The Queen’s Sorrow

Written by Suzannah Dunn
Review by Janet Williamson

This novel tells the story of Rafael Prado, who is brought to England by Prince Philip of Spain to create a sundial for Whitehall Palace gardens as a gift to his wife, Queen Mary.

Rafael and his mason, Antonio, lodge away from the court with the Kitsons, a merchant family. Alone and alienated, they feel completely out of their depth despite reporting to the Spanish office regularly for briefings. Antonio begins to mingle with the locals immediately, but the shyer, more restrained Rafael observes all in his isolation and homesickness. Through his eyes we see what life in Tudor London was like, within the household and on the streets.
Whilst waiting for his son to be born, Philip vacillates over his wife and the finances to finish the sundial. Rafael waits, writing letters home that receive no reply. In his introspective loneliness he faces some unpalatable truths about his marriage. He befriends the kindly, secretive housekeeper, Cecily, and her selectively mute son, Nicholas.

An impromptu meeting with the Queen finds Rafael confiding details about his son’s birth to the friendly but self-doubtful mother-to-be, which ends with him giving her assurances about her pregnancy. The public announcement of the Queen’s pregnancy is celebrated in the streets, but the pregnancy proves false and her Roman Catholic religious fervour intensifies. Within days, London is shaken by rumours concerning the queen’s cruel dictates. Rafael cannot believe that the queen he encountered and whose life story has so many parallels with his own could endanger innocent lives and authorise the burning of heretics and married priests. Compelled to act, he finds that his actions have horrific consequences for those he sought to protect.

There are a few modern references, but these do not detract from this skilfully written, intricate and compelling story. The period details contrasting the life of the poor against that of the not-so poor, whilst coping with the political and religious uncertainties, adds depth, vibrancy and veracity to the narrative. The ending stayed with me long after I had finished reading it. Highly recommended