I remember the day my daughter first saw the image of Elizabeth Tudor garbed in a breastplate facing down the Spanish Armada. Kate was fourteen then, and when she read the stirring 'heart and stomach of a king' speech, Kate demanded to know why Elizabeth couldn't have 'the heart and stomach of a queen?' We were big into girl power at our house so I had to explain that during the renaissance most major decisions in women's lives– especially princesses– were in the hands of powerful men. At that time there was serious scholoarly debate as to whether women even had souls. Because of that, the fact that Elizabeth Tudor grew into one of the most astute monarchs ever to rule England was a tribute to the woman's intelligence, statescraft and courage.
But as I delved deeper into biographies of this remarkable queen, I was surprised to discover that– fascinating as the triumphant 'Gloriana' was, it was the far more vulnerable young Elizabeth that captured my imagination and my heart. When I read of Anne Boleyn in those last, desperate days before her arrest, taking Elizabeth to Henry VIII's window, holding the child up and begging Elizabeth's father to look at her in hopes of softening the king's heart, it made me ache for the three year old who was about to become motherless. What hell it must have been for Anne Boleyn, knowing her child would soon be at the mercy of her greatest enemies.
Labeled a bastard, her paternity in question because of the charges of adultery that led to Boleyn's execution, and preceeded in the succession by a brother and sister, no one then dreamed Elizabeth would be queen of England one day. After Henry's death she was given to the care of her stepmother, Katherine Parr and that lady's husband Thomas Seymour, an ambitious, ruthless con man willing to use anyone or anything (including his wife and stepdaughter) to advance himself in the powerful world of court.
This interlude with the Seymours should have been a time of happiness and security for Elizabeth. Motherly Katherine Parr loved the girl and Elizabeth loved her stepmother. Historical record exposes a heartbreaking situation instead. Rumors swirled throughout Elizabeth's reign that the princess was seduced by her stepfather, Thomas Seymour. Accounts coerced from Elizabeth's beloved governess Kat Ashley affirm that Seymour frequented Elizabeth's bed chamber, that he once cut her gown into ribbons with a knife in the garden, and that Katherine Parr found the couple in each other's arms, then banished the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth from the household. Certainly Thomas Seymour compromised Elizabeth's honor. Whether he deflowered her is still a matter of debate. In any case, this scandal was one of the numerous times Elizabeth's life hung in the balance.
When I stumbled across a tidbit in my research about a midwife who claimed to have been blindfolded then carried off in a coach to a fine house where she delivered a baby to 'a very fair young lady' she claimed was Elizabeth , I began to ask the question: What if? What if motherless Elizabeth, the most remarkable woman of her age, gave birth not to the son some believe, but rather, to a daughter?
What if those nearest the princess attempted to smother the babe to protect Elizabeth but the child lived? What if the midwife smuggled the child away and gave her to a noblewoman who had just lost her own babe? What if the daughter, Nell, was as daring and intelligent and stubborn as Elizabeth, and resolved to be part of the glittering court where the most brillant minds, the most daring adventurers and most exciting scientific discoveries of the age were to be found? What if– once there– she made a dangerous discovery of her own– one that could topple Elizabeth from her already shakey throne? And what would Elizabeth Tudor do to preserve her crown?
More compelling still for me, as mother of a cherished daughter, what must the mother who raised Nell, loved her, nurtured her all those years feel as she watches her daughter stride into the lion's den of Tudor court, knowing that all the love in England cannot save her?
In the end, The Virgin Queen's Daughter is the story of three women and the difficult choices they are forced to make, the high cost Elizabeth pays for wearing a crown, Nell's struggle to define herself in an age that still attempted to bar women from scholarly pursuits, and Thomasin de Lacey's challenge– one that still goes on in every mother's breast: the heartbreak of letting go of a child who has grown beyond your ability to keep her safe.