As one of the most celebrated women in history, Elizabeth I of England is a much worn topic, of endless fascination to readers and authors alike. In this treatment, Ashley writes of Elizabeth's early years, the long road to the throne and the significant impediments along the way. Third in line for succession after her brother Ned, son of Jane Seymour, and sister, Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Elizabeth, daughter of the infamous Anne Boleyn, is kept in a constant state of insecurity after the death of King Henry. Living for a time with Henry's widow, Catherine Parr, and her new husband, the ambitious Thomas Seymour, Elizabeth learns early the danger of deception in service of an appetite for power, Seymour fixed on the princess after Catherine's death in childbirth. Unfortunately, Somerset, the king's Lord Protector, learns of his brother's machinations, Seymour's courting of Henry's flame-haired daughter abruptly curtailed by a sojourn in the tower, young Ned furious at the Lord Admiral's plotting.
As seamstress to Elizabeth, Eloise Rousell, born the same year as the princess, watches the treacherous plan unfold, helpless to intervene with a love-struck Elizabeth or to protect her gossiping Aunt Kat, governess to the headstrong girl. Both Kat and Eloise are loyal only to Elizabeth, but the governess has been remarkably intemperate in her ambitions for her charge, a harsh lesson Eloise takes to heart. As Aunt Kat's ward, Eloise shadows the woman's household, growing familiar with Elizabeth's daily routines and the precariousness of her position as heir to the throne. Silent as a cat, Eloise watches and sews, absorbing the dangerous lessons of power and politics, her former naiveté no longer helpful in a place filled with volatile secrets and intemperate schemes. The plotting never ends, Elizabeth prey to ever more treachery the nearer she gets to the throne. Time after time, while Eloise stitches, Elizabeth discovers herself prisoner to the whims of men, drawn to love but deeply distrustful of the motives of suitors, usually vindicated in her cynicism.
As her confidant, Eloise is in a unique position, invisible to royalty, a valuable conduit for Elizabeth's interests, moving silently from place to place. Through Eloise's narrative, Ashley reveals the many layers of intrigue that follow the Virgin Queen pre-coronation, from her infancy, perilous childhood, and Mary's Catholic reign, the English citizens chafing at the return of the True Religion, grown content in Henry's Reformed Church. As Elizabeth's seamstress, Eloise avoids none of the turmoil that surrounds her mistress, following Elizabeth from exile to Fleet's Prison to Mary's spy-riddled court, witness finally to events that change the course of history. Even if Eloise's character is but a clever fiction, the author skillfully recreates the grandeur, tension and persistent deceits of the royal household, the paucity of integrity and the ultimate loneliness of a queen forced to relinquish happiness for the good of her country. Adding an unexpected twist, a fact long rumored but never proven, the author injects another element to Eloise's mission, the queen's confidant armed with a dangerous secret and much to lose. Luan Gaines
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