The White Princess by Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory (one of my favourite authors) has long written fiction about key areas in British history. She is perhaps best known for her book The Other Boleyn Girl. Her latest series, The Cousins’ War, charts the War of the Roses, the familial civil war that preceded Tudor rule and which divided England into York and Lancaster supporters. The war ended bloodily in 1485 with the death of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Onto his throne came Henry Tudor (King Henry VII), the first Tudor king (and father to the infamous, maritally-challenged Henry VIII).
The White Princess takes place at this critical juncture: it marks the end of Plantagenet rule and the founding of the Tudors, with all of the messy political machinations in between. Navigating through this maelstrom is Princess Elizabeth of York, a complex and fascinating figure who has been largely excluded from historical attention. Yet, with her trademark dedication to both fact and personal narrative, Gregory breathes life into this character and creates an engrossing landscape rife with both political turmoil and personal upheaval.
Born the daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York soon finds herself fatherless and in hiding when her uncle Richard III takes the throne. Her life sees a seismic shift when Richard is killed in battle. The victor and new king is a young Welsh nobleman who will found one of the most infamous dynasties of England: Henry Tudor.
The scheming new Tudor house is frantic to cement its legitimacy by marrying into the old ruling family; and so, in a spectacular display of political matchmaking, Elizabeth is married off to Henry, her former enemy.
Elizabeth is caught between the machinations of two families: her Tudor husband is determined to secure his rule, but her own York mother is scheming to see him overthrown. However, Elizabeth soon grows to care for her husband and, as they build a family, she transforms from York princess to mother of Tudor royalty. Yet, when plots and rebellions surface, she must navigate between the allegiances of her own heart. Is she a York or a Tudor?
Gregory does an astounding job of creating a personal, relatable narrative around the very political machinations of crossed allegiances, confused identity, and transfers of dynastic power. Ultimately a tale of a woman’s difficult journey towards self-definition, The White Princess deftly mixes heart with history; emotion with politics (and a dash of mysticism).
The scope of this novel is wonderfully enthralling. Gregory is able to impart both raw realpolitik and its emotional toll. Infusing the early Tudor characters with an understandable inferiority complex, the novel puts a very human face on often impersonal political intrigue. This dynamic fascinated me because of my interest in Renaissance England. Further, as a reader, I was fascinated by Gregory’s sympathetic depiction of Elizabeth’s tortured feelings of divided loyalties. How difficult and complex, indeed, it must have felt to belong to two opposing royal families. Elizabeth is wholly believable, both in her love for her blood family, and in her growing concern for the one into which she has married. She is an intriguing figure of British history. This compelling work of historical fiction does her complex life justice, and is a true gem to read.