Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit, the first in her Tudor Trilogy, tells the tale of Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s wives and the one that outlived him (albeit barely). I hadn’t known as much about her compared to the more famous Catherine of Aragon or the more infamous Anne Boleyn, so I was intrigued.
Newly widowed for the second time in her life, Katherine Parr falls deeply in love with dashing courtier Thomas Seymour. But her return to court has sparked the affections of a more dangerous suitor, King Henry VIII, whose marriage proposal she has no choice but to accept. Determined not to fall victim to the same fates as his previous wives, Katherine struggles to keep her feelings for Thomas and her sympathies towards the Protestant Reformation hidden in a treacherous environment where rivals watch her every move, as the king’s health ails and the Catholic faction regains their power over crown and country.
Fremantle’s language evokes the atmosphere of the Tudor court beautifully. The dialogue seems apt for the time and the characters are mostly well-drawn. The exception to that is strangely Katherine herself, who comes across as aloof even from the reader. Fremantle portrays Katherine’s struggle over her emotions realistically. I sympathized with Katherine’s basically forced marriage to Henry and feared for her as it seemed to go sour, though I was frustrated as a reader by my inability to understand Thomas’ appeal for her and her blindness to his faults.
I didn’t discover this until digging afterwards but Fremantle’s novel is fairly historically accurate. Katherine was indeed dazzled by Thomas, whom she eventually wed hastily soon after Henry’s death. The most salacious detail of their romance was that he apparently seduced her stepdaughter and ward, the future Queen Elizabeth, under Katherine’s own roof as she was pregnant with their child. His indiscretions likely led to her failing health, culminating in her death in childbirth. Tragically, the fate of her infant remains lost to history, so her only legacy is her survival in the Tudor court.
However, she was a fascinating figure, extremely well-educated and the first Queen of England to be a published author. Despite never experiencing motherhood with her own child, she served as a guardian and adored parental figure for all three Tudor royal children, bringing them together in a way that briefly transcended their quarrels. As queen-centric historical fictions go, I preferred The Queen’s Vow about Isabella of Castile, but Katherine bore admirable similarities to the parts of Isabella’s character that impressed me. Overall, this was still a solid read that would be enjoyed by fans of Philippa Gregory.