Book review: The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

In the history books, she is the York princess whose union with the Lancastrian King Henry VII ended the bitter Wars of the Roses, the peacemaker wife who helped found the famous Tudor dynasty…

Thursday, 6th March 2014, 9:00 am
The White Princess by Philippa Gregory
The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

But how would it feel to be a ‘spoil of war,’ forced into marriage with the man who is your family enemy, your lover’s nemesis and a suspect in the murder of your young princeling brothers in the Tower?

Philippa Gregory is on top form in the fifth book of her gripping Cousins’ War series which follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the influential medieval women who, in one way or another, shaped the course of English history.

The compelling stories of three of these royal wives have enthralled millions of TV viewers in the BBC1 drama The White Queen, based on Gregory’s books, and here she puts flesh on the bones of Elizabeth of York, beautiful eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, and a pawn in the machinations of both the warring houses.

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Gregory has attracted some criticism for elaborating her histories with over-hyped dramas involving witchcraft, curses and other dark arts, but such accusations do great disservice to this popular and much-loved author.

What Gregory does so powerfully and so imaginatively is to refocus our attention on the forgotten leading female players of our rich history and force us to re-examine their sacrifices, their resilience and their achievements in terms of real-life, flesh-and-blood women creating their own destinies in an age of male domination.

What Gregory delivers with each of her books is the reinvigorated personal history of significant women, a far cry from their more familiar, public and widely disseminated roles as footnotes of history and the product of centuries of tittle tattle and tinkering.

For the young Princess Elizabeth, life is a painful sham. Facing a conflict of loyalties between the red rose and the white, all day she keeps her face ‘smiling like a mask, smiling, smiling’ while her heart lies ‘in an unmarked grave somewhere in Leicester’ with her dead and defeated lover, King Richard III.

Like England itself, she is part of the spoils of war and her duty now is to forge the future of her family, ‘hammer’ herself into marriage with the conqueror Henry Tudor and become ‘the peace which ends the Cousins’ War.’

In the damning words of her indomitable mother Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, the balding and guarded young Henry is ‘ordinary… very, very ordinary’ but, as his wife, she will have a great destiny as Queen of England.

Against all the odds and a violent and inauspicious start to their union, Elizabeth discovers a growing affection for her uncertain and paranoid husband but she must reconcile this love with her innate loyalty to the House of York.

And worse is to come when she is forced to choose between her mother’s rebellion and her Tudor marriage, and between her new husband and a young boy who claims to be her beloved lost brother Prince Richard, the ‘Rose of York’ come home at last to claim the crown…

The harsh reality of Elizabeth’s terrible predicament springs from the pages of Gregory’s compelling and vibrant story. We witness a young woman’s gradual unfolding from reluctant, resentful marriage pawn to astute queen, respected wife, joint founder of a dynasty and keen political observer.

Once again, Gregory enables the personal and political to play out their parts by keeping one eye on the big picture and the other on the thrilling intimacies and small detail which make historical fiction so absorbing, exciting and refreshingly inventive.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £7.99)