Book review: The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien

The Queens Choice byAnne OBrien
The Queens Choice byAnne OBrien

She had intellect, authority and unprecedented power… so why did Joanna of Navarre, a French princess and Breton duchess, abandon all to marry a usurper English king?

Anne O’Brien, the much-loved historical novelist who breathes new life into forgotten medieval women, is back to enchant and enthral us with a torrid tale of love, sacrifice and rebellion at the volatile court of King Henry IV.

Women and authentic history are what O’Brien does best and in the life of 15th century Joanna of Navarre she has unearthed a little known but fascinating royal gem. Joanna was without doubt a woman of medieval substance, a rich and astute widow who willingly relinquished her home, her country and her children to marry a man she loved passionately but barely knew.

Using her persuasive imaginative powers, O’Brien takes us on a historical odyssey into the heart of an intriguing love match between a French princess who was a renowned and capable ruler and an ambitious king with a tenuous hold on his throne.

It’s 1399 and 28-year-old Joanna of Navarre, a Valois princess and Duchess of Brittany, is a thoroughbred royal, related to almost every important family in Europe. Her arranged marriage to John, Duke of Brittany, is happy but not passionate, and they have seven healthy children.

Into their lives comes Henry Bolingbroke, heir to England’s Duke of Lancaster, and now exiled in France because he has raised arms against his Yorkist cousin, King Richard II.

A widower, Henry is a firebrand ‘with the taint of treason about him’ and before his exile ends and he sets sail for England to try to seize the throne from Richard, he declares his love for Joanna.

Forthright, unemotional and politically minded, Joanna has always guarded her emotions, determined to shield herself from any power to hurt or destroy, but she too has secretly lost her heart to proud, man-of-action Henry.

When, only several years later, Joanna’s husband dies, she inherits control of their Breton lands, a testament to her intellect, integrity and political prowess. But then she receives an unexpected marriage proposal from Henry, now King of England after wresting the crown from Richard.

It’s a tough choice for a woman who, for the first time in her life, ‘is under the jurisdiction of no one’ and able to make decisions of her own free will. The marriage will mean abandoning her homeland, leaving her children and sacrificing her independence… but for Joanna, it’s a price worth paying.

But England is a dangerous place for the new queen. She is distrusted by Henry’s aristocratic council, his hold on the throne is unsteady and war is brewing. And with the constant threat of rebellion, Henry feels he can trust no one – not even his wife.

Once again, O’Brien works her creative magic on a forgotten woman of medieval history. Joanna’s story is one of pride and passion in perilous times, her turbulent marriage brought to vivid life in a sweeping saga that blends romance with the harsh realities of a royal woman’s role in the Middle Ages.

Instead of the inanimate queen whose effigy lies in marble perpetuity alongside her husband Henry in Canterbury Cathedral, O’Brien brings us an inspirational, flesh-and-blood Joanna of Navarre.

This Joanna is a clever, shrewd and determined matriarch, boldly prepared to abandon her French power base for love and cross the Channel to a country regarded as the enemy, and a king beset by civil war and accusations of treason.

Theirs is a marriage founded on true affection rather than the more traditional dynastic considerations but in ever constant danger of foundering on the rocks of distrust, ambition and rebellion.

Packed with drama, danger, romance and history, The Queen’s Choice is the perfect reading choice for the long winter nights.

(Mira, hardback, £12.99)