Review: The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

The White Princess
The White Princess by Philippa Gregory. Published by Simon & Schuster

Somewhere beyond the shores of England, a Pretender is mustering an army. He claims to be brother to the queen, and the true heir to the throne. But is he the lost boy sent into the unknown by his mother, the White Queen? Or a counterfeit prince – a low-born enemy to Henry Tudor and his York princess wife?
When Henry Tudor picked up the crown of England from the mud of Bosworth Field he knew he would have to marry the princess of the rival house – Elizabeth of York – in an effort to unify a country divided by war for nearly two decades.
But his bride was still in love with his enemy – and her mother and half of England still dreamed of a missing heir and a triumphant return for the House of York.

The new Queen Elizabeth has to choose between Tudor and York, between her new husband and the boy who claims to be her beloved lost brother: the rose of York come home at last.

The fifth installment in the Cousins War series begins in the aftermath of the battle of Bosworth and the death of Richard III. In the first four books we saw the perspectives of four women, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, Jacquetta Rivers and Anne Neville, overlapping seamlessly in an intriguing look at the women of the Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth of York lived with all of these women, her grandmother, her mother, her queen and her mother-in-law. The first child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, she should have lived the privileged life of a princess, yet her life saw battle, hardship and the loss of her title and legitimacy before she took back her rightful place as a member of the royal household.

I think you were born and raised to be a merry woman. It is a pity that so much sorrow has come to you.

There was a certain amount of whimsy in the first four installments, Elizabeth and Jacquetta with their Melusine, Margaret’s visions of Joan of Arc and Anne’s childhood fear of the “Bad Queen”. And Margaret’s political marriages aside, these women married for love, a rare thing. Elizabeth’s life was very different. Hers was a political marriage, a crucially important one, this marriage would unite the House of York and Plantagenet and end three decades of war.

It is easy to forget the founders of the Tudor dynasty, they are so often overshadowed by their notorious son. Henry VII did not make a smooth transition to the crown, the early years of his reign were plagued with rebellion. This is not only an observation on his reign, but of his marriage to Elizabeth. In the reflection of this, we get a far more detailed study of Henry than male characters in earlier books have been perhaps afforded. Most medieval marriages, be they between nobles or kings, were not made for love, but for alliance. But without love, what makes a marriage?

I can speak of our baby like this to no-one else. Who but his father would linger over the exact width of his gummy little smile or the blueness of his eyes, or the sweetness of his little lick of tawny hair on his forehead?

Watching the years unfold in this turbulent reign and marriage is captivating. The pressures on Henry wear on him and his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth is in turn, powerless, torn between her family and her new dynasty. While they did have a happy marriage, Henry being devoted to Elizabeth and famously never taking a mistress, the strain on their relationship in the early years, with constant rebellion, the domineering Margaret Beaufort and especially the real threat of Perkin Warbeck must have been immense.

You could not make a beloved king, for your boy was not a beloved child…You are his commander. His ally. But there is no true love on it – none at all. And now you see the price you pay for that.

The Cousins War seems to have reached a sort of adulthood. There has been a superb continuity in this series, but this book has a very different tone to its predecessors, leaving the magic and fairy-tales behind. This is without a doubt the finest book so far, gritty, heartbreaking and sometimes bleak, ultimately a gripping account of the first Tudors and the last of the Yorks.

Rating: ★★★★☆

With thanks to Simon and Schuster.

Visit Philippa’s website at philippagregory.com

 

End Note:

I must admit I had a great deal of difficulty with the initial portrayal of Henry VII. I won’t go into spoilers but suffice to say his treatment of Elizabeth in the first stage of the book is entirely fictional and without a shred of historical evidence. The relationship between Elizabeth of York and Richard III is something Philippa recently called a “well-concealed scandal” but that is stretching it, to be frank. As usual there is an excellent bibliography accompanying the book, so you can do some further reading.