The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is an author whose work I not only thoroughly enjoy but wait with great impatience for her next book to appear. Her historical works of fiction, which take an intimate look at the lives of often overlooked as secondary women – those behind, beside and under the throne, if you like, are fascinating. Some I like better than others but this latest, The Taming of the Queen, ranks (in my very humble opinion) among the best.

25106926This time her subject is Kateryn Parr, Henry VIII’s last queen and already, at the age of 30, twice widowed. Despite loving another man, Thomas Seymour, when Kateryn is offered the toxic chalice of becoming Henry’s next wife, like any woman Hnery sets his sights upon, she has no choice but to accept.

Dismayed at how her future appears to be unfolding as the sixth wife to an arrogant, spoilt and morbidly obese man – a serial killer by any other name – with a propensity to change wives, policies, friendships and even faith as one does underclothes, she determines to make the best of things, even if it means stifling her feelings for Thomas.

Uniting the fractured Tudor family is no easy task and yet she undertakes this, feeling sorry for Henry’s estranged daughters from his earlier marriages (Mary and Elizabeth) and his over-protected son, Edward. With no real political or religious convictions, she soon learns that a neutral position, while safe, will not do and sets about to not only educate herself in these matters, but form a very important study circle at the heart of the court, something Henry initially indulges.

Clever, Kateryn is soon writing her own religious tracts and debating fiercely with some of the finest minds of the time and those she trusts, all the while her eyes and mind are also focussed on not displeasing her mercurial and hot-tempered husband. What Kateryn hasn’t bargained for is the machinations of those closest to Henry, those who don’t like the influence this wise and wonderful woman has over the sovereign and what this represents to them in terms of the power they currently wield.

All too soon, danger stalks Kateryn and the grim realisation that she might soon meet the fate of Anne Bolyen and Katherine Howard faces her.

Even knowing this period of history so well, I was spellbound by this book. The challenges Kateryn faces (no less having sex with her husband), the pride she must continuously swallow and what she does to both survive and with her dignity in tact is phenomenal. The tension is wonderfully built and the first person narrative aids this, breathing a different life into this era and this passionate, honourable woman about whom we know very little.

In this portrait of Kateryn Parr, Gregory has worked a particular kind of magic, recreating the era, representing Henry as the monster he surely must have been, yet also imbuing him with qualities and insecurities that somehow prevent him from being utterly detestable.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves history, Gregory’s work, or just a damn fine read.

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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 Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

I thoroughly enjoyed this revisioning of the early years of Catalina of Spain who would later be known as Catherine of Aragon, the long-suffering first wife of King Henry VIII. AnThe Constant Princess (The Tudor Court, #1) often silent and very religious presence in many fictive accounts, a woman who stood by Henry for over twenty-seven years before her marriage to him was ended in tumultuous circumstances, resulting in not just the rendering of her only living child to Henry, Mary, a bastard, but the over-turning of the Catholic faith in England, Catherine as a person remains an unknown quantity. She also tends to hover in the margins when it comes to Henry’s reign and his other wives and the fate that befell them, especially Anne Boleyn, the women who took Catherine’s throne and husband and whose daughter went on to become the “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth 1st.

Well, Gregory sets about to change that, presenting readers with a delightful account of Catherine’s unconventional childhood, as the much-loved younger daughter of Isabelle and Philip of Spain. Possessed of bellicose parents whose ambitions were to conquer and claim lands and people, Catalina’s girlhood was spent in military encampments, always on the move until, finally, her parents settled. Though they tried to destroy the Moors and suborn them to their faith, they end up adopting many of the habits of those they try to oppress. Catalina carries an appreciation for the skills, hygiene, knowledge and artistry of the Moors and Islam her entire life.

Revelling in her privilege as a princess – the Infanta – Catalina is also raised to understand she is destined to be the Princess of Wales and eventually Queen of England and it is to Arthur, eldest son of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of England that she is betrothed. But this is no love match for, like many young noble women, Catalina is but a pawn in a long political game.

For those of you who don’t know the history of Catherine and Arthur and Henry – please read no further. For those of you who do, the book remains true to events, but offers readers of the period something more.

Arthur tragically dies after only a brief few months of marriage, and Catherine eventually becomes the wife of his younger brother, Henry. What Gregory does, is present the relationship between Catherine and Arthur in an interesting light – very different to other accounts both historical and fictive (though, as I inferred above, in many ways this period of Catherine’s life (let alone the figure of Arthur) is barely addressed by other writers except as a footnote).

After Arthur dies, Catherine loses her position at court and, in many ways, her identity as well and in a ruthless way determines to have both restored. From this point on in the novel, it could have been subtitled: “I Wanna Marry Harry”, so single of purpose was the young Infanta.

The story of Catherine’s patience, of the way she deals with hostile forces at court (mainly Henry’s grandmother and later, father) and how she eventually triumphs is wonderfully done.

Segueing from third person to first person point of view, we get that omniscient narration of events as well as personal and sometimes heart-breaking accounts. There were points at which the first-person parts grew repetitive and a bit tedious, but more often they offered insights into the emotional and psychological energy and passion of this remarkable woman.

Henry is also presented in a different light – as the selfish, bombastic and indulged king historians have long known he was.  Playing to his strengths and indulging his weaknesses (of which there are so many), pandering to her husband to get her own way, Catherine is presented as a strategist par excellence but one with a heart and a conflicted soul.

Capable, shrewd, loving and forgiving, one of the most affecting things about the novel is those of us familiar with her story know how it will end. Gregory does well to finish the book as she does and leave readers with a sense of satisfaction rather than desperation for the woman at its centre. You cannot help but love Catherine and loathe the forces that dealt her such a cruel blow and the people that ensured where and when it would land.

A fabulous read for lovers of history and a great story about a woman of substance.

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Book Review: The Virgin’s Lover by Philippa Gregory

I havThe Virgin's Lover (The Tudor Court, #5)e to say, Philippa Gregory is such a reliable author. You always know that when you pick up one of her books, not only are you in for a good read, but one imbued with historical facts without overly didactic. So it is with the wonderfully titled, the oxymoronic, The Virgin’s Lover, essentially the tale of the relationship between Robert Dudley, the future Earl of Leicester, and Queen Elizabeth the First, the woman who would later be dubbed the “Virgin Queen.”

Set in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, when she was not only being pressured by her council and foreign powers to marry and thus secure an heir to the British throne, but was also the victim of plots to overthrow her and restore the Catholic faith (and a Catholic royal), it shows Elizabeth at her mercurial, cocky and overbearing best – at least on the surface. Confident in her youth, beauty and brains, she wields authority as though born to it, when in reality she was never intended to lead the country, let alone be a sole sovereign.

Gregory does not hesitate to expose Elizabeth’s awareness of this and thus her insecurities, and anyone raised on a diet of BBC miniseries of the Queen’s life or Cate Blanchett and other actors’ powerful portrayals (Helen Mirren’s is one of my favourites), might find reading of her indecision and constant need to reassure herself with her confidant Dudley, irksome and feel it rings false. Yet history indicates that the queen was notorious for changing her mind, seeking the advice of familiars and ignoring the counsel of those who might know best. Beset with nerves, prey to occasional bouts of hysteria, she presented a strong façade to the public. Unpredictable at best, difficult and demanding at worst, in Gregory’s interpretation, it seems no-one but Dudley could control or soothe her. Though, and this is something that drove me mad, Gregory has either read somewhere or decided to introduce in Elizabeth the habit of pushing her cuticles down as an indicator of a nervous disposition. There are far too many references to this – so much so, they detract from the story and jar whenever mentioned.

Gregory has also seen fit to take the rumours of a sexual liaison between the queen and Dudley to a logical conclusion and certainly, Dudley’s sexual power over Elizabeth does account for the authority he was able to throw about in her name and elsewhere.

Confident he would one day come to the throne, there was only one obstacle in Dudley’s way: his wife, Amy Robsart. An early marriage of convenience on his part and love on hers, the needy, clinging Amy who is abandoned for the queen, in Gregory’s book is finally given a voice.

Sometime plaintive, other times painful, it’s nonetheless fascinating to “hear” the thoughts and desires of Dudley’s wife, the “other woman” to Elizabeth, and be given an insight into her despair and the knowledge that she has lost not just her husband, but her love.  Forced to seek shelter from friends, a situation that became increasingly fraught as Dudley’s favour and chances at kingship grew, Amy cuts a pathetic and tragic figure. But, if you know the history you also know that there’s a sad and twisted sense in which she finally gets her revenge upon Dudley for his betryayal and Elizabeth for seeking love where it was already taken.

Gregory takes delicious liberties but without sacrificing veracity. A good read that certainly puts a strain on the idea of Elizabeth as a “Virgin Queen.”

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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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