Book Review: The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

The final novel in the Cousin’s War series by Philippa Gregory, The King’s Curse, is, I believe, one of her best.  Set during the reign of the Tudors, it centres on Margaret PoleThe King's Curse (The Cousins' War, #6), cousin to Elizabeth of York and a Plantagenet by birth and therefore, a constant threat to Tudor supremacy as she carries the noble blood of the Yorks and the white rose. Married off to a knight, Sir Richard Pole and sent to Wales and as far away from court as possible, Margaret is content to live out her life away from intrigue and potential danger and raise her ever-growing family. But, when the young Prince Arthur and his beautiful Spanish bride, Katherine of Aragon come under her guardianship, Margaret is thrust once more into the toxic and uncertain politics of the Tudor dynasty.

The novel follows the well-known historical events that mark the rise of the cheeky young prince who will become the obese and surly Henry VIII (if you don’t know the history, then skip to the end of this review!); the tragic death of Arthur, Henry taking Katherine for his bride, the loss of many babies, (mostly boys) before young Mary survives and Henry’s growing disenchantment with his queen and his belief, real or convenient, that his union with her is cursed. Through Margaret’s eyes, it tracks his moves to sever the English church from Rome and his fickleness when it comes to women and friends. All are documented in this marvellous and utterly gripping tale.

From quietude and poverty, when Katherine becomes Henry’s queen, Margaret is placed back at the centre of the court and her riches and title restored. Basking in her role as Katherine’s companion and governess to her children, she excels and ensures her children also benefit from this largesse. Perfectly placed to observe the man Henry becomes (a narcissist and bully who cannot bear to hear or see anything negative and who remains wilfully ignorant about his own role in his failed relationships, thus becoming a brutal tyrant who lacks emotional depth) and the changes his spiritual vacillation wreak upon his court and country, devout and very Catholic Margaret is no fool. Determined to retain her position, she defies the odds and the machinations of those close to Henry who would see her and her family fall and fail. Torn between Katherine and the cruelties being inflicted upon her, and later, her daughter Mary, pulled first the Catholic way and then towards the new religion, Margaret is the ultimate dissembler. But Henry is no fool and there are those who whisper in his ear about the Poles, the Plantagenets and an old curse that will render his line extinct…

Can Margaret prevail, or will her knowledge and passion for social and religious justice and those who, in her mind and heart uphold it, see her undone?

Renown not only for her historical acumen but ability to give the silent women of history a real and powerful voice, in The King’s Curse, Gregory really earns her title as the “queen of royal fiction.” This was a compelling and very original interpretation of known events and, though I know the facts well, I couldn’t put this down. Margaret is such a strong and convincing character who, for her time especially, defies the forces working to undermine her and remains defiant to the end.

As for Gregory’s portrait of Henry VIII… what a total tool and bastard she has painted him – completely convincing and not divorced (excuse the pun) from the records and other accounts of the era. Though, this is a novel very sympathetic to the Catholic cause and has little time for those on the side of the Reformation, and its important to keep that in mind as well. Not that it stops you enjoying it!

Highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction, and just someone after a great read.

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Book Review: The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

The latest Philippa Gregory book, The White Princess, is the fifth in her “Cousins War” series and follows the fortunes of Elizabeth of York after Richard III, her lover, has been killed and Henry VII (father of King Henry VIII) has ascended the throne. Forced to marry Henry and prove her family’s loyalty to the new dynasty, Elizabeth struggles with what’s required of her. Comparing her husband to Richard, she finds him wanting – and with reason.

As the first of the Tudors and a foreigner in all but name, Henry has to prove himself worthy of the crown – in terms of his leadership but also his blood. There are those loyal to the House of York who perceive him as a usurper and for the duration of his reign, plot to overthrow him. Claimants in the form of the princes in the tower (Edward and Richard – Elizabeth’s younger brothers who disappeared, believed murdered by Richard III) crop up everywhere – particularly Richard – and folk rally to their side. Scotland, Ireland, France – all collude to overthrow the king. Thus, Henry, raised abroad and under the thumb of his ambitious mother, Margaret Beaufort, sees threats and enemies everywhere, including in the shape of his beautiful wife, who is also the heart of the York clan. This affects not only his relationship with his wife and children, but with his court and people.

Covering at least a dozen years of Henry’s reign and Elizabeth’s marriage to him, I found Gregory’s interpretation of Henry’s insecurity and the possible reappearance of Prince Richard, the Duke of York, interesting. Told from the first person point of view of Elizabeth, you get the sense of strong female bonds, of what women were forced to endure and how often they had to bite their tongue or compromise their morals for their own sake and that of those they love and seek to protect. Elizabeth lacks her mother’s fire (perhaps she observed and learned), but does retain an inner strength in Gregory’s rendition. Though, there were many times you wanted to slap her. How she could love a man like Henry – selfish, needy, paranoid and a “mummy’s boy” beggars belief – especially in the way he is represented in this novel.

That was the least attractive aspect of this book – the portrayal of Henry. He had no redeeming qualities whatsoever – insightless, fickle, demanding – a complete arse, actually.

Nonetheless, Gregory does have a compelling writing style and even when you’re most fed up with characters and the repetition of phrases and ideas continues (occasionally too much and this is a flaw in the book), you are drawn into this world of religion, politics and royalty, and the burgeoning romance at its centre, and it’s Elizabeth who takes you with her on a journey into the privy rooms, court and bedrooms of the greatest in the land. The words unfold, poetic at times, sharp at others, and yes, repetitive too, but Elizabeth’s world and the pressures under which she must operate and find her place are well drawn.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I have some of the others and that’s because there was a sense in which Gregory kept telling the same story over and over, emphasising the same characteristics and foibles and concerns of the main individuals as well. There wasn’t so much character growth in this novel as diminishment. That being the case, it was hard to invest in them. Knowing the history and the conclusions to the story of great historical figures does not take away from the reading pleasure of historical fiction, on the contrary, it can enhance it as you seek to uncover how the author reads the times and people involved, the hues in which she paints them. Whereas Gregory has been unsurpassed with some of her books, in this one, she is – perhaps aptly – too black and white – thus the White Princess fades into a snowy backdrop that, ultimately, disappoints more than it gratifies.

Nonetheless, I did mostly enjoy the book and will look forward to the conclusion.

Rated 3.5 out of 5.

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