Book review: Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Queen's Gambit
Queen's Gambit

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived... many of us know the common mnemonic device to remember the fates of Henry VIII’s six wives.

But how much do we know of sole survivor Katherine Parr, his remarkable last queen who beat the odds to outlive the Machiavellian monarch, and whose life has often been overshadowed by her more hapless predecessors?

Historical novels have tended to sideline Katherine’s story as less tumultuous and dangerously dramatic than the likes of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, but debut novelist Elizabeth Fremantle knows better.

Queen’s Gambit, a painstakingly researched and bold retelling of the final years of Henry’s reign, lifts his last – and most intellectually robust – wife out of the shadows and gives her a gilded stage on which to shine.

It’s an audacious move and one that pays off in this gripping and enthralling story which takes us to the heart of the political power play at the Tudor court where the ageing, obese king is dying and the ambitious are gathering to manoeuvre for the Crown.

The stakes are high and Fremantle’s richly atmospheric and electrically charged account, relayed through the triple perspectives of Katherine, her loyal maid Dot Fownten and royal physician Dr Robert Huicke, does full justice to what turns out to be another riveting chapter in Tudor history.

When she is widowed for the second time aged only 31, Katherine is obliged to return to court but, suspicious of the ageing, capricious Henry and the scheming courtiers who surround him, she does so with reluctance.

After two marriages to men years older than herself, Katherine falls head over heels in love with the dashing and seductive Thomas Seymour, uncle of the king’s young son Prince Edward and a man Katherine believes she might finally be able to marry for love.

But her presence at court has attracted the attentions of another, even more powerful suitor. Captivated by her honesty, dignity and intelligence, Henry Tudor has his own plans for Katherine and no one is in the position to refuse a proposal from the king.

‘You could not rise higher,’ observes Katherine’s ambitious brother Will Parr. ‘Nor fall further,’ is her acerbic reply.

Jealous of Seymour’s attentions to Katherine, Henry dispatches her charismatic lover to a diplomatic mission in the Netherlands and she becomes the king’s sixth wife.

Passionate about religious reform, and ever aware of the fates of his previous queens, Katherine must now draw upon all her instincts and guile to navigate the treachery of the court.

But with the Catholic faction once more in the ascendency, reformers burned for heresy and those around the dying king vying for position in the new regime, her survival in a world where being a woman ‘is a whore’s job’ seems increasingly unlikely.

And yet the indomitable queen has still not quite given up on love...

Fremantle paints a memorable portrait of Katherine, an intelligent, humane, politically astute woman whose prescience, quick thinking and careful management of the volatile king enabled her to keep one step ahead of the court schemers... and to outlive her husband.

Her story is cleverly offset by the parallel testaments of Dot and Huicke who oversee the action and allow us a glimpse of Tudor life outside the gilded corridors of Westminster Palace.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of Queen’s Gambit is the author’s ability to transform a story whose outcome we all know and create a palpable sense of tension within Katherine’s narrative, highlighting so starkly and painfully just how differently this last wife’s story could have ended.

Her fate after Henry’s death – carried off by a post-natal fever after giving birth to the traitorous Thomas Seymour’s daughter – was not the fairytale that true romantics may have hoped for, but Elizabeth, the reformer, the intellectual and the artful political player, lives on as an enduring emblem of survival.

A thrilling and entertaining story heralding a promising new career...

(Michael Joseph, hardback, £14.99)