Being a bit of a history buff, I was excited to read Her Highness’ First Murder by Peg Herring. I must admit that my knowledge of the Tudor period is mostly confined to the early part of Henry VIII’s reign, but even so, I felt as if Herring accurately portrayed the personalities of her characters during the later part of his reign.
The story revolves around three characters trying to identify a serial killer. There’s Simon, a fifteen-year-old physician’s son with a crippled arm, the Princess Elizabeth, and Hugh, a captain of Henry VIII’s Welsh Guard. The trio’s investigation of the murders begins when one of Elizabeth’s ladies is killed within the walls of the princess’s yard. They soon discover that other women have been murdered in the same fashion as the one Simon found: two noble women and two prostitutes. As the trio tries to piece together the motivations behind the murders, more occur, only making the list of suspects longer. The possibilities seem endless until Simon and Elizabeth individually piece together bits of information that seemingly had nothing to do with the murders. The murderer then turns his sights on both Simon and Elizabeth before he is apprehended by Hugh and his soldiers. The matter is solved to the King’s satisfaction and without him being aware of the extent of his daughter’s involvement in the matter.
It’s easy to see how Herring took the time and effort to be historically accurate in the novel, especially when it came to any medical ideas. She talks about how people believed in a balance of the humors and how when one of the humors was out of balance it affected a person’s mood and health: “It was uncomfortable to be in the king’s presence these days, so unbalanced where his humors.” She also shows how some of the medical procedures of the day were performed through Simon’s father:
A departing maidservant carried a basin of blood, and the patient’s inner arm was bound with cloth. Glancing into the basin, Simon saw the bodies of ants floating in the dark liquid. When held to a wound, the creatures bit down on the skin, pinching the edges together. The doctor then cut off their bodies, leaving the heads as sutures until the cut healed.
These things help to give the reader a sense of the times and make the setting much more realistic than if she had glossed over such details.
I did have one minor issue with the story and that was Herring’s portrayal of Elizabeth’s brother, Edward, as a sickly child. I have read that he wasn’t as sick as he was originally believed to be and that he was only really ill in the last six months of his life. However, there are many people that believe Edward was ill for most of his life, and this is something that has been commonly accepted for years. Edward is also a very minor character in the book and hardly mentioned as he was not needed for the plot. As I said it was a minor issue and it was really more of a personal preference than anything.
Something that I was impressed with was Herring’s ability to capture what it must have been like to be in Elizabeth’s position. By all accounts Elizabeth was a very smart lady. She had a sharp mind, a quick wit, and an uncanny ability to rightly judge a person. With the abundant amounts of time she had, she perfected many of the teachings and hobbies she took up. However, as a teenager never expected to inherit the throne, she wasn’t important enough to do much and at the same time too valuable to send away. She was very aware of her precarious position in life should her brother die. She was a Protestant and her sister Mary was a Catholic, making her a potential rallying point, should Mary become queen. Though the sisters were rumored to hate each other, Herring was able to show both a bit of Elizabeth’s understanding of Mary and the uncertainty of her youth: “Elizabeth had a moment of admiration for her sister. At least Mary had beliefs and stood strongly for them. Elizabeth had no such commitment to religion. To what was she committed? […]Elizabeth took leave, reflecting that she was not the only one of Henry’s daughters who longed to be of some use to the world.”
Herring’s story telling abilities and characterization kept me interested the entire length of the novel and have me hoping that there is more to come for Simon, Hugh, and Elizabeth.