At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Warning! This review contains spoilers.

At the innocent age of fifteen, Lady Margaret Shelton arrives at the court of Henry VIII and quickly becomes the confidante of her cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn. But she soon finds herself drawn into the perilous web of Anne’s ambition. Desperate to hold onto the king’s waning affection, Anne schemes to have him take her guileless young cousin as mistress, ensuring her husband’s new paramour will owe her loyalty to the queen. But Margaret has fallen deeply in love with a handsome young courtier. She is faced with a terrible dilemma: give herself to the king and betray the love of her life or refuse to become his mistress and jeopardise the life of her cousin, Queen Anne.

I have to apologise, firstly, I usually try to avoid using spoilers but I have to illustrate a few points here, so if you’re planning on reading the book I’d come back to this review later. Barnhill has based this book on the theory that either Anne Boleyn herself or the Duke of Norfolk placed young Madge Shelton directly in Henry VIII’s path to distract him from Jane Seymour. I’ve never disagreed with this being likely so when I read the blurb for the book I thought it should be an interesting read.

Madge is a reasonably well-known figure in Tudor history, mostly as a mistress of Henry VIII and this book details the three year marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn through Madge’s eyes. Barnhill has the chronological events correct in this book, unfortunately there’s quite a few historical inaccuracies. Generally I can overlook them if I understand the author’s choices. But Barnhill has stated in her author Q&A she tries to adhere to what she has researched as closely as possible, she uses the usual decent sources so I have no idea at all where she came up with some of her scenarios.

-Firstly I had a hard time accepting that Anne Boleyn would take a little-known and much younger cousin (Madge came to court after Anne had married Henry VIII and it’s most likely they hadn’t even met before) into her close confidence. I am sure it’s not unlikely that a relative would be a favourite in general ways of attending to her person, but as for her discussing everything from their sex life to affairs of state with Madge is just too unrealistic.

– Madge herself was a bit grating. Quite frankly I would have preferred to see her have a bit more spark . She spends most of her time proclaiming her chastity, being uncomfortable and hating court life. I don’t find this realistic either. Madge, historically, was one of Anne’s more prominent ladies-in-waiting, I had a hard time accepting her as a shy and retiring character. The author could have easily kept her a virgin without making out she was awkward.

-I also don’t understand why the Devonshire Manuscript was glossed over.

-Anne’s first miscarriage being treated as a stillbirth was very odd. Anne was cradling a fully formed dead child for a day after the birth, I thought the miscarriage had happened fairly early on in the pregnancy and the foetus was not fully developed.

– The author seems to have gotten the rest of the food they would have eaten fairly accurate so I have no idea why introducing the drinking of tea here was necessary.

-Poor old Henry Norris. Betrothed to Madge fairly early on in the book, he is treated as a lecherous, drunken scumbag who spends all his time fondling her and tries to rape her twice. I can’t think of any good reason for this other than the author wanting to introduce a different love into Madge’s life, which she could have done without completely debasing Norris.

– I have no problem introducing completely fictional characters, in this case, it is Charles Brandon’s illegitimate son Arthur, Madge’s love interest. It’s a fair stretch to have the Duke of Suffolk recognising him as an heir and granting him a third of his lands so he could marry a Howard after Anne had been executed. There is no way this would have happened when he had two legitimate sons. He may have helped him out, yes, but the actual heir would have been his first born legitimate son who would have inherited everything.

– Was there any point in Madge’s two month marriage at the end of the book? The entire thing was conceived, carried out and conveniently annulled when Arthur came back for her in the last thirty pages of the book. It really made little sense, and added nothing to the development of the plot as it was crammed into the last couple of chapters.

All in all, this book lacks a lot of substance, but it is still an easy read. An extra star for a decent portrayal of Anne Boleyn.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆