The latter half of Henry VIII’s married life seems anticlimactic after the drama of breaking with Rome to oust Katherine of Aragon and bring in Anne Boleyn only to have her beheaded for adultery, treason, and incest. Thus, Katherine Parr, wife number six, distinguished as the “one who survived,” is relatively unexplored territory for Elizabeth Fremantle to base her first novel, Queen’s Gambit, on.
The story starts as the life of Lord Latymer, Katherine’s second husband, draws to a close, and she is summoned to court. Having caught the fancy of the aging Henry VIII in his volatile, obese, and ulcerous stage, Katherine is not free to marry the dashing Thomas Seymour (a younger brother of Jane Seymour, the third queen) for love. The blurb gives the impression that the book centers on this love triangle, but the actual focus is Katherine’s life starting around age 31 in 1543 until her death in 1548. Indeed, the central strength of Fremantle’s portrayal is that Katherine is depicted as a poised, intelligent, and multi-faceted woman. Pragmatically accepting her position as Queen, Katherine nudges Henry towards reconciliation with his daughters Mary and Elizabeth and discretely promotes the Protestant faith. She also briefly ruled as regent while Henry was waging a military campaign in France.
Mainly told from the perspective of Katherine and her trusted servant Dot, most of the story has a passive quality, likely reflecting the status of women in the sixteenth century. For example, Katherine survives a coup instigated by the Catholic faction, but instead of an insider’s view of the courtly intrigues, readers are waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop along with Katherine in her chambers. After the death of Henry VIII, the story seems to lose steam and ultimately ends on a sad note as Katherine dies from childbirth-related complications. However, I was glad to see a complex portrayal of this female monarch, possibly a role model for the future Elizabeth, who was Katherine’s ward after the king’s death, from an author who is working on future volumes of a Tudor trilogy.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.