The book begins in 1527, when Princess Mary, the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and King Henry VIII, learns she is to be betrothed to the king of France. Life goes well for the Princess until her father meets and falls in love with Anne Boleyn. This prompts him to demand an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, which would make the princess a bastard. Mary's father begins to treat her and her mother coldly, and she begins to develop a strong hatred towards Anne Boleyn, who is slowly rising in the ranks as her mother is lowered.
Years pass, and Henry grows even colder to his daughter. She is banished, forbidden to see her mother, and is living in constant fear of death once Anne takes the throne and her mother's marraige to the King is declared null and void. She is eventually summoned back to court to serve her baby half-sister, Elizabeth. She continues to fear death at her father's hands. The novel ends in the year 1536, when Anne Boleyn is beheaded, and Henry takes a third wife, Jane Seymour. Things are starting to look up for Mary, because Jane supports her, and her father welcomes Mary back into his life.
Though she is finally in her father's favor again, considerable damage has been done. The events of the past few years have been enough to turn the princess into the bitter, cold woman known as "Bloody Mary" for her angry persecution of English Protestants.