Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review of The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

This book has been in the bookshops for two years now, and it has been on my bedside table waiting to be read for nearly as long. With my history course on the War of the Roses beginning last month for the University of the Third Age in Ballarat, it was timely that I fitted it in along with several histories of the period, particularly those which address the civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York directly. I have read and re-read both Desmond Seward's and Alison Weir's Wars of the Roses, Paul Murray Kendall's and Rosemary Horrox's Richard III and several books dealing with the Princes in the Tower, the subject of the first of my Abbie series of children's historical fiction which is yet to be completed.

Philippa Gregory has chosen to write a novel in which the main character and narrator is Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV. A woman who is generally portrayed by the historians as, at best, a schemer and fortune seeker, and at worst, as manipulative and dangerous, she is painted in a more favourable light in this novel. Determined to become the wife, not the mistress, to Edward who had wrenched the crown from the mad Lancastrian Henry VI, she ensures that her extended family is well endowed as she gets down to the task of producing a York heir. It is not until her husband's grasp on the throne is under threat from Lancastrian interests and erstwhile supporters that she produces her first son, after several daughters, while she is seeking sanctuary from her Edward's enemies in Westminster Abbey.

Gregory's portrayal of Elizabeth Woodville is one of a dutiful wife to a philandering husband, a loving mother and a protector of her family's interests. She also believes firmly the legend of her mother's Burgundian ancestry that she is descended from the water goddess Melusina and has magical powers whiuch she puts to use against her enemies.

While there is no indication, either in the histories or in Gregory's novel that the relationship between Edward and Elizabeth had cooled to any degree over the years, the king must have been sufficiently wary of his wife's lust for influence that, as he lay on his deathbed, he appointed his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, hot her, to ast as protector to his heir, the twelve year old Edward, Prince of Wales.

While little is made of the alleged marriage contract Edward had entered into before he met and married Elizabeth in this novel, her distrust of Richard is vindicated when he uses this information to convince Parliament that his brother's marriage has been adulterous and that the son is illegitimate.

Writers and historians from Thomas More and Shakespeare onward have attributed the disappearance and presumed murder of Edward V and his younger brother to Richard III although there have always been those with opposing views. Cases against Henry Tudor and the Duke of Buckingham have also been made and the suggestion has been made that Elizabeth was also prepared to sacrifice sons who had no chance of sitting on the throne of England for her eldest daughter's prospect of becoming the wife of Henry Tudor.

Gregory exonerates Richard III from boys' death even as she paints him as a villian. She does, however, link him romantically with the daughter Elizabeth even before his won wife has died. The story finishes before Richard is killed on Bosworth Field and Henry Tudor as snatched the throne and taken Elizabeth as his wife.

Gregory revives another of the legends surrounding this incredible time as she has Elizabeth Woodville substitute a page boy for her younger son Richard of York whom she smuggles across to France where he is given the name Perkin by his foster parents. The significance of this action would be apparent to those who know the story of the Perkin Warbeck who presents himself as Richard IV, and the legitimate heir to the throne, during the reign of Henry Tudor.

The beauty of historical fiction is that it allows the reader the opportunity to speculate about issues, events and personalities who sometimes receive only passing notice in the history books or are portrayed according to the historian's take on the period. The historical fiction writer can complement what is already known using a well informed imagination so the view is enlarged. By giving Elizabeth Woodville the task of telling her own story in the White Queen, Gregory is allowing us to see a woman who, for all her scheming, is a mother, wife and sister determined to put her family first and to avenge those who do it harm. it is a most readable story. I can hardly wait to start on the Red Queen, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor.


  1. Philippa Gregory is one of my favorite historical fiction writers. I've read all of her books, and while this one, and "The Red Queen" aren't my favorite of hers, I still really enjoyed them. I actually reviewed both of them on my blog as well! I've only recently started to read historical fiction dealing with the War of Roses and prior to that. I needed to broaden my horizons, and leave Tudor historical fiction alone for a little bit! So far I have definitely not been disappointed!
    Thanks for leaving a comment for me earlier! :) It's so nice to meet writers, as well as people who love historical fiction as much as I do!

  2. I've only recently come to the period as well. My main area of study over the years has been Irish and Irish-Australian history. I've concentrated on the 19th century particularly for my novels although I have taught Irish history from the Celts onwards. I became engrossed in War of the Roses history when I was writing a children's story set in Westminster Abbey. My little character has an encounter with Edward V in it. It is not published yet as I want to do more work on it