This week The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien is published, the delightful moving tale of one of England’s least familiar Queens – Joanna of Navarre, wife of Henry IV and stepmother to Henry V. I am so pleased to be opening the blog tour to celebrate the publication. Below you’ll find a little about the novel and a brief review, followed by an extract from one of the most memorable and key passages in the book – the moment when Joanna is given a choice that will change her entire future.
The Queen’s Choice
Joanna of Navarre is one of the less well-known Queens of England and yet her story is an extraordinary one. In 1399 her husband the Duke of Brittany died, leaving Joanna regent to her young son, ruler of a powerful duchy in her own right. But Joanna’s heart is not her own. A few years before, she and her husband had welcomed the Duke’s friend Henry, the Earl of Derby, to their lands from England. Joanna felt an immediate attraction towards this ambitious nobleman, the son of John of Gaunt, but he was a young widower while she was contentedly married. He was also in exile – driven out of England by his cousin Richard II. The promise of a future together lay unspoken between them, not least because it seemed impossible. But on her husband’s death, Joanna was not only free but Henry was no longer a mere Earl. Having overthrown his cousin, Henry was now King Henry IV of England. Joanna is now offered not only love and a hand in marriage but also a throne and the devotion of a king. But this is no easy choice for a widow and mother to make. In addition to losing her autonomy and independence, Joanna must also sacrifice her sons. There can be no friendship between England and France.
What follows is an intimate, romantic novel by Anne O’Brien which carries Joanna and the reader from the court of France to England where a new order has established itself, following years of unrest and revolution. The emphasis throughout is on the people behind the history, especially Joanna and Henry. This is a romantic tale, the characters are moved by love rather than a desire for power but there is no denying that power must play an integral role in their lives. Joanna, having tasted independence, is not the type of woman to give it up easily. Henry might be finding his feet as King but Joanna never forgets what she gave up to be his Queen. Troubles are inevitable and Anne O Brien elegantly uses Joanna’s own words to chart those ups and downs through the years of a most unusual marriage.
An extract: Henry’s envoy Thomas de Camoys announces Henry’s proposal of marriage to Joanna, forcing her to make her choice
I led the way to a private parlour where I arranged for wine and a platter of sweetmeats, and so we talked of his journey and the state of the roads, the length of his crossing, inconsequential affairs while the wine was poured into my favourite silver cups and my mind ran ahead to what he might say. What Henry might say. Meanwhile I watched Thomas de Camoys. Dignified and familiar with court affairs, there was no frivolity or flippancy in his manner. Certainly a soldier rather than a courtier. An interesting choice of envoy for Henry to make. Here might be a friend or a loyal comrade in arms despite the difference in years, rather than a royal official.
The beat in my blood quickened.
‘Do you have a family, Lord Camoys?’ I asked as the servant fussed with the fire that had burned low.
‘I have a son, Richard,’ he replied with obvious pride. ‘And a newborn child, I expect, when I have returned. My wife Elizabeth was near her time.’
‘You must have been sorry to leave her.’
‘It was necessary, my lady.’
‘I think you have been a soldier, sir.’
‘I have been so, in my youth. I have served in France.’
At last, at last, the servant closed the door and we were alone.
‘So, Lord Thomas.’ I raised my cup in a little toast, that he returned. ‘Now that we are private and supremely discreet, tell me what it is that your King will not commit to a written document.’
I saw him take a breath as if he were marshalling a text that he had committed to memory. He stood. Then he began, fluently, confidently.
‘This is what I am to tell you, my lady. These are the words of my King. He would exchange opinions with you, my lady, on affairs of the utmost privacy. What cannot be read, cannot be discovered by others beyond this room. I am to tell you, my lady, that my King puts every confidence in my discretion. You are, he suggests, to treat my ears like the ears of King Henry himself.’
‘Indeed, Lord Thomas.’
I admitted to being taken aback. This surely was no formal alliance between our two countries. Not that it would ever be possible as things stood, without considerable negotiation to hammer out the piracy menace in our respective ports. But was such a level of secrecy really necessary? I thought not. I frowned a little.
‘I confess to some surprise. This is not, then, an exchange of views to engender an alliance of mutual satisfaction between England and Brittany,’ I said.
‘But yes, my lady, it most certainly is.’ I suspected a gleam in the stern eye of Lord Thomas. ‘My King has one particular alliance in mind.’
‘My King asks that you will consider the benefits of a marriage alliance.’
It should not have been a surprise. Henry had sons and daughters of marriageable age. As did I. He might consider looking across the sea to find a valuable connection for his heir. Who better than a child of Brittany, bringing with her the blood of France and Navarre. But I could not understand why such a proposition could not be addressed formally through a royal herald complete with trumpet blast, marriage documents and seals.
‘Between our children?’ I remarked. ‘It would not be impossible, with careful negotiation to please the Breton merchants …’
‘You misunderstand, my lady. The marriage would be between yourself and my King. Now that you are free to consider remarriage. After the sad death of Duke John.’
Placing my cup gently on the table at my side, I refused to allow my fingers to clasp hard into the damask of my skirts, even though my heart tripped like the tuck of a military drum. Through years of long practice I knew that my composure remained unaltered to any interested eye. No one would guess at the inner turmoil. I resisted the urge to recover the cup and take a long, slow mouthful of wine.
‘Indeed?’ I observed with exemplary restraint.
‘Indeed, my lady.’ Lord Thomas was unperturbed by what could well be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm. ‘My King recalls your meetings with him in the past, the pleasure you took in each other’s company. He is of the opinion that you would not be averse to such a suggestion. And now that you are widowed, and the initial period of mourning over, he sends a formal request. My King has dispatched me to offer you his hand in marriage.’
Marriage. Marriage to the man I could not forget. The word hung in the air, with a weight all its own.