The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

The Kings Curse This is the sixth and final volume in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series which explores the Wars of the Roses from a female perspective. The books can be read in any order, although I would recommend reading them in the order of publication. Previous novels in the series have introduced us to Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Anne Neville and Elizabeth of York; this one, The King’s Curse, tells the story of Margaret Pole, another woman with an important part to play in the history of the period.

Margaret is the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, brother of the last two Plantagenet kings, Edward IV and Richard III. With a new dynasty – the Tudors – now on the throne of England, Margaret’s Plantagenet blood means that she and her family are seen as a threat. At the point when the novel opens, her brother has already been executed on the order of Henry VII and Margaret herself has been married off to a minor knight, Richard Pole – a man she respects but does not love.

When the King and his wife, Margaret’s cousin Elizabeth of York, send their son and heir, Prince Arthur, into Margaret’s care at Ludlow Castle, she becomes a friend and confidante of the Prince’s Spanish bride, Katherine of Aragon. Arthur dies following a sudden illness and Katherine is left a widow – but not for long, as his younger brother, the newly crowned Henry VIII, decides to marry the Princess himself.

Margaret is by Katherine’s side as she tries and fails to give Henry a male heir, losing one baby after another. But when Henry finally tires of Katherine and turns his attention to Anne Boleyn, Margaret discovers that her loyalty to the Queen has cast suspicion on the Plantagenets once again. Can Margaret convince the King that she and her family can be trusted, while still continuing to offer friendship to Katherine and her only surviving child, Princess Mary?

After the disappointment of the previous novel, The White Princess, I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this one much more. I thought the writing was better, the story was more interesting and Margaret was a much stronger character than Elizabeth of York. I got the impression that Gregory herself had enjoyed writing this novel, perhaps more than some of the others in the series.

I’ve read the story of Henry VIII, his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and subsequent divorce many times before, but it was interesting to see familiar events retold from a different point of view. Margaret is perfectly placed to know what is going on, being a cousin to the King’s mother, friend to Katherine and governess to Princess Mary. Through Margaret’s eyes we watch Henry’s transformation into a cruel tyrant unable to tolerate anyone disagreeing with him, we see how the people of England respond to Thomas Cromwell’s dissolution of the monasteries, we witness the public reaction to Anne Boleyn, and we learn how Mary feels about being cast aside and disinherited.

As well as being an observer of the royal court, however, Margaret has her own problems to deal with away from court as she works to keep herself and her children safe. Two of her sons – Lord Montague and Arthur – have positions at court and another, Reginald, is sent to Padua to study and is given the job of researching the theological argument behind the King’s divorce. It’s difficult for Margaret and her children to regain the power and influence they believe is due to them as Plantagenets without making themselves appear a direct threat to the Tudor throne. But unlike her cousin Elizabeth in The White Princess, Margaret is portrayed here as a very capable woman with strength, dignity and spirit. I did sometimes find her annoying, though, especially every time she showed such blatant favouritism to her youngest son, Geoffrey, who did nothing to deserve it as far as I could tell.

I still had a few problems with the book – one of them being Gregory’s insistence on referring to every character by his or her full name, title and relationship to the narrator almost every time they appear in the text. Would a mother having a private conversation with her son really address him as “Son Montague”? Is this really necessary when Montague (Henry Pole) is one of the main characters in the story? We’re not likely to forget that he is Margaret’s son, after all. I also thought the book felt much longer than it really needed to be; some of the scenes started to feel quite repetitive.

I haven’t mentioned the ‘curse’ of the title yet, but I can tell you that it refers to the curse Elizabeth of York and her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, supposedly placed on the Tudor line in the previous novel. The subject of the curse is raised every time a child or heir to the throne dies, but I was pleased to see that it never becomes a major part of the plot. In her author’s note at the end of the book, Gregory offers a scientific alternative to the curse, which I found interesting.

On the whole, then, I found this to be one of the better Cousins’ War novels. It was also the perfect way to end the series, tying in with her previous series of Tudor novels. Now I’m wondering which period of history Philippa Gregory will turn to next.