Mary Tudor is one of those historical figures who confounds me. While I don’t believe she deserves the title of Bloody Mary, I thoroughly abhor her religious policies and the many burnings carried out in her name. I also admit to being slightly biased due to the fact that I’m…well…Lutheran. So yeah, I probably would have found myself on the stake! However, I fully believe that Mary was not born the person she eventually became. The fault for her zealotry lies squarely at the feet of her father, and the man certainly left a wake of destruction in his path. These conflicted feelings led me to pick up the latest in Samantha Wilcoxson’s Plantagenet Embers series. I wanted to see Mary as a person, rather than a list of deeds in a history book. I was not disappointed.
Wilcoxon’s book opens with Mary at prayer, a fitting start. Throughout the novel, she continues to linger on these very specific traditions and ceremonies. So often, these are left out or glossed over in historical fiction, but here they are a character unto themselves. I was particularly moved by a scene set during Mary’s Maundy Thursday giving. It was almost as if I could see the entire thing play out in my mind. One of the things I loved most was seeing the relationships between Mary and the women in her life. The sisterly bond she shares with Kateryn Parr and Margaret Pole is at turns heartwarming and heartbreaking; Her ladies, Fran and Susan offer another dimension, Mary as a kind, yet naïve employer. Elizabeth I is the least likeable of the cast, and while I don’t necessarily see her in the same way, this is Mary’s story and it’s probably exactly how she saw her younger sister.
For me, the last third of the book, detailing Mary’s marriage to Phillip and her relationship to Cardinal Reginald Pole is where Wilcoxson really shines. The intimate moments are told in such achingly tender detail, you can’t help but see the humanity inside Mary. I was stunned by the author’s take on Mary and Reginald’s relationship, but I think she’s really hit on something there. I won’t reveal more because *spoilers.* I’m always drawn to novels that focus on women who didn’t have happy endings, because not everyone gets those. Life is real and it’s raw, and full of pain. Wilcoxson never shies away from that; nor does she gloss over Mary’s flaws. She is judgmental and obstinate, but also compassionate and capable of great love – a true and complex human.