Scoop Review of Books

Black or white?

The White Princess by Phillippa Gregory (Simon & Schuster, $45)
Reviewed by Judith Nathan

ElizYork001 A generation ago, many New Zealanders learned more about the Tudors in senior high-school history classes than they did about famous Kiwis. We’ve also watched many a movie and TV series about Queen Elizabeth I, her father King Henry VIII and his six wives. But how much popular attention has been paid to his father Henry VII? (Well, outside Wales, where a statute of Henry VII in Hay on Wye is proudly labelled “the first Welsh King of England”.)

Phillippa Gregory’s latest novel depicts Henry VII’s reign entirely from his wife Elizabeth’s point of view. Princess Elizabeth of York (1466-1503) was the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and the niece of King Richard III, whose grave was discovered recently under an English carpark. In 1485, at age 19, she married Henry Tudor after he defeated her uncle in the Battle of Bosworth and seized the crown. The marriage was intended to strengthen his family’s claim to the throne and to unite the country.

Unlike her husband, who had spent years in exile, Elizabeth had grown up at court. She is portrayed as popular with the common people while Henry failed to inspire them. The various “court progresses”, which saw the king and his court travel around the country to be seen by his people, were mainly intended to win over his subjects and sometimes to keep the king safe when invasion or plague threatened. We see little of the successful, thrifty, business-like king admired by historians in a tale that emphasises Henry’s insecurity and the uncertainties of his first 15 years on the throne.

Both the princes in the Tower, Elizabeth’s brothers, died in 1483 – or did they? The novel pivots around this unanswered question. (One speculation is that one of the boys was smuggled abroad and an unlucky substitute sent to the Tower.) There were frequent rumours of pretenders to the throne, some of which foreshadowed significant uprisings, and various courtiers changed sides. How much support did Elizabeth’s mother and aunt give to these people? Were any of them led by one of Elizabeth’s brothers? How much did Elizabeth herself sympathise with the leaders? Did Henry or his mother, portrayed as a powerful influence on the king, distrust Elizabeth? Did they have reason to? How did this affect relations between the king and queen? The novel speculates on answers to these questions.

This enjoyable read is one volume of Gregory’s series “The Cousins’ War” which focuses on the turbulent relations between the Yorkists and Lancastrians that led to the Wars of the Roses in 15th-century England. Given Gregory’s descriptive powers and colourful narrative, it’s easy to see why the BBC has made a television series based on these books. With the action taking place in a number of palaces and castles (including Westminster Palace, Greenwich Palace, the Tower of London, Coventry Castle, Kenilworth Castle, Worcester Castle and Woodstock Palace), no doubt this one too will be adapted to the small screen.