As the Spanish Armada approaches Irish shores, Elizabeth I feels the full burden of her royal office. She must not let England fall to her former husband, King Philip of Spain. And Princess Anabel, their daughter, has yet to declare with whom her allegiance—and her support—lie.
Exiled Stephen Courtenay is in France with his brother, Kit, who has his own reasons for avoiding England. But rumblings of war, a sinister plot, and their loyalty to the crown call them home. Yet not even Pippa Courtenay, their sister, gifted with divine sight, can foresee the grave danger that awaits them all. As Queen Elizabeth commits her riches, her honor, and her people to the approaching conflict, she will risk everything—even her life—to preserve England’s freedom.
The Virgin’s War is the final book in Laura Andersen’s Tudor Legacy series and the sixth book to take place in the alternate Tudor timeline that she set up back in The Boleyn King, book one of her compelling Boleyn Trilogy. In that series, Anne Boleyn had given Henry VIII a son who lived to succeed him; and the current one picks up some twenty years later, with Elizabeth I having followed her brother to the throne. Mind you, this is no Virgin Queen; here, Elizabeth married – and later divorced – Philip of Spain and had a daughter by him, Anne Isabella (Anabel), Princess of Wales.
With the current vogue for books in series which also work as standalones, it can be tricky to review a book in which it is necessary to have read the others in the set without giving away too much – so there are bound to be spoilers for The Virgin’s Daughter and The Virgin’s Spy in this review.
It’s over two decades since Henry VIII’s reformation, and the political situation in England is still dominated by the religious divide between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. Much of the action in The Virgin’s Spy takes place in Ireland, where English forces are fighting Catholic rebels who have the support of Mary, Queen of Scots. In this universe, Mary escaped from captivity in England and has subsequently married Philip of Spain, thus uniting two of the most important Catholic monarchs in Europe. Philip has had his eye on the conquest of England for some time, but in spite of the continual urging of his wife, he is prepared to wait for the right moment to invade. When news reaches him that Princess Anne and her mother have become estranged and almost openly opposed to each other, he realises that the time to strike is almost at hand. With Anne building her power-base in the north and making concerted efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people there, it seems as though there will be a royal rebellion soon, and Philip plans to take advantage of the split between mother and daughter to invade England. He knows the English will never accept him as king, but now there is Anne, young, lovely and widely beloved, who is obviously sympathetic to the Catholic cause and who, he believes will bring her country back to the true faith.
But Elizabeth and Anabel are two fiercely intelligent, politically astute women and they are playing a long game. At the suggestion of Pippa Courtenay, Anabel’s closest friend and adviser, Anabel makes the move north to Middleham Castle (Richard III’s former home and stronghold) and begins to court the approval of the region’s Catholics by recruiting two of the most high profile of them to her Council. Anabel and her mother deliberately maintain the fiction of an estrangement and take care to have little contact with each other; and over the next couple of years, they carefully orchestrate their preparations for England’s defence.
Laura Andersen has impressed me once again with her meticulous research and her talent for interweaving the threads of her alternative history so cleverly in and out of the existing tapestry of historical fact. Yet for all her skill in mapping out these momentous events, she doesn’t lose sight of the personal stories that are so closely woven through the larger political canvas. Minuette and Dominic Courtenay, Elizabeth’s oldest friends, have roles to play, as do their four children, Lucette, Stephen and the twins Kit and Pippa. Lucette’s story was told in The Virgin’s Daughter and Stephen’s in The Virgin’s Spy, but they have prominent parts here, especially Stephen, who was stripped of his titles and banished from England as a result of his actions in the previous book. Pippa is a mystic and has the gift of second sight; it’s she who sets Anabel’s plan in motion by suggesting she move north, and she who is instrumental in rallying support among the towns and villages of the region. Pippa and Kit share one of those unusual mental bonds so often found between twins, but the strain of keeping some of the things she knows from her brother is starting to weigh very heavy on Pippa and her strength is failing. Meanwhile Kit and Anabel are struggling with the depth of their feelings for each other; a princess cannot marry where she chooses and they have always known this – but with a Spanish invasion imminent, Anabel must do whatever she can to help to secure the throne.
This is a deliciously complex story that builds gradually and reaches a breathless climax that is full of both triumph and sorrow. Ms Andersen has created a set of wonderful characters for whom I came to care and whose joys and heartbreak (seriously – I cried more than once) I experienced right along with them. She does a terrific job with the characterisation of Elizabeth in particular, exploring the burden of sovereignty, her necessary isolation and how she continues to face decisions head on, no matter how difficult they may be. I enjoyed the insights into her relationship with her two closest advisors – Burleigh and Walsingham – and her long-term and sometimes uneasy friendship with Minuette Courtenay. And if, like me, you fell a little bit in love with Dominic in the first trilogy, you’ll be pleased to see him at Elizabeth’s side once more as he responds to her call to arms and takes his place as one of the nation’s most trusted and respected military leaders.
Unlike the earlier Boleyn Trilogy, however, this one ends firmly in its alternate timeline, which feels perfectly right given the struggles and personal tragedies this set of characters has endured in order to get there. Perhaps it’s a teeny bit too perfect, but by the time I reached the epilogue I really didn’t care. I was so strongly caught up in the story and the experiences of the characters had impacted upon me so viscerally that I felt they absolutely deserved the ending they got. The Virgin’s War is a splendid end to another superbly written and researched trilogy by this author, and I am eagerly awaiting whatever she comes up with next.