Book review: The Queen’s Confidante by Karen Harper

editorial image

The forever fertile terrain of Tudor history gets some fascinating tweaks and twists as Karen Harper sweeps us back to the paranoid court of the dynasty’s founder Henry VII.

It was a turbulent era; the Lancastrian king had won the bitter Wars of the Roses but his throne was far from safe.

Many questions remained unanswered – did the defeated Yorkist King Richard III really kill the Princes in the Tower, his own nephews, and was foul play involved in the death of Henry VII’s heir, Prince Arthur, older brother of the future Henry VIII?

The Queen’s Confidante introduces us to Henry’s long-suffering wife, Queen Elizabeth, the former Yorkist princess whose marriage helped to unite the warring houses but who was always destined to be a political pawn in royal machinations.

Here Harper allows her to escape the bonds of male-dominated history and join forces with an unlikely female ally to track down enemies of the Crown and delve into some deadly secrets.

At the Palace of Westminster in 1502, Queen Elizabeth is distraught and fears malign forces are responsible when her eldest son, 15-year-old Arthur, Prince of Wales, newly married to Catherine of Aragon, dies suddenly at Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border.

There are few she can trust with her suspicions that Arthur has been murdered so instead she turns to Varina Westcott, a young London candlemaker and widow. Their paths first crossed when the queen commissioned Varina to carve life-size waxen effigies of her two children who died in infancy, and her two young brothers, the princes who disappeared in the tower nearly 20 years earlier.

Despite the difference in their stations, Varina shares a bond with her royal mistress. Both women know what it is like to lose a child. Varina’s own son Edmund died aged just two from the dreaded sweating sickness and she is still haunted by the vision of her lost ‘golden boy.’

Now the despairing queen is asking her confidante to do what she cannot and travel into the Welsh countryside and discover all she can about Prince Arthur’s death.

She is aided by the handsome and ambitious courtier Nicholas Sutton but Varina’s mission will be more difficult than she ever imagined. As she and Nick unearth a series of unsettling clues, they discover that both Henry and Elizabeth have ruthless foes determined to bring down the entire Tudor dynasty...

Using her usual impeccable research, vivid imagination and storytelling gifts, Harper injects two intriguing murder mysteries into a tale of passion, romance, suspense and danger.

She blends fact and fiction, real and imaginary figures to create a vivid snapshot of the anxieties and perils that beset early 19th century England as seen through the eyes of both the high and low born.

A good old-fashioned crime mystery as well as a romantic adventure story, The Queen’s Confidante is full of all the excitement, drama and treachery one would expect from a gripping chapter of Tudor history.

(Ebury, paperback, £6.99)