At the Mercy of the Queen: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Anne Clinard Barnhill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Goodreads: A sweeping tale of sexual seduction and intrigue at the court of Henry VIII, At the Mercy of the Queen is a rich and dramatic debut historical about Madge Shelton, cousin and lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn.
At the innocent age of fifteen, Lady Margaret Shelton arrives at the court of Henry VIII and quickly becomes the confidante of her cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn. But she soon finds herself drawn into the perilous web of Anne’s ambition.
Desperate to hold onto the king’s waning affection, Anne schemes to have him take her guileless young cousin as mistress, ensuring her husband’s new paramour will owe her loyalty to the queen. But Margaret has fallen deeply in love with a handsome young courtier. She is faced with a terrible dilemma: give herself to the king and betray the love of her life or refuse to become his mistress and jeopardize the life of her cousin, Queen Anne.
My take: The story begins after Anne Boleyn has succeeded in wedding King Henry VIII. The protagonist is the author's ancestor, Margaret Shelton or Madge. I didn't love the protagonist because she was not a strong character. On the other hand, she provided a point of view that is different from other books I've read on Henry's second wife; she is Anne's first cousin.
Other books on Anne Boleyn have either painted her as a victim or an antagonist. In this book, she is neither. She is a strong woman in a time period where women held very little power. Brief history that is not often mentioned - Henry married Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, because his older brother was supposed to. His older brother was to be king but he died. Henry inherited his bride. They had Mary (Bloody Mary). In the preceding decades, Protestantism (I made that word up) was born. The history of protestant faiths is not covered but both Martin Luther and John Calvin were actively opposing the pope in the early 1500's. The common people, tired of hell and damnation and driven to poverty by constant taxes and church offerings, were quickly split between Catholicism and Reformation.
Meanwhile, there were court politics. Henry had his part to play as did every courtier at the palace. Henry had many mistresses, including Anne's sister, Mary. When Henry approached Anne for some sexual dalliances, she refused. Her reasons are suspect but ultimately she claimed she would not offer her body unless he married her. And then we know the rest.
Madge is a beautiful cousin who arrives at court at the age of 16, shortly before Anne's coronation. She becomes a close confidante to the queen and through her eyes we get to know more about the palace politics and Anne's nature. Rather than being a scheming social climber, Anne is presented as an imperfect woman who is also a champion for the Reformation. As queen, she holds sway over promoting the Reformed church. At the same time, however, she did not support Henry's dissolution of monasteries which filled his coffers, much to Cromwell's chagrin. Cromwell enjoyed the bounty he skimmed from the to coffers of Henry and didn't like Anne's complaints.
Overall, the book provided a fresh view on Anne Boleyn. She is neither innocent nor guilty, victimized nor seductress. She was a woman trying to survive in a time and place where her options were unsavory.
Dialog and swearing - mild
Sex - Moderate to heavy
Violence - Moderate