Review: The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

This is the last book in The Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory, which began with The White Queen. It is set in England during the reigns of the Tudor Henrys VII and VIII. The War of the Roses has ended, and the story centers on a pious noblewoman whom most of us have never heard of—Margaret Pole—who lives a low-profile life watching after royal children and managing her crop harvests. All the trappings of a snoozy end to the series, right?? WRONG!!

The York and Lancaster cousins might not be fighting each other, but that doesn’t mean folks get along. Now it’s the Tudors against the Plantagenets—the Yorks and Lancasters have decided to fight on the same team. And Margaret, as the Countess of Salisbury, is one of only two women in England who holds a title and property in her own right. The other is Anne Boleyn, who will famously forfeit her assets. Will Margaret fare better than Anne?

If you are unfamiliar with Margaret Pole—even though you loved your British history class—you’re not alone. I was in the same boat, but it’s easy to see why historians overlook her. Her story reminds me of a popular bumper sticker: Well behaved women don’t make history. I think that sometimes maybe they do, but they don’t get credit for it.

After the jump, my review is semi-spoilery but tries not to give away anything important. The early books in this series have been adapted for television as The White Queen by Starz and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Starz currently has a second season in production.

For a refresher on the earlier books in the series, and who was fighting whom for what in the War of the Roses, you can check out my previous post, The Women of the War of the Roses. (If you don't want spoilers for this book, you should not click the Show more link for Margaret Pole.)

Last of a long and illustrious line

Margaret Pole was born Margaret Plantagenet of York, and by the time she reached adulthood, she was one of the few surviving members of the royal Plantagenet dynasty. (The pre-release title for this book was The Last Rose.) As the niece of Edward IV (who was married to the White Queen) and Richard III, she grew up at court. Her father was George Plantagenet of York, the Duke of Clarence, who plotted with and against his brother, Edward IV. Her mother was Isabelle Neville, the daughter of “The Kingmaker” Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, who helped Edward IV gain the throne and then tried to depose him. Isabelle died in childbirth when Margaret was only three years old.

From The King’s Curse

Though her parents and cousins were notoriously wishy-washy with their political loyalties, Margaret was steadfastly loyal to her family and to the people and causes she served throughout her lifetime. As the plotting and paranoia wore on, her situation became somewhat precarious and unpredictable. Her father and other relatives were executed as traitors, and after her uncle Richard III was defeated on the battlefield, her last name became a potentially hazardous asset. She was married off at a young age to Henry VII’s lowly but honorable distant relative, Sir Richard Pole, for the purpose of removing her forever from the political arena.

Margaret’s brother was not so lucky. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London, then executed as a condition of a royal marriage between Henry VII’s heir and Katherine of Aragon. Basically, the Tudors stole the throne via treason and murder battle, and they remained ever vigilant against potential rivals. Anyone with Plantagenet blood might become a political figurehead for a dissatisfied populace, so Plantagenets had to be killed or politically neutered. Since Edward IV’s sons disappeared from the Tower of London (quite possibly by the hand of the Tudors), and his brother Richard III had no surviving sons, Margaret’s brother was a legitimate Plantagenet heir to the throne. And the Spanish wanted to ensure they were selling their daughter off to a stable Tudor throne.

Unknown woman believed to be
Margaret Pole,
Countess of Salisbury, 1535
Fortunately for Margaret, marriage was the easiest way to neuter a female. She would become the property of her husband and presumably be too busy raising children to make political waves. And this worked beautifully for a while. Margaret’s marriage doesn’t appear to have been a love match, but Richard Pole seems to have been a good husband who kept her safely hidden. He died when she was about 30, though, and left her very little income. For a time, she could not support her family and had to take extraordinary measures.

After Henry VIII became King, Parliament restored much of Margaret’s family property (which Henry VII had confiscated) and granted her family’s title to her in her own right (since her brother was dead). Suitors were suddenly interested in her, but she never remarried. Just guessing, but she probably rather liked being master of her own fate, especially now that it involved extensive properties and wealth. Her oldest son became the Earl of Montague. She arranged prosperous marriages for most of her children and “gave” one son to the Church. She had friends, relatives, and a respected position at court. The sun was shining on her family’s fortunes again. But if you know anything at all about Henry VIII, you know that things at court could always change. Drastically. Without discernible provocation. And without notice.

Medieval wheel of fortune

What goes up must go down, spinning wheel got to go round

Margaret was the cousin and confidante of the series’s White Princess, Elizabeth York, who was Henry VII’s queen. I still didn’t see a lot of romance between this royal couple. He seemed perpetually paranoid and self-seeking, and his mother Margaret Beaufort (the series’s Red Queen, who was a queen only in her own mind) was always manipulating things from (not very far) behind the scenes. But Margaret Pole stayed close to her cousin until Elizabeth’s untimely death, and enjoyed caring for her young nephews, the princes Arthur and Harry. She later managed the royal household for Arthur, Prince of Wales, and befriended Katherine of Aragon when she arrived as a young bride for Arthur. After Arthur’s premature death, Margaret continued to serve Henry VII’s court in whatever capacity she was asked. She and Katherine were jerked around for years while the King considered various schemes and alliances.

During the reign of Henry VIII, Margaret and her family became important figures at court again. Two sons were close friends of the King. Another was in Rome performing religious research on behalf of the King. Margaret served as Queen Katherine’s lady in waiting and remained her close personal friend until her death. She also cared for and befriended Princess Mary. Once Katherine failed to produce a viable male heir, Margaret’s standing at court fluctuated along with the fortunes of Katherine and Mary, which changed at the whim of Henry VIII. Margaret opposed Henry’s attempts to end his first marriage and considered Anne Boleyn a vulgar commoner, which did not go over well with Henry, so she left the court to manage her properties—quite successfully. But that made it harder for her to keep up with and influence Henry’s increasingly questionable judgment.

Margaret was haunted by the spectre of the Tower of London throughout her life. So many of her family members died there, some simply because of their name. She was extremely cautious and taught her children to be the same: Always keep a low profile, never leave any evidence, and never publicly disagree with the King, even when he seemingly loses his mind, claims his first marriage and child are illegitimate, and places himself above the Pope as the head of the Church. Though she strongly opposed the dismantling of the Church, any actions she might have undertaken in its defense were covert. She remained the soul of discretion and loyalty.

Now that you know a little about Margaret and where she fits into the gigantic jigsaw puzzle that is British royal history, I’ll let you read the details of her fascinating story for yourself. But if you’re familiar with her story or just impatient to find out more, you can click this link for some spoilery comments about the way things turn out. Warning: Contains spoilers!! [Show more/less...]

Ultimately, Margaret and her family were not able to avoid the clutches of Thomas Cromwell (who himself was executed before this story was done) and the ravages of Henry’s paranoia. Interestingly, her family was betrayed by one of her sons, but never officially charged with a crime. What finally sealed their doom was that another of Margaret’s sons, Reginald, who was a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church (and later served as Archbishop of Canterbury for Queen Mary), refused to sanction the dissolution of Henry’s first marriage—and they were his family, and they were Plantagenets. Margaret Pole was Henry VIII’s oldest victim in the Tower. She was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1886 as a martyr to her faith and is known as Margaret Pole, the Blessed.

Some thoughts on issues and themes

Women wage war with style

I love how these books show us the different styles that these fascinating women used to change the course of history: brazenly by leading armies, mystically by casting spells, sexually by seducing kings, sneakily via spies and smuggled messages, spiritually via prayer, invisibly via proxy...their ways were as varied as their personalities, the situations in which they found themselves, and the tools they had at hand.

Margaret kept a low profile and did not aspire to things that her family wasn’t legally entitled to by birth. She remained true to her family and religious beliefs. She even remained loyal to the King, praying for him and seeking better advisors for him, always believing that the loving, precocious little boy she helped to raise could be redeemed from the greedy, delusional, self-indulgent tyrant he had become. She wanted her family to fare well, but she taught her sons that they had a greater duty to God and the King before family. As portrayed in these books, she plotted and prayed to bring about change peacefully.

Permissive parenting comes back to bite you

Margaret spoiled her youngest son, Geoffrey, and kept him with her until adulthood. Unlike his siblings, he wasn’t raised by strangers, he didn’t grapple with loneliness and deprivation, and he didn’t have to make his own way in the world. In the long run, he did not live up to the high standards expected of him, not because he was a bad person but because he was weak and untested, though he did feel very bad about it. But any unit is only as strong as its weakest link, and in treacherous times every link is tested exploited.

Elizabeth of York spoiled her son Henry because he wasn’t the royal heir. She didn’t teach him skills like discipline and patience. (Because only kings need those skills?!? *eyeroll*) In the book, when her oldest son Arthur died, Elizabeth worried that Henry’s permissive upbringing might not have been good training for a future King, and Margaret often observed Henry VIII reacting to disappointment and tragedy like a spoiled child rather than a grieving adult. His powerful position allowed his fits of pique to wreak considerably more havoc than the average juvenile temper tantrum. Yet at a certain point, the author believes Henry’s behavior became indicative of a deeper problem.

One curse or another (I'm gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha)

Henry VIII in his prime
The legend is that Jacquetta Woodville, mother of the White Queen, was a descendant of a water goddess who had mystical powers, which she passed along to her female descendants. According to this book, the White Queen decreed that the person responsible for killing her sons would be left without an heir. That person’s son and grandson would die, ultimately leaving a barren female on the throne as the end of the family line.

There is some research that suggests Henry VIII might have had what the author describes as the “rare Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths when the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type.” She believes it is also likely that Henry suffered from McLeod syndrome, which is found only in Kell positive individuals. This genetic disease offers an explanation (other than undisciplined douchebaggery) for his physical degeneration and erratic behavior.

If that’s the case, the gene can be traced back to Jacquetta. So in essence, she and her female descendants did indeed curse those responsible for the disappearance of the two princes in the Tower. (The author believes that the Tudors had the princes killed.) And it was effective: Henry VII’s first-born son died, Henry VIII’s only surviving son died young, his daughter Queen Mary did not have any babies who lived, and his other daughter Queen Elizabeth remained emphatically unattached to anyone except God and England.

Never stop fighting for what you think is right

This book shed light on people and events I knew little about and brought them to life for me. It also exposed the depth of Henry VIII’s brutality, how callously the “reformation” of the Church was implemented, how blatantly it was motivated by greed and paranoia, how deeply it disrupted the lives of the general population, and how many citizens it left dying on the streets without food and shelter while Henry continued his lavish lifestyle of endless extravagance and self-indulgence.

The author leaves readers with some cautionary thoughts about the importance of checks and balances and the duty of citizens to keep their rulers honest.
This has made me think about how easily a ruler can slide into tyranny, especially if no one opposes him. As Henry moved from one advisor to another, as his moods deteriorated and his use of the gallows became an act of terror against his people, one sees in this well-known, well-loved Tudor world the rising of a despot. He could hang the faithful men and women of the North because nobody rose up to defend Thomas More, John Fisher, or even the Duke of Buckingham. He learned that he could execute two wives, divorce another, and threaten his last because no one effectively defended his first. The picture of the beloved Henry in the primary school histories—of an eccentric glamorous ruler who married six women—is also the ugly portrait of a wife and child abuser and a serial killer who made war against his own people, even against his own family.

My final verdict

I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed all the books in this series, but for some reason I expected this last one to be a rehash of events I was already very familiar with from the POV of someone who did not sound very interesting. I’m so glad I was wrong! Margaret’s story was quite good, kept my attention, and engaged me fully with all the leading ladies and complete cast of characters, even if they weren’t the splashy, well-known names we’ve become familiar with over the years. I enjoyed getting to know these more obscure historical figures, who tend to be overshadowed by their more colorful and attention-whoring contemporaries, and seeing the events of this era unfold from an entirely new and different perspective. This is a popular era and, for some reason, a popular King. Yet Philippa Gregory finds new insights into events and characters that make this book entertaining, enlightening, and well worth reading. She helps readers see the characters in new ways.

Though maybe not these ways

Once again, my chief complaint is that there is a lot of fiction in this historical fiction. But historical nonfiction can be exceedingly dry, and if it’s about Medieval women it’s still filled with speculation—it merely adds details about the (lack of) evidence, because no one thought to keep accounts of what women were doing back then. I appreciate that Philippa Gregory includes a note at the end of this book about her research and the basic suppositions she bases her story on (like whether Katherine of Aragon’s marriage to Arthur was consummated). She excels at rendering history in such a way that it’s fun to learn and easy to remember, and this book is no exception.

I’ll leave you with her parting words about the characters she brings to life in her books:
The real women are always more complex and more conflicted, greater than the heroines of the novel, just as real women now, as then, are often greater than they are reported, sometimes greater than the world wants them to be.

This Wench rates The King’s Curse

What did you think of this book? Have you read the other books in this series? Do you have a favorite Philippa Gregory novel or a favorite historical novel by another author? If so, I hope you’ll share your thoughts with us below!


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