By 1568, Elizabeth Tudor has ruled England for a decade when her cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, is cast from her throne by ambitious half-brother Stuart, under Elizabeth’s protection in England while awaiting a return to her rightful position. Outraged that her royal cousin does not immediately facilitate her return, Stuart seethes, eventually being delivered to the care of Elizabeth’s trusted northern lord, George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, until negotiations with the Scottish lords allow the queen’s relocation to her home country.
Suddenly England is uncomfortably crowded: two queens, two religions, Elizabeth wary yet reluctant to do anything to endanger a queen of royal blood. Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, is a dedicated Reformist with extensive plans for England’s future, the “old lords” chafing at the effrontery of this upstart who is Elizabeth’s closest and most critical confidant - “She sits at the throne, but the power is Cecil’s.” The plundering of Roman churches and monasteries has filled Elizabeth’s coffers, a bounty she is determined to exploit.
Meanwhile, believing themselves blessed with an opportunity to shelter “the other queen” and gain Elizabeth’s favor, the chivalrous Shrewsbury (“I am a Talbot. I cannot do anything that is at all dishonorable.”) and his clever wife, Bess, offer accommodations to the stunningly beautiful Mary, a demanding guest.
The newlywed Talbots, although not young, enjoy property and fortune, thanks in large part to Bess’s business acumen and careful stewardship of her late husband’s considerable financial interests. Both the couple and their guest expect the queen to be restored to her throne within a short period of time, but as the months drag by and their estate is drained by Mary’s excessive expenditures, the new marriage suffers for an honor that becomes a burden.
England is rife with suspicion, Cecil’s spies in every household, Stuart, “born of a Scot, crowned Queen of France and heir to the Crown of England,” the subject of controversy and treasonous plots, England once more threatened by war. Predictably, Elizabeth withdraws into silence, assessing the danger, trusting Cecil to protect her interests: “I thought we could teach her how to live like a queen with pride, not like a usurper haunted with terror.”
On the cusp of a radically different future, Cecil’s England is committed to loosening the yoke of old ideas, the superstitions of the old religion. In a tense drama of a perfidious queen (“She can speak three languages, but she can tell the truth in none of them”), a marriage is fractured, an honorable man undone by unexpected passions, and a modern woman “whose only sense of safety is property” counts a diminishing fortune, the other queen both betrayer and betrayed, a country nearly brought to its knees.
Gregory’s Stuart is portrayed as a substantive figure, capable and resourceful even in exile, while her cousin, Elizabeth, is the more flawed ruler, fearful, dependent on Cecil, and often driven by petty jealousies. Each woman’s past plays a prominent role in this riveting drama, Elizabeth crippled by the insecurities of her youth, Mary outrageous and demanding, assured in the power of her beauty and intellect, a sympathetic, even inspirational queen in this author’s capable hands.
Gregory owns this territory, her explosive tale opening yet another door to a past teeming with the great figures, themes and ambitions of Elizabethan England. The brilliantly structured novel pulses with greed, treachery, misplaced loyalty and obsessive love. The three main protagonists - Mary Stuart, George Talbot and Bess - tell their stories in alternating chapters, a relentless narrative that delivers England to the threshold of war, a Catholic queen and yet another clash of religious beliefs. Elizabeth and William Cecil punctuate each critical turn of events, Stuart emerging as an impressive leader, perhaps equal to the iconic Elizabeth.