter Meg) Dot Fownten provides another perspective. Both stories are much as one would expect—political and religious intrigue with Dot spending time in Newgate Prison and Parr living in fear for her life when political adversaries try to unseat her. The brutalities of King Henry—from his strange and seemingly violent sexual proclivities to his unpredictability with favors and favoritism—come through clearly.
Fremantle makes King Henry all the stranger by having him speak using the royal we. After returning from a hunt, Henry calls to Katherine “We are come from the hunt… and wanted a sight of our beautiful wife on the eve of our wedding.” Katherine wonders “if the royal ‘we’ means himself and God, or him and his other self—for he is known, after all, for having two sides” and questions “Will he use it even in the bedchamber?” He does.
Another voice in the book is that of Dr. Robert Huicke—Henry’s physician who tends to Katherine’s second husband and becomes a friend and confidant to Katherine herself. This friendship is not surprising as both secrets and healing bond the two. The first—their secrets: Katherine has many, particularly in terms of her religious tendencies and wish for religious reform. Fremantle gives Huicke a potentially lethal secret as well—in Queen’s Gambit Huicke is homosexual and his partner is author Nicholas Udall. Udall, as Fremantle notes, was dismissed from Eton for “immoral reasons”, perhaps one prompt behind this plot twist. Still, Fremantle makes clear “there is no evidence whatsoever that Dr. Robert Huicke was homosexual. Having said that, Queen’s Gambit is a novel and as such all my characters are fictions.”
Jumping off from that, the Parr Fremantle creates is an interesting character. She’s intelligent—refusing to sign anything without reading it first—and willing to make sacrifices to survive, but she is still blinded by Thomas Seymour’s charm. She has strong convictions, reads “heretical” texts, and persuades Henry to restore Mary and Elizabeth to the succession. She’s a good friend and often kind and compassionate—even to Henry. Because of her knowledge of herbal medicine, Katherine’s husbands often seem to thrust her into the position of nurse. And here Fremantle adds perhaps another fictional element—would Katherine use her medicinal knowledge to kill?
The book opens with Parr’s second husband terminally ill, in pain, and ready to die. He thinks: “This tumor, eating away at him slowly, is his punishment, and all he can do to atone is make her rich. How can he ask for one more thing of her? If she could inhabit his wracked body even for an instant she would do his bidding without question. It would be an act of mercy, and there is no sin in that, surely.” And surely no historic evidence suggests that Katherine would resort to killing of any kind (later in the book there is the suggestion that Katherine plots Henry’s murder), but returning again to Fremantle’s endnotes: “From this distance in time even much historical ‘fact’ is based on misapprehension and conjecture, and people’s thoughts and feelings can be only imagined”. It’s not a bad philosophy for a historical novelist (or a historical novel).
Queen’s Gambit is a good historical novel, full of rich detail and political intrigue. While Dot’s story doesn’t seem completely developed and at times is almost a little distracting, Fremantle brings an intelligent and resourceful Katherine Parr to life in a fast-paced, well-told story.