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).

Serving QEI …Intimate Details from Whitelock’s “The Queen’s Bed”

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THE last Tudor bed in existence, made to mark Henry VII’s accession to the throne. This 527-year-old Paradise State Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York was rediscovered in 2010. Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field to take the English throne and found the Tudor dynasty. The Paradise State Bed is an unrivalled masterpiece of 15th Century oak carving which was commissioned almost immediately after Henry VII was crowned to celebrate his marriage to Elizabeth of York and the end of the War of the Roses.

Once she finally ascended to the English throne in 1558, Elizabeth I’s opulent lifestyle was in stark contrast to most of her early life.  “The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court” by Anna Whitelock details what it really took to be “Queen Elizabeth” on a material, and perhaps on an emotional level.  Elizabeth was never alone, even asleep there was always someone in her room, even sharing those fantastic beds described in the book:

“... At Richmond Palace, Elizabeth might sleep in an elaborate boat-shaped bed with curtains of ‘sea-water green’ and quilted with light brown tinsel.  At Whitehall her bed was made from an intricate blend of different colored woods and hung with Indian-painted silk.  Her best bed, which was taken with her when the court moved from place to place, had a carved wooden frame which was elaborately painted and gilded, a valance of silver and velvet, tapestry curtains trimmed with precious buttons and gold and silver lace, and a crimson satin headboard topped with ostrich feathers.”

So much has been written about the life and times, love affairs and political maneuvers of Elizabeth I. Yet only a few books have approached Gloriana’s life from the behind the façade she presented to the world. Anna Whitelock succeeds in giving us Elizabeth with her best friends and confidantes. These women surrounded her and applied the make-up, gowns, and jewels each day to take her from mere mortal to dazzling queen. They served her well, kept her secrets, and did what good friends do: work on our behalf. There were even a few, like Kat Ashley and Dorothy Bradbelt, who politicked to help marry the queen. And others, who loaned Elizabeth their maid’s clothing or had private dinners so she could be with Lord Robert Dudley.  Whitelock reveals an Elizabeth who is in turns vulnerable, loving, inconstant, and even quite spiteful.

Elizabeth did a better job than anyone before her, and arguably after her, in creating a brand that even in her day became iconic and magical – which was of course the point. Against the backdrop of assassination attempts, marriage suitors, court scandals, favorites and power politics, Whitelock’s details of Elizabeth’s life do not get lost in the larger themes of Elizabeth’s reign but rather enhance our understanding this great queen and her Court.

A quick visit to the author’s website tells me that the BBC has optioned this book for a possible TV series, which would if done well would be terrific.  And let’s agree that the BBC does this type of program really well.  Bring it!

History Lady Review of Margaret George’s Elizabeth I 

Compelling “what if” novel about the son Anne Boleyn might have had…

What if Anne Boleyn's son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn’s son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn had not miscarried of her son and savior in the winter of 1536 and instead had given Henry VIII the son and heir for whom he was so desperate? Laura Andersen has written her first novel  in the Anne Boleyn Trilogy, “The Boleyn King” based on the tantalizing premise that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had a son named William who lived to become King of England. She creates an England that will still be familiar to Tudor-era fans, one with religious divisions, pretenders to the throne, the threat of Spanish invasion and territorial ambitions in France.The heart of the novel is not Will Tudor but Minuette Wyatt, born the same hour and day as Will and raised as a ward of Dowager Queen Anne (Boleyn). The novel begins with Minuette joining the court in the household of her good friend, Princess Elizabeth. The two of them, together with Will and his best friend Dominic Courtney, are a tight-knit group; the only people they trust are each other. But the friendships are tested by war, a romantic love triangle, and a plot to overthrow Will and place his Catholic sister Mary Tudor on the throne. This was a surprising gem and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like my historical novels to be accurate, so I did not expect to like a novel that rewrites history, but it is always so hard to read Anne Boleyn’s story without wishing it had a happier ending.  Andersen has given Anne Boleyn fans the happy ending we desire, with a cast of likeable new characters like Minuette, Will, and Dominic, who blend with well-known historical figures like Elizabeth, Robert Dudley, Mary Tudor and the Norfolk family.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review.

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:

An accurate portrayal at the expense of empathy? The Forgotten Queen by D. L. Bogdan

The Forgotten QueenI was keen to read a novel about Margaret Tudor, the feisty grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots.  Unfortunately, I liked Margaret Tudor less at the end of the book than I did at the beginning.

I’ve read a fair bit of history on Margaret and Mary, the sisters of Henry VIII – enough to know that D. L. Bogdan’s The Forgotten Queen is a fairly historically accurate, if fictionalized, account of the life and times of Margaret Tudor, Queen Consort of Scotland’s James IV.   It is a well-written chronological telling of Margaret’s life, from her childhood at Sheen to her three marriages in Scotland finally her last role as mother of James V.

Early in the novel, Bogdan does a good job of setting the stage for the later enmity Henry VIII had for his sister.  Keep in mind Henry VIII left Margaret and her heirs out of his will and out of the English succession.  Scotland and England were constantly on the brink of war–there were many Border skirmishes and several outright heartbreaking bloody battles, such as Flodden where James IV died.  Against this reality, Margaret struggled with where her loyalty lay – to England as a Tudor Princess, or to Scotland as a Stewart Queen and mother of the heir.  Bogdan captures this tension well.  Bogdan also does a great job evoking Scotland and its palaces – places I visited last year like Linlithgow, Holyrood, and Falkland.

But I’ll just say it.  As the main character in a novel, this Margaret Tudor left me cold.  I wanted to warm to her, but she was vain, greedy, petty and a bit of a narcissist.  Now perhaps she really was all those things, but it did not make me like her, or really want to read about her.  She was utterly lacking in humility.  (She might have been a bit like her brother Henry).  Ultimately, her negative character traits were not offset by enough positive traits.   It may have been an accurate portrayal of Margaret, but it could have used some empathy.  Perhaps that was hard given some of Margaret’s decisions.

This was my first D. L. Bogdan novel.  Despite my feelings for this Margaret Tudor, I would definitely read another.

So if you like all things Tudor, it is worth a read. And if you didn’t have much passion for Margaret Tudor before, you may not upon finishing the book.  I’d be interested to hear what you think.  Below I’ve linked to another review of The Forgotten Queen.

Being close to the throne brings heartaches to heroines in “A Dangerous Inheritance”

A Dangerous Inheritance

A Dangerous Inheritance

A Dangerous Inheritance interweaves the stories of two lesser-known historical figures who lived 100 years or so apart: Katherine Grey, little sister of the famous Nine Days’ Queen Jane Grey; and Kate Plantagenet, illegitimate daughter of Richard III.  One woman stands to inherit the English throne; the other finds that throne casts a long shadow on her happiness.

We have all heard of Lady Jane Grey, England’s Nine-Day Queen executed by Queen Mary Tudor, but rarely told is the heartbreaking story of her sister, Katherine.  Upon her sister Jane’s death in 1554 Katherine became second in line to throne of England after Elizabeth Tudor.  But of course, there was plenty of controversy about Elizabeth’s right to that throne because she became illegitimate when her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed.  Many thought Katherine had a more legitimate claim (as the eldest surviving grandchild of Henry VIII’s sister Mary), which made her a serious threat to Elizabeth’s right to inherit it.  Elizabeth had good reasons not to like Katherine.  When she became Queen her animosity took on a vicious slant.

Weir portrays Katherine as a pretty, impulsive young thing, who secretly (sometimes not so secretly) covets the throne.  She marries for love without Elizabeth’s knowledge and consent, which is treason. When Elizabeth discovers Katherine is pregnant (with a Tudor heir, possibly a male heir) she locks up Katherine and her husband Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford in the Tower, separated from each other and the world at large.  A sympathetic jailer allows them to visit, with the result that Katherine bore two children in the Tower (infuriating Elizabeth).  Katherine lived out most of her married life in captivity.  Elizabeth I is almost never portrayed as an antagonist, and too many novelists gloss over her spiteful, jealous side.  Not Weir. I’m not sure I’ve read another novel in which Elizabeth I is portrayed as such a petty tyrant. I liked it, it felt true.

The other dangerous inheritance is to be the daughter of a usurper, which was the fate of Kate Plantagenet, the bastard daughter of Richard III.  In 1483, Kate travels to London for her cousin’s coronation only to see her father crowned King instead.  She learns her cousins—the Prince of Wales and his younger brother the Duke of York—have disappeared from the Tower of London.  Kate tries to discover their fate.  It is an uneasy time for Kate, who sees her father become harder, more ruthless and more political.  To broaden his power base Richard marries her to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, leaving her broken-hearted at the loss of her true love, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln.  When Richard III is killed at the Battle of Bosworth, Pembroke pledges his loyalty to Henry Tudor and Katherine goes from political asset to liability.  Moreover, Henry Tudor, now Henry VII, believes she may know the fate of the Princes in the Tower.  In the new Tudor-era, Kate risks her reputation and freedom to support the remaining Yorkists who would overthrow Henry VII.

The glue that holds the stories of these two characters together is the fate of the Princes in the Tower, which Kate tries to uncover during her father’s reign.  Katherine Grey, sixty years later, finds Kate’s notes on the disappearance and takes up the thread of the mystery.  I enjoyed the unique way in which Weir wove the stories of Katherine and Kate, drawing on the similarities in their stories.  Both are torn from their true loves; both are persecuted for their proximity to the throne, both die…well, I’ll not spoil the story further.

I’ve never read anything by Alison Weir I didn’t like, and A Dangerous Inheritance is no exception. She remains one of my favorite authors, as you might be able to tell from my reviews below:

Wonderful Thrilling Debut Novel, The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Brilliant Tudor-era novel by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau’s debut novel, The Crown leapt to the top of my reading list for purely selfish reasons.  I was writing about life in a 16th century priory in Poissy, France and stumbled upon a link between Poissy and Dartford Priory in Kent. Founded by royalty (Edward III) with nuns from Poissy in the 14th Century, Dartford Priory was a prestigious religious institution. I was curious to read an historical fiction account of life there—especially since I have not found an account of life at Poissy. I’m glad I did. The Crown is a thrilling read.

Bilyeau’s Dartford Priory is a religious establishment in turmoil, perhaps reflecting the time. Anne Boleyn is dead; Jane Seymour is Queen, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries is underway.  The novel begins in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace as its leaders are sentenced to die.

Against this backdrop, we meet Joanna Stafford, a young novice at Dartford Priory who has run off to witness to the burning of her cousin, Margaret Bulmer, to provide her with support and prayers at the time of her death.  It’s an horrific opening, one that makes the reader confront the brutality and inhumanity of Henry VIII’s reign, and setting the tone for the high stakes to come.

Her cousin Margaret is not the only relative to run afoul of Henry VIII, who executed her Uncle Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham—Margaret’s father.  With this history, Stafford is not a popular name with Henry VIII who is disinclined to leniency when Joanna’s father Richard Stafford intervenes to ease Margaret’s suffering.  Worse – Joanna’s mother was one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting and Joanna herself was with Katherine until she died.  They are sent to the Tower along with Geoffrey Scovill, a sheriff’s deputy and love interest for Joanna (yet how can this be when she is almost a nun… read and find out!).

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester finally grants her release from the Tower on the condition that Joanna return to Dartford Priory and spy for him. He keeps Joanna’s father in the Tower to guarantee her cooperation. She must find the Athlestan Crown….the crown of the first King to unite Britain, the crown that has magic, perhaps cursed properties in the wrong hands.

Joanna returns to the Priory accompanied by two monks, where dramatic events are already in progress. From here, its murder and a bit of violence as Joanna finds the Crown.   Bilyeau crafts wonderful plots, subplots and terrific characters, weaving in fascinating details about Dartford, its tapestries, herbology, and the chaos of England at the tipping point of Reformation.

I liked Joanna Stafford, who is nicely balanced.  She is spiritual yet not too virtuous, independent yet not so much so that it stood out as remarkable for the 16th Century.  Her quest for the crown and its secret leads her out of the Priory and into the real world in the company of men, but not in a way that felt contrived.  Most of all, I loved that this was not a book about court intrigue.

The book is an excellent, fast-paced read. It felt more like a thriller than most historical fiction books, which I liked.  I will definitely read more from Nancy Bilyeau. (And yes, reading it helped with my Poissy research.)

Love to know your thoughts on this book!