My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Queen’s Rival is the third installment of Diane Haeger’s In the Court of Henry VIII series. It follows the teenage years of young Bessie Blount who suddenly finds herself a maid in Katherine of Aragon’s house hold when her father is hurt in battle and her mother returns to their country home to nurse him back to health.
Unprotected at court by her courtier parents, Bessie must learn court life from other teenage attendants. She soon finds herself fast-friends with Elizabeth Bryan, daughter to one of Henry’s close friends, and Gil Tailbois, the ward of Cardinal Wolsey. While Bessie finds comfort in these close friends everyone at court has secrets, and it is what it never said that could hurt Bessie the most.
During Henry VIII’s reign England is in a constant political battle between France, Spain and Rome. The island country cannot stand alone and must have support from neighboring countries to maintain its ranking as a world power. Henry was raised knowing his duty was to England above all else. He must produce an heir. Little else matters to Henry, even matters of his heart.
Surrounding Henry are members of his inner circle constantly arguing between themselves for the king’s favor and attention. And the source of Henry’s greatest concern is his aging wife who seems unable to give him the one thing he asks of her, a son. Sensing Henry’s growing unhappiness with her, Katherine of Aragon has become increasingly pious and prays several times a day restricting the ladies of her house hold to the most ladylike and restraining behavior.
In sharp contrast to how Queen Katherine manages the stress of her marriage, Henry fills his house hold with music and merry-making. While Henry VIII’s marriages have been well documented – as the price for making the king unhappy was often the queen’s head – he had many more dalliances that have not been highlighted to the same level of notoriety. For each time Queen Katherine took to her bed pregnant, Henry found someone to keep him entertained.
Although Bessie joined the court as a young teenager and watched the king with the same starry eyes as her contemporaries, she manages to stand out not as a passing fling for the often fickle king but as a mistress. While the king admits to her that he has had previous lovers – someone to pass the time with – he claims that she is his only mistress – someone who would mean more to him.
What neither of these unsuspecting lovers anticipates is that Bessie would become pregnant with the King’s child. In that one revelation the passionate lovers’ games are over. As Queen Katherine anxiously prays daily to give the King a son, Bessie finds herself in position to do just that. How Henry deals with the news will change Bessie’s life and England forever.
Haeger has managed again in this her twelfth novel to bring to life historical characters and present them with new life. I particularly enjoyed her portrait of Wolsey in this novel. While this novel is set in another world and time from ours, Haeger relies on emotions that bind us all to being human; the ties between child and parent, between brother and sister, between friends, and between lovers. Haeger makes you feel those ties for her characters as if they are as real as the ties you have today in your life. That is the mark of an experienced writer worth reading. Enjoy!