The Tudor Secret

I found The Tudor Secret on the remainder table at my local independent bookstore. After a little research I have decided that it might have also been released under the title The Secret Lion, since the description of that book is identical to The Tudor Secret. The author, CW Gortner, has a degree in Renaissance history and he’s putting it to good use here.

If you don’t track Elizabethan (technically, pre-Elizabethan) history, you may have some trouble following this book, because it’s hard to tell the players without a scorecard. After Henry VIII’s death, his young and sickly son Edward (Henry had a legitimate son, with his third wife, Jane Seymour) ascended the throne. Edward VI was too young to rule but his father’s will had not specified a regent, so ambitious men came out of the woodwork to “help” the young king. The first batch of these were the Seymours, including Edward Seymour and his brother Thomas, who in addition to having been King Henry’s brother-in-law until Jane died, also married Henry’s widow Katherine Parr and was the guardian of the Princess Elizabeth. (Yes, there will be a quiz later.) Thomas Seymour overstepped, embezzled from the Crown and was beheaded. The ambitious Dudley clan, headed by John Dudley, plotted against Edward Seymour, the Lord Protector, and got him removed and ultimately beheaded too. This meant, of course, that the Dudleys now had control of Edward.

Totally disempowered but not quite ignored during this time period were the two princesses; Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter from his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, and Elizabeth Tudor, Henry’s daughter from his second marriage to Anne Boleyn.

All of this happens before The Tudor Secret starts. Edward VI is still alive, although barely, when the book opens, and a young squire named Brendan Prescott is heading, with the Dudleys’ steward, to London. Brendan is being sent to be Robert Dudley’s squire. Brendan is an orphan, a foundling, discovered by the Dudley housekeeper, Dame Alice, in the abandoned priest’s house, when he was only an infant. Intrigue starts in the first chapter with rumors that Princess Elizabeth has come to town, also, to visit her beloved brother. Brendan catches a glimpse of the princess, although he doesn’t know it at the time. Shortly afterward he is introduced to William Cecil, a secretary who works for the Dudleys but is loyal to Elizabeth. The book glitched for me a bit here, when we discover that our wide-eyed youth Brendan, who should be about fourteen based on his station and his innocence, is actually twenty. The discrepancy in age and skill set is a problem; a foundling, Brendan is taught to read, write and do sums, apparently a clerk’s training, but he can also fence and shoot a bow; but, at twenty, he was never sent off to be a soldier.

Brendan agrees to work for Cecil, who hints that he knows something of Brendan’s lineage. Robert Dudley gives Brendan a token with orders to deliver it to the princess. Brendan meets Elizabeth and is smitten. I would criticize this as a failure to capture Elizabeth’s character—how does she captivate people so quickly? – if there weren’t contemporary accounts of people having exactly that reaction. Elizabeth, whose claim to the throne was the most precarious of Henry’s children’s, figured out intuitively how to both endear herself to the “common people” and win over key political players. This got her the throne. It also kept her alive during the time period in which this book is set.

In short order, Brendan is sparring verbally with the Dudley boys, particularly the prideful, arrogant Robert and the weak-willed Guileford, who is set to marry Jane Grey, the king’s cousin. He meets the sinister and well-dressed Francis Walsingham, who reads like a Disney villain; he befriends a scrappy stableboy; he has his life threatened several times. He also takes his life in his hands by helping Elizabeth sneak into the royal apartments at Greenwich to say good-bye to her dying brother. In the king’s bedchamber Brendan makes a shocking and deeply personal discovery, but has little time to figure things out because he is now sent to make contact with Princess Mary. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, pressured Edward into disinheriting Mary, and now he’s sending Robert to find and imprison the princess. Northumberland plans to have Jane Grey crowned queen.

The action moves just fast enough. Gortner slows the pacing to allow for a lovely and sensuous romance between Brendan and Kate, one of Elizabeth’s servants. Brendan’s personal story is clear to the reader before it’s clear to him, and some of the details of it are a little shaky. It’s still a nice complication that could play out through the series, if there is one. The  most baffling scene comes early in the book, in the court,  a meet-and-greet scene where great secrets and whispered deals are being made by people you don’t know but think you should know about – Duchess Suffolk! Her Grace Princess Elizabeth! Lady Jane Grey! Duke of Northumberland! Kate! Kat Ashley! A dog! It’s hard to know what to pay attention to.

Speaking not as a critic but as an engaged reader and a partisan of William Cecil, I do not care for Gortner’s portrayal of this historical character, although his interpretation certainly powers the plot. It feels to me like Gortner moved a bunch of Francis Walsingham’s traits to Cecil, like a borrowed suit of clothes. It’s clear that the real-life Cecil was a conniver and a manipulator, but here’s the thing; they all were. You didn’t survive in a royal court –literally; see Paragraph Two above—if you weren’t. He was, however, fiercely loyal to Elizabeth.

Now speaking as a critic, Elizabeth comes across in this book as purely noble, stubborn in a good cause; courageous and loyal. Oh, please. Even during this time period, when she was not yet queen, Elizabeth was very much a player, and The Tudor Secret’s depiction of her fairness to Princess Mary is unbelievable. Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship was complicated even by the standards of a 21st century blended family, and Elizabeth sounds disingenuous in this book when she says, “I’ve never done anything but be the daughter of her mother’s rival.” Really? Just the daughter of the rival who had her mother deposed and kept under house arrest the rest of her life? That rival, you mean? A tiny but irritating detail is that of Elizabeth’s dog, Urian. Anne Boleyn had a wolfhound named Urian. Elizabeth spent her life distancing herself from her mother; she would not flaunt the Boleyn connection by giving her dog this name. Gortner does not convince me that Elizabeth would indulge in this life-threatening caprice out of defiance or some deeply-held love for a mother she didn’t even remember.

The book is set against the background of the “Nine-day Queen,” (Jane Grey, record-holder for shortest reign in British history) but unless you already knew about that, you might completely miss that it happened. In fact, it was never clear to me in this book that Jane had already suffered through her rushed “coronation,” since Brendan was out of town when it happened.

To understand the secret of Brendan’s birth, a family tree would have helped. St Martin’s Press could have put a nice one in the front of the book. It’s like a feature, really. Some of us like them, and the people who are new to the byzantine family connections of the royal courts of 16th century Europe would appreciate it.

The book ends just before the beginning of the most fraught period of Elizabeth’s life; and Brendan is poised to be one of Cecil’s intelligencers. Where’s the next book? Mary and Felipe of Spain? Elizabeth and Dudley imprisoned in the tower? Hey, I’m waiting!

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