Book Talk: AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN by Anne Barnhill

A fresh perspective on the tragic tale of Anne Boelyn, AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN is told from   the viewpoint of Lady Margaret Shelton, the younger cousin of Queen Anne and an ancestor of the author.

“Pretty Madge,” as Margaret is called, is called to the court of Henry VIII to be a queen’s lady to her first cousin. At first appalled at the lax morals of the court, Madge soon learns that underneath her flirtations of courtly love, Queen Anne is moral, and more importantly – devout. Her support of the monasteries and priories that Cromwell plunders to feed the King’s purse is stressed here, as is her faith, which I found refreshing.

Even though the Anne we see through Madge’s eyes is not the morally lax witch we’re so accustomed to, she retains her sharp tongue and inability to handle any slight. Henry’s sexual appetites constantly land him in hot water with the Queen. As she ages, and loses two sons after the birth of Princess Elizabeth, the desperate Queen looks for some way to secure Henry’s affections.

If she cannot win him back to her, she can at least make sure that his bedmate is someone loyal to her, and not Jane Seymour, whose family has pushed her (literally) into Henry’s lap more than once. Even though Madge has fallen in love with Arthur, the bastard born son of a noble, she has retained her purity at court, even though the husband Henry intends for her has tried to take it by force more than once.

Anne knows that Madge has attracted Henry’s eye, so she strikes a deal with her handmaiden. If Madge will warm Henry’s bed, and fill his ear with positive talk of the Queen, she’ll break the engagement to the odious man Henry means to pair Madge with, and give her blessing to Madge’s marriage to her baseborn lover.

Madge’s love for her cousin and Queen wars with the dual specter of her conscience and love for Arthur. If she can bring the King back to the Queen’s side and the pair produce a prince, the country will be back on solid ground and Anne’s throne assured for life.

But that means sharing the bed of a man she finds loathsome, and sacrificing all she’s been taught to hold pure.