|Rivals in the Tudor Court examines three characters during the reign of King Henry VIII: Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk; his young second wife, Elizabeth Stafford; and his mistress, Bess Holland. The story revolves around Norfolk’s machinations at Court and Elizabeth’s friendship with Queen Catherine of Aragon, as well as their own tumultuous relationship and his relationship with Bess.
Thomas Howard is mistreated by his parents and ridiculed for his short stature. The Howards are political upstarts, and when the story opens Thomas is a hostage at the court of Henry VII, his father imprisoned in the Tower of London. Young Thomas gets a lucky break when he falls in love with Anne Plantagenet, sister-in-law to the king. They marry and have four children. Thomas becomes a trusted soldier and is often away at war, but takes great joy in his wife and family when he can return home. However, one by one, his children die of various illnesses, and Anne follows.
It is his father, the second Duke of Norfolk, who proposes that Thomas marry Elizabeth Stafford, daughter of the Duke of Buckingham and a confidante of the new Queen, Catherine of Aragon. Thomas, age forty, is intrigued by the irrepressible Elizabeth, who at fifteen is young enough to be his daughter. Elizabeth is in love with another man, but her father leaves her no choice. She marries Thomas and hopes to be a good wife. They have an immediate physical connection, though Thomas cannot bring himself to love her, afraid that if he does, she will die also.
Elizabeth and Thomas have several children, and he continues his career as a trusted soldier to King Henry VIII, using Elizabeth’s position as the Queen’s favorite to gain favor at court. When Thomas becomes the third Duke of Norfolk, Bess Holland, a serving maid, catches his attention. He makes her his mistress and establishes her in Elizabeth’s home as a nurserymaid. Their affair is not lost on Elizabeth, and when she protests, Thomas banishes her to a far-off estate with little money. This suits his purpose, as King Henry rids himself of Queen Catherine in order to marry Thomas’s niece, Anne Boleyn. Under Thomas’s scheming, another niece, Katherine Howard, will become Henry’s ill-fated fifth wife.
The story is told in three alternating viewpoints as Thomas, Elizabeth, and Bess’s lives interweave over many years. While the story is well-researched, none of these three are empathetic characters. Thomas would be right at home on Wall Street or in the halls of Congress. He’s the walking embodiment of the adage that the only true motivators in life are money, sex, and power, and his non-stop scrambling for all three makes him a pretty dull character. Rather than indulge in any introspection, he spends thirty years denying to himself that he loves his wife, because she has the ability to stand up to him (and does). When she confronts him, he simply sends her away. The author makes no apologies for Thomas; he is a rather hateful man who not only beats his wife but employs servants to further abuse her. His obsession with his daughter, Mary, who resembles his first wife, shows how twisted his character becomes. Thomas’s story is one of overriding ambition, and when his own family finally betrays him, one can only wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.
Elizabeth is portrayed as a clever, stubborn woman who wants her husband’s love and is continually frustrated that she can’t attain it, yet she refuses to cower before him, which infuriates Thomas and leads to her banishment. Her voice in the story is mostly one of complaints, yet one can’t help but admire her determination never to give up.
Bess is a simple-minded girl who becomes infatuated with Thomas, the newly-minted Duke. Her position as mistress will deny her the home, family and children she desires, yet she cannot leave. Her voice is mostly one of sighing and longing, though she’s quite happy to accept the many gifts and luxuries Thomas showers on her.
Ultimately, Thomas Howard is a fairly one-dimensional character – a rather despicable man who will stop at nothing to maintain a high position at Court and remain in the King’s favor. Elizabeth, as the betrayed wife, and Bess, as the bimbo-like mistress, do little other than whine, complain, and point to Thomas and each other as the cause of their misery. The historical events were interesting; these people were not.