Warrioresses of the Roses: White Queens and Red Queens

The Cousins’ War Series by Philippa Gregory

This War of the Roses...
It’s no secret that I like to learn something when I read. Maybe it’s residual Puritan guilt (“Idle hands are the devil’s tools”), or simply the chores on my never-ending to-do list calling my name, but I often have trouble convincing myself that it’s okay to sit down and read. It’s a little easier if the reading is teaching me new things. And historical quasi-nonfiction is one of my favorite ways to keep myself entertained while learning something at the same time. Bonus points when there’s romance and royal intrigue!

In April, I read Anya Seton’s Katherine while on vacation. Set in England during the late 1300s, it described the lifelong love affair between commoner Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, the son of King Edward III. Their story took place before their various descendants became embroiled in a nasty civil war with their cousins that we know today as the War of the Roses.

Not this one!
I couldn’t remember exactly who all the cousins were, what they fought about, and how John and Katherine’s great-great-grandson Henry Tudor walked away from the war as Henry VII. My interest in this era had already been rekindled, due to the recent discovery of Richard III’s remains in England, which had spawned discussions about what he looked like and whether he was really an evil tyrant. Unfortunately, historical records are few or nonexistent. So each new discovery potentially adds exciting (or not) details that increase our understanding of these people and events.

So I’d been looking around for ways to reacquaint myself with this era. Then voilá, Starz network debuted a new series called The White Queen, based on Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War books, which were exactly what I was looking for!

What struck me about these books right away is the strength of the female characters. I guess my first clue should have been that all the books are named after women. But that’s no guarantee they’ll be strong, interesting women who (at least attempt to) steer their own destinies, particularly when they lived in Medieval times. These women were indeed strong, as well as creative, clever, and independent thinkers.

After the jump, I’ll talk a little about these books, the role these very different women played, and why we still remember them, more than 500 years later.

Some spoilers ahead for those who didn’t pay attention in history class!

Family Feud: Medieval British Style

If you think your family is dysfunctional, wait until you get to know the Plantagenets! Lying, cheating, backstabbing, adultery, illegitimate offspring, murder, mayhem...all in an ordinary day for these folks. Being a (surviving) member of this royal British family was not for the faint of heart.

Planta genista (Source)
The first Plantagenet King of England was crowned Henry II in 1154. Through his mother, Henry II was the great-grandson of William the Conquerer, whose French-Norman army defeated the Anglo-Saxon king at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Henry II’s father was Geoffrey of Anjou, who wore a yellow flower in his hat from the French broom (genista) plant. So he was nicknamed Plantagenet (“planta genista”), and that’s how the family got its name. The last Plantagenet king was Richard III, who died in 1485 without an heir, and left the door open for the Tudors to slip in.

Whether actual Plantagenet blood ran in the veins of every Plantagenet king is the subject of debate. It’s a convoluted family tree and rumors abound. But I think we can all agree that the hat from which they drew baby names could have used a few more choices. The genealogy chart below, full of Edwards and Georges and Henrys and Richards, shows the main players in the War of Roses — who were all descended from two of King Edward III’s sons.

From The White Princess

Here’s how they became the Lancasters, Beauforts, Yorks, and Tudors.
  • The oldest son, Edward the Black Prince, died before his father. After his father died, Edward’s son became Richard II and then died without an heir, so his line died out.
  • The second son of Edward III was John of Gaunt. He was the wealthiest, most powerful man in the European Medieval world who was never actually crowned as king, though several of his descendants were.
    • The Lancasters ― John married (and apparently loved) the beautiful, beloved, and ill-fated Blanche of Lancaster, and became the first Duke of Lancaster. Their descendants became the Lancaster branch of the family, their son succeeded Richard II as Henry IV, and his son and grandson succeeded him as Henrys V and VI.
    • The Beauforts ― John had a lifelong affair with Katherine Swynford. (He also married Spanish royalty and produced an heir to a Spanish throne, but we won’t get into that. Busy man.) In the final years of his life, he married Katherine. He legitimized their children and gave them the name Beaufort. They became the Beaufort branch of the Lancasters, and some of their descendants became the Tudor monarchs.
  • The Yorks ― The third son of Edward III was Edmund. His father made him the first Duke of York, and his descendants became the York branch of the family. They eventually included kings Edward IV and Richard III, and some of their descendants became the Tudor monarchs.

The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the two brothers, though raised together as cousins, ended up fighting each other over who should be king. At the time, it was called the Cousins’ War. But we have come to know it as the War of the Roses, because of the family emblems.

Lancaster Red Rose York White Rose

What started the War of the Roses?
Henry VI was not mentally capable of leading the country. According to witnesses, he was catatonic or “asleep” for months at a time, and when he was coherent he was praying in solitude. His various family members went to great lengths to hide his inability to lead the country, until they could produce an heir or maneuver their own candidate into position to take his place. Eventually, the original Duke of York’s grandson Richard, the current Duke of York, led an armed rebellion when he realized Henry could not rule. He tried successively to remove Henry’s advisers and punish them as traitors, which technically kept him from being considered a traitor himself, to rule with Henry, and to depose Henry.

Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
from The White Queen
The war raged for years. It bankrupted and ravaged both England and France. (A number of the battles were fought in France, where the English were attempting to wrest lands and power away from the French king.) The line of succession changed multiple times as the families traded victories back and forth and potential heirs were killed, dishonored, or disinherited.

The Yorks won round 1, but the Duke of York died fighting, so his son was crowned as Edward IV. He married Elizabeth Woodville, the titular “white queen” of the books and TV series. His chief advisor, mentor, and military leader, known as “The Kingmaker,” then turned against him. Edward had to defend his crown against one of his brothers as well as the Lancasters, his young sons disappeared without a trace, and his other brother seized power illegally after his death.

How did Henry Tudor end up on the throne?
The women in these books, most notably the “white queen” and the “red queen,” had a lot to do with it. Though not the most direct choice, Henry Tudor was one of the few claimants left alive by the end of the war. He was a Beaufort (Lancaster) and he married the York “white princess” to legitimize his claim, produce a mutual heir, and reunite the families, as symbolized by the new family emblem. Without the persistence and hard work of the women in these books, the war would have gone on and on.

Why is that noteworthy?
Women born into the aristocracy, particularly a royal family, had little to say about whom they would marry and what they would do with their lives. It was their family duty to marry whomever they were told to, to further the family fortune or influence. Royal girls were nothing but a big blank check with a bow on it for their greedy, grasping family patriarch. Those with the best bloodlines (or the greediest parents) were betrothed as infants. (Sometimes the contract allowed the future husband’s family to keep her property if she died before the marriage. Unsurprisingly, those girls often failed to reach puberty. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?) Other young girls and many widows were presented at court to the King, who would assign them a husband, often from the crop of portly, aging widowers currently plying him for favors. Girls could be fined, banned from Court, shunned by society, disowned by their families, or killed for protesting.

The women in these books bucked tradition. Sometimes by putting love above riches and power. Always by refusing to let men control their destinies and those of their children...at least not without a good fight! So let’s take a closer look.

The Women Behind the Throne

Katherine Swynford (Lancaster/Beaufort)

Why do we remember her? Her royal lover married her and bestowed “respectability,” noble titles, and wealth on their children, who eventually begat the Tudor dynasty.

Orphaned at an early age and raised by nuns, Katherine was the daughter of a knight, which seems to have been the lowest rung on the society ladder with whom any royal personages would associate. Fortunately for this commoner, her sister was a lady in waiting to Blanche of Lancaster, who invited Katherine to court. Also fortunately for her, she was beautiful. Even though she had no dowry, she married a knight, became Lady Swynford, and managed her husband’s country manor and lands while he was away fighting. After her husband died, and despite being devoutly religious, Katherine began an affair with John of Gaunt that lasted the rest of their lives. [Show more/less...]

There was a hiatus in their relationship during his unhappy, second marriage to Constance of Castile, though he did continue to provide for their children. (The separation was probably to appease his wife, whom he married to help her family regain the throne of Castile and to inject Plantagenet genes into yet another royal bloodline.) When he was again a widower, at the age of 56, John finally married Katherine, legitimized their children, and gave them a name and titles. This was practically unheard of at the time, a brave and brash thing to do, though he did wait until most of the people who objected were dead.

Jacquetta Woodville (Lancaster)

Why do we remember her? Mother of the “white queen," she served as “first lady" (after the queen) in both Lancaster and York courts.

A member of the royal House of Luxembourg on her mother’s side, the women in Jacquetta’s family are said (in Real Life!) to be descendants of the water goddess Melusina and have the gift of Sight. The author had some fun weaving this historical tidbit into the storylines! As a teen, Jacquetta married the aging Duke of Bedford (brother to king Henry V) and lived in France. He left his extensive library of hand-crafted books to her, and she probably passed down her intellectual curiosity and love of reading to her children. After he died, she scandalously married his squire, Sir Robert Woodville, before King Henry VI could assign her a new husband. [Show more/less...]

The king eventually forgave Jacquetta, after taking a sizable chunk of her wealth back, and gave her husband the title of Baron Rivers. They tried to raise their approximately 14 children in the tranquility of her modest country manor, but her husband was often stationed overseas protecting the king’s interests, and she was often called to the Lancaster court, where she became the confidante of the unpopular Queen Margaret of Anjou.

When the Lancaster army was defeated by Edward IV, her husband shifted the family’s loyalty to the Yorks as a condition of surrender. Eventually, Jacquetta’s oldest daughter married Edward IV, perhaps with a little help from her mother’s special skills?!? The entire family lived at the York court, where Jacquetta remained close to her daughter and a constant thorn in the side of anyone who opposed her family’s rise to power and popularity. It was widely speculated that she was a witch, able to “whistle up” windstorms and floods to deter armies, and her enemies charged her as such, but she managed to outlive most of them.

The Medieval Wheel of Fortune was prominently featured in Jacquetta’s story as a symbol of constantly changing luck and circumstances. The women in these books were well aware that the same wheel that lifted them up would keep turning, would as easily take them down, perhaps more than once. They did their best to steer their own course and fortunes, to prepare for the downturns, perhaps take their enemies down with them; even so, they had only limited control. One thing this series impressed upon me was how tenuous the wealth and property holdings of the noble classes were. They didn’t earn these in what we think of as traditional jobs, since they were too hoity-toity to engage in *gasp* “professions.” All their fortunes and titles were given to them by the king. And every time they pissed off the king or backed the wrong king, they lost all their stuff.

Juicy Plantagenet gossip ― Jacquetta wasn’t the only mother of royal offspring to marry beneath her. The widow of Henry V married the master of the wardrobe, Owen Tudor, for which she was eventually locked away in a nunnery in disgrace. One of their sons was Edmund Tudor, who married the “red queen” (who wasn’t a queen, by the way) and fathered Henry Tudor. So really, the Tudors seem heavily descended from liaisons that the Lancaster men and their wives had, which were perhaps “legal” but certainly unsanctioned, with commoners outside the bounds of their royal marriages.

Margaret of Anjou (Lancaster)

Why do we remember her? Henry VI’s Queen of England, she scandalously requested political power, and assembled and led armies in support of her husband’s reign.

Margaret was definitely a force to be reckoned with during this period of time, even though she did not get her own book. We learn the most about her in Jacquetta’s book, because they were friends and confidantes for many years.

Sent to England as a young bride, the deck was decidedly stacked against Margaret. First of all, she was French, and the English hated the French. She also seemed spoiled and imperious. Ultimately, a lot came to rest on her young shoulders, and she proved to be an ardent and active supporter of her husband. [Show more/less...]

When she realized her husband was not well, she went to great lengths to hide and treat his illness, defend his authority, and produce an heir (who was, of course, rumored not to be the king’s son). When people realized Henry VI couldn’t rule, she scandalously asked to be appointed Regent in his place, to protect her young son’s fortune and throne until he came of age. Parliament appointed the Duke of York instead. Refusing to be swept aside as a mere woman, she fought York for power. She raised armies of French soldiers to fight for the Lancaster cause.

The Yorks hated Margaret for not having the grace to know her place and get out of their way. The Lancasters didn’t trust her French army, and of course there were rumors about whether her son (another Edward, if you’re keeping track) was qualified by blood or by temperament to be king. (His reported bloodthirstiness at a young age brings Joffrey Baratheon to mind.) As a woman in a position of power in Medieval England, she practiced a new brand of hands-on, proactive queening that either scared or offended practically everyone. And she taught a little of her ruthless perspective — do anything you have to, to support your family — to the young Anne Neville, who was under her tutelage for a while.

Elizabeth Woodville (Lancaster, then York)

Why do we remember her? Edward IV’s Queen of England, whom he married for love (or lust, as the case may be). She orchestrated the marriage between her daughter, Princess Elizabeth of York, and Henry Tudor, after her young sons disappeared in the Tower of London.

The daughter of Jacquetta and her “lowly” husband, Elizabeth was another woman of “inferior” bloodlines who was lucky enough to be drop-dead gorgeous. She married and bore two sons, but was widowed at a young age, and her mother-in-law stole her property. So she asked a young Edward IV for assistance, and he was smitten. Though he had the reputation of a shameless playboy, and she was several years older than him, he married her in secret, and then actually claimed her publicly as his wife when he was supposed to marry a French princess. [Show more/less...]

Their marriage was a rare royal love match, but it turned many of his followers against him. Edward’s own right-hand man and mentor, “The Kingmaker” Earl of Warwick, raised armies to kick him off the throne because he dared make his own decisions. Many accused Elizabeth of using sorcery, for how else could a commoner enrapture a king? Others were angry that the Rivers family members, quite a large family if you’ll remember, were grabbing all the eligible marriage partners, lands, and titles.

But Elizabeth was a savvy queen, who protected her family and furthered their interests despite all the political highs and lows. Her two young sons, the York heirs, disappeared from the Tower of London — to this day, we are not sure what happened to them, whether they were murdered and by whom. But she remained politically active throughout her life, and her oldest daughter emerged from the War of the Roses as the Queen of England and bore the heir to the Tudor throne, due in very large part to her mother’s cleverness and hard work.

Margaret Beaufort (Lancaster/Tudor)

Why do we remember her? Henry Tudor’s mother, she spent her entire long life scheming to put him on the throne and keep him there.

Extremely religious, this woman wanted to be a nun. Her biographers tend to praise her piety, but I’d describe her primarily as ambitious. Her family married her off at the age of 12 to Edmund Tudor, who did not wait for her to grow up a little, as was customary for child brides, but immediately set about getting her pregnant. He promptly died in battle, leaving her alone to suffer through an extremely difficult birth that left her traumatized, most likely frigid, and unable to conceive more children. She then spent her entire life and fortune trying to get her son on the throne and, once she succeeded, lorded it over everyone and practically wallowed in her own sense of self-entitlement. [Show more/less...]

Margaret married twice more, both times for purely political purposes. She proactively negotiated her second marriage, at the age of 13, in order to protect herself and her son’s financial interests, since she was a “helpless” woman who was not legally allowed to manage her own affairs. She plotted relentlessly with rebels for decades to overthrow the York king, despite serving for years in the York court, but somehow she kept her head attached. At one point, all her personal wealth was given to her husband, and she was held under house arrest, but she never gave up.

Once her son became king, Margaret was his closest advisor ― they had their own private parlor in every residence. She demanded that everyone refer to her grandiosely as My Lady The King’s Mother, lived in the queen’s apartments, and looked down her nose at everyone who’d ever supported any other king. In the books, women nicknamed her Madonna Margaret of the Unending Self-Congratulation. She was an absolute mother-in-law from hell to her son’s wife. But she was certainly effective at getting things done. She ultimately outlived just about everyone and saw her family’s future on the throne solidified.

I had very mixed feelings about this woman. For the most part, I really could not stand her. But after reading a biographical essay, I understood a little better why she seemed so cold and calculating. She went through some really horrendous stuff as a young child, so my sympathy has somewhat tempered my original feelings, but she’s still difficult for me to like. She was smart and cunning and tenacious, a brilliant political strategist who excelled at forming and dissolving alliances, but also self-righteous in the extreme. She justified all her actions, no matter how ethically questionable, by believing they were what God wanted. (And how convenient that God’s will was always so closely aligned with the interests of her and her family. Her reasoning sounded a lot like what Henry VIII used a few years later.)

Anne Neville (York, then Lancaster, then York)

Why do we remember her? Richard III’s Queen of England, and the daughter of the Earl of Warwick. She was also briefly married to the Lancaster heir to the throne, Edward Prince of Wales, who was killed in battle.

Anne was the second daughter of the Earl of Warwick, known as The Kingmaker. He helped put Edward IV on the throne and then tried to unseat him with two other kings; he wasn’t very picky which family he aligned with, as long as he could be the power behind the throne and ultimately seat one of his descendants there. So Anne served as a pawn in her dad’s game. Her older sister Isabelle married Edward’s brother George, and Anne expected to marry Edward’s other brother Richard, whom she had befriended in the York court. But Warwick tried to put George on the throne, and when that didn’t work out, Warwick married Anne off to the Lancaster heir, Margaret of Anjou’s son Edward, and joined them in plotting an attack against the Yorks. When that didn’t work out, Anne found herself widowed and fatherless, with no male relative to protect her interests. But Margaret of Anjou had taught Anne that women could play important political roles, and Anne decided to take more control over her own destiny.[Show more/less...]

She married Edward IV’s brother Richard, though the fact that he (and his brothers) then stole her mother’s wealth suggests it wasn’t primarily a love match. He eventually proclaimed himself Richard III, so she did fulfill her father’s dream of becoming Queen of England. However, Richard’s reign was short and strife-ridden, since he basically stole the throne from the nephews he was supposed to be safeguarding, those princes who disappeared. Anne’s only son died young and so did she, maybe of a broken heart.

The frustrations she endured as a result of her gender and family, and her inability to rise completely above them, were sad. But they were typical of the time, except that she was a little higher up the royal ladder than most. Being the daughter of Warwick, and admiring him as most daughters couldn’t help but do, her POV was a little disconcerting. I often wondered whether I should reread The White Queen because I’d somehow not noticed what awful people Elizabeth Woodville and her family were, but then I’d remember this was just Warwick’s influence coloring the lens through which Anne viewed his competitors.

Elizabeth of York (York/Tudor)

Why do we remember her? Henry VII’s Queen of England, she gave birth to Henry VIII to establish the Tudor dynasty, and thereby ended the War of the Roses. Since the war was over, her son the future king Henry VIII would be freed up to pick a fight with the Pope.

You have to feel for this poor gal. The beautiful oldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was much tossed about by the changing tides of war. She lived as pampered princess, refugee with a price on her head, and illegitimate commoner, switching status with little warning, depending on the outcome of the battles. She was engaged to Henry Tudor at an early age, thanks to a bargain struck between their mothers. [Show more/less...]

That meant she had to live with his mother, Margaret Beaufort, who hated her and whom she was absolutely terrified of. When the Lancaster army lost that battle, Elizabeth was sent to live in the court of her uncle Richard III, who seized power from her young brother, the rightful heir. There was much scandal around their apparently brazen romantic relationship in his court. It is unclear whether Elizabeth loved Richard, but this book postulates that perhaps he was merely using her to antagonize her fiance.

When (what they thought was) the final battle of the War of the Roses was fought, it was generally acknowledged that Elizabeth would marry the winner to reunite the warring factions, and that just happened to be Henry Tudor. He tried long and hard to weasel out of his marriage agreement, but was forced to marry Elizabeth in order to legitimize his indirect, debatable claim on the throne. And his treatment of her was somewhat ruthless at this point, for which I was ready to single-handedly jump in and end the Tudor line myself. Nevertheless, many historians say they grew to love each other deeply. Maybe that will be covered in the next book, because I didn’t see much affection in this one, though there were a few glimmers. (He grew up in exile, had a tenuous claim on the throne, mistrusted all his wife’s relatives, and his mother had all the warmth of that iceberg the Titanic would one day run into. So he had a few emotional obstacles to overcome.)

The Tudors are painted in a dreadfully unflattering light in these books, and if what this author speculates actually did happen, they had no right to be on the throne. I’m not sure we’ll ever know the answers to some of our questions about this period in history. In the meantime I begin to see where Henry VIII got some of his ridiculous ideas about women and sons, and I see where Queen Elizabeth I got her cunning, tenacity, and intelligence.

 Margaret of Pole, Countess of Salisbury (York/Tudor)

Gregory plans one more book in the series, The Last Rose, which will focus on Margaret Pole. She was the daughter of Edward IV’s brother George, the one who couldn’t decide whether to support Edward or steal the throne from him while he was still alive. As such, she was one of only two 16th-century women who held a title in her own right rather than through marriage, the other being Anne Boleyn. She was also a potential figurehead around whom opponents of Henry Tudor could rally, so Henry married her off to one of his Tudor cousins to keep her out of the way. [Show more/less...]

Her story is intertwined with that of Elizabeth of York, and they spent much of their early lives together. A devoutly religious woman and supporter of Henry VIII’s oldest, Catholic daughter Mary, Margaret was eventually beheaded by him and beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. I expect this book to provide a detailed glimpse into Henry VIII’s court and his volatile relationship with representatives of the Pope. And that should take readers right up to the events and people Philippa Gregory has written about in her Tudor Court series.

About the Cousins’ War Books

The books in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series describe events during the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII. Each book is told from the POV of a different woman. Many of the same events are described, but with different interpretations and repercussions, as the perspective shifts among families with opposing goals. I’ve discussed these women in roughly chronological order, but the author actually wrote them and I read them in this order:
  1. The White Queen - Elizabeth Woodville
  2. The Red Queen - Margaret Beaufort
  3. The Lady of the Rivers - Jacquetta Woodville
  4. The Kingmaker’s Daughter - Anne Neville
  5. The White Princess - Elizabeth of York
  6. The Last Rose (due out in 2014) - Margaret Pole

Goodreads suggests the books be read in the order I described the women, with Jacquetta’s book first, but I am not sure I agree. The fact that the books jump around in time a little seemed odd to me at first, but looking back I think this ensured I was familiar with all the background needed to understand each new POV that was introduced. I am not sure I would have been able to fully understand the various political situations and battles described in book 3 if I had not already read about them in greater detail in the first two books of the series. I thought the author actually made the odd chronology of the series work beautifully! She did a masterful job of weaving together the many complex political intrigues and plots and battles and shifting loyalties, from ever-changing points in time and points of view, to craft a smooth, orderly tale that I am not convinced would work as well in chronological order.

I enjoyed these books. They were easy to read, despite the daunting cast of names and titles. The stories were engaging and well paced, the narrative flowed smoothly, and it was pretty easy to keep track of everything that was going on.

The purist in me is a bit reluctant to embrace all the “supposing” that the author engaged in ― there is a lot of fiction in these books. But I respect the decisions she made to craft a story that is compelling enough to keep our interest. She did a lot of research to assist her in figuring out how the characters must have felt and behaved, what motivated them. She did a good job of turning skimpy, dry historical records into real, vibrant people and events that are now clearly etched into my memory. She managed to teach me a whole lot of history in a romantic adventure tale.

Before bidding these intriguing ladies a final goodbye, I decided to follow up with a book Philippa Gregory put together of biographical essays about three of them. In historical series, I’m always interested in which events and scenes are “real,” which are speculation, and what the author knew that caused her to write speculative scenes the way she did. The Women of the Cousins' War answers some of those questions. In it, Philippa Gregory writes an introduction about the role of women in Medieval times and why it is so hard to find historical records for them. She also includes an essay about Jacquetta Woodville, for whom no biography exists. Two historians include essays on women for whom they have written biographies: David Baldwin on Elizabeth Woodville and Michael Jones on Margaret Beaufort.

Backwards and in Ridiculous Hats

The women portrayed in these books were remarkable because somehow they, or the effects of their actions, managed to earn a footnote in the sparse historical records that have come down to us. In their stories, we get an intimate look at life during a difficult time through the eyes of a gender that had to be a little sneakier, a little more clever, and a lot more subtle than their male counterparts if they wanted to influence the events shaping their lives.


Each of these women had detractors, who labeled them with vile charges of witch, “manly,” or traitor, most likely due to their active involvement in things “best left to men.” Women who thought for themselves and impacted historical events in observable ways were mistrusted and feared. Women like these refused to sit quietly in some dark parlor sewing, getting buffeted about by the political winds without a fight. They spoke up and took action, defended and furthered the interests of their children, family, and feudal dependents, and paved the way for things to come.

Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I
By the time Henry VIII’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth ascended the throne, he had changed the law to decree that, in the unlikely event he ran out of male heirs, his blood should take precedence over gender in determining whose head to place the crown on. (It’s not like the Tudors had left many male contenders alive for future consideration.) And after Elizabeth turned out to be one of the most highly regarded monarchs ever, it was pretty hard to argue that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to inherit and rule in her own right as a leader of men. (Though they did argue, and only in 2011 did British law change so that a first-born female inherits the crown over a younger male sibling.)

I found many of the traditions forced on women to be not only stupid, maddening, and degrading, but deeply puzzling ― especially the idea of confinement for 6 weeks before and after childbirth in complete darkness with no men around. Can you imagine??? As if giving birth in a cold, stone castle without benefit of basic hygiene or anesthesia isn’t scary enough!?! And then there’s the idea that the new mother had to be “churched” (cleansed of the sin of childbirth) before she could come in contact with any man or the general public again.

There’s nothing at all romantic to me about the lives of women in Medieval times. Yet I find myself fascinated to imagine what it might have been like to live then ― especially as a woman with enough means to have some options ― and to live vicariously through the women in these books. Loathe or admire them, I’m sure glad I’m not them, and I do give them many points for style, grace (well maybe not one of them, ha!), vision, and courage.

And so in closing...here’s a toast to all strong-minded women, then and now, who never stop striving to realize their grandest dreams and chart a brave course through these treacherous waters of Life. May your cousins always be trustworthy, your shoes comfortable and very stylish, and the Wheel of Fortune firmly gripped in your own two hands.

So, Saucy Readers, are any of you fans of these books? Have you been watching the TV series? Have you read any of Philippa Gregory's other historical novels, or do you have other favorite historical authors? I hope you'll share your comments below.

* gifs from tumblr.com and fuckyeahreactions


  1. I loved this post Kathi.

    So much so I've added the first book to my tbr to give them a try. I enjoy reading about the War of the Roses and especially trying to figure out what really happened to the two nephews of Richard III. The only other Gregory book I've read is The Constant Princess and I enjoyed it. The Sunne in the Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman covers the life of Richard III and doesn't paint him in such a villainous light, so it will be interesting to see how Gregory has portrayed him. It was lovely reading you post as a lot of the time I was nodding my head, going that's right, that's what happened, so it was a wonderful refresher for me as well.

    1. Thanks, Angela, I'm so glad you enjoyed it! You get a gold star just for reading it, ha ha! Once I go started, I couldn't believe how much there was to say….

      Gregory's theory about what happened to the nephews is interesting. It factors heavily into the books. I'd love to hear your reaction after you read the books, since you have studied these folks more than I have and probably seen lots of theories. (Hers aren't shocking, just sad.) She also does not write Richard as much of a tyrant. I just finished watching the TV series a few nights back, after I'd written the post, and it portrayed his wife Anne as more proactive in encouraging his controversial actions than the books did. I'm so curious about what really happened, and I'm surprised at how bad the Tudors look in all this. My history teachers must have skimped over this period, as I remember mostly the Shakespeare versions of the characters.

      Look forward to hearing how you like the books. By themselves, I wouldn't rate them as highly, but collectively they tell the story very well.

  2. I've always liked Gregory's books, but haven't tackled these yet. Richard III kind of fascinates me, though, so I should. I really like how the author takes the basis of fact, but then interprets the facts to develop the characters and their motivations, etc. True or not, it makes an interesting read and makes you question what comes down to us in the history books, given that history tends to be written by the "winners."

    1. That's such a great way to put it, Veronica. History is indeed written by the winners. I didn’t really question history books much until I realized how varied the reports of our own modern day events are, how they sound completely different when reported by different media outlets, depending on sources or agendas. Gregory made a very good case against Richard III murdering the boys in the Tower (if one or both were murdered…I am not giving away her theories here) by explaining how others would have had more to gain and got “the last word” after Richard died. I have a lot of respect for the hard work Gregory did sifting through all the details and fleshing out the story. I’ve read and promptly forgotten a lot of dry historical novels, but Gregory brings the characters to life so vividly that they become real people who are unforgettable to me.

    2. I love what you are saying Kathi "History is indeed written by the winners." I can just imagine how much research is required in order to get take a viewpoint on what an author thinks might really have happened. It's hard to say with Richard regarding the murder of the boys. I believe he was aware of the situation - whether they were murdered or simply neglected, so it will be intriguing to see what Gregory thinks.

  3. I've always liked Gregory's books, but haven't tackled these yet. Richard III kind of fascinates me, though, so I should. I really like how the author takes the basis of fact, but then interprets the facts to develop the characters and their motivations, etc. True or not, it makes an interesting read and makes you question what comes down to us in the history books, given that history tends to be written by the "winners."

  4. Great post! I am watching currently The White Queen, the T.V. Series. Enjoying it very much, Anya Seton's Book Katherine is waiting it's turn.

    1. Thanks, Merit! I hope you enjoy the rest of the show and the books. I'm hoping they do a season 2 to finish the story in the books.


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