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The King’s Damsel by Kate Emerson (2012)

October 6, 2012

During the summer of 1534, Eustace Chapuys wrote to Charles V of Henry VIII’s infatuation with a “very handsome young lady” at court, who was a friend to “the Princess” (meaning Mary) and who was influencing Henry to treat her more kindly. Queen Anne Boleyn, who had very likely just lost a baby, was extremely unhappy about this development, and her sister-in-law Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford was said by Chapuys to have picked a quarrel with the young lady in the hope of getting her banished from court, but in the event it was Lady Rochford who was sent away. The young lady’s reign was brief, however, and her influence never waxed to the point where Chapuys felt it necessary to tell Charles her name. Historical novelists have been shy about filling in this gap – this young woman turns up in most Anne Boleyn novels, but she’s more of a shadow than real character and very seldom is she given a name. In this book, however, she steps to the fore and we get to see a seldom-represented point of view – that of a lady-in-waiting who can’t stand Anne.

Thomasine (Tamsin) Lodge is a thirteen-year-old heiress whose father has just died and whose wardship has been purchased by one Sir Lionel Daggett, who’s every bit as unattractive as his name. Sir Lionel wants to get close to the powerful and influential people at court, so one of his first moves is to get Tamsin placed in the household of Princess Mary as a maid of honour – not quite as good as being next to the Queen and King, but still not bad. Tamsin, who loves horseriding and storytelling (tales of King Arthur, for choice) develops a strong affection for Princess Mary, who’s four years younger than Tamsin and looks to be the only legitimate child the King will have. After a few years, however, disquieting rumours of King Henry’s new lady-love reach Mary’s household. While Mary takes the stories with aplomb and reassures her ladies that her father has had many mistresses and tired of them all eventually, the ladies themselves are doubtful and are starting to see their career prospects, so to speak, going into the shade. They’re not sure what’s going on with “the concubine” but it’s obviously serious and they’re frustrated and frightened at remaining out of the loop. Matters aren’t helped by Princess Mary’s tendency to become ill, especially when she has her period, and they’re constantly worried about poison; Tamsin has a few conversations with Maria Vittorio (daughter of Catherine of Aragon’s physician) about herbs and remedies, and learns a word we’ll encounter again later: arsenic. After it becomes clear that Mary’s household is going into eclipse, Tamsin’s guardian, foul as ever, comes to remove her from the household; she’s old enough now that he can marry her and besides, being a member of Princess Mary’s household isn’t the status marker it used to be. Tamsin manages to hold him off by pointing out that if he could place her in Anne’s household, that would help bring them close to the real power behind the throne, and of course to be Anne’s maid of honour she has to be unmarried. Sir Lionel bites, and arranges for Tamsin to become a chamberer to Anne, who is now Lady Anne Rochford after her father’s elevation. Off goes Tamsin, intent upon being a spy for Princess Mary, and arranging a system where she’ll communicate different kinds of news by ordering different selections of silk from the silkwoman who serves both households and just so happens to have a smouldering hot teenaged son named Rafe. We’ll be seeing more of him.

Once in the snakepit surrounding Lady Anne Rochford (as she’s now known since her father’s elevation) Tamsin finds herself an object of suspicion and derision by Anne, who suspects her loyalties, for good reason. Anne is described as “a slender woman whose skin was almost olive-hued. She had eyes so large and dark they appeared to be black. These characteristics should have made her ugly, but she had an elegance about her, and an air of self-confidence.” She’s also incredibly haughty and mercurial, with a “quicksilver” temper which leads to her doing things like giving her maids gifts at one moment and boxing their ears the next; it’s implied that she’s insecure in her new position and acts like these to make sure her maids are even more off-balance than she is. She’s also bright and well-versed in basic law; she realizes that since Tamsin is over sixteen, there’s no reason she should still be in Sir Lionel’s wardship, and teases her about not having realized this herself. (Alas, Tamsin has signed a document already which gives Sir Lionel the running of her estates until she’s twenty-one. Mary Boleyn tries to get Cromwell to help her, but Cromwell collects a bribe from Sir Lionel and declares that there’s nothing to be done). Tamsin is miserable, having to bite her tongue not to say “the concubine”, say nasty things about Mary when Anne asks what she’s like, and only able to communicate with Mary via her different fake orders to the silkwomen. A change of scenery comes when she accompanies Anne and Henry to Calais, and one evening she and Mary Boleyn become the surprised witnesses to a private marriage ceremony: Henry is sick of waiting, so he and Anne make private vows de praesenti (no clergyman, but of course none was needed) and they’re married. Tamsin is aghast, and also in a tight spot: she doesn’t have any silk-ordering code that will communicate this development!

During Anne’s pregnancy with Elizabeth Henry first begins to flirt with Tamsin, leading to Anne’s becoming seriously displeased (to put it mildly) but Tamsin wins her over that Christmas with a deck of hand-painted playing cards which she ordered from one of Rafe’s connections, which feature a Queen remarkably similar to Anne. The next year Anne is pregnant again, but is delivered early of a stillborn boy, and Henry, feeling a sentimental pull towards Mary and also remembering his former marriage and its various obstetrical disasters, starts confiding in Tamsin again, and before she knows it the relationship has progressed from courtly to earthy. Someone isn’t happy about it, though, as she discovers when, among other things, a mysterious box of of sugared almonds is delivered to her chamber. Surprise, it’s not actually sugar! Luckily Tamsin remembers what Princess Mary’s told her about arsenic and is able to induce vomiting in time.

After that Anne decides to turn to subtler measures and begins throwing Madge Shelton, here described as a sweet, pretty, rather dim girl, into Henry’s way, and Tamsin’s reign as mistress is over, leaving her in a tangle – she can’t stay at court, but she can’t go home, as the evil Sir Lionel is still running her estates and she’s going to need to get a lawsuit going in order to recover them. Luckily, Rafe is at hand to help her out, and Tamsin wins her estates back and marries him. I mean, she does all of that in about two sentences. I was thoroughly enjoying the book but the ending left me looking to see if some pages had been accidentally left out. Anne’s downfall isn’t even mentioned.

SEX OR POLITICS? Sex, albeit fairly restrained. Tamsin and Rafe kiss a few times and of course she sleeps with Henry but after the first time there’s not a lot of detail because hey, we already know what they’re doing (I did like the moment after Tamsin and Henry do it for the first time when Henry proudly shows her to his bathtub with faucets for the hot and cold running water, and she’s thrilled. And yes, they were real, albeit the sort of thing that would have been listed in the sixteenth century Neiman Marcus Wish Book).

WHEN BORN? Tamsin is four years older than Mary, so in 1512. Anne’s age is never directly stated in the book but in the capsule biographies in the back of the book, she’s listed as born c. 1501, so she’s in her mid-twenties when Tamsin first meets her. Mary’s birthdate is listed as 1498 and George’s as 1503.

THE EARLY LOVE: Tamsin’s is Rafe, of course. Since we’re at a further distance from Anne here than most of the maid’s narratives books, neither we nor Tamsin hear any confidences about any of her pre-Henry love affairs, and since we don’t see the trial we get no glimpse of Henry Percy. However, there is an interesting throwaway line at one point when Anne is trying to figure out how to bring Mary into line. After rejecting the idea of bringing her to court, Anne says “Perhaps I will find some lowborn varlet to marry her to, someone from Northumberland, perhaps. Or Westmorland. Yes, that would solve the problem very nicely indeed!” It’s hard to believe that Northumberland was chosen by coincidence, and I liked the hint of a rankling wound there.

THE QUEEN’S BEES: Lots and lots, all thoroughly researched (not surprisingly, Kate Emerson runs the Tudor Women site). We see the maids who waited on Princess Mary and the other women of the household (the most interesting being the chief lady-in-waiting to Princess Mary, Lady Catherine Craddock, widow of Perkin Warbeck of all people) and we get a good look at a few of Anne’s too. Among the second-tier maids, if I may call them that, one character who really stood out was Bess Holland, mistress of the Duke of Norfolk. She appears as lively, intelligent, acquisitive (Tamsin understands that she has to be – after all, her liaison with the Duke might not last forever) and with what turns out to be a strong nasty streak. Bess and Jane Seymour both become sick from the poisoned almonds sent to Tamsin, and Bess’s revenge is to feed some of them to Purkoy the dog to verify that the nuts were, in fact, poisoned. When Purkoy becomes sick, she tosses him over a railing so it will look like he died from a fall, thereby concealing what she did and gaining indirect revenge on Anne at the same time. It’s obvious that his Grace of Norfolk would be well-advised not to cross Bess any time soon.

Lady Rochford appears in a few scenes, most notably the one where she tries to pick a fight with Tamsin to get her banished; she starts off by conversationally calling her a whore, and guessing that Tamsin is actually a spy for Mary (at Tamsin’s gasp of surprise, she says “Have I stumbled upon the truth? How delightful. I cannot wait to tell the queen”). Having failed to draw a reaction, she finally screams that she’s been struck – Tamsin is terrified, as any kind of physical violence was discouraged with extreme prejudice within court environs and if Henry believed the charge, she could have been banished or worse. Fortunately Henry believes Tamsin’s account of things and has Lady Rochford banished for a while instead. Lady Rochford is catty and nasty as she usually is, but in this case it’s fully justified as we’re seeing her from the perspective of someone she hates for working against her family’s interests; if anything, she and Anne are peas in a pod here.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR: Tamsin has a maid named Edyth who has a running subplot wherein she tries to rid herself of her regional accent. (Oddly, the heroine of To Die For also has a maid named Edythe. The name was certainly around then, but why these spellings?) Edyth has a friend named Rose who is Anne’s tirewoman for a while and passes on occasional information, but she dies in the sweat outbreak.

THE PROPHECY: None.

IT’S A GIRL! We don’t see the scene directly – the king is described as disappointed, but with no further details. Shortly afterwards “The King was enthralled all over again with Anne Boleyn,” and he makes his vow about begging from door to door in perfect sincerity.

DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No, but she does have a small wen on one cheek which she turns to her advantage by describing it as a beauty mark. On the pack of cards Tamsin gives her, the artist leaves the wen out of Anne’s picture.

FAMILY AFFAIRS: We don’t see Anne’s parents, but Mary Boleyn is attending on Anne; she’s presented as low-key and amiable but with just a hint of steel in her (as when she vouches to Anne for Tamsin and then reminds Tamsin of that fact; there’s a strong undercurrent of “Let me down and you’ll be sorry you did.”) George Boleyn appears briefly but doesn’t do much more than leave a pleasant impression, and for once there’s no indication as to whether he got on with his wife or not.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? We never get far enough to find out, but given Anne’s extreme care about such matters beforehand, I’m guessing not.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE: There’s a little too much of the “As you know, Bob” when recapping such incidents as Catherine’s first marriage to Arthur, and sometimes people just talk too much like dictionaries. Here’s Master Pereston describing arsenic:

“It is a powder. Gray, with a crystalline appearance. But arsenic sulfide is yellow in color. It is even called yellow arsenic. There is also red arsenic – realgar – an orange-red powder that is used as a pigment by painters and in pyrotechnics. If you heat realgar, you produce white arsenic. The crystals then look something like sugar.”

But sometimes it works much better. Here are Princess Mary’s maids talking about cures for the sweating sickness:

“My father says His Grace sets great store by pills of Rhazis,” Maria said. “Rhazis was a famous Arab physician.”
“My old nurse,” said Mary Dannett, “claims that her life was saved the last time the sweat broke out, ten years ago, by a mixture of endive, sowthistle, marigold, mercury and nightshade.”
Maria gaped at her. “That combination would be as likely to kill you as save you. Nightshade is a deadly poison.”
“Three large spoonfuls of dragon’s water and a half nutshell of unicorn’s horn,” I murmured, remembering a cure I’d heard somewhere, probably in one of the old legends I collected. “It seems unlikely we can locate either ingredient.”
Maria looked thoughtful. “I have heard that a philosopher’s egg is a sovereign remedy for almost any ailment. That is a crushed egg, its white blown out and mixed shell and all with saffron, mustard seed, herbs, and …”
“What?” I prompted when her voice trailed off.
She looked sheepish. “Unicorn’s horn.”

ERRATA: Kate Emerson has about a twenty-five year head start on me when it comes to research and she’s used her time well, so I feel extremely presumptuous for putting anything in this section, but here are the few nitpicks I had: Princess Mary is described as speaking in a “very high” voice as a child, which was likely true but all of the sources describe the slightly older Mary as having an unusually deep voice which was surprising coming out of such a small child. Not an error per se but disconcerting. Curing yourself of arsenic poisoning by inducing vomiting isn’t going to do much against a serious dose, but of course Anne might have skimped on the powder. And Emerson corrected me on one thing – she points out that although Mary was never created Princess as Wales, she was referred to unofficially as such quite often, so calling her that isn’t a mistake. (Although Elizabeth was never Princess of Wales officially or unofficially. I stand by that statement).

WORTH A READ? Of all the Secrets of the Tudor Court series, I’d have to say this is one of the weaker ones, especially with the incredibly rushed ending – granted, a five-year lawsuit isn’t the stuff of lengthy romance unless you’re reading Bleak House but even so it just went by too fast, and I was really surprised that there was no reaction to Anne’s death. Tamsin may not be at court anymore but it seemed really strange that she wouldn’t even comment on what was, to put it mildly, an unusual event. Given the pattern of this series, I’m guessing that Anne’s death will be more fully treated in the next book or two, but I don’t think it would have been telling to put in an extra paragraph or two about it. It also suffered from the weakness which is common to fictional people interacting at length with real ones: Tamsin couldn’t really do or change too many things, and her ineffectiveness became frustrating after a while. The author did her best – in a scene I liked, Tamsin is the pretty woman who so distracted Henry at a feast that he forgets to acknowledge the French ambassador – but I don’t think could quite pull it off.

That being said, the book is still an excellent read; even if the fictional characters aren’t to your taste it’s worth reading just for everything that’s in the background. A lot of novels suffer from their authors being vague on background; they’re not quite sure who all the ladies in waiting were, or what medicines they would use or what their clothes would be like, so they get painted in vague, broad strokes and the effect is that Anne and Henry and the other principals seem to be talking and interacting against two-dimensional background. Not here. All names and histories are known (did you know that Anne Boleyn’s official silkwoman also smuggled Lutheran books into the country? I didn’t) and given, medicines and herbs and described by name, and while we may learn more than we want to know about what herb goes with which, I loved things like the detailed description of Princess Mary and her maids choosing names during their Valentine’s Day celebration, and the dancing and talking that took place afterwards, as well as scenes like Anne Boleyn choosing her official silkwoman from different candidates. Seeing Tamsin participate in a masque (partnering Sir Nicholas Carew) was lovely because the attention to detail; how the costumes were fitted, the servants needed to support the spectacle, and the sheer numbers of people watching and hoping to make off with one of the more saleable bits of the scenery afterwards. If you’re the kind of person who watched the movie Titanic just so you could enjoy everything in the background, you’ll like this and the author’s other books a lot.

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5 Comments
  1. Susan Higginbotham permalink

    Looking forward to reading this one!

    • sonetka permalink

      It’s a lot of fun — though I’m hoping the next Secrets of the Tudor Court will give us at least a couple of side paragraphs on the progress of Tamsin’s lawsuit!

  2. Tungsten permalink

    I think I’ll have to pick this up. I admit I was a little leery of a narrator being one of Henry’s mistresses (even temporarily), but the twist on the maid’s narrative and what sounds like a lot of interesting world-building is definitely intriguing.

    • sonetka permalink

      If you’re just starting out, “At The King’s Pleasure” is another good one of hers; somewhat stronger, in fact, especially since the protagonists are real people at the court of the very young Henry VIII — back when he was glamourous instead of something to frighten the children with. I especially liked how the heroine thinks like someone of her time — when her husband wrongly suspects her of adultery and banishes her to a one-star convent, she’s pissed — not at the banishment being an overly-harsh punishment, but because she hadn’t actually messed around on him.

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