“Fiction offers the scope to develop ideas that have no place in a history book, but which can help to illuminate motives and emotions.”
In the Shadow of Queens, by Alison Weir, is a collection of fourteen short stories, most of which were released in digital format to accompany the author’s Six Tudor Queens series. Brought together here in a beautifully bound book, they offer further insights into the lives of the aristocracy, and those who served them, during the increasingly turbulent reign of Henry VIII and beyond.
After an introduction by the author, the collection opens with what turned out to be my favourite story. The voice is that of a young Arthur, the heir to the Tudor throne, whose untimely death led to his brother, Henry, taking on both Arthur’s wife and the role he had been so diligently prepared for. Arthur was raised apart from his parents and siblings, in a castle near the Welsh borders where he was to learn the arts of kingship. Although mostly fond of those charged with his care and education, it proved a lonely existence. Weir skilfully captures the voice of a child trying hard to please but still too young to fully grasp the political aspects of his father’s ambitions.
“Arthur did his best to look suitably impressed, but getting married meant nothing to him and it was ages and ages away in the future. He just hoped that, when she came to England, Catalina would share his interest in King Arthur and St George and toy soldiers.”
Quite a number of the stories that follow focus on young women who served the ladies of the royal court. Most came from wealthy families and were expected to remain chaste but also attract a suitable husband. I found the risks they took frustrating to read as again and again a young lady, aware of the cost to her reputation, permitted her admirer access to her body. Of course, such desires are natural, but all around, at this time, were men and women punished horrifically for indulging in such behaviour, or even abetting it.
Despite covering each Queen’s life in detail within the original series, some of these stories delve into additional aspects of their lives (why were they not included in the individual and lengthy fictionalised biographies?). Anne Boleyn’s sojourn with a French suitor would have been more interesting had it been less repetitive – she takes increasingly bold risks that appear foolish in her attempt to retain her beloved’s interest. Given the rabid court gossip, I pondered how Henry remained unaware of this history of hers – she had so many detractors when he became smitten.
The Princess of Scotland started well, offering an alternative setting around the life led there, but became more of the same when its subject entered the English court. Her behaviour, again, was bound to bring down trouble. She knew she was now a chattel of the King.
The stories featuring servants added welcome variety, although if their employers fell out of favour they too could be drawn into the ensuing maelstrom. It was a dangerous time to have anything to do with anyone the King may notice and therefore blame, as yet another of his wives fell.
Several names appear repeatedly, their lives rarely running smoothly. Children run the gauntlet of ambitious parents. Those who serve must travel wherever sent. I enjoyed the story of the painter required to teach The Princess of Cleves English, although would personally have preferred it to end earlier.
It will come as no surprise to readers that there are many, many deaths. Some of these are natural, particularly following childbirth, while others are punishment for behaviour. Coming back to the risks some took, for love or ambition, it grew harder to conjure sympathy.
I enjoyed the author’s take on what happened to Katherine Parr’s baby daughter. This tale offered a window into the world of children raised away from their families, within the households of supposed benefactors. The precarious situation female children could face if without a financial settlement provided interest.
A couple of the stories include a contemporary setting. These worked well. The final tale in the collection reveals the appalling treatment of Katherine Parr’s dead body through the ages. There is a degree of dark humour as those harbouring a lofty curiosity in history seek the kudos of viewing a rare artefact, and then cannot resist taking a damaging souvenir. Each believes they are better, more respectful, than their predecessors then behave in the same selfish way (I do not include the author, who has written herself in, here).
There are ghosts aplenty alongside descriptions of grand buildings, many of which still exist albeit in a redesigned or derelict state. Perhaps it is their longevity that makes the history of the wealthy so much easier to interrogate than that of the majority of the population.
This may be the weakest book by Weir I have read but that is not to say it is bad, although it did drag in places. I suspect the stories worked better when released as shorts alongside the books they were written to accompany. Nevertheless, they complete what has been a fascinating series.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline Review.
My reviews of The Six Tudor Queens Series:
Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen
Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession
Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen
Anna of Kleve, Queen of Secrets
Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen
Katherine Parr, The Sixth Wife