As the debut novel in her new series Cousins’ War, Philippa Gregory’s New York Times Bestseller The White Queen is an engaging read. Gregory has set aside the Tudor family to explore the intricacies of another royal line, one largely glossed over by romantic historians for being too violent: the War of the Roses. During a time of frequent political upheaval, with power shifting regularly between the two houses of York and Lancaster, Gregory’s characters are tossed about in a stormy sea of betrayal, intrigue, mysteries, and courtly love.
The White Queen centers on Elizabeth Woodville, an unexpected choice for Queen of England by King Edward IV, the first Yorkist king of England. Although her family has supported the house of Lancaster for years, Elizabeth places her welfare and success above her previous allegiance and charms the young king one day on the road. Known for her “extraordinary beauty and ambition,” she is still a widow, years older than him, and has limited royal lineage. Despite the odds, she “marries him in secret and ascends to royalty,” angering several close supporters of the king.
But catching his eye is not all that Elizabeth hopes it will be. “While Elizabeth rises to the demands of her exalted position and fights for the success of her family, her two sons become central figures in a mystery that has confounded historians for centuries: the missing princes in the Tower of London whose fate is still unknown.” Gregory explores this mystery with a keen eye for detail, lending her historical knowledge where needed and weaving a tale to fill in the gaps. Those familiar with the history will be hard-pressed to argue with her conclusion; those unfamiliar will be enraptured enough to begin their own research.
Though the story’s pacing is at times slower than desired, the tone and movement do well to capture the constant uneasiness Elizabeth experiences. Still, throughout a life of hardship, uncertainty, and great loss, her spirit prevails. Gregory flawlessly captures her tenacity in every passage, from page one:
“With this contradictory parentage of mine: solid English earth and French water goddess, one could expect anything from me: an enchantress, or an ordinary girl. There are those who will say I am both. But today, as I comb my hair with particular care and arrange it under my tallest headdress, take the hands of my two fatherless boys and lead the way to the road that goes to Northampton, I would give all that I am to be, just this once, simply irresistible” (Gregory, page 3).
The story charts the rollercoaster highs and lows of Elizabeth’s time on the throne, leaving the reader at a crossroads between kings, the perfect set-up for the next installment. This woman, largely untouched by historical fiction writers, is a monumental piece of English history: wife of Edward IV, mother to Edward V, mother-in-law to Henry VII, grandmother to Henry VIII, and great-grandmother to Queen Elizabeth I. Her legacy lived for many generations in the Tudor lineage and Gregory has spun a wonderful tale to illuminate the world of her story.
Philippa Gregory: “I suppose I’d like (my readers) to know that here is a family just as fascinating as the Tudors, perhaps more so. Certainly, they are more complicated, more wicked, and more passionate–takers of great risk. I think people have been put off this period because it has been so well studied by military historians that it has been regarded as being just about battles. But there is so much more to it than this! The history of the women of the period has been very neglected because of this emphasis on battles and thus the male leaders” (Amazon).
The White Queen was released August 18, 2009 by Touchstone publishers.