With a brilliant sense of immediacy, The Virgin's Lover author Philippa Gregory addresses a fundamental Elizabethan enigma, an unsolved crime of passion in a novel that shakes off the mustiness of history, as vivid and ebullient as Elizabeth's reign. Delving into yet another fascinating aspect of the Tudor drama, the author tackles the early years of Elizabeth's reign, when she is suddenly thrust upon the throne of England.
By the time of Queen Mary's death, the young princess has yet to act a significant role on the great stage of England, with few trusted counselors save William Cecil and Robert Dudley. Throughout a life spent at court, Elizabeth studies the political machinations of statecraft, but it is one thing to watch and quite another to make critical decisions. Elizabeth is beset by treachery on all sides, the plotting of other legitimate heirs and powerful bishops of the Church who fear the Protestant rigors of Henry's rule will return. Queen Mary gutted the treasury, leaving Elizabeth without resources to protect her position or her country.
William Cecil, a most knowledgeable and devoted man who believes England should remain in the hands of the Protestant Queen, counsels her in matters of state. Yet the handsome Robert Dudley vies for the Queen's allegiance, hopelessly in love; Dudley has known the same terrors: imprisonment in the Tower, his own father executed for treason, as was Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn. The Queen and her Master of Horses are linked together by their pasts and a deep affection for one another.
The virgin and the gentleman enjoy a fated romance, save one critical impediment: Robert is married to Amy Dudley, an unassuming woman, waiting patiently through her husband's travails, praying that he will once more find favor in the court. Indeed, Dudley finds more than favor in the Queen's service, rushing to her side at the death of the Catholic Queen. Amy Dudley is torn between loyalty and jealousy at this turn of events, while months pass and Dudley fails to return. Amy remains blind to rumors, the constant gossip of a love affair between the Queen and her Master of the Horse.
Elizabeth's court is rife with intrigue, whispers, unbridled gossip and treachery, as she is forced to consider war with France in Spain, yet terrified of making a mistake. Cecil and Dudley dance in attendance, each with a personal agenda, each a favorite of the Queen, the situation growing more untenable by the day. Eventually, state affairs escalate, casting doubt on Elizabeth's ability to rule.
The story moves between the clever machinations in pursuit of power that surround the Queen, including the threat of imminent war, and the countryside, where Amy Dudley languishes, her heart broken by Dudley's rejection. Caught between passion and duty, Elizabeth cuts her teeth on danger and indiscretion, emerging as one of the most popular and skillful politicians of the time.