The White Princess is the fifth book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series. The Cousins’ War is another name for the Wars of the Roses, a series of 15th century conflicts between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, two rival branches of the English royal family. This novel is set at the end of the period, just after Henry Tudor has defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and has been crowned Henry VII. Our narrator is Henry’s wife, Elizabeth of York, a niece of Richard III and daughter of another former king, Edward IV. The novel takes us through the early years of Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry (an alliance which was supposed to unite the houses of York and Lancaster), the births of their children and the plots and conspiracies that troubled Henry’s reign.
The Wars of the Roses is a period filled with mysteries and controversies and every author or historian seems to have their own set of opinions and theories. The most intriguing of these mysteries is of course the question of what happened to Elizabeth of York’s two younger brothers who disappeared from the Tower of London never to be seen again. Were they murdered and if so who by? Or did one of them manage to escape? Henry VII was unable to prove that the two princes were dead, so the possibility that they could have survived gave rise to a series of Yorkist rebellions. In The White Princess we focus on one of these uprisings, centred around a pretender known as Perkin Warbeck who claims to be the younger of the princes, Richard, Duke of York. Is he really who he says he is and if so, must Elizabeth choose between her husband and her brother?
While I’m not a particularly big fan of Philippa Gregory’s writing and I think there are much better historical fiction authors out there (and much better Wars of the Roses novels – The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman is my top recommendation) I have quite enjoyed following this series and learning more about the women of the period. This one, though, was disappointing and the weakest of the series, in my opinion. It felt repetitive and unnecessarily long and I just didn’t find Elizabeth a very engaging narrator.
The story is based around two theories that you may or may not find plausible. The first is the idea that Elizabeth was in love with Richard III, her uncle, and that they were romantically involved. As far as I know, there is no historical evidence for this but Gregory is not the only author to have suggested it and I suppose it did add an extra layer to her portrayal of Elizabeth and Henry’s marriage. Then there’s the Perkin Warbeck story, which dominates the second half of the novel. I have read about Perkin Warbeck before and am familiar with the arguments for and against him being the lost prince; the theory Gregory describes here seems very unlikely to me, but this is fiction after all!
Something I think Philippa Gregory is very good at is making a complex period of history easy to understand. Even with no previous knowledge you would probably be able to follow what is happening in this novel without too many problems. Sometimes, though, I think she goes too far in her attempts to clarify things for the reader. For example, when Elizabeth is talking to her sister Cecily about their half brother she refers to him as “Thomas Grey, Mother’s boy” which just sounds silly, doesn’t it?
My biggest problem with this book, though, was the portrayal of the main characters. Elizabeth had such an interesting life and yet she comes across in The White Princess as boring. She doesn’t have the strength, intelligence and spirit of the other women who have been featured in the series – Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen), Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen), Jacquetta Woodville (The Lady of the Rivers) and even Anne Neville (The Kingmaker’s Daughter). The portrayal of Henry VII is very negative, which makes it difficult later in the book when we are expected to accept that Elizabeth is starting to love him. I don’t see how anyone could have loved the cruel, petty, vindictive Henry described in this book – especially after something he and his mother do to Elizabeth at the beginning of the novel, which I won’t go into here!
I think maybe I should have skipped this book and gone straight to the latest one, The King’s Curse, which sounds more intriguing and seems to be getting better reviews than this one. It’s about Margaret Pole, Elizabeth’s cousin, an historical figure I know nothing about. I’m looking forward to reading it eventually despite my problems with this one.