This book peels away centuries of mis-information and insults, and gives the real story of Penelope Devereux, the most beautiful woman during "The Golden Age" of Queen Elizabeth I.
It must be difficult to piece together a life that ended 400 years ago, but well worth the effort when so many of us love Tudor history, and when we are intrigued by stories of "The Other Boleyn Girl" ~ who turns out to be Penelope's great-grandmother.
As I began reading this account of the woman who became Lady Rich, I felt I was in the hands of a writer who knows the politics, the religious controversies and the romance of 16th-century England in depth ~ and could convey them in a brilliantly readable style. This is an utterly absorbing book. Though packed with details it is never a hard read. It is always written with a touch of wit. "Really?" as the author asks at one point in the story. Yes, really.
From the day she was baptised, in January 1563, with the Queen as her godmother, Penelope was destined to be a Court insider and she lived through countless great events. So the threat of the Spanish Armada, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth's death, James's arrival from Scotland, even the Gunpowder Plot, come vividly alive in this book ~ along with everyone in Tudor high society.
Sir Philip Sidney was inspired by Penelope to write his celebrated love sonnets, "Astrophil and Stella". Lord Leicester (Queen Elizabeth's greatest love) was Penelope's step-father. Lettice Knollys (the flame-haired beauty Elizabeth loathed) was her mother. Sir Francis Knollys (Elizabeth's trusted councillor) was her grandfather. Walter Ralegh was her friend, for a time, and she fixed his secret marriage to his pregnant mistress. She did the same for her cousin Elizabeth Vernon and the Earl of Southampton (Shakespeare's patron). The Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth's last great favourite, was Penelope's adored brother; and his wife was the daughter of Sir Francis "spy-master" Walsingham.
Nowhere does Ms Varlow claim that Essex was a wonderful statesman (as reviewer Klaus Meyer states). From the start the author points out that Essex was "rash and moody" ~ hardly the qualities for a political leader. What Varlow reveals is Penelope's support for him and his political ambitions. She was the only woman listed among the plotters in Essex's abortive rebellion (1601); she remained with him at Essex house till he surrendered, and she was then placed under house arrest. Varlow also uncovers much detail of the treasonable negotiations conducted by Penelope's lover, Lord Mountjoy, on Essex's behalf, and explains why Penelope walked free. If anything is missing from this account it can only be because Secretary of State Robert Cecil seized all their papers and controlled reports of Elizabeth's last days.
Though the details of Penelope's ancestry are important, the story really gets going for me when Penelope comes to Court, aged 18, and her guardians (the Earl and Countess of Huntingdon, not Nottingham, as reviewer Meyer states) married her against her will to the wealthy Lord Rich. History has never had a good word for him, but typically of this book it questions how awful he really was. He was a member of Essex's circle for almost 20 years, and Penelope travelled with him, and regularly visited their four children at his home, long after she began her love affair with Lord Mountjoy, who fathered her last five children (Meyer must be ignoring their first child's baptism, March 1592, when he dates the affair from 1595).
For Tudor research enthusiasts the most intriguing aspect of the book is Varlow's discovery of unpublished evidence that Penelope's grandmother, Lady Katherine Knollys, was born to Mary, "The Other Boleyn Girl", during Mary's affair with King Henry VIII. It puts beyond all reasonable doubt that Penelope's grandma was the King's lovechild, because it is not credible that he was happily sharing Mary with her husband. Contrary to Meyer's view, King Henry WAS shy about acknowledging his illegitimate children. Till the birth of his heir Prince Edward, he needed his eldest illegitimate child as his acknowledged son, but he had nothing to gain by acknowledging any others, especially a girl like Katherine. In fact, his affair with her mother, Mary, was a serious embarrassment when he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn.
One person Penelope probably cannot be linked to is "The Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, as reviewer Meyer claims. There is no contemporary evidence for it, and Varlow wisely never strays into discussing Penelope and "The Dark Lady".
There is plenty of real excitement in Penelope's life without inventing things, such as her curious friendship with the Spanish spy, Antonio Perez; and her secret meetings with the most hunted Jesuit priest in England, Fr. John Gerard. One previous writer has crazily suggested that Penelope met him because she was bored, pregnant, and stuck in the country. As Varlow points out, it's absurd to dismiss Penelope's Jesuit contacts so lightly, when people were dying in agony for their Catholic faith.
If Penelope lived a charmed life, it is partly because she was discreet. Her affair with Lord Mountjoy was known at Court, but she didn't flaunt it, as her critics insist. In fact, it was her attempt to regularise their liaison, by divorcing Lord Rich and marrying Mountjoy,that led to her final fall from grace with King James. Thanks to that, and Mountjoy's death in 1606 (he was never banished from Court, only Penelope) she was vilified by her enemies, and all-but-forgotten by history.
Now, she has been wonderfully brought back into the spotlight, and her beauty shines out from this account. If there is one thing wrong with the book, it is the position of the "Who's Who" and family trees of the great dynasties ~ the Tudors, Dudleys, Knollys, Sidneys and Devereux ~ at the BACK. I wish they were at the front and I had found them first.