The Queen’s Fool
by Philippa Gregory
I have always found Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction enjoyable, and The Queen’s Fool is no exception. Set at the Tudor court like so many of her other books, it gives us an ‘up-close’ of Queen Mary through the eyes of Hannah Green (or Verde), a teenage girl who has the sight.
‘I looked from her to the Lady Mary, the mistress that I had come to love, and I thought that it would be better for her if she made plans to marry off Lady Elizabeth at once and send her far away.’
Running from the Inquisition in Spain where Hannah’s mother has been burned at the stake, Hannah and her book printer/seller father arrive in England to make a new life. They are Marranos, people of Jewish descent who have coverted to Christianity to save their lives but who secretly follow the old ways in private. Betrothed to Daniel, an apprentice physician, Hannah has an independent streak and isn’t going to be coaxed easily into the wifely role her society and Jewish kinship demand of her.
One day, the Greens have two illustrious visitors, Lord Robert Dudley and his tutor Dr John Dee. Hannah immediately falls for Dudley. While they are in the shop, Hannah has one of her occasional visions and Dudley presses her into his service, and into that of the sickly King Edward VI as an apprentice Fool. We should note that Hannah habitually dresses as a boy and is easily mistaken for one.
When Protestant Edward dies, Hannah transfers her allegiance to the Catholic Princess Mary and becomes not only her Fool but, recognising the difference in their respective status, a close friend. Enthroned as Queen of England, Mary sends Hannah to spy on Princess Elizabeth, who begs her to return the ‘favour’.
‘With her jowls bloated by illness Elizabeth bore a startling resemblance to the portraits of her father in his later years.’
‘But when I saw the Lady Elizabeth, high on her horse, blazing with beauty and confidence, I thought that this was the sort of woman that I might be.’
I won’t bore you with the history of this period; the outline is well-enough known. However, in The Queen’s Fool, we get to see all the religious hatred, the plottings, the executions and the Queen’s false pregnancies first-hand from Hannah’s point of view. She visits Dudley, now imprisoned in the Tower and delivers messages for him too.
Reserving her true loyalty to Queen Mary, Hannah is wise enough to avoid the pitfalls which bring others less fortunate to the executioner’s block or to the stake. However, although she still has the Queen’s ear, her position at court is compromised and she runs to her father and fiancé in Calais. We have two marriages, two separations, several betrayals, a live child and pregnancies that weren’t, and the whole historical Calais episode, so engraved on Queen Mary’s heart [her own words].
‘I saw the lance run her through, spearing her spine …..and at that moment there was a dreadful crash like a forest falling down all at once and a rush of horses and men and danger,and I stumbled back into the dark interior of the house with the boy held tight against me …..’
The attraction of The Queen’s Fool for me was the portrait Philippa Gregory gives us of Queen Mary. Generally depicted as an unattractive, bitter and vindictive woman, we see in this novel a different Mary. Oh yes, she is these things too but she is also courageous, staunch in her beliefs (however right, wrong or perverted they might be) and loyal to those who show true loyalty and friendship to her – like Hannah Verde. We find here all the misery of Mary’s life. Taken from her mother, neglected by her father, badly advised, married for political reasons to a man she came to love, but who probably despised her, and constantly threatened by her half-sister’s youth and beauty, how could it be otherwise?
It is a wonderful portrayal and at the end I cried for her, in spite of history and all the barbarous things she presided over.
Readers must decide for themselves about Hannah’s character and beliefs, her ability to juggle as any fool might do, to play all corners at once. She is young – very young, only thirteen at the beginning of the story proper and no more than nineteen or twenty at its end. But she is a true survivor. Maybe that’s all we can ever be – at best!
The Queen’s Fool says many things about Tudor history that the history books don’t. All of it may not be true, but surely it is this sort of speculation, this jiggling with the facts, that makes good historical ficture so absorbing.