“There are moments that define our existence, moments that, if we recognize them, become pivotal turning points in our life. Like pearls on a strand, the accumulation of such moments will in time become the essence of our life, providing solace when our ends draw near. For me, meeting Elizabeth Tudor was one of those moments.”
I received a review copy of The Tudor Secret on a Friday morning and I had it finished by Saturday evening. I also had a lot to do that weekend, almost none of which got done.
The Tudor Secret is Christopher Gortner’s third novel and like his previous two works, it is set in the sixteenth century. His first, The Last Queen, was set in Spain; his second, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, in France. This time round, Gortner turns his attention to England in the sweltering summer of 1553 when the teenage King Edward the Sixth has disappeared from public view, amidst rumours that his chief minister, the Duke of Northumberland, is hiding the young king away from the public’s gaze in the hope of clinging onto power for himself. The king’s two sisters – thirty-seven year-old Mary and nineteen year-old Elizabeth – are understandably suspicious, particularly Mary, a devout Roman Catholic who is next in line to inherit the crown if Edward dies without children. Taking it upon herself to discover the truth, Princess Elizabeth journeys to London and it is here, in the sprawling Palace of Whitehall, a palace once built for her executed mother, that she first meets Brendan Prescott, a young equestrian working for the duke of Northumberland, the princesses’ apparent arch-enemy. From this fateful meeting, The Tudor Secret spins a truly addictive adventure story around the mystery of Brendan’s own identity and Elizabeth’s attempts to outwit whatever it is the duke is planning to do.
Any student of British history will, of course, know that 1553 was the summer in which Edward the Sixth died a premature and agonising death to tuberculosis and the Protestant elite made their ill-fated and unsuccessful attempt to preserve a Protestant monarchy by placing Edward’s young cousin, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne instead of his Catholic sister, Mary. They will also know that neither Mary Tudor nor Elizabeth ended-up losing their lives because of this scheme and that both went on to rule the nation - Mary first, from 1553 to 1558, and then Elizabeth from 1558 to 1603. It is a testament to Christopher Gortner’s writing style, therefore, that even though we know the overall outcome (victory for Mary, defeat for Northumberland), The Tudor Secret manages to make the whole thing seem like a cliff-hanger. Even the few tiny unintentional errors – such as a confusion over forms of aristocratic address (the duchess of Northumberland, for instance, is referred to as “Lady Dudley,” her marital name, when in fact she would have been referenced by the territory or county now attached to her family, i.e. Northumberland) do not really detract from the atmosphere.
For a start, of course, that may be because The Tudor Secret is not a historically accurate story and nor, like some of its brothers and sisters in the Tudor fiction genre, does it pretend to be. (I think we all know which ones I’m talking about.) Although it does take place in the context of real events – Edward the Sixth’s decline and Jane Grey’s “nine days” - Gortner is keen to point out that unlike his previous two novels, this one is not a dramatisation of real events, but rather a "what if." After all, its central character – Brendan Prescott – is fictitious and there is no evidence that Elizabeth ever made a journey to London in 1553. Like Mary and Anne of Cleves, the real Elizabeth chose to remain in the provinces, where she was deliberately fed a tissue of half-truths and outright lies by Northumberland’s entourage, who hoped to keep the other members of the royal family out of the way until they could manoeuvre poor Jane Grey onto the throne. And so The Tudor Secret remains an unashamed fusion of artistic imagination and historical research and, let’s face it, that’s exactly what a good historical novel is supposed to be. It doesn’t need to, nor should it, pretend to be anything else.
For fans of Tudor history, some of the mid-sixteenth century’s most famous figures flit across the pages of the novel – the duke and duchess of Northumberland, King Edward, Lady Jane Grey, her mother Frances (a truly monstrous figure in Gortner’s narrative), William Cecil, the spy-master Francis Walsingham, Lord Robert Dudley (fist-clenchingly irritating, by the way. Think the dimwit on the football team who you always wanted to pistol whip and you’ve got it.) And, of course, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. Gortner’s portrayals of the two Tudor sisters are particularly engaging and, I think, particularly accurate. Elizabeth gets the lion’s share of attention, since it is on her visit to London that most of the novel’s action turns, and Gortner captures her mercurial personality wonderfully. A host of other lesser-known historical figures also make an appearance – Barnaby Fitzpatrick, Kat Ashley, Guildford Dudley, Adrian Stokes and Sir Robert Rochester. The author successfully depicts the vicious and unstable world of life at the royal court, initially experienced through the innocent (and appalled) eyes of rural-reared Brendan. It is a world where one’s success or failure could literally be decided in the course of a single day and reputations, lives, liberty and happiness could all be destroyed by one false step or one particularly vicious rumour. At one stage, Elizabeth stands awaiting restoration or ruin in a pretty pavilion by the lake, where, seventeen years earlier, her mother had once stood awaiting the same thing. Gazing at Elizabeth amidst the luxury of Whitehall, Brendan reflects, "She took me through the courtyard and back into a maze of silent galleries hung with tapestries, past casements shuttered by velvet drapes and embrasures that offered moon-drenched glimpses of patios and gardens. I wonder what she felt, being in this place built by her father for her mother, a monument to a passion that had consumed England and ended on the scaffold." The scenes in which Brendan is introduced to the morbidly obese and epically spiteful Duchess of Suffolk and where Elizabeth is forced to swallow back bile as the duke of Northumberland publicly humiliates her are particularly memorable moments in the novel and actually brought to life the dynamic of what it must have been like living in such a treacherous environment. It also reminded me that, although we know Mary and Elizabeth triumphed, a lot of their behaviour can be explained by the fact that they had no such assurances. For much of the 1550s, both of Henry VIII's daughters really did live their lives permanently on the kind of nerve-shattering knife's edge depicted in this novel.
The Tudor Secret is a story of intrigue, swordfights, scandal, schemes, lies, mysterious murders, opulent palaces, dark fortresses, secret loves, evil dukes, beautiful princesses, brave knights, clever spies and intrepid heroes. When I was a child, I was obsessed with The Three Musketeers. I couldn't honestly say how many times I read it and it’s still one of my favourite novels. The Tudor Secret belongs to that genre; a true swashbuckling melodrama – unputdownable, wholly improbable and fantastically addictive.