Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle tells the story of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. For several reasons, she is an unlikely choice of bride. Katherine is no unmarried maiden when they wed. Henry is actually her third husband! In addition, Katherine is not young; when she marries the king, she is thirty-one (considered middle-aged in the 1540s). Her age makes her a surprising choice for a man who is desperate to sire more sons to secure the Tudor possession of the throne.
Fremantle does a good job of demonstrating the personal qualities that causes Henry to marry Katherine despite her seeming disadvantages. She can be sensible and tactful, yet she is also intelligent and brave. For example, she is not afraid to beat the king at chess. In a court full of sycophants, that honesty and courage make her stand out in the king’s eyes.
As Fremantle interprets Katherine, however, she is not always prudent. Between the death of her second husband and the offer of marriage from the king, she is swept away by passionate love for Tom Seymour, even though her first impression is that he’s too glib and self-regarding to trust. Much of the tension of the novel derives from Katherine’s fear that Henry will somehow learn of this prior love. After all, other queens before her have been sent to the block for unchastity and infidelity—real or imagined.
Several secondary characters added greatly to my enjoyment of the novel. My favorite of these was Katherine’s servant Dot, who is unschooled yet wise, observant, and fiercely loyal to her mistress. Dot’s longing for the court musician William Savage provides romantic interest during the chapters when Tom Seymour is out of the picture.
Fremantle is adept at plotting and characterization. Her descriptions offer enough period details to ground the reader firmly in the historical place and time without bogging down the prose. I can honestly say that I much preferred this book to the last one I read by Philippa Gregory, whom many regard as the queen of Tudor fiction. I’m looking forward to many more good reads by Elizabeth Fremantle.