Although I don’t usually read “bodice-ripper” novels (a genre Queen's Gambit skirts around the edges of), I found Fremantle’s account of a woman who was ahead of her Tudor time consistently compelling. Highly intelligent and well-educated, Katherine Parr (1512-1548) was the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII. A woman often neglected and mythologized by historians since her death, Katherine was a bright, sexy woman who spoke and read several modern languages as well as Latin.
Fremantle melds both fact and fiction to portray Katherine as a dutiful and devoted spouse, even to those first two marriages that were not borne out of love. She was married as a teenager to Edward Borough, a rich and eccentric man who died when she was only twenty. Then she married John Neville, Lord Latimer, who was much older than Katherine and died while she was still young. Katherine, twice widowed, was then wed to Henry VIII and became the Queen of England.
Queen's Gambit focuses on Katherine’s faithful maid, Dot, and Henry's doctor, Robert Huicke, who relates both Kate’s turbulent marriage to Henry and the stresses she was placed under to protect her interests through a time of great religious turmoil and rebellion. Through Dot and Robert, we see that Katherine did in fact have true affection and respect for Henry, perhaps even a kind of love, and that she was a loyal wife to him, despite so many accounts of her being a glorified nurse to a man who was growing ever more petulant and fragile.
The novel begins right after the death of Lord Latimer and just before Katherine is betrothed to Henry. Even as “sin is written into her dead husband’s guts,” Kate is ambushed by her long-averted need for affection. She falls hopelessly in love with handsome Thomas Seymour, but like many passionate matches of the time, the affair is sabotaged from the beginning, destined never to be as Katherine is called upon to marry her King. And marry she must. Katherine’s destiny is woven into her like the pattern in a carpet, and the men in her life—the King, her brother, Will, and a mendacious Lord Herford—quickly move to seal her fate.
Moving between Hampton Court’s idle gossip and rumor mill, Will’s insatiable ambition and Henry’s rage fueled by his insatiable need for another son, Katherine must cast aside any qualms. As the King’s great, fat fingers prod at her and his stench ignites a terror within her, we come to feel Katherine’s horror at being tied to him forever by marriage and the desperate duty of producing an heir at her age. Even as she resolutely sticks to her black mourning garb, Katherine finally realizes her obdurate position as Henry’s next conquest. She knows real fear, having watched Henry cast off one wife after another.
From Whitehall Palace to London’s Charterhouse, everyone takes great pains to appear polite in a landscape that seethes with duplicitous snakes. One must walk a fine line between what is deemed allowable and what is deemed heresy. Katherine becomes caught up in the power play between the great ruling families, the Howards and the Seymours, as each vies for position in Henry’s court. As the endless plots and rumors abound, Katherine can see her enemies circling, though her resilience proves to be as impenetrable and unshakable as ever. Meanwhile, poor, illiterate Dot goes about in a bewildered stupor, hardly knowing where to put herself. Fremantle gets to the heart of both Dot and Katherine’s dilemmas, compressing every sense of danger that hides behind the brilliant tapestries, the finery and the jewelry.
Katherine’s desire for furthering religious reform almost proves to be her undoing, yet she fearfully—and smartly—pulls back into the King's good graces, somewhat diminished but nevertheless forgiven. In Fremantle’s accomplished hands, we see Katherine’s great influence on English history and how her love and concern for all three of Henry’s gifted children—Mary, Elizabeth and Edward (the future King)—made her a trusted friend they could turn to in the absence of their ailing and diminished father.