Frances Pierce, daughter of a baronet, is inflicted with the natural hubris of youth, flying in the face of her family’s outrage to watch the progress of Henry VIII and his paramour, Anne Boleyn, as they pass the village on their hunting trip in Hunsden, England. When she realizes that the local women are planning to pelt the king’s consort with mud, Frances blocks the assault with her horse, receiving the brunt of the mud on her person.
Frances’ bravery attracts Boleyn’s attention, and the young girl is invited to return to London with the royal party as one of Anne’s attendants, a situation only agreed upon by her family because of the girl’s increased marriage prospects as a member of the court.
With little political knowledge, only vaguely aware of the perfidious machinations of those seeking the king’s favor and no inclination to educate herself in the ways of the court, Frances enthusiastically endorses Anne’s attempts to replace Catherine of Aragon as the wife of the king. Eventually, Frances will learn that “ambition is a dangerous companion.”
Lutheran Reformists are the Boleyns hope to sway Henry to their way of thinking. Anne urges him to follow the Lutherans’ less papist practices, which would work in her favor in dethroning Catherine, but Henry delays making up his mind, loathe to throw over the reins of the established Christian church for the more somber practice of Lutheranism. At times, Henry is extremely conservative in his religious views, especially when taking on the power of the Catholic Church.
At one point, on a trip to Calais with Boleyn’s entourage, the impressionable Frances falls under the spell of Anne’s charismatic and handsome brother, George Boleyn: “On that muddy beach in Calais I lost my heart and I lost my reason.” Although this infatuation is soon replaced by another romantic entanglement, George Boleyn remains a bit of a canard; however, the schoolgirl crush is used effectively later as damning evidence of Anne’s treachery when Henry seeks to replace her as his queen.
Gardner gives a familiar story a slightly different twist in the eyes of Anne’s handmaiden, Frances often irritatingly naïve thanks to her country background, and ever innocent of the subtle treacheries of the court. But she is devoted to Boleyn by necessity, glossing over the woman’s flaws, which are significant.
Although the historical perspective is weak in detail, Frances forever claiming “ignorance of men’s matters,” the novel is successful as a personal narrative, a young woman’s infatuation with power and a blind loyalty to Henry’s consort, who is clever, manipulative and cruel in her single-minded pursuit of the throne. It is curious that the loyal and honorable seventeen-year-old finds this woman sympathetic, but the association makes for an energetic adventure as Henry VIII continues his quest for a male heir.