You can draw a direct line between this book and every girl who burned through the collected works of Philippa Gregory like they were written in cocaine.
Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor, England, 1544, Kathryn Lasky, 1999.
This is the first and most famous of the entire series, and if the library copy I have in my hands is any indicator, it’s VERY well-loved. It’s so hard to write a Tudor story that isn’t incredibly overdone or overly reliant on the sex-and-intrigue conventions of the genre (hey, Philippa Gregory!), but focusing on a YA aspect gives it a really interestingly fresh perspective. Lasky doesn’t shy away from the worse aspects of the court (as mentioned, the sex/intrigue/nonstop plotting), but she downplays it enough to make it palatable for an audience of 11-year-olds who are probably getting their first introduction to a non-school discussion of Elizabeth I.
Lasky does a nice job of creating an Elizabeth who is intelligent and sensible without being precocious or overly-crafty. At eleven, she spends a lot of time worrying about whether her father loves her (a pretty understandable problem when your father is famous for killing people who irritate him), given that he keeps exiling her and then bringing her back to court over and over again. She bounces back between wondering if her father is totally in his right mind (a treasonous thought!) and loving him very much indeed. She spends most of her time with Kat, her governess, and on-and-off with the other royal “children” (in quotes because Princess Mary is twenty-eight, but still classified as a child) and their tutors. At the outset, Elizabeth is at Greenwich Palace, since one of the king’s frequent desires to forget her has given way to his new queen’s wishes. Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and final wife, is smart and has a tremendous interest in Elizabeth’s studies—unlike her other “mothers.”
Elizabeth doesn’t shy away from describing her father as “very fat,” or the horrible sores and pus in his legs (gross). She does, however, not want to write about Catherine Howard—“More like a playmate than a mother”—for being “too awful.” Anne of Cleves pops up periodically as a jolly German aunt, but Mary is an interesting proto-villain—“all she ever does is pray, and she never smiles.” Elizabeth thinks, deep down, that she is smart enough to be queen, and has a royal stature that her siblings do not, but as third in line from the throne, she laments that she’s never ever ever going to take the throne.
Just a few days after she’s brought back to court, she’s exiled again for writing a song with a slight insult towards Mary. But that doesn’t stop Catherine Parr from overseeing her studies, though Elizabeth finds it boring and lonely to be alone at Hatfield without any siblings or friends to keep her company. She writes to Catherine and receives several letters from Mary, but with nothing else to do she gets depressed and starts thinking about her mother’s death. But Catherine writes back and brings Elizabeth back to court for the fall, and when they return to Hampton Court she’s reunited with her brother Edward and her best friend, Robin Dudley.
Robin Dudley. There’s an interesting choice of inclusion into this book! Dudley was one of Elizabeth’s favourite courtiers and frequently cited as a possible lover and potential suitor, and he was a privy councillor and Protector of the Realm at one point, but in this book Robin is only her best friend. He studies with her under Cox, their new schoolmaster, and together they hear the ghost of Catherine Howard haunting Hampton Court. Lasky really doesn’t pull any punches in describing how awful it was to see Howard break loose from her guards and run screaming through the halls, frothing at the mouth before she was sent to the block.
Elizabeth is ecstatic when her father sends a letter giving love to “all my children,” including her, but is disappointed when Lady Jane Grey is sent to court with them as well, since she is “a simpering idiot” and “dull, dull, dull.” Elizabeth is constantly at loggerheads with Princess Mary, and even Mary’s fools tell Elizabeth that they think Mary is a bit…not right in the head—but they say so was Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn.
So the court is full of danger and intrigue, but Lasky wisely doesn’t dwell on it too much, and goes back to ordinary days and complaints of baths and sickness and boredom. At Michaelmas that year there’s a massive celebration over the fall of Boulogne, and the king returns from his French campaign full of good cheer before they head off to Whitehall Palace for October. Elizabeth and Edward and Robin and Lady Jane work on recovering some of the garden, which is in disarray, in order to grow the Tudor rose. Elizabeth, as usual, is on edge with Princess Mary, and Kat thinks they will all be poisoned by Spanish spies and envoys. She receives a new tutor, Grindal, who keeps her busy as they move into December.
For Christmas, they have a lovely feast and days and days of celebrations and masques, ending up at Twelfth Night. Elizabeth notes that at the Twelfth Night feast a courtier, Lady Dinsmore, shows up barely clad, and disappears into the shadows with Robin Dudley’s father—the Court being not exactly what you would call a wholesome environment for children. They’re off to Enfield Palace by the end of January, and Kat marries one of the royal accountants, John Ashley, leaving Elizabeth in the care of one of her servants for a few days. Kat is a bit disturbed on her return to see how close Elizabeth and Mary have grown in her absence, and points out that familiarity between ranks is absolutely impossible for a princess of her rank. It’s sad—Elizabeth doesn’t really get to have any friends who aren’t her siblings or courtiers or people of the lower rank, even when she likes them.
For Valentine’s Day they’re all upset by the thought of a French invasion and the fact that the king is doing even more poorly than before. John Ashley, looking through the household accounts, suspects Lord Wriothesley of skimming off the royal accounts, but before Elizabeth can worry about it too much Edward comes down with a fever and then Elizabeth catches it from him. Then they’re off to Windsor Palace for Easter, and Elizabeth goes “Maying” with some of the ordinary village girls before they recognize her as a princess. “I think it is indeed the condition of a Princess to always be set apart from such things, to feel separate and alone.” Then they’re sent off to Hatfield in a hurry in fear of a French invasion, and Elizabeth forgets her diary and doesn’t return to it until the fall.
By September the king is quite melancholy over the sinking of the Mary Rose and the death of his best friend, but takes the children off to Woodstock for hunting in the fall. The cardinal isn’t with them, and they’re having a jolly time hunting, when the king’s leg swells up again horribly and “began to fester.” So they return to London, where Wriothesley continues to get way too intimate with Princess Mary and tries to weasel his way into Edward’s good graces as well.
There’s only one mention in the book of Mary, Queen of Scots, the daughter of the former Scottish king and future wife of King Francis—which is interesting, because in the Royal Diaries novel about Mary, she refers to Elizabeth quite a bit. That has nothing to do with anything, I just enjoy when books are relevant to one another in the same series.
That fall and into the winter, Elizabeth begins to study music under one of the court musicians. But on return from one of her lessons, she finds Princess Mary in her room, holding the reliquary she keeps her diary in. They argue, and Elizabeth accuses her of cheating and treasonous dealings with Wriothesley, and says if Mary ever invades her privacy again, Elizabeth will go to her father and tell him that Mary and Wriothesley cheat at cards together—the king’s most-hated pet peeve. That seems to clear things up for the time being, until Elizabeth gets sick again just before Christmastime.
At Epiphany, the Duchess of Lexford is found dead just a few days after being interrupted in a tryst with Lord Arran, the protector of Scotland. Elizabeth is hustled over to Hatfield in a hurry, where she is isolated from the Court and can’t do anything but wonder what’s going on with the investigation into the poisoning. So she spends the next couple of months hunting and hawking with Robin and generally neglecting her studies, but when they do discuss the poisoning, they’re in agreement that they think Wriothesley was at the bottom of it.
They go to Windsor for Easter, and Robin finally confesses that the gossip at court is saying that the king is attracted to yet another wife and is considering putting Catherine Parr aside. Elizabeth, after fainting, says that they can save her together, but keep a weather eye out as they interrogate more and more suspected heretics around the Queen. For all of May they live in fear, and then they go to Whitehall only to see the King and Catherine clearly not getting along. When Robin and Elizabeth hear that the Queen is to be arrested tomorrow, Elizabeth makes herself “sick with fear” and has the Queen called to her apartments, where she warns her.
And then just in time, the Catherine goes to the King full of repentance and will be obedient again, just before the king’s soldiers come to arrest her, and she is saved. But shortly after that, there’s another six-month gap, and when Elizabeth returns she recounts the past few months spent worrying about her father’s continued illness and his favoring of Mary. She spends Christmas alone at Hatfield, waiting to hear of the death of her father, and worrying that Mary will be appointed her heir rather than Edward.
The king dies at the end of January, and Edward is indeed the next king. They don’t attend the funeral, but Elizabeth does attend the coronation—all the while worrying that her brother’s ill health will be the end of her.
Rating: B+. I wanted to give this a higher rating for the sake of being such an enormous favourite with me as a kid (I must have read it a dozen times, easily, if not more), but on reread it’s not quite as fascinating as I wanted it to be. Elizabeth is, funnily, an incredibly relatable character for being a future queen, and Lasky strikes a fantastic balance between describing the riches and splendour of the Court, and the general misery and grossness (fleas, spoiled food, the King’s pus-filled legs). It’s true that there was a plot against Catherine Parr in the final year of Henry’s reign, but the idea that Elizabeth was instrumental in saving the queen is fiction. But it makes for a good story, and it ties in nicely with the setup of Wriothesley and Princess Mary as villains, so it does work. I really enjoyed it, and it’s hovering right at the A-/B+ mark, but I’m going to give it the final nudge into B territory for (unusually for Lasky’s books) not having that indefinable spark.