First, I must admit that I am stepping out of my area of historical concentration I have long meant to discover more about England’s War of the Roses and especially Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. However, Philippa Gregory begins her series on the women of the Wars with The White Queen.
The white rose of Lancaster, is a commoner, Elizabeth Woodville, which I knew little about before reading this novel, but who certainly must be an interesting woman worth more investigation. Elizabeth, as portrayed by Gregory, is dynamic and complex. At the beginning of Edward’s reign, Elizabeth comes to the King with a financial dispute and wins his love by her refusal to be his mistress. The novel in fact depicts the first encounter between the two as a violent one in which Edward attempted to force Elizabeth to have sex with him and she had to pull a knife out to defend herself. Strange way to begin a relationship certainly, but stranger still was that Edward returned and married Elizabeth in secret which ultimately led to his estrangement from the Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker and would continually haunt both of them throughout their lives and after Edward’s death.
Elizabeth is portrayed as a political queen who seeks the promotion of her family with ruthless ambition. Her mother, Jacquetta, who had served Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s now exiled Queen, aids Elizabeth in her political schemes with very unorthodox methods. Jacquetta claims the women are descendants of the river goddess Melusina and both use this connection to the river goddess combined with witchcraft to influence events and curse enemies.
Elizabeth and her mother are safe while Edward IV remains in power but unexpectedly find themselves vulnerable when Edward IV dies young and unexpectedly. Elizabeth with her mother and children flee into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey while Edward’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, named Lord Protector by Edward has control of Elizabeth’s son and heir to the throne Edward V. Her younger son Richard is with her in sanctuary until she is forced to surrender him. The Elizabeth that Gregory portrays would never surrender the last hope of the Yorkist cause into Richard’s hands, which adds to the mystery surrounding the Princes in the Tower. Could a changeling have been substituted in Richard’s place while the true son and heir after his brother was hidden to perhaps reappear in the reign of Henry VII as Perkin Warbeck? The story line is plausible if Elizabeth was anything like the worldly women Gregory portrays. I would say we will never know, but since the bones of Richard himself have been found perhaps the boys thought to be the Princes, now buried at Westminster Abbey, will one day be exhumed for DNA testing. While Gregory’s account is fiction, and she admits in her author’s note that more than any of her previous novels, The White Queen has the least amount of true historical fact because so little primary documentation exists, so enjoy it for what it is fiction with a tad of history.
Perhaps this was the appeal for me of The White Queen. Unlike Gregory’s novels regarding the Tudor era where I find myself unable to lose myself completely in the story because I disagree with her take on the historical record. My reading of The White Queen was more pleasure based and thought provoking prompting me to delve further into the Wars of the Roses in both fact and historical fiction.
Overall I enjoyed The White Queen and found myself engrossed in the plots and schemes as a welcome break from the more romantic historical fiction. I especially enjoyed the depiction of Elizabeth Woodville, a strong women navigating through the tumultuous upheaval of the Plantagenet era and eagerly await Gregory’s next installment in the series, The Red Queen, the story of another strong woman in a man’s world, Margaret Beaufort.