The White Princess is Philippa Gregory’s fifth novel in her series depicting the women of the Wars of the Roses, and tells the tale of Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, sister to the ‘boys in the tower’, wife to Henry VII and mother to Henry VIII. The story begins shortly after the Battle of Bosworth in which Richard III was defeated in battle and Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian heir became King of England. The novel charts Elizabeth’s relationship with Henry and his indomitable mother, Margaret Beaufort, amidst rebellion and revolt by people supporting the Yorkist heir, a boy who is supposedly Elizabeth’s brother and second son of Edward IV. As Henry becomes more and more obsessed with capturing ‘the boy’ and showing him to be a fraud, Elizabeth must deal with her own emotional divided loyalties, between the claims of someone supposedly her brother, and that of her own children.
The plot and personal relationships are convoluted, and you do have to concentrate to keep everyone straight in your head. This however is far from a criticism of Gregory’s novel, but is a practical necessity because of the time that it is set in. The Wars of the Roses, known at the time as The Cousins War was convoluted and messy, as family members fought against each other in an attempt to win the crown.
Elizabeth is one of Gregory’s most engaging heroines thus far. She is strong, yet not graspingly ambitious as Elizabeth Woodville, her mother, appears at times throughout the series. She matures throughout the novel, from the young girl dizzily in love with Richard III and forced to marry his killer, to a regal Queen. Her emotional investment in the action of the novel pulls you in and leaves you desperate to know what happens next, even if you know the historical details of who becomes king when. The depiction of her children is also very interesting – her eldest son Arthur is studious and serious, while the future Henry VIII is spoilt and demanding. As when I read The Constant Princess, Gregory’s novel about Henry VIII first wife Katherine of Aragon, I was filled with what ifs and questions about how history could have been different, should Arthur have lived to become king.
The world that Gregory creates in her writing is rich, engaging and dramatic, full of intrigue and fascinating character dynamics. Throughout the relationship between Elizabeth and Henry is full of up and downs, and keeps you wondering if their relationship could ever recover from the dramatically uneven ground it was built upon. Through Elizabeth Gregory puts the reader at the centre of the intrigue of the time, where no one’s loyalties could be trusted, not even the closest members of your own family.
I don’t profess to be an expert on the period of the Wars of the Roses, and so can not comment on the historical accuracy, or inaccuracy of the book. That being said, this novel, and those others by Gregory about this period have certainly stoked an interest in me, and have caused me to seek out historical biographies of the women that she has written about. Gregory looks at some of the great questions of the time period, and through her writing tries to answer them. She tackles the idea of ‘the boys in the tower’, the question of what happened to the uncrowned Edward V and his younger brother Richard when they disappeared from the Tower of London after being held there by their Uncle Richard III, in The White Queen, and further explores the idea here. Her premise – what if Richard was never sent to the Tower, but instead sent away by his mother for his safety provides much of the impetus for the action of the novel. Henry fights against uprisings inspired by the shade of Richard while Elizabeth wrestles with divided loyalties, between her husband and children, and her brother.
Gregory once again gives voices to the women who are generally silenced or forgotten in history through her novel, and creates an engaging read.
The White Princess is written by Philippa Gregory and is published by Simon & Schuster Ltd.