Wednesday 9 January 2019

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Queen of Martyrs by Samantha Wilcoxson

"Ms Wilcoxson does a good job of depicting the hurting, insecure Mary. She’s a bit like a fledgling, shoved out of the nest too soon and expected to fend for herself despite not being able to fly."


Biographical Fiction
1500s / Mary Tudor

Usually, books set in the Tudor period tend to concentrate on two female protagonists, namely Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth. Yes, there are the odd books about the tragic Catherine of Aragon or some of Henry VIII’s other wives, but mostly it’s about Anne and Elizabeth. Henry VIII’s eldest daughter—the girl he treated so cruelly when he had his sights set on making many, many sons with Anne Boleyn—has rarely been given much time in the limelight. No, Mary Tudor is often treated as something of a parenthesis, far more interesting as a threat to Elizabeth’s future potential than as a person in her own right.

In Queen of Martyrs, Ms Samantha Wilcoxson presents us with a Mary of flesh and blood, a young woman permanently traumatised by her father’s disowning of her mother and her subsequent bastardisation. Mary is very young when everything she once took for granted is taken from her—including her beloved mother. Instead, to really rub salt into the wounds, Mary is dispatched to join Elizabeth’s household, there to wait on the little princess that has usurped her place in her father’s affection. As we all know, it didn’t take long until Henry subjected Elizabeth to a similar degradation, but in difference to Mary, Elizabeth was too young to fully comprehend how her status had changed. Mary, on the other hand, goes from being secure in her role as her father’s only heir to being torn apart by insecurities—her love for her father tainted by fear for what he might do to her next.

Ms Wilcoxson does a good job of depicting the hurting, insecure Mary. She’s a bit like a fledgling, shoved out of the nest too soon and expected to fend for herself despite not being able to fly. There is something very vulnerable and na├»ve about this Mary, an innocence that she retains throughout her life. While I am not entirely convinced the historical Mary was that much of an innocent, I applaud Ms Wilcoxson for the effort she has put into painting this portrait of a woman most of us dismiss as Bloody Mary.

It is patently obvious Ms Wilcoxson knows her period and her protagonist. I like the little details, the way rituals of the time are interwoven into the story. I enjoy the insight offered into various minor characters, people who were staunchly loyal to Mary throughout her life. I am intrigued by Ms Wilcoxson’s Elizabeth—a calculating, careful woman who shows little emotion and who has her eyes firmly set on the ultimate prize, the English throne.

Most of all, I feel compassion for Mary and her lonely road through life. A woman who wanted only to love and be loved was given little opportunity to do either. Her husband, Philip II, beds her out of duty, and while she manages to deceive herself into believing he loves her for a while, ultimately Mary is too intelligent to fall for her own deception.

Writing a book about Mary without approaching the infected issue of her persecution of heretics is impossible. Ms Wilcoxon does not shy away from this difficult subject and presents the reader with a Mary who sees it as her God-given duty to cleanse England of the heresies that could potentially damn all her English subjects to everlasting hell. Mary’s intense and personal relationship with God is her one mainstay throughout her life. In a life markedly devoid of love and affection, a life tinged by sorrows, this woman finds solace in the belief that at least she is doing God’s bidding.

All in all, Queen of Martyrs offers interesting insight into the personality of a woman who is easy to dismiss as a bigot. There are times when the narrative could have been tighter, and now and then I am distracted by the recurring POV slips, but overall I am impressed by Ms Wilcoxson’s presentation of this proud and so very, very lonely queen.

© Anna Belfrage

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  1. Now this looks like my kind of historical fiction! A lot more than the 'Pretty Maids' and the 'Calais' which is all most people seem to know - and that's probably wrong! Review has me more than interested ...

    1. I would love to know what you think if you get a chance to read it, Richard. :-)

  2. Thank you for the lovely review, Anna!

    1. Thank you for introducing me to this complicated woman!

  3. Thank you for this lovely review on this novel dedicated to a tragic and often misunderstood woman. I'd love to go back and give Mary a big hug.

    We often see Anne and Elizabeth as heroines, but contemporary accounts of the time don't portray them that way. Look at all the suffering heaped on Mary so that the name of Elizabeth could shine brighter.

    In fairness to Anne Boleyn though, the buck stopped with Henry.


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