Saint defeated by Tudor despot in Philippa Gregory’s “King’s Curse”

Great novel, 6th in the Philippa Gregory's Cousin's War series.

The King’s Curse, the 6th novel in Philippa Gregory’s Cousin’s War series. Very well done. Recommended.

You can tell Philippa Gregory enjoyed writing Margaret of Warwick’s story in The King’s Curse – her 6th novel in the Cousin’s War series.  The novel is one of her best, bringing to life one of the great Plantagenet women — one lucky, or canny, enough to survive the Tudor period into old age.  And Margaret is a survivor, adept at hiding her true feelings of grief at the loss of family and fortune and shielding her remaining Plantagenet family.  She was adept at managing courtly intrigue — and keeping secrets.  Secrets like the truth about the marriage of Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon, and  the truth about the curse cast by her cousin Elizabeth — a curse that affects the Tudor succession.

Margaret of Warwick was the daughter of Isabelle Neville (one of the Earl of Warwick (aka Kingmaker’s daughters) George, Duke of Clarence — the brother of Edward IV and Richard III.   Even listing Margaret’s famous kin should give you an idea of the tragedies she experienced:  her grandfather the Earl of Warwick was beheaded by Edward IV, her father was drowned in a barrel of Malmsey; and her uncle Richard III was slain on Bosworth field by a victorious Henry VII who eventually executed her brother Edward of Warwick, several cousins, and her eldest son.  The book has several telling family trees that show the Plantagenet’s at the start of Henry VII’s reign and those surviving at the end of Henry VIII.Screenshot 2014-09-25 19.20.42

This was definitely one of my favorite novels in the Cousins’s War.  The first-person narration brings into Margaret’s thoughts, fears and hopes, triumphs and tragedies.  Through Margaret, you understand what it was like to be a Plantagenet in the aftermath of the Tudor victory, on the losing end the War of the Roses and at the mercy of Henry VII and Henry VIII.   Margaret herself was favored by Henry VII — enough that she and her husband attended Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon at Ludlow.  But her fortunes — and those of her family—fall afterwards while Henry VII reigns.  Margaret thinks and hopes that Henry VIII — the son of her good friend and cousin Elizabeth of York — will be a good, merciful King in the style of the Plantagenets.  Her fortune rises again as she waits upon Queen Katherine,  eventually becoming governess to Princess Mary, is named a Countess in her own right and becomes one of the richest people in England.  But Henry is not the King she hoped for and as any student of history knows, so many of those close to Henry VIII found themselves in the Tower awaiting execution.  Margaret’s execution is one of the low points of Henry’s reign, still shocking ~450 years later.

Henry VIII character arc is one of the novels strengths, for me.  I loved the way Gregory portrayed his descent from the good-looking, most-favored ruler in Christendom to the obese, distrusting, vengeful tyrant he became.  His failures as a monarch lead Margaret to  act on the hope for a new rule — Princess Mary — and in that lies her doom.  Gregory does an excellent job of showing the impact of the Dissolution of the Monasteries on the people of England, who lost their long-held traditions as Reformation swept the nobility.

I appreciated that this novel was consistent with others — “The Constant Princess” “The Boleyn Inheritance” and the others in the series in terms of character histories.

Here are links to my reviews of other Gregory novels — I did not review all of them, but read them all and think for the most part they were well done (“The Red Queen” being my least favorite and “The White Princess” one of my favorites).

Rich characters, great plot – Gregory’s “The White Princess” is riveting

One of Gregory's best!

One of Gregory’s best!

So good it trumps my all-time Gregory favorite, The Other Boleyn Girl!  The White Princess is Philippa Gregory’s latest novel in Cousins’ War series. Unquestionably her best book yet.  It is fantastic—full of flawed characters you love to hate, quietly heroic characters you’ll alternately cheer and mourn for, and plot twists that will keep you reading well into the night.  You won’t want to put it down.  I read it over two days and was disappointed to reach the end because I was so invested in the characters and immersed in the storyline.  I’ve said it in my other reviews of Gregory’s novels, and I’ll say it again, she excels in the “what if” that lies between the facts of historical record.  It may not always make for an 100% historically accurate novel, but damn! it does make for some juicy plots.The White Princess is, of course, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV.   Elizabeth of York is often portrayed as a quiet, motherly figure who lived harmoniously with Henry VII.  Gregory gives us another, deeper and richly satisfying portrayal of a young woman at the epicenter of upheaval in English history whose marital life was anything but comfortable.

This is her story, told from her point of view. Elizabeth’s world is full of conflicts and complications.  On the one hand, Henry VII gains the throne, restores her legitimacy and offers marriage.  On the other hand, he’s killed her Uncle, lover and King Richard III, treats her as no better than a tavern whore as the spoils of war and whatever legitimacy she recovers comes behind his all-seeing, all-plotting mother Margaret Beaufort.   The novel opens with Elizabeth mourning Richard in her heart, but outwardly appearing happy and content with the new regime.  This is a tough act to carry out and Elizabeth of York displays the rigid self-control that carries her through the novel, even on the day Edward of Warwick and her brother Richard are executed.   At times, her self-control fails her and sparks fly between her and Henry VII behind the bedchamber door, which shows how raw and real her emotions truly are.   (I though about the late Diana, Princess of Wales as I wrote this.  She was another princess who always looked happy and glamorous to the public but in private had a tempestuous marriage and life.)

Margaret Beaufort is a fabulous villain, a religious fanatic obsessed with carrying out her interpretation of God’s Will.  But she is well-matched in plotting by Elizabeth’s mother, the former White Queen Elizabeth Woodville, who hope a new son of York will rise to challenge Henry and supports several plots to overthrown the Tudor regime.  I loved this Elizabeth Woodville even more than I did in Gregory’s novel about her – The White Queen.  Admittedly I read it a long time ago now, but I feel like this Elizabeth is even Machiavellian.

Henry VII was not a wildly popular king and there were several challenge to his throne from the York camp, the most significant of which was from someone claiming to be Richard, Duke of York.  Gregory poignantly portrays the conflicting emotions Elizabeth would have felt, hoping her brother was alive, wanting to support York – but having to support her husband’s cause because her children are Tudors.  To tell you more would be to spoil it.  Gregory has now spent years with the Plantagenets and it shows in up in tight plots, and characters so vivid, so real and convincing that I carried them with me after I reached the end of the book.

Loved, loved this book.  Am now eagerly awaiting “The White Queen” TV series, which begins airing in the US on 10 August (Starz).

Here my reviews of other novels in the series:

“The Kingmaker’s Daughter” — Best So Far in Gregory’s Cousins War Series

Best in the Cousin's War Series!

Best in the Cousin’s War Series!

Philippa Gregory‘s latest novel, “The Kingmaker’s Daughter” is her best since “The Other Boleyn Girl.”  It is Gregory at her finest, excelling at coloring between the lines of history and bringing a lesser-known character to life. “The Kingmaker’s Daughter” is every bit as good and juicy a read as “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which I consider to be her finest work.

This was the first novel I’d read with Anne Neville as the main character, although she appears as a secondary character in many historical fiction novels about the War of the Roses.  As a background figure Anne—daughter of the powerful “Kingmaker,” Richard, Earl of Warwick and wife of Richard III—is often portrayed as a kindly but quiet, and sickly figure.

Gregory does not necessarily seek to change person Anne presented to the world, but she gives Anne an internal dialogue and spirit that reveals a character with fierce, determination.   The novel is written in the first person, which Gregory has used for throughout the Cousins’ War series. Perhaps it captivated me because Anne seems outwardly calm and inscrutable but we hear her inner thoughts and feelings that are so much at odds with her public persona.  I loved it.  I loved the suspicion and fear, and power politicking and strength that Anne had. It would never have come across so strongly in another point of view.

The novel tells the story of Anne and her older sister Isabel who grow from contented pawns of their father into significant players in their own right  War of the Roses.

Warwick was called the Kingmaker because he marshaled the resources to catapult Edward of York to the throne, snatching it out from under Henry VI.  But Warwick expected that in return he would unique power in England.  Edward VI had his own ideas.

Edward VI’s hasty, surprise marriage to Elizabeth Woodville wrecked havoc with Warwick’s ambitions for his family, and for England.  Elizabeth Woodville large extended family received favors – favors that Warwick believes should have been bestowed elsewhere. “If you crown a gannet, then she will gobble up everything,” observes young Anne Neville.

Warwick and his supporters feel they have been slighted and begin a destabilizing plot to overthrow Edward VI and bring back Henry VI, the “sleeping king.”  Key components of the plot are the marriages of Anne and Isabel to the Lancaster and York heirs – Edward of Lancaster and George, Duke of Clarence.  One way or the other, the Kingmaker is determined to get one of his daughters on the throne.

Anne and her sister Isabel are every inch Kingmaker’s Daughters. They each believe in their own manifest destiny to be the Queen of England, fulfilling their father’s dreams of glory for his family.  For a while after Warwick rebellion fails and he is executed, the girls believe the cause is lost.  Isabel and her husband struggle to regain favor with Edward, while Anne – a widow of the Lancaster heir – remains in disgrace until Richard, Duke of York claims her as his bride.  It is as his bride that Anne begins to shape her own destiny – quietly, behind the scenes.

Anne was not, in places, particularly sympathetic, but she was a real, emotionally solid character.   Isabel Neville, too, was well drawn but ultimately less likeable.

This was a thoroughly engrossing story, and one of Gregory’s best.  Her next novel in the series “The White Princess” is due out in a month, in which the story of Elizabeth of York – the wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII – is told.  I can’t wait.

Review: Found it Hard to Like “The Lady of the Rivers” by Philippa Gregory

Article first published as Book Review: The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory on Blogcritics.

The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

“The Lady of the Rivers” is Philippa Gregory’s third novel in her “Cousins War” series about the English Wars of the Roses. Through the eyes of Jacquetta of Luxembourg we experience the events leading up to the fall of the Red Rose (House of Lancaster, Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou)—and the rise of the White Rose (House of York, Edward IV).

Happily, I don’t know much about this period of history, so I read unencumbered by how much license Gregory might have taken, or not, with historical facts.   Moreover, I understand few historians have researched Jacquetta, so this was an opportunity to create exciting fiction around real historical events.  Sadly for me, because I am a Philippa Gregory fan, this book lacked the excitement I expected.

The novel begins in France with the capture and immolation of Joan of Arc, whom Jacquetta has befriended while Joan awaits sentencing.  Joan is used to introduce the gift of Sight and scrying talents Jacquetta inherited from her water-goddess ancestor Melusina, and serves as a warning that no good comes to those who hear voices or see into the future.

In Gregory’s first novel in the trilogy, “The White Queen” she introduced Melusina, the water goddess, much to my annoyance because I just did not see the need for it and I felt it took away from the plot,  even though both the Jacquetta and her daughter Elizabeth (the White Queen) are supposedly descended from said mythical woman.   In “The Lady of the Rivers” I made peace with Melusina and her mystical water goddess powers—only because I decided Jacquetta’s superstitions and beliefs were reasonable in context of the 15th Century.  But just as I got comfortable and acclimated to it, Jacquetta became uncomfortable with her gift and this discomfort somehow made the gift, the witchcraft, the alchemy–all things I’d love to read more about–less compelling.

Jacquetta’s marriage to the Duke of Bedford, uncle to King Henry VI, brings her to the England.  Upon the Duke’s death, she marries for love, to his squire Richard Woodville.  They spend much of the book apart with Richard engaged in defense of Lancaster in Calais.  He comes home from war, she gets pregnant, he leaves…comes home when baby is born, gets her pregnant again…in sum, once they marry, the entire relationship loses its dramatic tension and this great love that she married “beneath her station” for feels matter-of-fact.

This period of history is full of rebellion, lies, betrayals and good old-fashioned skullduggery, to which Jacquetta bears witness as the BFF of Henry VI’s increasingly war-hungry wife, Margaret of Anjou.  Jacquetta trails Margaret up and down England as the two factions – York and Lancaster – square off, primarily at Margaret’s instigation.  Margaret is driven by love of the Beauforts and especially Edmund Beaufort—and schemes right down to foisting her lover’s child on Henry VI as his heir, or so the book implies.  I’m not sure why it merely implies, but there you have it. Anyway, Jacquetta was not horrified enough for me.

I did not fully buy into the friendship between the two women.  Jacquetta was loyal, but I did not feel she held real affection for Margaret until Jacquetta said so at the end of the novel.   Margaret, on the other hand, definitely thought she had a friend.

In fact, I understood Margaret of Anjou better than I did Jacquetta.  Margaret’s character arc is much more pronounced – you see her transition from a simple bride to a hard-headed, unyielding ruler who in refusing to include the Yorkist faction in governing the realm, loses it altogether and plunges England into wars lasting two generations.  Margaret was fierce, decisive, and honest in her loves and hates. Jacquetta was a woman in love and standing by her family in the beginning of the novel and in the end – she did not evolve much.

I’ve read nearly everything Philippa Gregory has written—and have ten of her novels on my bookshelf as I write.  I did not care for the Wideacre Trilogy recurring incest theme.   I loved the “The Other Boleyn Girl,” “The Queen’s Fool”, “The Boleyn Inheritance” and “The Constant Princess” yet have been so-so about everything since “The Other Queen.”  As I think about why, it is likely because the Tudor novels were a fresh take on well-known historical figures—interesting perspectives, plausible plot lines, even if historically inaccurate.  The “Cousins War” series goes into less charted territory, but is more straightforward with it.   I like my Gregory novels with a bit more of the unexpected, which I hope I’ll see when I buy the 11th one. Philippa I have not given up on you!