"Elizabeth, Captive Princess," begins with the death of Edward VI and a Protestant coup orchestrated by John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland, to put the unwilling but devoutly Protestant schoolgirl Lady Jane Grey on the throne in place of the rightful heiress, the ardently Catholic Mary Tudor. But Dudley underestimates the English people and their loyalty and sense of rightness and fairness. While Dudley fights a losing battle to keep Jane on the throne, all England rallies in support of Mary. But her loyal subjects aren't thinking of the future, or Mary's determination to turn back the clock and right the "wrongs" her father King Henry VIII did when he divorced Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, and bring England back to the fold of Rome and the Catholic Church, they are only concerned with doing what's right and standing up for Mary.
Meanwhile, the wise and clever virgin, Princess Elizabeth, takes to her bed, feigning illness, waiting and watching to see which way the wind will blow, before she declares where her loyalties lie.
After the rebellion is put down and Lady Jane Grey and her supporters are locked away in the Tower, Elizabeth dresses in virgin-white and rides out to join Mary for her triumphal entry into London. Even at that happy moment the first signs of strain begin to show in their relationship with religious differences and personal jealousy at the fore. Also, Mary sees her victory as the will of God, but Elizabeth sees it as the will of the English people. As the two ride into London together, the people cheer Elizabeth, commenting on her Tudor red hair and resemblance to her father Henry VIII. This throws more logs on the bonfire of Mary's jealousy.
As she did with the Thomas Seymour affair, Elizabeth is again forced to live by her wits as Mary grows increasingly paranoid and suspicious of her and tries to force her conversion to Catholicism. As Mary grows increasingly unpopular as she tries to ram Catholicism down the English people's throats, persecutes the Protestants for heresy, executes sixteen-year-old Lady Jane Grey, and plans to marry Prince Philip of Spain, people begin to look to Elizabeth as a beacon of hope. And each time there is a plot against Mary, including a nearly successful one led by Sir Thomas Wyatt, son of the poet who loved Anne Boleyn, Mary instantly suspects Elizabeth of being the figurehead. This lands Elizabeth in the Tower of London, where, under the shadow of death, never knowing if she will defy the odds and be one of the fortunate few who pass through Traitor's Gate and come out alive, she begins a romance with her childhood friend, Robert Dudley, also incarcerated in the Tower for his role in his father's coup to keep the ill-fated Lady Jane on the throne.
When Elizabeth is released from the Tower and placed in the custody of the trusty Sir Henry Bedingfeld, the people of England cheer her and shower her with good wishes, gifts, and flowers as her litter passes. When they pass King's College at Eton, the schoolboys run out to greet her, and, in defiance of the law that the bells only be rung for a reigning sovereign, the church bells are rung for Elizabeth. Mary may be Queen of England, but Elizabeth is the people's princess.
Though written in a style some might consider a trifle old-fashioned, and lacking the provocative and juicy garnish of sex scenes, explicit language, and minutely detailed blood-vivid violence, "Elizabeth, Captive Princess," is a worthy successor to "Young Bess" as it charts Elizabeth's perilous route to claim her royal destiny.
Next Sunday: the final volume in Margaret Irwin's Elizabeth I trilogy, "Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain."
The complete trilogy is also available in one volume, but a word of warning, if you have small hands you might find it a too thick to be comfortable handful.