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The Queen's Fool
By Philippa Gregory

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The Queen's Fool

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The Queen's Fool
By Philippa Gregory
A Touch Stone Book: Large Print Edition, (2004)
ISBN: 0-7432-5990-4
Genre: Historical Fiction

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 19, 2004

Set in the turbulent period after the death of King Henry the VIII, The Queen's Fool, by Philippa Gregory, presents a vivid portrait of court life in England under the reigns of Henry's three heirs, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. The story is told from the perspective of Hannah (Verde) Green. Born in Spain, Hannah and her family are Marranos (Crypto-Jews) . Marranos are Jews who converted to Catholicism, but who still practice Judaism in secret. However, even the smallest lapse in speech or religious practice could make one the target of the Inquisition, and if one was found to be practicing Judaism in secret, after converting to Christianity, the punishment was usually torture followed by being burned alive. This was the fate that befell Hannah's mother, who was burned at the stake for heresy. To save themselves from a similar fate, Hannah and her father fled from Spain, eventually ending up in England.

Dressed as a boy and practicing the religion du-jour in England at the time, Protestantism, Hannah worked in her father's print shop. Although they still had to pretend to be Christian. (Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, under the reign of King Edward I, and they were not allowed to return, officially, until 1655.) Hannah and her father may have lived out their lives in relative obscurity, had she not been 'discovered' by Robert Dudley. Thinking that Hannah has the gift of prophesying, he arranges for Hannah to come to court to serve the dying King Edward as his "holy fool." This is not a job that she wants, but she is given little choice in the matter. Although only fourteen years old, Hannah is tossed into the maelstrom of court politics, and their associated conspiracies.

In succession, Hannah becomes the "holy fool" for Queen Mary, and then for her sister, Queen Elizabeth. As her tenure as "holy fool" progresses, Hannah becomes close friends with both Queens, and her interactions with them provides the reader with an intimate glimpse of what the personal life, and thoughts, of the two women might have been. Although The Queen's Fool is a work of fiction, Gregory has taken pains to make this book as historically accurate as the plot line allowed.

Hannah's story is two-fold. The bulk of the book is devoted to her life at court, the various conspiracies that arose, and the religious wars between Catholic and Protestant England. However, interwoven into the greater story is Hannah's coming-of-age story. Technically Jewish at heart, Hannah has little knowledge about and little faith in Judaism. Her conscious suffers little when she goes to court and must work on the Sabbath and eat pork, her main fear is simply that someone will find out that she is not the Christian that she professes herself to be. This is a fear that is magnified when Queen Mary begins burning heretics. Additionally, Hannah has been pledged in marriage to David Carpenter. The Carpenter's are another Marrano family living in England. David is studying to be a physician and they are suppose to marry when Hannah becomes sixteen. Hannah, who is loath to give up her independence as a "holy fool" to become a mere wife, must make the decision as to what is in her best interest, and in the interest of her people. This is a matter that is made more complicated by the fact that Hannah is infatuated with Dudley.

The Queen's Fool is an engrossing book. The historical detail is exquisite, and the story is unique in that it focuses on a little touched upon aspect of English history - the presence of Marranos in the country, and the precarious life they led there. This story also provides insights into the role played by 'fools' in the English court. One of the major characters in this book is Will Somers, a 'fool' who also severed in the courts of all three of Henry the Eighth's children. Having more freedom to speak his mind than most at court, Somers is able to influence, through the use of humor, the various monarchs. The Queen's Fool is a well-told tale. Part romance, part history, this book will have you wondering, until the very end, which path Hannah's life will take.


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