Who would be a queen?

I certainly wouldn’t, based on the stories of the two 16th century queens I’ve been reading about recently!

The Last Queen The first of our two queens is Juana of Castile, also known as Juana la Loca (‘the mad’), whose life is retold in fictional form in The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner. I think most of us will have heard of Juana’s younger sister, Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII who was divorced so that the King could marry Anne Boleyn, breaking away from Rome in the process. Juana’s story is less well known (outside Spain, at least) and less often covered in historical fiction, but just as interesting and tragic.

Juana is the third of five children born to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, whose joint rule has brought together the two Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The King and Queen have arranged marriages for all of their children, in the hope of forming political alliances, and Juana finds herself married against her will to Philip, Duke of Burgundy, son of the Holy Roman Emperor. Despite her initial feelings, Juana quickly falls in love with her new husband – but her happiness doesn’t last long. The deaths of her elder brother and sister leave Juana as her parents’ heir and her relationship with Philip changes as a result.

Influenced by the scheming Archbishop Besançon, Philip sets his sights on taking the throne of Spain for himself and Juana finds herself betrayed and accused of insanity. Even as she discovers that the very people she should be able to trust want only to bully and manipulate her, she remains determined to fight for her throne and her country.

This is the first of C.W. Gortner’s books I’ve read and I will definitely consider reading more. I thoroughly enjoyed this moving and dramatic novel which took me through a period of Spanish history of which I previously knew almost nothing. There’s some beautiful descriptive writing which brings each of the various settings to life, from Granada during the Conquest of 1492 to the extravagance of the French court.

Gortner is a male author, if you’re wondering, and he writes very convincingly from the perspective of a young woman in this novel. Whether or not Juana actually suffered from mental illness is debatable; the point of view taken in this book is that the ‘madness’ developed as a result of years of stress and suffering – and branding her mad was a convenient way for her enemies to prevent her from ruling. I don’t know enough about her to say whether this is likely or not, but I did love Gortner’s portrayal of Juana and wished she could have had a little more happiness in her life.

The Taming of the Queen Our second queen is Katherine Parr, sixth and final wife to Henry VIII, whose story is told in The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory. I hadn’t really intended to read this book as I find Katherine one of the less interesting wives and, having read several other fictional accounts of her life (including Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle and The Secret Keeper by Sandra Byrd), I didn’t imagine this one would have anything new to add. When I saw it in the New Books section of the library, however, I couldn’t resist reading it – and I’m pleased I did as I found it to be one of Gregory’s better Tudor court novels.

Katherine Parr (or Kateryn as her name is spelled in this book) could be seen as one of Henry’s luckier wives, outliving the King and managing to avoid both divorce and beheading, but this doesn’t mean that she was happy or that she didn’t fear for her life at times. By this stage of his life Henry is, shall we say, past his prime: Gregory describes (sometimes in too much detail!) his gluttony at banquets, his bodily functions and the smell of his ulcerated leg. Add to this his temper, unpredictable behaviour and obsession with his third wife, Jane Seymour, and you can see how difficult things are for poor Kateryn, especially as she has been forced to give up her secret love for Thomas Seymour.

Kateryn finds some comfort in getting to know her new stepchildren – Mary, Elizabeth and Edward – and restoring them to their places at court, and also in religious study. She welcomes preachers to her rooms (including Anne Askew, who was later burned at the stake) and as a result of this narrowly escapes death herself; she debates religious reform with her ladies and sometimes with the King himself; and she writes several books, becoming the first Queen of England to publish under her own name.

Kateryn is an intelligent and mature woman who has already been widowed twice before her marriage to Henry and she is able to tolerate her situation and handle the King’s whims in a way that a younger, less experienced girl may not have done. I liked her, but I felt that there were times when Gregory attributed words and actions to her that didn’t feel consistent with the way her character was being portrayed. This made me think that maybe she is more comfortable writing from the perspective of younger, livelier narrators.

This is an entertaining read and if you’ve never read about Katherine Parr before, it provides a good overview of her life and of the final years of Henry’s reign (events such as the sinking of the Mary Rose are covered in dramatic detail). I did prefer Elizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit, though, and would recommend that book ahead of this one.

Have you read any other novels about Juana of Castile or Katherine Parr? Which are your favourites?

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.

The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

The White Princess - Philippa Gregory 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.

For more Wars of the Roses recommendations see My Journey Through Time: The Wars of the Roses and for more on Elizabeth of York and Henry VII see The Tudors – Part I.

The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory

This is the fourth book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series which looks at the Wars of the Roses (the series of conflicts in the 15th century between the House of York and the House of Lancaster) from a female perspective. The others in the series are The White Queen, the story of Edward IV’s wife Elizabeth Woodville, The Red Queen, which follows Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and The Lady of the Rivers, the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta. This one, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, focuses on the life of Anne Neville.

Anne is the daughter of the powerful nobleman Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, known as the Kingmaker for the part he played in putting Edward IV on the throne in place of Henry VI. When Edward marries the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville despite Warwick’s attempts to negotiate a marriage for him in France, Warwick changes allegiance and rebels against the King he had once helped raise to power.

Warwick has no male heirs, but he does have two daughters, Isabel and Anne, and is determined to make one of them Queen of England. Anne, our narrator, is only eight years old at the beginning of the book but soon both she and her sister become caught up in their father’s political machinations. Isabel is married to Edward IV’s brother George and Anne to Henry VI’s son, Edward of Lancaster. But after Warwick’s rebellion fails and Anne finds herself widowed, she marries again – this time to the Duke of Gloucester, the man who will become Richard III.

I’m sorry if I’ve made this sound very confusing, but it was a confusing period of history and Philippa Gregory does a good job of presenting the information in a way that is easy for the reader to follow and understand even if you’ve never read about the period before. Although this is the fourth in the series, these books could be read in any order and all four also work as standalone novels as Gregory does not assume that the reader has any knowledge of events that happened in the previous books. However, reading the whole series helps to build up a full and well-balanced picture of the period. I love the way the books overlap, showing us some of the same events but from different perspectives. This book, for example, seen through Anne Neville’s eyes, is extremely biased against Elizabeth Woodville and her family, the Rivers – but if you also read The White Queen you get Elizabeth’s point of view which is obviously very different!

Like The White Queen and The Lady of the Rivers, this book has strong themes of witchcraft and magic. Elizabeth Woodville and her mother Jacquetta were supposedly descended from the water goddess, Melusina, and Gregory suggests that they might have had magical powers. There’s a lot of focus on this in The Kingmaker’s Daughter, with Anne becoming more and more convinced that Elizabeth is using witchcraft to attack her family, to whistle up storms and put curses on people. This is one aspect of the series that just hasn’t been working for me; I feel that this period of history is already interesting enough without needing to bring in an element of fantasy.

Richard III is one of my favourite historical figures and I was happy enough with the way he is portrayed in this book. He’s not perfect, but he’s certainly not the villain of Shakespeare’s play either – he comes across as a loyal brother and husband and a good king who really cares about the future of his country. This book is also more sympathetic towards George, the Duke of Clarence, than any other novel I’ve read and it was refreshing to be shown the good sides of his character as well as the bad. The characterisation of Anne, though, was not quite what I would have expected or hoped for. In other books that I’ve read about her, she has been portrayed as quiet and gentle with a lot of inner strength and dignity, but this version of Anne doesn’t display much strength or courage, while being too ready to blame other people (usually Elizabeth Woodville) when things go wrong. But I did think the relationship between Anne and Isabel was handled well, showing how they were friends one minute, rivals the next – the ‘sisters’ aspect of the book reminded me of Mary and Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl.

This was not my favourite of the Cousins’ War books but I’m enjoying the series and will look forward to the next instalment. Apparently the fifth book will be about Elizabeth of York, the sister of the Princes in the Tower and daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.

I received a copy of this book from Simon & Schuster for review

The Women of the Cousins’ War by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones

The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother is a non-fiction companion book to Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of historical fiction novels. The series tells the story of the Wars of the Roses from the viewpoints of some of the women who were involved, including Jacquetta of Luxembourg, her daughter Elizabeth Woodville, who was married to Edward IV, and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Their stories were told in The Lady of the Rivers, The White Queen and The Red Queen respectively. The Women of the Cousins’ War features an essay on all three of these women, each written by a different historian, and in addition to the essays we are given some family trees, maps, list of battles, illustrations and colour photographs.

The book begins with a long introduction written by Philippa Gregory, which I actually found as interesting to read as the rest of the book! The introduction discusses the possible reasons why women in history have often been ignored and overlooked, and why it’s important to study the roles they played. Gregory also looks at the differences between writing history and writing historical fiction, and as a lover of historical fiction myself I find it fascinating to read about an author’s reasons for writing it.

The introduction is followed by Gregory’s essay on the life of Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Unfortunately very little is known about Jacquetta, there are no existing biographies and apparently there are only a few occasions where she actually appears in historical records, so Gregory didn’t have a lot of information to give us. For most of the essay she can only guess at what Jacquetta may or may not have done and how she probably reacted to the historical events going on around her. However, this was the essay I enjoyed the most and it was as easy to read as Gregory’s fiction. It sounds as if Jacquetta had a fascinating life and it’s a shame that so few historians have taken the time to study her.

The second essay is written by the historian David Baldwin and looks at Elizabeth Woodville. I did find Baldwin’s writing style slightly dry, but Elizabeth Woodville is a historical figure who interests me, so I still enjoyed reading the essay. The book’s final section is written by Michael Jones and examines the life of Margaret Beaufort. Again, there’s not a huge amount known about Margaret, but I thought Jones did a good job of working with what little information is available. He also spends some time discussing Margaret’s family history to help us understand the background she came from and to build up a more complete picture of the sort of person she was.

This book could be read either as a stand-alone non-fiction/reference book or as an accompaniment to Philippa Gregory’s three Cousins’ War novels. I’m not sure how satisfying it would be for a serious historian or history student though, as there are no footnotes or endnotes and only some brief lists of sources. I should point out that I have never studied the Wars of the Roses in any depth (most of what I know about the period comes from the small number of historical fiction novels I’ve read set during that time) and for the general reader like myself I would say that the book is very accessible and easy to follow. It filled some of the gaps in my knowledge and I thought it was worth reading, particularly for the wonderful introduction!

I received a copy of this book for review from Simon & Schuster

The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

The Lady of the Rivers is the third book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series. This series is set during the Wars of the Roses, with a focus on some of the women who played an important role in this period of English history. The two previous novels, The White Queen and The Red Queen, told the stories of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, and Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. In The Lady of the Rivers it’s the turn of Jacquetta Woodville, Elizabeth’s mother.

Before beginning this book I knew almost nothing about Jacquetta (apart from what I learned about her in The White Queen) and it was good to have the chance to read a historical fiction novel about a woman who has so often been overlooked and forgotten. This novel follows Jacquetta throughout her life, beginning with her teenage years and moving on to her first marriage to the Duke of Bedford, an uncle of England’s King Henry VI. Left a widow at nineteen, Jacquetta marries again, for love this time, to one of the Duke’s squires, Richard Woodville. Over the following years, she becomes a close friend and advisor to Margaret of Anjou, the young wife of Henry VI, and is at the queen’s side during some of the most important moments of Henry’s reign.

Jacquetta’s family claim to have descended from the water goddess, Melusina, and supposedly have magical powers, including the ability to predict the future. For example, Jacquetta hears singing when someone in her family is about to die. As in The White Queen, magic is a major theme of this book. There are lots of references to alchemy, herbalism, tarot cards, and also to the ‘wheel of fortune’, which Jacquetta sees as a reminder that while it’s possible for a woman to rise to the very top, there’s an equal chance that she can fall to the very bottom.

I like the fact that the novels in this series are written from a woman’s perspective, with a focus on how women were treated in 15th century society and how difficult it could be for them to find a place for themselves in a world dominated by men. I also like the way the books take a very personal approach to history, showing how the historical events directly affect the characters and their lives. The present tense gives the feeling that you’re there with the narrator as events unfold, and the first person narration creates an intimate feel. Of the three books in the series so far, this one had the most likeable narrator and I’ve been left with a sense of unfairness at how Jacquetta has been ignored by history.

Finally, in case anyone is wondering where to begin with this series, I don’t think it’s necessary to read them in any particular order as they do all stand alone. In fact, this one, The Lady of the Rivers, despite being the most recently published book, is set before The White Queen so could be a logical place to start. According to Philippa Gregory, the next novel in the series is going to be about Anne and Isabel Neville, the daughters of the Earl of Warwick. I’m already looking forward to that one!

I received a review copy of this book from Simon & Schuster. I also received a copy of the non-fiction companion book to the series, The Women of the Cousins’ War, so you can expect to see my thoughts on that one soon too.

Review: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

This is the second book in Philippa Gregory’s new series set during the Wars of the Roses, a tumultuous period of English history in which the rival houses of York and Lancaster struggled for power. In The White Queen we met Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV of York, sister-in-law of Richard III and mother of the two young princes who mysteriously disappeared in the Tower of London in 1483. The Red Queen is the story of another woman who also played an important part in the Wars of the Roses: Margaret Beaufort of Lancaster, the mother of King Henry VII.

Although this is the second book in the series, I wouldn’t really describe it as a sequel – that is, The Red Queen doesn’t just pick up where The White Queen left off. The two books overlap somewhat and cover some of the same events, but from opposing sides of the conflict. You don’t really need to have read the first book to understand this one, although it would probably make sense to read them in the correct order. I really like the concept of two books each telling the story from a different perspective; throughout much of The White Queen, Margaret Beaufort and the Tudors were shadowy characters in the background, plotting and scheming from afar, so it was good to have them take centre stage in The Red Queen.

One of the themes running throughout the book is Margaret’s belief that God has chosen her to be another Joan of Arc, who will lead the House of Lancaster to victory, and that God’s will is for her son Henry Tudor to be crowned King. Margaret was not very likeable – in fact she came across as a very cold, ambitious and unpleasant person – but as far as I can tell, this is probably true of the historical Margaret. I was surprised that I could still enjoy this book despite the narrator being so unsympathetic; sometimes obnoxious characters can be fun to read about, and I found Margaret’s uncharitable thoughts about the House of York and the Woodville family quite funny at times.

I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of this book because I have never studied the period in any depth – however, my lack of knowledge meant that I could just concentrate on enjoying the story! The Wars of the Roses were a complex and long-running series of conflicts, during which many of the key players changed their allegiances several times (and just to confuse things further, many of them also had the same names – lots of Henrys and Edwards, for example) but Philippa Gregory has made it easy to understand and follow what’s going on. I do think a more detailed family tree would have been helpful though – the one provided in the book was incomplete and I didn’t find it very useful.

The book is written in the same format as The White Queen, with most of the story being told in the first person present tense, occasionally switching to the third person to relate important events at which Margaret was not present, such as the Battle of Bosworth Field. I really like the way Philippa Gregory writes battle scenes using language that I can understand, as I often find reading about battles very confusing! The whole book is written in quite simplistic prose and can be repetitive at times, but it always held my attention and drew me into the story.

If you are new to the Wars of the Roses – a fascinating period of history – then I would recommend either The Red Queen or The White Queen as an excellent starting point. I also think that if you’ve tried Philippa Gregory in the past and didn’t find her books to your taste, it could be worth giving her another chance as these newest books are quite different from the Tudor ones that I’ve read.


I received a copy of this book from Simon & Schuster UK for their Red Queen Blog Tour