The Other Queen is everything I want in a Philippa Gregory book. Massive amounts of political scheming, told from three viewpoints, and details, details, details. I loved it. Gregory tells the story of when Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in Elizabethan England in the mid-1500s. If you’ve seen the recent movie Mary Queen of Scots, like I have, this is a bit more of the story.
The two queens are jockeying for position in their world. One is Catholic and the other Protestant. They may be cousins, but their outlooks are wildly divergent. One thing they do agree on, though, is that manipulating people and events is how to get what they want.
While you’d typically expect imprisonment to be in a jail, that wasn’t the case. Queen Elizabeth I commanded that one of her loyal lords imprison Mary in his household. With her full court and most of the accoutrements of royalty. It was a tremendous privilege…I mean burden.
Bess is the Countess of Shrewsbury, who’s married up multiple times and thus, moved beyond her humble Derbyshire roots. She’s not a fan of Queen Mary, but knows she must do as her own monarch demands. And while she and her husband accommodate the “prisoner,” she watches their accounts become more and more drained.
Bess’ husband George, the Earl, is a forty-something man stuck entertaining the young and beautiful “Other Queen.” He’s not her subject but is certainly in her thrall. As the story begins, he and Bess are nearly newlyweds. So having the household interloper Queen Mary is inconvenient, to be sure. But then, the Earl and the Queen become friends.
Of course Gregory writes Mary’s viewpoint as well. She’s a young woman who looks up to George and finds Bess tiresome. Mary was raised in the very elegant French Court, and couldn’t be more different from her “hostess.” And the younger woman is focused on regaining her kingdom, Scotland, and perhaps the English throne as well. She’ll use whatever means are necessary to achieve that.
These three are utterly unique characters, and real-life historical figures. I love how Gregory layers the story by alternating chapters from each character. If my last book, Fierce Fairytales, was fantasy stories and poems about royalty, The Other Queen is the cold, brutal truth.
Mary may be young, but she’s far from innocent. She schemes from page one to the end of the novel. You have to admire her persistence, despite her struggles.
At first, I thought Bess was just a shrewish middle-aged lady. She’s envious and petty, but in the end I liked her smarts and pluck. She is a woman in charge of her life, with goals for her land and family including marriages with good lineage attached. She’s the 16th-century equivalent of a mompreneur.
And George is just a hapless lord, in love with his status and way of life. He fears that Mary will change England, almost more than he hopes to stay her advisor for ever. Generally, he’s just caught in an odd place that may or may not benefit him in the long run.
I’ve long been a fan of Philippa Gregory. There’s no one better for stories of Tudor and Elizabethan times. As I said, the detail is amazing. But it’s the richly drawn characters and political intrigue that bring me back to her over and over.