“The sons of York will destroy each other, one brother destroying another, uncles devouring nephews, fathers beheading sons. They are a house which has to have blood, and they will shed their own if they have no other enemy.”
– Philippa Gregory, The White Queen
If this was your first Plantagenet/ Lancaster/ York/ Tudor novel, then I welcome you to a bloody and vicious period of history. There is no wonder why Philippa Gregory studies and writes about this time. There are so many fascinating players in the game and it is quite hard to keep track of them all! There are multiple shifts in power with mad kings, usurpers and murderers leading the way. Amongst it all, Gregory focuses on the women who where wholly ruled by men. There were many women who held powerful positions within the court and this is evident by the charges of witchcraft held against many of them. I can only imagine that these were the result of men’s fear of women’s power. In The White Queen, Gregory uses Elizabeth Woodville to show the role and importance of women and she uses her knowledge and creativity to shape her into a truly fascinating character.
The time period is complex and confusing so I am going to attempt to give a brief overview with my (limited) knowledge of the time. It was a time of great risk and a period of history defined by its battles and wars. The Plantagenet reign ended with Richard II in 1399, which began a century long feud between the Lancastrian and Yorkist families know as the War of the Roses. The King who features in this book, Edward IV conquered the Lancaster line but did not end the War of the Roses. He reigned from 1461-70 and then 1471-83. It was during the first period when he married our protagonist Elizabeth Woodville who is also from the House of York. Edward IV is ursurped by Richard III his younger brother who is fourth in line to the throne. He reigned from 1483-85 and was killed by Henry VII during battle. Henry VII was the founder of the Tudor dynasty. He ended the War of the Roses with his marriage to Elizabeth of York (eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville) by uniting the Lancaster and York families. Their second son became the famous Henry VIII who had six wives!
The book is told in first person from the perspective of Elizabeth Woodville, a young widow looking to reclaim lost lands and fortune. Her ‘chance’ encounter with the King then leads to a secret marriage and her eventual coronation as the Queen of England. Her family is then thrust into the spotlight as she seeks to cement their place within the rich and powerful families of court.
Gregory has shaped the story around a time period where the information concerning the events is often contradicted or undocumented. It is quite a fast-paced book; it feels as though the chapters alternate between a birth and a battle although there is more going on than just that. The characters who stood out for me are the protagonist Elizabeth, her brother Anthony, and the young Elizabeth (who gets her own book later on in the series). Elizabeth is a fierce character who will go to great lengths to protect the lives of those she loves. She has a strong relationship with her parents (mostly her mother), her brothers and her children. Gregory suggests that she is such a fascinating and liked character because she represents the challenges of women throughout the ages, even the modern woman. She seeks to find a balance between her emotional happiness, managing her family, her advancement in the world and the security of her family. She is a proud woman who really holds onto a grudge. I really began to feel sorry for George, Edwards’ youngest brother. He is a stupid and cowardly man and Elizabeth holds so much anger towards him. “ I don’t forget and I don’t forgive’ she says. This anger is only fuelled by her fierce love for her family.
Anthony is the most likable male character. He is progressive and quite ahead of his time with regards to education and culture. He is famous for his jousting ability and he is a loyal brother to Elizabeth and devoted protector and teacher to the young Prince Edward.
I really enjoyed this novel as much as I have enjoyed any of her other novels. The only part of the story I was a little uncertain about was the tale of Melusina. Both Jacquetta and Elizabeth are suspected of witchcraft and Jacquetta’s family can be traced back to the myth of Melusina and she certainly believed in her ancestry. She was tried and found guilty of practicing witchcraft. At the end of the book, Gregory says “in a world where there was little science, there was faith in magic and trust in what we would call superstition…the legend of Melusina would have been regarded as a powerful metaphor which told some truth about the family history”. Gregory’s re-telling of the story of Melusina “came to signify… the difficulty that women have in living in a man’s world.” I was quite surprised to learn that The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson is a re-telling of the fable and that there is even suggestions that Melusina is Luna, the dark side of the ‘chemical wedding’ which also played a big part in our first book club book A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness! The legend of Melusina is clearly a popular one in literature.
Finally, there are many theories surrounding the missing Princes of the Tower however it is a mystery that has never been solved. There were claims made in 1674 that the remains were found but nothing has ever been proven.
If you enjoyed this novel I really encourage you to follow the series or read any of Gregory’s other books. I love the Tudor family and I have enjoyed her other series. I can also recommend Alison Weir who writes both fiction and non-fiction books about the players in this time period. More recently, Conn Iggulden has started a series about the War of the Roses. I have included links to their websites if you are interested! Philippa Gregory’s website has a plethora of information – it is a great point of reference!
The next book club book will be We need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver to be discussed from November 3rd. The December book will be a science fiction novel called Wool by Hugh Howey to be discussed from the 1st. See you there!
Over to you – what did you think of The White Queen?
P.S. If you are interested in reading the novels in chronological order (of events not publication), I found this great list that shows the order: http://literatehousewife.com/2007/08/philippa-gregory-in-chronological-order/