Book review: The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien

Who can forget the French princess Katherine de Valois who sparred playfully with her future royal husband after his victory at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V?

Monday, 4th March 2013, 9:10 am

The reality was very different. Katherine’s tenure as wife of England’s magnificent warrior king was far from joyful and incredibly short lived. Her final destiny lay not with the English Plantagenets but with an ambitious young man from Wales, and together they would become founders of England’s most famous royal dynasty... the Tudors.

The teenage girl who was married off to a king to seal his claim to rule both England and France gets a mesmerising makeover in Anne O’Brien’s new novel, an epic and yet intimate portrayal of a pivotal female figure in English history.

O’Brien, the masterful mistress of medieval historical fiction, has taken to her heart marginalised women of the Middle Ages and turned their stories and scandals into rich, romantic tales full of intrigue, drama and passion.

In The King’s Concubine, we learned more of Alice Perrers, infamous mistress of Edward III, Virgin Widow introduced us to Anne Neville, wife of the ill-fated Richard III, and here we get to the heart of another of history’s innocent pawns.

Katherine had an inauspicious start. Daughter of King Charles VI of France, noted for his madness, and his wife Queen Isabeau, notorious for her ‘wanton lewdness,’ the young princess was packed off to a convent by her scheming mother to be raised under the rigours of Dominican discipline.

Now she is the jewel in the French crown, locked up and kept pure as a prize for the English King Henry V who is slaughtering her kinsmen on the battlefields of Agincourt. No matter the cost, Isabeau is determined to deliver Katherine into the loveless arms of the iron-willed Henry V.

Henry does take Katherine as his bride, not for her personality or her beauty but as a prize, a spoil of war and as a means to take the glittering French crown itself.

For Katherine, an innocent abroad, England is a lion’s den of greed, avarice and mistrust and her marriage to cold, calculating Henry is a dry and arid place. Only months after their son, the future Henry VI, is born, Henry dies and leaves 21-year-old Katherine a widow and a prize ripe for the taking.

But her enemies are circling and would have her remain a Dowager Queen, forbidden to remarry and eking out a loveless life with prayers and charitable works.

However, there are three men who would have her as their wife; Henry’s ruthless brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the flamboyant Edmund Beaufort from one of the foremost families in the land, and Owen Tudor, master of her household and a young man with an air of ferocious efficiency who says little and achieves much.

All are ambitious, all a force to be reckoned with. Who will have her and who will stop her?

As always, O’Brien’s grasp of the historical period, its politics and its leading players is superb. But The Forbidden Queen is essentially an exquisitely imagined and character driven love story which puts the focus firmly on a fascinating and resourceful woman who dared to challenge her medieval masters by breaking the bounds and marrying where her heart lay.

After her death, Katherine was sidelined by her royal Tudor descendants because of fears over their possible illegitimacy. Happily, O’Brien’s sympathetic and credible portrayal restores both her image as the founder of a dynasty and her breathtaking courage in the face of formidable odds.

(Mira Harlequin, paperback, £7.99)