The Virgin Queen’s Daughter by Ella March Chase

This novel, as you can guess from the title, is based on the idea that Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, may have had a daughter. Although there’s no real evidence to support this claim, it was apparently rumoured that Elizabeth, as a young princess, had secretly given birth to an illegitimate child who might have been fathered by Thomas Seymour, her stepmother Katherine Parr’s husband. Elizabeth was also linked throughout her life with Robert Dudley and so another theory is that he could have been the baby’s father.

The Virgin Queen’s Daughter is narrated by Elinor de Lacey (Nell), Elizabeth’s newest lady-in-waiting, a young woman who shares Elizabeth’s hair colour and love of books and learning. Nell was brought up in the countryside by John and Thomasin de Lacey, believing them to be her parents, but after her arrival at court she begins to make some discoveries about her past. Could Nell be Elizabeth’s secret daughter?

If you’ve read lots of Tudor fiction I’m not sure The Virgin Queen’s Daughter offers anything very new, but although I’ve read quite a few Tudor novels I’m not at the point where I’m bored with the period yet and so I really enjoyed this book. Although I find it hard to believe that someone in Elizabeth’s position could have concealed the fact that she was pregnant and kept the birth of her child a secret, I still thought it was an interesting subject for a historical fiction novel.

Many of the famous names of the Tudor/Elizabethan period are here: as well as Elizabeth I herself, there’s Robert Dudley, the “spymaster” Francis Walsingham, the mathematician and astrologer John Dee, Elizabeth’s beloved governess Kat Ashley, and several of the Queen’s ladies – Lettice Knollys, Isabella Markham and Mary Grey (sister of Lady Jane Grey). But the strongest characters in the book are the fictional ones: Nell de Lacey and one of the noblemen she meets at court, Sir Gabriel Wyatt. Nell is an interesting and intelligent narrator – like the Queen she enjoys reading and studying, things women were not usually encouraged to do at that time. And Gabriel was such a great character I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t really exist!

I thought Ella March Chase did a good job of portraying the intrigue and danger of life at court, where you never knew who could and could not be trusted, and where anyone believed to be a threat to the Queen could find themselves locked in the Tower. And with two of the main characters being fictional, the author could take their story in some unexpected directions, which added plenty of tension and suspense to the novel.

The Virgin Queen’s Daughter doesn’t really stand out from other historical fiction novels of this type, but overall it was a fun and entertaining read which I would recommend to fans of Philippa Gregory, Alison Weir or Karen Harper.

The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper

The Queen’s Governess is yet another historical fiction novel set during the Tudor period, but although the story is a familiar one it is told from a different perspective: that of Kat Ashley, the governess of Elizabeth I.

Born Katherine Champernowne, the daughter of a beekeeper from Devon, Kat comes to the attention of Thomas Cromwell who brings her to court to spy for him in the household of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. When Anne finds herself on trial for treason, adultery and incest, Kat vows to take care of her daughter, the young Princess Elizabeth. Much more than just a governess, Kat becomes Elizabeth’s friend, advisor and mother figure. The fates of Kat and her beloved husband, John Ashley, become tied with the princess’s and they are forced to endure exile and imprisonment before Elizabeth is finally crowned.

So much has been written about the Tudor period that I’m sure it must be getting very difficult for historical fiction authors to find an original way to approach the subject. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of the Tudors will probably recognise many of the characters and events in this book. Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and all six of his wives are here, along with Thomas Cromwell, the Seymours, the Dudleys and Mary I. It’s the choice of Kat Ashley as narrator that helps to keep things new and interesting. I’m not sure if there have been any other novels about Kat, but this is certainly the first one I’ve ever been aware of and it made a refreshing change to read about a lesser-known historical figure from the period.

Telling the story from Kat’s perspective does have its disadvantages though. It seems that not much is actually known about her, and although she was obviously an important part of Elizabeth’s life she appears to have had very little direct influence on the course of history. The result of this is that for much of the book Kat is an observer, describing births, deaths, executions and other significant events of the Tudor court, rather than playing a major role in any of these historical moments.

However, I do think Karen Harper has done a good job in taking the known facts of Kat’s life and fleshing out her character, using her imagination and historical knowledge to fill in the gaps. The book includes an author’s note explaining how much is fact and how much is fiction, and it does seem that the novel has been well researched and that she has done her best to make it as accurate as possible, even down to the choice of spellings of people’s names.

While I was reading this book I kept thinking that it felt very similar to Philippa Gregory’s Tudor court novels and I’d have no hesitation in recommending The Queen’s Governess to Gregory fans, as well as to anyone interested in Tudor history in general. I’ll probably read more of Karen Harper’s work in the future.

Have you read any Tudor novels told from an unusual perspective?