REVIEW – The White Princess, Philippa Gregory’s Fitting End To The War Of The Roses Series
Philppa Gregory’s has a unique talent of not only using historical facts to create wonderful works of fiction, but also breathing life into women that have mostly remained in the background in the historical narrative. Although she has written extensively about the Tudor dynasty, famously about the Other Boleyn Girl, Mary Boleyn, sister to the infamous Anne, her greatest works to date are no doubt the War of the Roses series.
Beginning with The White Queen, Gregory has written five books in the series about the women who were behind the throne in this troubled period of English History, the War of the Roses, or to the family itself, The Cousin’s War. The first, The White Queen, outlined the story of Elizabeth Woodville, a young widow who married King Edward IV of the York line for love and gave birth to 10 children by him. While Elizabeth lived the privileged life of a Queen, the family was often under threat due to its war against the Lancastrian heirs, she had to enter sanctuary in Westminster Abbey twice and suffered through the disappearance of her own sons after the death of her husband.
Elizabeth’s story is told against the backdrop of the other women in her life, her mother Jacquetta who is the subject of the Lady of the Rivers, her rival Lady Margaret, The Red Queen, who would like to see her son, the Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor, on the throne and the young Anne Neville, the Kingmaker’s Daughter, who marries Richard III, her cousin, for love but is soon overlooked in favour of another.
Their stories tell of the difficulties that women in the age underwent, the pains of childbirth, particularly in the case of Lady Margaret who almost died at a very young age giving birth, the panic of protecting their children, heirs to the throne, the pressures of producing a son and heir and navigating a world which was largely dominated by men. What they achieved in such a strictly male envoirnment is nothing less than remarkable.
The last novel, that of the White Princess, focuses on Elizabeth of York, daughter of Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen of York and Edward IV. The book begins where the other three left off, with the death of Richard III on the battlefield at Bosworth. After Richard claimed the throne, Elizabeth’s brothers disappeared from the Tower of London, leaving her line with no heir. However, on the death of Richard III, Henry VII claimed the throne in the name of Lancaster and the Tudors. Directed by his mother Lady Margaret Stanley, the Red Queen Mother, the Lancaster line knew they would have to forge ties with York, and so a marriage was arranged between Elizabeth and Henry.
Throughout the book, Elizabeth must navigate an extremely tough course, staying loyal to a husband she does not truly love and loyal to a mother who is clearly plotting against the King. There had been rumours at Court during the time that Elizabeth had been the lover of her uncle Richard, and this runs throughout the first half of the book in particular, Elizabeth noting that she does not marry Henry for love but rather as part of her duty. Unfortunately, due to her relationship with Richard, the obvious plotting of her mother and the claims that one of the boys from the Tower actually survived and is returning home to take the Crown, Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage is a troubled one.
The real King Henry and Elizabeth of York
Gregory depicts Henry as a paranoid King, never assured of his place and constantly worrying about pretenders to the throne. The book leads us through her entire marriage, through all the obstacles they must have faced as a unified force and the attempts to bring peace to the Kingdom. Her mother-in-law Margaret plays an important part, always beside the King, the thorn in Elizabeth’s side.
However, the true strength of the work is Gregory’s ability to give a human aspect to Elizabeth, a woman who was hugely overshadowed by her overbearing mother-in-law, her very famous mother and her son, Henry VIII and his famous six wives. History claims that Elizabeth was sweet, good-natured and a perfect companion for Henry and Gregory interweaves this throughout the book. It is completely involving, and much like Gregory always refers to the Wheel of Fortune, Elizabeth must live with being the most person in Henry’s world one minute to becoming the wife that he no longer desires, a difficult balancing act for a woman who was meant to become the York Queen, apparently married to Richard.
If you have not yet read the rest of the books in the series, it would do you a complete disservice to read the White Princess before the others; the books are some of the greatest works of historical fiction that have ever been written. However, Gregory does give enough of the back story at the beginning for the reader to place Elizabeth.
The book finishes with the beginning of the Constant Princess, the life of Katherine of Aragon, the wife of King Arthur, Elizabeth’s first son, and famously, the first wife of Henry VIII. A perfect circle indeed.