Mary I: Queen of Sorrows by Alison Weir: Immersive, enthralling and unforgettable – book review -

Mary I: Queen of Sorrows by Alison WeirMary I: Queen of Sorrows by Alison Weir
Mary I: Queen of Sorrows by Alison Weir
As the only, much-cherished child of powerful King Henry VIII and his Spanish Queen, Katherine of Aragon, nine-year-old Princess Mary Tudor is heir to the English throne, betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor, and would seem to be set fair for a golden future.

But in just a few short years, Mary’s world falls apart and by the time of her death at the age of just 42, England’s first queen to rule in her own right will have suffered the ignominy of illegitimacy and exile from court, a fierce battle to claim her throne, and earned the infamous title of Bloody Mary.

Celebrated author and historian Alison Weir returns with the enthralling story of Mary I: Queen of Sorrows, the final book of her thrilling Tudor Rose trilogy which charts three generations of the renowned royal dynasty and has brought us Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose – the tumultuous tale of the first Tudor queen – and Henry VIII: The Heart and the Crown, a captivating and compelling exploration of her brilliant, passionate and ruthless son Henry.

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Epic in scope, breathtakingly authentic, and revealing in its acutely insightful exploration of three pivotal Tudor figures, this outstanding series has taken us into some unknown, unheralded and unfamiliar corners of English medieval history.

And what a final last chapter this account of the complex, emotionally scarred, devout Catholic and, ultimately, brutal woman who became Queen Mary I this proves to be as Weir takes us to the heart of the traumatic early years that turned a treasured daughter and devoted sibling into a religious zealot prepared to burn hundreds of Protestant ‘heretics’ at the stake.

But what many readers might not know is that there was also a very personal reason why Weir was particularly gripped by the prospect of writing Mary’s tumultuous story... the shared childhood trauma of her own parents’ divorce, and the legacy of a lifetime of anxiety, helped her empathise with the young Mary’s experiences, and the fears, mistrust, and insecurities that resulted from her cruel treatment.

Born into wealth and privilege, and cocooned in the warmth and security of her ‘sainted’ mother Queen Katherine’s love and the adoration of her father, the ‘great golden giant’ King Henry, the petite Princess Mary grows up as the sole heiress to the English throne.

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Betrothed to her mother’s nephew Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Mary has been brought up in a strict Catholic faith which has instilled in her a devout love for God and a deep-seated piety.

But as she grows up, one word seems to be on everyone’s lips... the succession. And when her betrothal to the Emperor Charles is declared null and void because he has found a richer bride, and she discovers that her father wants a son and heir to succeed him rather than his daughter Mary, her world crumbles around her and there are no certainties any more.

Soon England, and her parents’ 24-year marriage, are in crisis, and Mary is banished from the whirl of merrymaking, dancing and feasting at the court and kept apart from the mother she worships while her father concentrates on his ‘Great Matter’ and dallies with the new woman in his life... one of her mother’s maids-of-honour, Anne Boleyn.

Exiled from the court, Mary seeks solace in her ‘true’ faith and prays fervently for her father to bring her home but when the King does promise to restore her to favour, his love comes with a condition... she must do something for which she will never forgive herself.

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It’s a choice that will haunt her for years to come and when her strict Protestant brother King Edward VI dies in 1553 at the age of 15, she finds herself fighting for the crown... and for her life. And when she emerges triumphant, the reign of Queen Mary looks full of promise until her marriage to King Philip of Spain, her religious fervour, and other disastrous choices set her on a very rocky royal road...

Weir’s account of Mary’s troubled life is probably the nearest a reader could ever get – in fiction – to the inner core of a woman who remains a Tudor enigma, a haunted queen forever overshadowed by the giant figure of her father, her stepmother Anne Boleyn, and her more popular, more politically astute, and more canny sister Queen Elizabeth I.

But, at a time when there has been a concerted attempt to rehabilitate Mary’s reputation, it’s interesting to learn that Weir revisited her own research for an earlier book – Children of England: The Heirs of King Henry VIII 1547-1558 – and found that she ‘could not go against what the historical evidence is telling me.’

Thus the queen portrayed in this brilliantly observed and convincing account is credited for her courage and initiative in seizing back the throne from her usurper cousin, Lady Jane Grey, but also bears the personal blame for the empty coffers she left behind, her brutal religious fanaticism and intransigence, and the poor judgment that marked out the failures in her reign – not least the catastrophic loss of the long-held port of Calais – and led to Londoners ‘joyfully’ celebrating her death and the accession of ‘their deliverer’ Elizabeth I in 1558.

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And as always in Weir’s dazzling Tudor novels, the drama of the court, its political machinations and its fascinating cast of characters, spring to vibrant life through her in-depth research, spellbinding storytelling talents, gift for authenticity, and a tantalising slice of real history-based artistic licence.

Against this stunning backdrop, one of England’s most controversial queens becomes a living, breathing and very human woman, beset by a childhood full of false hopes, cruel separations, family betrayals and tragedies, and onward to an adult life spent fighting for her place in the royal succession, and then for the crown that was so nearly snatched away from her.

Weir’s exploration of Mary is both enlightening and moving, with the reader’s sympathy for this most complex of queens fluctuating between pity and despairing frustration. We are also reminded of the deep irony that the blind, almost fanatical, observance of her Catholic faith – a faith that so consoled and instructed Mary’s chequered life – was eventually one of the major causes of her downfall as the queen of a changing world in which she increasingly felt ‘completely out of place.’

Immersive, enthralling and unforgettable, these impressive novels have turned Tudor history into a stage... a magnificent showcase where we connect to the past, witness events unfold against a breathtakingly authentic backdrop, and see a long-ago England through the eyes and ears of the people who helped to shape our future. A remarkable achievement.

(Headline Review, hardback, £25)

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