Sunday 1 May 2011

The White Queen, Philippa Gregory

Your house's emblem should not be the white rose but the old sign of eternity [...] the snake which eats itself. The sons of York will destroy each other, one brother destroying another, uncles devouring nephews, fathers beheading sons. They are a house which has to have blood and they will shed their own if they have no other enemy.
It was interesting to read Philippa Gregory's The White Queen last week, in the run-up to the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton. The White Queen also opens with a royal wedding between King Edward IV York, to Elizabeth Woodville, a beautiful young widow of the opposing house of Lancaster.
Not for Edward and Elizabeth is there a carriage ride watched by billions, months of hype, houses draped in flags and bunting and a Knit Your Own Royal Wedding book published especially for the occasion. Edward and Elizabeth's marriage takes place in haste and in secrecy before the latest battle in the War of the Roses, before a handful of witnesses. After the event, Elizabeth's brother casts doubt on the validity of the marriage, witnessed by three women and a young boy, and warns her that it would be easy for the King to claim that he had never been legally married and prove it all to be a ploy to get Elizabeth into his bed.

Ms Gregory demonstrates this marriage to be a whole-family affair. There is not just a new queen, but her whole family becomes embroiled in politics at a very turbulent time. Philippa Gregory shows a different side to the story from that of the history books, focusing on the role of the women behind the scenes. From the moment of her marriage, Elizabeth has to keep her wits about her at all times, as she gets mixed up in a world of scheming and treachery, obsessive ambition and murder, in a seemingly endless cycle of revenge. Elizabeth describes how her rival, Margaret of Anjou, "will not accept her defeat, she will plot and scheme for her son, just as Edward told me, that I must plot and scheme for ours. She will never stop until she is back in England and the battle is drawn up again. She will never stop until her husband is dead, her son is dead, and she has no one left to put on the throne. This is what it means to be Queen of England in this country today." But once Margaret of Anjou has ceased to be a threat, new claimants for the throne rise. As described in the quote at the top of the page, when there are no threats to Edward's rule from outside his house, his own brothers turn against him and each other, and with each betrayal, Elizabeth vows vengeance. The book paints a bitter picture of how unforgiveness destroys and is never satisfied.

The White Queen is set earlier than Gregory's usual era (The Tudors) and I confess I have little memory of my history lessons before the resolution of the war covered in this novel - see the first episode of Blackadder to see how that might or might not have turned out. I also found it a little confusing for the sheer number of people named Edward and Richard, and the different names and titles of other characters. But once I got my head around who was who, I was fascinated by the twists and turns, the to-and--fro of the houses' fortunes, culminating in the disappearance of Elizabeth's sons to King Edward, well-known as "the Princes in the Tower." Being a historical novel based upon real people, it is difficult to work out how much of the story is true and how much is speculation, although Gregory's note at the back explains some of her decisions for the direction of the plot. With conflicting theories and sources available to her, Gregory had to choose her own theories about the most likely truth, although she does not provide any definite answer.

Philippa Gregory has written a companion novel: The Red Queen, from the perspective of the "other side:" Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor.

1 comment:

  1. Historical fiction is my favorite. I've read one Gregory novel, but I can't remember what it was called. These sound good too.

    Saw you on greads -- am a new follower!


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