The Red Queen

   Posted by: Julia Redlich   in

Philippa Gregory, The Red Queen.  Simon & Schuster, London, 2010,  rrp $39.99 (variable as different bookshops may have it on “special”), ISBN 978-184737-457-8 (hardback), ISBN 978-184737-458-5 (trade paperback)

The second book in Philippa Gregory’s series on the Cousins’ War switches from white rose to red and confronts the enigmatic mother of the Tudor dynasty, Margaret Beaufort.  I can’t help wondering how those who don’t have an abiding interest in medieval history are going to come to terms with a “heroine” who is so unlikeable.  I have encountered this problem talking to those who read The White Queen and who found that Elizabeth Woodville who appeared to answer all the requirements for a romantic wife and queen but behaved with such unexpected ruthlessness.

So it is with Margaret, a woman with tunnel vision regarding the House of Lancaster as God-given monarchs and her son, Henry Tudor, as the rightful heir.  There is nothing she will not do to ensure that her only child, the son of her first husband Edmund Tudor, will become king.

From her childhood Margaret’s piety was as steadfast as her loyalty to Lancastrian rule.  Visualising herself as another Joan of Arc riding into battle on a white horse, in shining armour, banners flying, she is as intent on making sure that the true king (in her eyes) sits on the English throne.  But it appeared to be beyond her because – as it was pointed out to her in no uncertain terms – it was her duty as an aristocratic daughter to wed and bed and produce heirs.

Her life was tumultuous, as the Yorkists and Lancastrians fought for supremacy.  The death of her first husband before the birth of her son when she was just 13 meant his upbringing was rapidly passed into the hands of others, her brother-in-law Jasper Tudor (who plays an interesting role in this novel), and then the kindly family of William Herbert, a former Lancastrian, now on the side of York.

She continues her crusade for her boy after she is married again, this time to the Duke of Buckingham’s second son, Sir Henry Stafford.  And what an interesting character is “the forgotten husband”, the one between Tudor and the treacherous Stanley, turns out to be.  Their marriage lasted for 13 years and, despite their clashes of opinion, here he shows he has the strength and wisdom to caution if not control her.

As York’s star is in the ascendant she exclaims “York is not called by God! York is not the senior line from Edward III … we are!”  To which Henry replies, “You understand nothing, Margaret …this is not a ballad or a tale, this is not a romance. This is a disaster that is costing the men and women of England every day …this is nothing to do with you, and God alone knows, nothing to do with Him.”

It is not until going to collect wounded Sir Henry from the battlefield of Barnet that she encounters the true horrors of war and its aftermath.

After Henry’s death, and after discovering that Anne Neville has acquired her next choice of husband in her stead, she contrives a marriage contract with Stanley – who tells her from the outset that his family are always on the winning side.  Now her hatred of all things connected to the House of York reaches its height and her schemes with all the usual suspects with whom we are familiar to ensure young Tudor’s success.  Everything – and everybody – must be removed from standing in her way.

It’s an intriguing journey (pun intended) well worth taking.  The author’s talent at explaining history in admittedly fictional terms must be acknowledged.  Probably more people know the background of the Tudors in the sixteenth century now thanks to her successful novels dealing with that time.  Now perhaps they will find the Plantagenets just as fascinating with Philippa Gregory’s imaginative – and mostly plausible – stories offering concepts and conclusions they never dreamed of.

Who will be next in line in the Cousins’ War series?  I, for one, will be waiting impatiently to find out.