Book review: The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper

Every royal princess needs her ‘rock’ and for the motherless Elizabeth Tudor, it was a young country girl who became the mainstay of her life.

Kat Ashley isn’t one of the biggest names in 16th century history but the woman who sprang from very ordinary stock went on to play a key role at the heart of the English court.

Governess, confidante and trusted adviser to Elizabeth, Kat’s fate was inextricably entwined with that of a dazzling queen as together they faced tragedy, tribulation and triumph.

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Karen Harper’s gripping and well-researched historical novel shines new light on a relatively obscure but highly influential player in the great Tudor saga.

Daughter of a poor Devon squire, Kat Champernowne’s early years seems to be mapped out as skivvy to her young stepmother until a chance meeting with Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII’s most influential and ambitious courtiers, changes the course of her life.

She helps to nurse Cromwell back to health after he falls from his horse near her home and before long he has plans for the teenager he sees as ‘a gem in a rude setting.’

He secures her an education and a place in a noble household but it comes at a price... in return, she must become a lady in waiting to Henry’s new amour Anne Boleyn and act as a court spy.

Amidst the splendour of Hampton Court, she meets her new mistress – a black-haired, charismatic young woman with a natural elegance and vivacity – and witnesses her rise to the heady heights of Henry’s queen and her fall from grace only three years later.

Her last pledge to the doomed queen is to serve her daughter Elizabeth and protect her as best she can from ‘the tyrannical rule of men.’

A long and rocky road lies ahead ... together the two women will suffer bitter exile, assassination attempts and imprisonment, barely escaping with their reputations and their lives intact.

Kat will find love and marriage with Sir John Ashley, a court attendant, and Elizabeth will become dangerously and passionately involved with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

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And when Elizabeth is eventually crowned, Kat will continue to serve her, faithfully guarding all of the queen’s secrets, including one that could bring down the monarchy...

Narrated through the all-seeing perspective of Kat, Harper opens up a very personal and intimate window onto the life of England’s golden queen.

While some of the background to Kat’s early life is speculative, Harper’s grasp of the period and its people is impressive and her assertion that ‘if Anne Boleyn gave Elizabeth life, Kat Ashley gave her love’ is clearly evident in the affectionate tone of surviving letters written by Elizabeth to her loyal friend.

The Queen’s Governess is a colourful and believable account of an extraordinary relationship which stood the test of turbulent times.

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(Ebury, paperback, £6.99)