At the Mercy of the Queen
Margaret “Madge” Shelton of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn’s pretty 14-year-old cousin, becomes lady-in-waiting to the new queen, accompanied to court by her nurse and her dog. An excited participant in Anne’s coronation, she soon discovers her cousin’s uneven temper and determination to keep King Henry in thrall to her. As she settles into court life, she also has cause to be wary of the ambitious Boleyns, who expect her to aid their advancement. As well as befriending court luminary Sir Thomas Wyatt, she is courted by the obnoxiously lecherous courtier Sir Henry Norris. (The title-challenged author erroneously refers to them as “Sir Wyatt” and “Sir Norris.”) But ever since her arrival in London, Madge has fancied only one man — Arthur Brandon, a duke’s illegitimate son.
After Anne bears a daughter rather than the longed-for son, she begins to fear that Henry’s straying eye will alight upon an enemy — plain-faced Jane Seymour. To prevent this, she urges Madge to become the king’s mistress, as Anne’s sister Mary once was. Madge agrees but assures Arthur that she will lie first with him before going to Henry — his acceptance of this offer is a hint of the breaches in logic that follow.
The king’s affair with Madge is brief, and he is inclined to marry her to Norris. Anne miscarries a son, and her well-known downfall is accurately charted. Leaving court, Madge finds herself married to a Norfolk landowner but carrying a lover’s child. The conclusion of her tale requires significant suspension of disbelief.
Fans of Tudor court stories will appreciate Barnhill’s fine descriptions of pageantry and her effective depiction of Henry and Anne and their relationship. Unfortunately this novel is marred overall by stilted dialogue, character inconsistencies, and an unlikely and incomplete resolution.