After loving The White Queen about Elizabeth Woodville last year, I was very eager to continue reading Philippa Gregory’s popular Cousins’ War series. In which, Gregory retells the bloody rivalry between the Houses of York and Lancaster, what we now call the War of the Roses, through the eyes of the indomitable women caught up in it all; and in this book, The Red Queen, Gregory switches sides to Margaret Beaufort, the Queen Mother of Henry VII.
As a Lancastrian and the heir to the Beaufort fortune, Margaret becomes the prized child-bride of Edmund Tudor, the half-brother of Henry VI. But after becoming a young widow and mother, Margaret goes on to endure, with unwavering faith and determination, two more love-less marriages, the dramatic downfall of her house and the rise of her enemies: the Yorks. Whilst feigning friendship, firstly for the golden Edward IV and then his usurper brother Richard III, she secretly plots to restore her only son, Henry Tudor, and thus the Lancastrian line to their rightful place on the throne of England.
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. And boy was Margaret a big player in this game of politics, war and rivalry, with her wily, secret machinations, plotting and changing alliances. However, while I found this all absolutely fascinating to read about, I found Margaret to be a thoroughly unlikeable character! So unlikeable that she made me feel sympathy for the deeply proud and ambitious Elizabeth Woodville, who seemed to genuinely hold out the hand of friendship to her.
Of course I started with much sympathy for the strikingly pious little girl, who, as a disappointing female heir, is packed off to marry a stranger twice her age. Only for her to be widowed and pregnant a year later at just thirteen years old! It is only Margaret’s strong faith in God and the belief she has been specially chosen by Him that sees her through all this. While I would usually find such piety admirable, Margaret’s faith is portrayed as the hypocritical, ‘holier than thou’ sort, which sees her care nothing for who is hurt or killed to see herself raised to the position she believes she deserves.
Which again cleverly gives Gregory an opportunity to explore the mystery of ‘the princes in the Tower’? In this book, Gregory fully airs her well-educated conjectures that Margaret and her self-serving third husband, Lord Stanley, had the opportunity, the motive and perhaps the most to gain from this despicable deed. So there is definitely more dark than light in this portrayal of Margaret, but at the same time I had some begrudging admiration for her. Simply because a weaker, gentler woman wouldn’t have survived to see her son to adulthood, let alone placed a crown upon his head, so hat’s off again to Gregory for another strong, completely believable character.
Overall, I thought The Red Queen was another brilliantly written and researched piece of historical fiction, which, while it lacked the romance and magic I loved from The White Queen, it did grip me from beginning to end! I look forward to reading the next book in the series: The Lady of the Rivers, about Jacquetta Luxembourg, the mother of Elizabeth Woodville. Great read.
Have you read this? Or anything else by Philippa Gregory?