The Poison Bed by E. C. Fremantle

The Poison Bed is a slight change of direction for Elizabeth Fremantle. She has previously written four conventional historical fiction novels set in the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, telling the stories of Katherine Parr (Queen’s Gambit), Katherine and Mary Grey (Sisters of Treason), Penelope Devereux (Watch the Lady) and Arbella Stuart and Aemilia Lanyer (The Girl in the Glass Tower). This, her latest novel, also features the story of a strong and fascinating woman, but includes additional elements of mystery and suspense which give the book the feel of a psychological thriller at times. It’s not entirely different from her other books, but different enough that she obviously felt a slight change in name was appropriate.

The novel opens in 1615 with Frances Howard and her husband Robert Carr imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of the murder of Thomas Overbury. Overbury had been a friend of Robert’s, but was opposed to his marriage to Frances – is this why he had to die, or could there be another reason? There is certainly plenty of evidence to link both Frances and Robert with his poisoning, but in order to discover the truth, we must go back to the beginning of their relationship and follow the chain of events that led to Overbury’s death.

Robert and Frances take turns to tell their side of the story in alternating chapters headed ‘Him’ and ‘Her’. Robert’s is written as a straightforward first person narrative, while Frances relates her story to a young wet nurse who is sharing her room in the Tower to help take care of her newborn baby. In this way we get to know both main characters, as well as their friends, family members and rivals – but it’s important to remember that at the court of King James I, nobody is ever exactly as they seem.

As one of the ambitious and powerful Howard family, Frances could be seen as a pawn, pushed into making one advantageous marriage after another – first to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and then to Robert Carr. Yet Frances is an intelligent young woman with a mind of her own; she is prepared to do what is necessary to take control of her destiny…but would this include murder?

Robert Carr is the king’s favourite – some would say the king’s lover – and this has enabled him to rise to a much higher position at court than he could otherwise have hoped to achieve. Robert (at least as he is depicted by Fremantle) does not really have the strength of character to take advantage of this, but others, such as Frances’s scheming great-uncle, see getting close to Robert as a way of wielding influence over the king. Robert denies any involvement in Thomas Overbury’s murder, but is he telling the truth?

While Robert and Frances, as our narrators and protagonists, are always at the heart of the novel, there are other interesting characters to get to know too. I particularly liked the portrayal of James I and his relationship with Robert, but I also enjoyed the elements of black magic in the story and the roles played by the astrologer Simon Forman and the physician’s widow Anne Turner. There’s a lot going on in this novel, which makes it quite a gripping read. I found the first half more enjoyable than the second, which is when the thriller aspect becomes more dominant, but that’s just my personal preference.

The Poison Bed, in case you’re wondering, is based on a true story – you can find plenty of information on the Overbury Scandal online – but the interpretation of the characters and their motives is Fremantle’s own. If all of this is new to you, I would recommend not looking up any of the facts until after you’ve finished the novel as it’s a story packed with twists, turns and surprises. I have read about the same events before, in Marjorie Bowen’s The King’s Favourite from 1938, but this is a very different book, with a fresh and different approach. I love the cover too!

It seems that the author is currently writing another historical crime novel under the E.C. Fremantle name called The Honey and the Sting. I’m curious to see what it is about.

This is book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

My Commonplace Book: November 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary



“Barbarians,” she murmured in tones of disbelief. “Barbarians.” Perhaps if she said the word often enough she could defuse the threat. “But in that case…we’re finished. We’re all dead.” It was just as Lord Nariakira had warned. These were not gentle Hollanders. These were other beings, those nameless hordes who’d rampaged across China. Barbarians like those didn’t come in peace. They threatened their lives, their world, everything they knew.

Things were spinning around her. The world was turning upside down. But she couldn’t help feeling curious as well. She wished she could catch a glimpse of these exotic creatures with her own eyes.

The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer (2016)


“And then do ye wait and see more; there’ll be plenty of opportunity. Time enough to cry when you know ’tis a crying matter; and ’tis bad to meet troubles half-way.”

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy (1887)


My family were not readers, but Xavier Mountstuart’s writings had inspired and transported me. I had devoured The Courage of the Bruce and The Black Prince, then graduated to the Indian writings: The Lion of the Punjab, of course, and the tales of bandits and rebels in the foothills of Nepal. I had read of white forts and marble palaces and maharajas’ emeralds; of zenanas and nautch girls in the Deccan; of the sieges and jangals. I had even read a short tract about Hindooism, vegetarianism and republicanism, which had left me a little confused. Mountstuart seemed to me the very acme of Byronic manhood. It was not simply that he was a poet and writer of genius, but that he had lived his writings.

The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter (2014)



“Now, what mean you by that?”

“Just that I am a common highwayman, Miss Betty.”

She stared at him for a moment, and then resumed her work.

“You look it.”

John cast a startled glance down his slim person.

“Is that so, madam? And I rather flattered myself I did not!”

The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer (1921)


“No, I don’t care for novels,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ve never really understood them, if I’m honest.”

“In what way?” I asked, confused by how the concept of the novel could be a difficult one to understand. There were some writers, of course, who told their stories in the most convoluted way possible — many of whom seemed to send their unsolicited manuscripts to the Whisby Press, for instance — but there were others, such as Jack London, who offered their readers such a respite from the miserable horror of existence that their books were like gifts from the gods.

The Absolutist by John Boyne (2011)



Frances struck an attitude, sitting upright with head poised high and left hand outstretched as though she grasped an invisible weapon. “Of course, when I am really posing for Roettier, the engraver, I shall wear a helmet and hold a trident and I shall have flowing, Grecian robes. It was altogether the King’s idea, but James of York thought it should be called Britannia. To represent the nation’s might.”

Lady on the Coin by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1963)


“My thoughts are my own,” I answered: “and though you keep my person prisoner, these are beyond your control.”

Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott (1824)


“Not to my knowledge, sir,” said the Viscount.

“I’m glad to hear it! But if you had agreed to the marriage I planned for you a son of yours might have been sitting on my knee at this moment!”

“I hesitate to contradict you, sir, but I find myself quite unable to believe that any grandchild attempting — at this moment — to sit on your knee would have met with anything but a severe rebuff.”

Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer (1970)



She has a soft spot for little Peter; he had asked why he needed to learn to read when he first arrived.

“Because without reading you only have half a life,” she’d said, watching his puzzled face. “Reading will open doors for you to new worlds.” He had looked at her in wonder then.

“Like the men who sail to the Americas?”

“Yes, something like that.”

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle (2016)


Favourite books this month: The Woodlanders and The Strangler Vine

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle

watch-the-lady I’ve fallen behind with Elizabeth Fremantle’s books; having read Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason shortly after they came out, the publication of her next book – Watch the Lady – seemed to escape my notice and now there’s also a fourth novel, The Girl in the Glass Tower. I discovered that my library had both and decided that Watch the Lady, her novel about the 16th century noblewoman Penelope Devereux, would be the next one I read.

Penelope’s story is one that is not often told; she has appeared as a minor character in other books I’ve read set during the Elizabethan period, such as Elizabeth I by Margaret George, but this is the first novel I’ve come across in which she is the main character.

Penelope is related to Elizabeth I through her mother, Lettice Knollys, a granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth’s aunt. Lettice has incurred the Queen’s displeasure by secretly marrying Robert Dudley, the man said to be Elizabeth’s own love interest, and has been exiled from court. Lettice’s children, however, are still welcome and Penelope’s handsome, dashing brother, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, has become a particular favourite of Elizabeth’s. As Essex rises higher and higher in the Queen’s favour, his enemies plot to pull him down and Penelope must do everything in her power to protect her brother and keep the family’s ambitions alive.

While Essex’s turbulent career, which is marked by military defeats, trials and banishments and ends in the Essex Rebellion of 1601, is followed in detail, Penelope herself is the real focus of the novel. Penelope is considered to be one of the beauties of the Elizabethan court and the inspiration for the poet Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence. The real nature of her relationship with Sidney is uncertain, but Fremantle gives one interpretation here. Penelope’s unhappy marriage to Lord Rich and her later love for Charles Blount are also described, but I was less interested in these parts of the story and I don’t think the balance between the romance and the politics in this book was quite right for me.

I did like the way Penelope is portrayed – a strong, intelligent and ambitious woman, but one who is still convincing as an Elizabethan woman, rather than feeling like a modern day character dropped into a historical setting – and Essex, if not very likeable, is always interesting to read about. Elizabeth’s adviser, Robert Cecil, however, is very much the villain of the novel; there are several chapters written from his perspective and from the beginning he is shown to be working against Essex and his family, acting on his father’s advice that people need someone to hate and that if he can learn to be that hated person he will be indispensable. I think Cecil does a good job of making himself hated, and it wasn’t until near the end of the book that I began to have some sympathy for him.

I enjoyed reading Watch the Lady and getting to know Penelope Devereux, but this is not my favourite of the three Elizabeth Fremantle novels I’ve read so far, partly because, as I’ve mentioned, Penelope’s love life didn’t interest me all that much, and also because I prefer the periods of Tudor history covered in Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason. I’ve now moved on to The Girl in the Glass Tower and am finding it a much stronger novel; my full thoughts on that one should be coming soon.

My Commonplace Book: October 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


“Most people only want a quiet life,” I said. “Even those of us who were once radicals.” I smiled wryly at Roger. He nodded in acknowledgement.

“Fanatics on both sides,” old Ryprose said gloomily. “And all we poor ordinary folk in the middle. Sometimes I fear they will bring death to us all.”

Revelation by CJ Sansom (2008)



“Books,” the driver resumed. “I’m a great reader. I am. Not poetry. Love stories and murder books. I joined one o’ them” – he heaved a long sigh; with vast effort his mind laboured and brought forth – “circulatin’ libraries”. He brooded darkly. “But I’m sick of it now. I’ve read all that’s any good in it.”

The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946)


“We shall wait upon tomorrow,” he said.

“But – what if tomorrow is worse than today?”

“Then we shall wait upon the day after tomorrow.”

“And so forth?” I asked.

“And so forth,” Dogger said.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley (2014)


In his masterwork, The Landscape of Criminal Investigation, Atticus Pünd had written: ‘One can think of the truth as eine vertiefung – a sort of deep valley which may not be visible from a distance but which will come upon you quite suddenly. There are many ways to arrive there. A line of questioning that turns out to be irrelevant still has the power to bring you nearer to your goal. There are no wasted journeys in the detection of a crime.’

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)


“But seriously Poirot, what a hobby! Compare that to -” his voice sank to an appreciative purr – “an easy chair in front of a wood fire in a long low room lined with books – must be a long room – not a square one. Books all round one. A glass of port – and a book open in your hand. Time rolls back as you read.”

The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie (1947)



“Watch and wait,” says Burghley. “You have a valuable nugget of information, but that is all it is at this stage. Watch the lady; watch and wait.” Cecil is reminded of being fleeced by a card trickster once, who had said the very same thing – watch the lady. He lost all the gold buttons from his doublet. That was a lesson learned.

Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle (2015)


Sometimes I would like to cry. I close my eyes. Why weren’t we designed so that we can close our ears as well? (Perhaps because we would never open them.) Is there some way that I could accelerate my evolution and develop earlids?

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson (1995)


Why the Egyptian, Arabic, Abyssinian, Choctaw? Well, what tongue does the wind talk? What nationality is a storm? What country do rains come from? What color is lightning? Where does thunder go when it dies?

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)



And as the seconds and minutes moved on, I pondered Man’s efforts at the representation or ‘capture’ of Time, and I thought how, for Clockmakers like Hollers, the very Commodity with which they were trying to work was a heartless and capricious Enemy, who stole from them all the while and never rested.

Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain (2013)


A Gothic gate, richly ornamented with fret-work, which opened into the main body of the edifice, but which was now obstructed with brush-wood, remained entire. Above the vast and magnificent portal of this gate arose a window of the same order, whose pointed arches still exhibited fragments of stained glass, once the pride of monkish devotion. La Motte, thinking it possible it might yet shelter some human being, advanced to the gate and lifted a mossy knocker. The hollow sounds rung through the emptiness of the place. After waiting a few minutes, he forced back the gate, which was heavy with iron work, and creaked harshly on its hinges…

The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)


I could not possibly go home, I reflected, and add as a serious contribution to the study of women and fiction that women have less hair on their bodies than men, or that the age of puberty among the South Sea Islanders is nine — or is it ninety? — even the handwriting had become in its distraction indecipherable. It was disgraceful to have nothing more weighty or respectable to show after a whole morning’s work.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)



Not everyone can write as legibly as I; Father made me spend hours at my tablets, saying that my poems must be written down by me as I myself have composed them, so they will not be distorted in later years by other singers. “For you have great gifts from the Muses,” he said. “I would not have them lost to the world that comes after.”

Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart (1974)


“I ain’t in the habit of picking other folks’ roses without leave,” said she.

As Rebecca spoke she started violently and lost sight of her resentment, for something singular happened. Suddenly the rosebush was agitated violently as if by a gust of wind, yet it was a remarkably still day. Not a leaf of the hydrangea standing on the terrace close to the rose trembled.

“What on earth -” began Rebecca; then she stopped with a gasp at the sight of the other woman’s face. Although a face, it gave somehow the impression of a desperately clutched hand of secrecy.

Small and Spooky edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)


Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016)


“You don’t think there’ll really be a war, do you?” she asked anxiously, as her work was for the maimed wrecks of men left by the 1914-18 war – and I could understand her horror of another. But when I looked at the Green Cat I was not sure and I did not reply.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell (1959)


Favourite books read in October: Revelation, The Moving Toyshop and Magpie Murders

Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle

Sisters of Treason This is Elizabeth Fremantle’s second historical fiction novel. I read her first book, Queen’s Gambit, last year and was quite impressed by it, so I’ve been looking forward to reading this one. It didn’t disappoint me – I actually found it a more compelling and enjoyable book than the first. Although Fremantle’s books are set in Tudor England, a very popular choice with historical fiction authors, it would seem that she’s trying to write about some of the lesser known female figures of the period, which is very refreshing. Queen’s Gambit was the story of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, who is usually given less attention than some of the other wives, while her next novel – due to be published next year – is going to be about Penelope Devereux and should be really fascinating.

This book, Sisters of Treason, is the story of Katherine and Mary Grey – the two younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘nine-day queen’. The novel opens in 1554 with Jane being beheaded, having been deposed by her cousin, Mary Tudor, after only nine days on the throne of England. Jane is dead before our story really begins but she remains a constant presence in the lives of both Katherine and Mary Grey who are unable to escape the taint of treason. Under the reigns of first Queen Mary and then Queen Elizabeth I – neither of whom have a child of their own to name as heir – the Grey sisters have a strong claim to the throne, which means they will never be allowed to live their lives in peace.

Following Jane’s execution, the family of Katherine’s husband, Henry Herbert, decide to distance themselves from the Greys. Katherine is heartbroken when her marriage to Henry is annulled but she does find love again with Edward Seymour, the brother of her best friend Jane (referred to in the novel as Juno to distinguish her from the other Janes in the story). Queen Elizabeth is furious when she learns of their relationship and Katherine soon discovers just how difficult life can be for those who go against the Queen’s wishes.

The youngest Grey sister, Mary, was born with a form of spinal curvature which has affected her growth and as she is unlikely to be able to have children she is seen as less of a threat than Katherine. However, she is forced to undergo degrading experiences such as sitting on Queen Mary’s knee and being treated as a sort of pet or baby. Later, when Elizabeth takes the throne, although Mary is not in as much danger as Katherine, she still finds that the Elizabethan court is not a pleasant place to be.

Sisters of Treason is narrated by both Katherine and Mary (my favourite character) in first person present tense. This is something I don’t usually like but I thought it worked well here. There’s also a third viewpoint character – Levina Teerlinc, a friend of Frances Grey, the girls’ mother. In her position as a portrait painter who produces miniatures of various important court figures, Levina gives us a different perspective on some of the things that happen in the book.

As well as being the story of the Grey sisters, the novel also takes us through some of the major events of Queen Mary’s and Queen Elizabeth’s reigns. While both Queens can be cruel and treat their Grey cousins very badly, they are not just portrayed as complete monsters with no depth to their characters. Instead, the author tries to give some possible reasons for their behaviour and shows us the pressures they are under as female rulers in a male-dominated society.

They sit in silence for a moment, and something occurs to Levina that she had not fully realized until she articulated it – that for Elizabeth politics come before everything. That is how it must be if you are Queen regnant, your passions shut away in a box buried deep beneath the ground. It makes her think of her predecessor Mary Tudor, who struggled so with that concept, and she surprises herself with a pinch of sympathy for these women who have to fashion a cold, hard face to show to the world.

I have read a few other novels about the Grey sisters (The Nine Day Queen by Ella March Chase and Alison Weir’s Innocent Traitor and A Dangerous Inheritance) but I still don’t think they get a lot of coverage in historical fiction compared to other figures from the Tudor period. Many people will have heard of Lady Jane Grey but may not be aware that she had two sisters and something that I liked about this book is that by beginning with Jane’s execution, Elizabeth Fremantle avoids re-telling Jane’s more famous story and instead concentrates on the other Grey sisters. However, Katherine and Mary never forget what happened to Jane and her influence on their lives is still very strong; Katherine inherits Jane’s Greek New Testament in which she has written “it shall teach you to live and learn you to die” and Mary often asks herself what Jane would do in certain situations. As Mary says to Levina near the end of the novel:

“In the scheme of a life, it is not the duration of something but its impact that is important.”

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Queen's Gambit So many novels have been written about the six wives of Henry VIII I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to read another one. Queen’s Gambit seemed to be getting such good reviews, though, so I thought I would give it a chance. I was intrigued by the comparisons to both Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, two very different authors, (though now that I’ve read it, I can tell you I found it more similar to the former than the latter) and I also liked the fact that, at least with this edition, the publisher has avoided the usual front cover image of a ‘headless/faceless woman in a pretty dress’ which most recent Tudor court novels seem to have.

Queen’s Gambit tells the story of Katherine Parr. If you’re familiar with the rhyme used to remember the fates of Henry VIII’s six wives (Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived), Katherine Parr was the sixth and final wife – the one who ‘survived’. While Katherine’s story may not have been covered in historical fiction as often as some of the other wives, particularly Anne Boleyn, I have read about her before so already knew the basic facts about her life.

Katherine comes to the court of Henry VIII after her husband Lord Latimer dies leaving her a widow for the second time at the age of thirty-one. Soon after her arrival, she falls in love with Thomas Seymour, one of the brothers of the late queen, Jane Seymour. However, Katherine has also caught the eye of the King, who plans to make her his sixth wife. By this stage of his life, Henry is no longer the handsome prince he once was: he has grown fat, he’s suffering from an ulcerated leg, and added to the fact that his previous wives have met such unhappy fates, Katherine has no desire to marry him. She doesn’t dare defy the King’s wishes and accepts his proposal of marriage, but during the years that follow she is unable to forget Thomas Seymour, even after he is sent away from court on a diplomatic mission. Meanwhile, life at court is growing increasingly dangerous for Katherine and as she becomes more deeply involved in the reformed religion she realises that she needs to be very careful if she’s going to survive.

This story is told from two very different perspectives: one is Katherine’s and the other is Dorothy Fownten’s. Katherine is a dignified, mature and intelligent person which makes her easy to like and sympathise with as she learns to cope with life in the treacherous, unpredictable Tudor court, never being sure who can and cannot be trusted, and knowing that two of her predecessors have already lost their heads. Dorothy, known as Dot, is Katherine’s maid and while Katherine moves in the innermost circles at court, Dot is on the outside and can take a more observant and unbiased view of things. I liked both women but I found Dot a more engaging character. Having read a few books about Katherine now, I don’t think she’s really a great subject for historical fiction – there are a lot of other queens’ lives that are much more dramatic and interesting to read about – so some of my favourite parts of the book were actually those that concentrated on Dot’s personal story rather than Katherine’s. When I read the author’s note at the end I was surprised to discover that there really was a maid of that name who served Katherine Parr, though the way she is portrayed in the book is largely fictional.

Another character I enjoyed reading about was Dr Robert Huicke, the King’s physician who becomes a good friend of Katherine’s. Through Huicke we also meet Nicholas Udall, the playwright most famous for writing one of the first English comedies, Ralph Roister Doister. Huicke’s relationship with Udall, as well as his friendship with Katherine, adds another interesting angle to the story.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I thought this book felt more like a Philippa Gregory novel than a Hilary Mantel and I don’t think the comparisons with Wolf Hall are justified, but I did still enjoy it. Queen’s Gambit is apparently the first in a Tudor trilogy – the second one will explore the lives of Lady Jane Grey’s two sisters, Catherine and Mary, and the third is going to be set in the Elizabethan court. I’m looking forward to reading both.

I received a copy of this book through Netgalley for review.