I freely admit, dear Reader, to being a bit of a history buff. There are certain time periods and cultures that I favor and over time have become fairly well versed in. There are others that while I am not completely familiar with the history, I do enjoy a good tale set in that time period on occasion. The late 14th and early 15th centuries are just one of those ages and where our current novel is set.
The Forbidden Queen by Anne O’Brien follows Katherine de Valois from French Princess to Dowager Queen of England. Wed in an arranged marriage to King Henry V at 19 and then widowed by 21, she finds herself thrust in to a game of politics with the prize being her hand and potential control of the throne through her young son. Just as there are those who see her as a prize to be won, there are those who see her as the woman she is. Katherine must learn to tell friend from foe, not only for herself but for the good of England.
While The Forbidden Queen is based on actual events, historically there unfortunately very little on the actual person Katherine de Valois. Some points are known and are true; such as she is the daughter of Charles VI of France and was married to Henry V where she bore him a son, Henry VI. She was sent to the convent at Poissy at a young age but whether it was because her father was insane and her mother wished to be rid of her or whether it was so Katherine could receive a proper education is up for debate.
How content she was in her marriage to Henry is also another point of contention. During that time women, especially high born ladies, were seen as little more than chattel. They were regarded only as far as how much could be gained through their marriage to another. In effect, women were considered little more than animated property and title deeds. And unfortunately, history paints Katherine de Valois with such broad strokes.
What kind of person Katherine truly was is virtually unknown. Generally she is regarded as being not all that bright, the stereotypical ‘dumb blonde’ if one prefers. Yet to have survived for so long in the cutthroat court, Katherine must have had at least a modicum of intelligence. And that is how O’Brien paints her – not as some dim-wit but as an intelligent woman.
With her rather lacking upbringing, Katherine is somewhat emotionally stunted by the time she reached adulthood. Something O’Brien plays upon as throughout the novel Katherine constantly doubts herself. She believes herself to be in love with King Henry and her tender heart is broken when he does not return her feelings with the same fervor. Some years later when she develops feelings for Edmund Beaufort, she is devastated to learn that his only reason for courting her was for her crown and the power it held. So when Owen Tudor tries to claim her heart she initially pushes him away. It is when she comes to realize that he does not see her as some prize but as a woman does she allow herself to be happy.
Anne O’Brien’s version of Katherine de Valois is a truly memorable one. The real woman is mentioned only briefly in history and not very flatteringly. This version is an intelligent woman who throughout the tale learns to trust her feelings. Though she starts the story as little more than a pawn, by the final pages she emerges as a true queen.