Carol Krueger’s latest children’s novel, “In the Shadow of the Axe”, makes history come alive… and all “through the eyes of a child”. Through the narrator, 13 year old Bessie, we are taken back in time to the reign of King Henry VIII of England during his divorce from his fourth wife, the German Anne of Cleves, then his marriage to his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, both during the month of July 1540.
Bessie is asked to be a “Lady in Waiting” to the new Queen Katherine. This is historically accurate, as girls this young, from “noble” families were often invited to “serve” in the royal household. Indeed, this was regarded as an honour and even made these young women more of a “catch” for future husbands… most were married between 14 and 18 years of age. Bessie is a rounded, believable character and we can empathise with the terrible pull she feels when asked to testify against Queen Katherine to whom she has sworn an oath of allegiance.
Furthermore, Katherine was only 17, close in age to Bessie, and, of course, had formed a strong bond with her. Refusing to testify, or being accused of lying, would result in being accused of treason… the crime which was punished with the harshest penalty of all.
In “The Shadow of the Axe” Krueger shows us not only life at court, but also the harsh realities of the times… the plague (households were “shut down” for 40 days to be sure there was no risk of contamination); high infant death rates (Bessie’s mother has a stillborn baby during her daughter’s time at court); how marriages were arranged, particularly among the upper classes… daughters in particular had very little say in who they were to marry… and the gruesome reality of what happened to those who incurred the King’s wrath and were “sent to the tower”– as Katherine Howard was in November 1541, until the time of her execution in February 1542 at the age of 19.
Colourful characters such as Lady Rochford, who goes completely insane, or the intimidating Archbishop Cramer, who is tasked with questioning all the Queen’s staff about her behaviour and loyalty to the King, are even more interesting when readers learn that these were indeed real people and Krueger tells the story of Katherine Howard’s downfall and eventual execution realistically and accurately. There are also interesting historical notes at the end of the novel.
A word of warning to the squeamish: accounts of torture and execution are not spared… the description of the death of Frances Dereham is particularly gruesome and Bessie’s sense of horror at what has happened is palpable. I know some people strongly disagree with children learning about such things as Medieval torture and execution. Personally, I believe that “knowledge is power”, particularly when it comes to history and the mistakes of the past. The harsh reality of King Henry’s subjects (including his courtiers and even his wives) being at the mercy of his temper and power to snuff out life also pervades the book.
My ten year old son (who loves history) and I read this book together and we both really enjoyed it. Despite knowing the historical outcomes, the book has another layer of interest, as we wonder how all these things came about and what happens to our narrator, Bessie. Krueger has a talent for crafting time, place, character and scene, so that events which took place over 500 years ago come alive.