Since watching the BBC’s wonderful adaptation, I have long wanted to read The White Queen, the first book in Philippa Gregory’s popular Cousins’ War series. Gregory retells the bloody history of the battles between York and Lancaster – what we now call the War of the Roses – through the eyes of the indomitable women caught up in it all; starting with Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen.
It is famed that Elizabeth was an extraordinarily beautiful and ambitious widow, who stood on the side of the road to petition the new, young York king, Edward. After catching the eye of the handsome, roguish Edward, Elizabeth secretly marries him and rises to the exalted position of queen consort. But her position is still fragile, with the continued uprisings in the name of the deposed Lancastrian king, Henry VI and even rumblings of discontent among Edward’s own followers at his unsuitable choice of bride. To secure herself and her family, Elizabeth must wisely play the intricate and dangerous game of marriage alliances, political intrigue and war.
I love that Gregory has chosen to tell this series from the perspective of the women: the secret, often silenced but no less important players in these wars of men. While I didn’t always ‘like’ Elizabeth, I have to praise Gregory for creating a fascinating character to read about, with believable shades of light and dark. On one hand, Elizabeth is a strong, brave and fiercely loving wife and mother, on the other hand she can be a deeply proud, ambitious and vengeful woman. Only one bad choice will lead to death, pain and loss, and her children trapped as pawns in a deadly stalemate with her enemies.
And this cleverly gives Gregory an opportunity to explore and give her own explanation for the mystery that has confounded historians for centuries: what really happened to ‘the princes in the Tower’? Were Elizabeth’s sons, Edward and Richard, coldly murdered by their uncle, Richard III or are there more sinister plans and shadowy players involved? In her notes, Gregory concedes that her ideas are only conjecture, however her well-educated surmises of those who had the most to gain from the deaths of the two princes are interesting and certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
Now, what lifts this up from being just a very good piece of historical fiction is the supernatural elements. Through her mother, Elizabeth really was a descendant of the Dukes of Burgundy, who cherished the tradition that they were descended from the water goddess, Melusina. Combining this legend and the known accusations of witchcraft, Gregory has cleverly weaved a realistic thread of magic to Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta. They truly believe they can raise storms, place curses and have visions of the future. However Gregory leaves us wondering if the effects of these ‘spells’ are real or just coincidence?
Overall, I thought The White Queen was a brilliantly written and researched piece of historical fiction, with wonderful touches of romance, mystery and magic. I look forward to reading the next book in the series: The Red Queen, about Margaret Beaufort the mother of Henry Tudor. Great read.
Have you read this? Or anything else by Philippa Gregory?
10 Books of Summer 2017 – 6/10