Philippa Gregory is well acquainted with the behind-the-scenes machinations in the English royal court of 1553 -- in this instance, the rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth, daughters of Henry VIII, heirs to Henry’s throne after his one male heir, King Edward, dies. In The Queen’s Fool, the author adds another ingredient: a young converso (a Jewish convert to the Christian faith, to avoid burning at the stake during the Inquisition) gifted with the “Sight”. Hannah Green is our eyes and ears at court during the reign of Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, virulently Catholic and determined to restore the English to the true religion of her mother, as Elizabeth, daughter of the beheaded Anne Boleyn, incessantly plots to usurp Mary’s throne.
Using the Queen’s fool as a vehicle for the story serves two purposes: the author is able to delve into the complex relationship between the royal sisters, especially during this most adversarial period of their relationship, also illustrating the harried lives of the Jews during years of intense religious persecution.
Mary’s favor waxes and wanes in the eyes of her people, while Elizabeth remains a constant favorite, with her demure Protestant ethic. Hannah comes to Mary’s court through the court of her newly deceased brother, where she is begged as a fool and a spy for Sir Robert Dudley, who is frequently traitorous to Mary as he plots for Elizabeth’s accession to the throne. It has been Hannah’s misfortune to fall hopelessly in love with Dudley; she is unable to refuse his bidding for most of her years at court.
Hiding behind a Christian façade with her bookseller father, Hannah is adept at hiding her religion and the secret practices that continue in spite of years of persecution. Hannah is betrothed but helplessly attracted to the royal court, in thrall to the pure-hearted Mary and captivated by the clever and beautiful Elizabeth. Overtaken by her infrequent visions, the gift of sight has compelled Hannah to stay at court and help Mary through a difficult reign.
Yearning for marriage and an heir, Queen Mary contracts a marriage with King Phillip of Spain, causing turmoil in the kingdom as her loyal citizens are unwilling to be ruled by a Spanish King. Yet Mary pursues the marriage; once accomplished, Mary and Phillip bring the scourge of the Inquisition to England. Mary’s inability to bear a child threatens her hold on the kingdom. Consequently, the Queen orders the torture and burning of those unwilling to accept the Catholic faith.
Hannah’s world is permeated by the smell of burning flesh and the desperate flight from Spain. In an untenable situation and living in constant terror, Hannah’s allegiance to Mary remains unassailable, and she refuses to abandon the suffering Queen, although it is clear that Elizabeth’s following grows daily, avidly supported by Dudley. Hannah must decide whether to return to her family and marry or live at risk in Mary’s court; clearly her decision puts the whole family in jeopardy as the flames of religious fervor burn brightly.
In this cleverly crafted scenario, Mary and Elizabeth desperately struggle for the English throne, representing the great crash of religious beliefs begun by Henry’s break with Rome, each woman -- the Catholic Queen and the Protestant Princess -- entrenched in her beliefs. The sisters are cast in much the same roles as their mothers, equally obsessed. While Mary succeeds in capturing the throne, Elizabeth schemes and Hannah is torn by her allegiance to both. In an interesting twist to a familiar saga, the daughters of the infamous Henry VIII battle for ascendancy, contrasted against the stark torture and death brought about by religious persecution and the terrible shadow of the Inquisition.