The Heretic Wind
(The Life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England)
By Judith Arnopp
Publication Date: 26th January 2020
Publisher: Feed a Read
Page Length: 332 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Adored by her parents and pampered by the court, the infant Princess Mary’s life changes suddenly and drastically when her father’s eye is taken by the enigmatic Anne Boleyn.
Mary stands firm against her father’s determination to destroy both her mother’s reputation, and the Catholic church. It is a battle that will last throughout both her father’s and her brother’s reign until she is almost broken by persecution. When King Edward falls ill and dies Mary expects to be crowned queen.
But she has reckoned without John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, who before Mary can act, usurps her crown and places it on the head of her Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey.
Furious and determined not to be beaten, Mary musters a vast army at Framlingham Castle; a force so strong that Jane Grey’s supporters crumble in the face of it, and Mary is at last crowned Queen of England.
But her troubles are only just beginning. Rebellion and heresy take their toll both on Mary’s health, and on the English people. Suspecting she is fatally ill, and desperate to save her people from heresy, Mary steps up her campaign to compel her subjects to turn back to the Catholic faith.
All who resist will face punishment for heresy in the flames of the Smithfield fires.
“I am fated, it seems, to be the unhappiest woman in Christendom.”
The Heretic Wind is a novel about Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Mary the cherished daughter and princess. Mary the bastard. Mary the queen. ‘Bloody Mary’.
The story opens in October 1558. Confined to her bedchamber, Mary, Queen of England, knows she is dying. Her already fragile health is deteriorating fast.
When a young girl attends to the fire in her chamber, she finds her a willing listener. Somewhat ironically, the girl is called Anne, reminding Mary of the woman who destroyed her life Mary: Anne Boleyn. Memories of the past come flooding back, and she is keen to tell her side, knowing full well that if her sister, Elizabeth, inherits the throne, things will never be the same again.
Summer 1523. Mary is seven, her father’s ‘precious pearl’. Her interest lies in pretty gowns, and she is already proud of her status as Princess of England, her father’s heir. But it is also an age when she becomes acutely aware of her mother’s deep unhappiness at not having a son. Mary soon uncovers that her father does indeed have a son – by another woman! In her childhood innocence, she wonders how it was possible at all. And how should a boy not of her mother’s womb become king?
We see that, from an early age, Mary is thrown into the world of political intrigues. She witnesses her mother’s despair as she grows older. On the other side, there is her flamboyant father whom she adores. She is at her happiest when he spends time with her.
Soon, she realises tensions between her parents. Her father’s eyes have always roamed, but as Mary grows older, she begins to understand that his behaviour deeply hurts her mother. There is still no sign of a living male heir. Catherine withdraws into prayer, and Mary witnesses her strong devotion to the Catholic Church.
Mary’s life is thrown into turmoil when a young woman appears on the scene, who is not prepared to show Mary or Catherine the respect they deserve: Anne Boleyn. With Henry smitten, he turns fully against Catherine, demanding an annulment. Mary is still too young to comprehend the ramifications, but she cannot avoid the sudden antipathy courtiers show her mother, as Anne Boleyn’s influence grows.
The history as we know it takes its course. We follow Mary through the major changes in her life: her mother’s separation from her, and the subsequent taunt of illegitimacy; Mary’s fall from princess to servant to the new Princess Elizabeth; Mary and Elizabeth’s changed circumstances when Jane Seymore arrives, and her little brother Edward is born; the danger Mary faced from Edward’s councillors, more deadly than in her father’s reign; the threat to her accession; to the dark days when Mary begins to destroy the enemies of the True Church.
We experience these events through Mary’s eyes, as she tries to make sense of fast-changing circumstances. A teenager / young woman who has lost everything, she learns to shut her feelings away like her mother had done.
“What times are we living in when the son of a farrier can grind a princess of the realm into the dust?”
Her loathing of Anne Boleyn, the ‘whore’ who stole her father, is a strong emotion, one that accompanies her throughout her life, and that lives on in her love-hate relationship with her sister, Elizabeth. This was very well shown, I thought. Boleyn is to blame for all Mary’s misfortunes and her mistreatment; she’d been the one who seduced Henry away from the True Church.
And here we have the main theme of Mary’s life: her Catholic faith. Unwavering in her righteousness, she tries to make sense of it all. Why would others not see that they imperil their souls? This was something the old Mary, on her deathbed, asked in the same way the young Mary did. The Mary we’re shown is not open to religious discussion. She is determined in the righteousness of her beliefs. Ms Arnopp provides us with strong characterisation here.
But we also see another thread running through her life: her illnesses. Suffering from strong monthly bleeds accompanied by megrims (migraines), she shuts herself away for at least a week or two each month. This must have been debilitating. Her health suffers, and the strong cramps might explain the phantom pregnancies later in life, when she is well past child-bearing age. Ms Arnopp conveys Mary’s physical and mental suffering very well.
The combination of external events in her life outside of her control, and her regular migraines that stop her from living her life to the full, turn Mary into a bitter, wronged woman. Unmarried until her late thirties, we see her envy those who have happy marriages, whilst we also sense her relief at not having a cheating husband. She’s a paradox.
As we see snippets of old Mary on her deathbed, reluctant to concede her crown to her heretic sister, she comes across as stubborn, convinced she is right. Her obsession still shines through, to her final days.
There are few moments of delight in Mary’s life. Her brief happiness at a suggested engagement to a Prince of Bavaria falls through, and her expectations of Philip of Spain are soon crushed. When she finally inherits the crown, her happiness is cut short when she is forced to put down a rebellion. The emotional ups and downs are wonderfully told. We suffer with Mary in her disappointment.
The novel focuses to a large extent on the first part of Mary’s life, her parents’ challenges and her subsequent status of illegitimacy, and the dangers – and brief joys – she faces.
“Nobody listens! They leave me no choice.”
Unfortunately, there is not enough focus on the last couple of years, when Mary unleashed her fury at the heretics. We witness her brushing away any thought of her enemies burning at the stake – after all, they ‘deserved it’. As this period resembles in some ways her father’s last years when everyone at court lived in fear of upsetting him – and of losing their heads – I’d have liked to read a bit more about how she deals with it. The glimpses we are given show her determination, her obsession with the True Church, but I’d have liked to know how the executions affected her on a daily basis.
Maybe this was intentional. After all, Mary tells her story to young Anne from her deathbed. Perhaps it was her right not to delve too far into the darkest period of her reign. And just perhaps, Mary was still unwilling to face her conscience. If she had one…
The Heretic Wind is a slow burner, but it is engrossing and told in exquisite detail. The historical research is, as expected, impeccable.
I couldn’t help but feel for Mary’s plight. Looking at her portrays, one can see that she aged well before her years. Events in her life must have taken a huge toll. That’s no excuse for her purging the streets of heretics, but it might go some way to explaining why she became so bitter. Ms Arnopp has done a brilliant job, presenting Mary as a lost soul on one hand, but also a woman determined to re-establish the Catholic Church in England.
It makes a change to read a novel about Mary, and not about the usual Tudor ‘suspects’ such as Henry and Anne. Mary is often forgotten, and in The Heretic Wind, Ms Arnopp brought her vividly to life. A remarkable feat.
A highly recommended novel that will make you think long after you finish reading.
Review by Cathie Dunn.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
This novel is available on #KindleUnlimited