The Red Queen
by Philippa Gregory
“My life comes down to this: a court that has forgotten me, a husband who mocks me, a son who has no use for me, and a God who has gone silent. It is no comfort to me that I despise the court, that I never loved my husband, and that my son was born only to fulfill my destiny, and if he cannot do that, I don’t know what use we are to each other. I go on praying. I don’t know what to do but that, I go on praying. “
To say I was a little apprehensive at reading this book would be an understatement. And it wasn’t for any of the obvious reasons. I love this author – I mean really love her. It was because I made the mistake of “seeing the movie” before reading the book. It’s a mistake I really try not to make, but alas…
My husband brought The Other Boleyn Girl, a historical fiction novel, home for me one day after he’d popped in to the bookstore to grab something for himself. I’d never read anything from the author, Philippa Gregory, but I’d seen the movie and wasn’t terribly impressed. At the time he gifted me with the book, I was coming off of a year of reading nothing but hist-fic and was feeling a bit too full of it. The novel sat on my bookshelf for several months as I binged on a few junk-food-for-the-brain books.
But I eventually picked The Other Boleyn Girl back up. And while I initially only began reading it because I wanted to appear thankful to my husband for buying a book for me, I quickly became enthralled in the twisted and turning story of two sisters who were intimately involved with a powerful king. In a world that treated women as nothing more than pieces on a chessboard controlled by men, the Boleyn sisters took their fate into their own hands. I knew next to nothing about the Tudor Dynasty other than the most famous patriarch was notorious for having had multiple wives and that his daughter famously remained unwed during her reign.
After my introduction to Philippa Gregory’s novels, I picked up a few more and read them, enjoying them just as much as The Other Boleyn Girl. I learned that while her books had no official serial order, it did get a little confusing bouncing from one place in time to another and a lot of times seeing the same characters at different points of their lives. So, before I continued on my quest of reading all of her novels, I decided to do some research and found a chronological order so that I could begin at “the beginning.”
The beginning was: The Cousins War, also known as The War of the Roses (the book that begins this is The Lady of the Rivers.) Again, I knew next to nothing about this period in history but I can tell you as someone who has never been historically inclined that the English monarchy truly is fascinating, especially when told from the perspective of this author. So many plots and lies and deceptions, it is truly unreal! Really fun and easy to read and even though you know what is going to happen because you know who ended up king or queen in the end, the path to that station is by no means straight or narrow. The books offer a visible family tree and I did more research on my own as I read along; I just couldn’t help it. It was literally a war of cousins, each line descended from the Plantagenets and both feeling that their claim to the throne was the right claim. The white rose of York on one side and the red rose of Lancaster on the other, the two cadet branches scheming and warring against each other for the throne of England for much of the 1400’s. In my mind, I had this vision of the English throne being one of luxury and opulence, but in these times, it was quite the opposite. The kings and queens of this era were never truly safe and were constantly riding out to war (against their cousins, no less) to protect their claim. King Edward IV (the ruler during much of The Red Queen) had a few years of peace, but it came at a heavy price.
Philippa Gregory is a proponent of strong women, who are unfortunately much left out of the history books during this time period. She does extensive research and creates a fictional story around fact. The people are real, the main events are real, and the timeline is real. The author simply fills in the gaps. The Red Queen is a story told in tandem with The White Queen (also by Gregory). It is the same story told by two very different perspectives. I read The White Queen before The Red Queen, but you could also reverse it.
The Starz Network offered a television series produced by the BBC called The White Queen, which was based on a combination of several of Philppa Gregory’s novels, including The Red Queen. I watched it before I began reading the “Cousin’s War series” and fell in love with it very quickly, with one exception : Margaret Beaufort, heir to the House of Lancaster, wearer of the red rose, and the star of The Red Queen herself. The way she was portrayed on the television series was so completely annoying that I could barely stand her. She was ridiculously pious, incurably whiny, completely and utterly intolerable. I cringed every time she was focused on and couldn’t wait to get back to the scenes with the fascinating and beautiful White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville.
So, when it came time for me to chronologically read The Red Queen, I was almost dreading it. I was coming off The Lady of the Rivers and The White Queen which were so completely wonderful and interesting that the thought of spending a week with the dowdy and obnoxious Margaret Beaufort really had me feeling a bit down. But I had to power through. Once I commit to a series, I don’t stop until I’ve read them all. Upon retrospect, I think that Philippa Gregory wrote The White Queen in such a way as to be completely opposite of The Red Queen, to give you both sides of the coin. Elizabeth Woodville is blonde, tall and elegant, beautiful and strong. She was virtually a commoner before she became queen by marriage; her mother had royal blood in her but after her first husband died, Jaquetta de Luxembourg married a common man and had all of her children by him. Margaret Beaufort is brunette, plain, never taken seriously, and always pushed to the background. The one thing she had going for her was that she was royal by blood and as a result, very proud of her ancestral position. The two books weave in and out of each other, and you really shouldn’t read one without reading the other.
“I look at myself in the mirror before I go down to him, and I feel once again my fruitless irritation at the York queen. They say she has wide gray eyes, but I have only brown. They say she wears the tall, conical hats, sweeping with priceless veils that make her appear seven feet tall; and I wear a wimple like a nun. They say she has hair like gold, and mine is brown like a thick mane on a hill pony. I have trained myself in the holy ways, in life of the spirit, and she is filled with vanity. I am tall like her, and I am slim from fasting on holy days. I am strong and brave, and these should be qualities that a man of sense might look for in a woman.”
I began this book with very low expectations and it took me about 20-30 pages in before I was able to let go of them and begin to enjoy the story. It opens with Margaret’s childhood and explains how she is very anxious to be considered special in a world that does not believe any woman is worth anything besides giving birth to an heir. She decides the best way to achieve this is to throw herself into religion, praying to a perceived obscene amount and attributing each and everything in her life to the will of God. Her religious nature was not uncommon for the times, but Margaret was unique in that even when she knowingly did bad things on behalf of whatever reason she came up with, she would say it was “God’s will.” Her ends always justified her means, even when it came to murder.
“I am dizzy from fasting and praying, and I rub my knee where I knocked it. There is a wonderful roughness on the skin, and I put my hand down and pull up my nightgown to see both knees, and they are the same: roughened and red. Saints’ knees, praise God, I have saints’ knees. I have prayed so much, and on such hard floors, that the skin of my knees is becoming hard, like the callous on the finger of an English longbowman. I am not yet ten years old, but I have saints’ knees. This has got to count for something, whatever my old lady governess may say to my mother about excessive and theatrical devotion. I have saint’ knees. I have scuffed the skin of my knees by continual prayer; these are my stigmata: saints’ knees. Pray God I can meet their challenge and have a saint’s end too.”
Margaret is so dramatic that you expect it to be really annoying, but it ends up becoming quite charming and funny. It’s just her way. She so desperately wants to be named as important and she will do anything she can to get attention. Young Margaret yearns to be noticed and revered as much as a girl named Joan, who as it turns out, becomes Joan of Arc. I found it funny that this is much how The Lady of the Rivers begins (the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta), as Joan has been captured and is subsequently executed after spending time in the de Luxembourg household.
The book really gathers speed quickly. Margaret grows up to be married off to one of the two Tudor brothers (a line that came from quite the juicy scandal, of which I had no idea), and gives birth to the only Tudor (and Lancastrian) heir, Henry Tudor (the father of the famous Henry VIII). Henry is Margaret’s only child and her sole purpose in life becomes the job of getting her son to the throne of England; a throne that she believes has been stolen from him by the York line and subsequently, Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville. The plots Margaret devises and is involved in, along with her multiple husband’s and her brother-in-law, to get her son to the throne are underhanded, elaborate, and sometimes quite crazy, weaving a complicated tapestry of deceit and nefariousness that spans years. She believes she is up against a real live witch in Queen Elizabeth, which is something quite fascinating and may have been more true than Margaret actually believed. Some of the historical facts associated with Elizabeth (and her mother) are incredible in relation to witchcraft and sorcery. Margaret never can get over her jealousy of the White Queen, a jealousy that bleeds into the relationship she has with Elizabeth’s daughter…who, surprisingly enough, will eventually become Margaret’s daughter-in-law.
“I rise from my stool. This damned woman, this witch, has been in my light ever since I was a girl, and now, at this very moment when I am using her, using her own adoring family and loyal supporters to wrench the throne from her, to destroy her sons, she may yet win, she may have done something that will spoil everything for me. How does she always do it? How is it that when she is brought so low that I can even bring myself to pray for her, she manages to turn her fortunes around? It must be witchcraft; it can only be witchcraft. Her happiness and her success have haunted my life. I know her to be in league with the devil, for sure. I wish he would take her to hell.”
Again, Margaret was extremely pious, and while I found it nearly unbearable in the television series, I began to find humor in it in the book again and again, which is how I believe the author intended it to be. She will be plotting the deaths of someone and then justify it as an act of God, and the way it is written you really cannot take this woman seriously at all…but there is such a charm to this book that you want to keep reading. I found it most interesting and brilliant the way Philippa Gregory wove the mystery of “The Princes in The Tower” into Margaret’s story and the how the curse the York queen placed on the boy’s murderer ended up playing out. The apparent murder of the boys is horrific, and the fact that no one ever knew what happened to the two princes is fascinating.
You don’t want to root for Margaret because she is certainly not a heroine, but she’s also not quite a villain, and so you are left curious to see where her plotting is going to get her. Her perseverance and tenacity surprisingly brings her exactly to the day she’s always waited for – not only to see her son take the seat of the King of England, stealing it away from a witch and usurper, but also to be able to call herself “My Lady, the King’s Mother, Margaret Regina,” a title she’d been wanting to call herself for the majority of her life. She plays the long game, and she wins.
I would highly recommend The Red Queen, giving it 4 out of 5 stars, but I would only suggest reading this after The Lady of the Rivers and The White Queen…..and before you watch the series on Starz or Amazon Prime.
Amanda Hale as Lady Margaret Beaufort in the BBC production of The White Queen