The White Princess by Philippa Gregory (Touchstone Books, 2013)
My Dearest Daughter Elizabeth,
The new King, Henry Tudor, Commands you to come to me at the Palace of
Westminister in London and you are to bring your sisters and cousins. Note
this: he has not denied his betrothal to you. I expect it to go ahead.
I know this is not what you hoped for, my dear; but Richard is dead, and
that part of your life is over. Henry is the victor and our task now is to make
you his wife and the Queen of England. (p.3)
Richard III has been slain at the historic Battle of Bosworth by the unlikely claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor. It is mostly the scheme of Henry's fanatical mother, Margaret Beaufort (referred to in The White Princess as My Lady the King's Mother) to give legitimacy to the throne of her son by wedding him to Princess Elizabeth of the defeated, but much beloved, York family. The above note is from the York Princess Elizabeth from her mother explaining the impending fate of the girl.
Elizabeth is miserable at the prospect of marrying her enemy, who brutally killed her lover (and uncle) on the bloody battlefield, tossing his body into an unknown grave. Yet, she understands, as a royal princess must, that her desires mean nothing in the ultimate game of thrones.
The White Princess is the fifth installment in Gregory's engaging Cousin's War series, which continues the saga of the Woodville women, supposedly descended of the witch, Melusina. Early in the novel Elizabeth reveals, “People have always whispered that my mother practices witchcraft, and indeed her own mother was tried and found guilty of the dark arts. Only she knows how much she believes, only she knows what she can do. When I was a girl, I saw her call up a storm of rain, and I watched the river rise that washed away the Duke of Buckingham's army and his rebellion with it.” (p.21)
Elizabeth, whose mother was the wife of Edward IV, mother of the two little boys, Richard and Edward, who were imprisoned in the Tower of London where they vanished forever from history, has known terror, hiding in sanctuary while her family was out of favor, and she has experienced triumph as well. But the challenge that faces her now as the wife of Henry VII, a suspicious and unstable monarch, is to plague her for the rest of her days.
Throughout the novel Henry VII is tormented by never feeling secure on his throne and accusing his wife of betrayal. Their relationship, which starts with the greatest of animosity and brutality, grows into respect, and even love for a time as Elizabeth successfully brings two male heirs to the Tudor legacy, Prince Arthur on whom the Tudor hope lies, and Prince Henry, a bright and willful child, who as we all know, went on to become England's most famous king, even to present day.
The suspense that Gregory builds throughout the novel, based on her meticulous research of the Tudor period, creates an incredible dramatic tension for the reader, despite knowing the outcome of the story. Elizabeth is perched continually on a tightrope of her husband's tenuous hold on reality, and the constant venom that he is fed by his mother regarding the threat of a Yorkist uprising. Though he wants to trust in his beautiful wife, Henry can never bring himself to fully believe in her loyalty, no matter how many times Elizabeth swears to it.
Henry's anxieties stem from his constant terror of “the boy.” There is always a “boy” coming to challenge his throne; a boy who may actually be one of the two princes lost in the tower. Tortured by rumors that come from Portugal, France, Ireland, and Scotland, Henry spirals into madness as he fends off yet another “pretender” to his throne. With each boy who comes, Henry's faith in his wife's loyalty to him as her husband and King wanes, leaving the Queen in a constant state of fear.
The thread that propels this remarkably written story forward is the question of will we ever know for sure what happened to the York prince, Richard. Gregory espouses a theory of the prince's survival which is fascinating to ponder, and implicates Princess Elizabeth and her mother as masters of deceit in the young prince's fate.
The period of the Tudor kings and queens, though brief in comparison to the other royal houses of Great Britain, is certainly the most intriguing and beloved in the history of that nation. I was extremely fortunate to visit the Tower of London just as I was concluding The White Princess. I stood on the great stone steps of The White Tower where a plaque commemorates the stairwell under which the bones of two young boys were found in 1674, skeletons believed to be those of the two York princes. I stood for a long time staring at the sign which reads “White Tower and Two Princes,” a sign which explains the tragedy of the two lost boys. The power of being in the place where this great history happened was simply extraordinary.
No one tells the story of the Tudors with the grace and vitality of Philippa Gregory. If you are a fan of her other well known works, such as The Other Boleyn Girl, don't miss the opportunity to journey back in time again with Gregory in The White Princess.