Monday, June 19, 2017

More Philippa Gregory

I went on to read Philippa Gregory’s novels of the 16th C covering Tudor & Elizabethan England. One striking observation is that the version of King Henry VIII that I was taught in high school was quite sanitised. If Gregory’s version is even half true – he really was a manic, murdering despot.  

In The King’s Curse, Margaret Pole, Plantagenet heir, is the daughter of George of Clarence, the third son of York who never gained the throne.  As she and any relatives have legitimate claims to the throne, the Tudors always have them under control.  This great book maps Henry’s VIII rise to power, and descent into tyranny. Margaret serves as a faithful companion to Katherine of Aragon (Henry’s first wife) and is charged with raising the heirs to the throne (including Princess Mary). She is persistently faithful to the reign of the monarch, however his rule plays out, ensuring she never says anything against him.

Yet the king is constantly on the lookout for challengers, and is trying to redefine the laws of the church and marriage to suit his needs. With cronies like Thomas Cromwell alongside him, anyone who supports the Roman church is under threat. In fact, the Reformers of the English church come off very badly in this account.  As such, it’s an interesting counter to Wolf Hall

It’s best to read these books after all the Cousins’ War series to fully understand what is going on, even the title is explained more fully in previous books. 

What has struck me most that we can fall into the trap of thinking that this is the first time our world has considered itself ‘post-truth’. Gregory’s novels go a long way to suggesting that Henry VIII was a spoilt child who became a king whom no-one could counsel or control, and who changed laws and facts to suit his agenda without redress. Thousands of people died for suggesting anything he did was wrong, and his wives were abandoned or beheaded, and marriages declared invalid to suit his own purposes.  She goes so far as to suggest that his indulgent childhood, where no-one checked him or allowed him to suffer led to the awful leader he became. 

Something to think about for both parents and society at large there!


There are many books in this series, so in brief:
Three Sisters, Three Queens charts the interconnected lives of Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England and her two sisters in law – Mary, briefly Queen of France and Margaret, Queen of Scotland.  Told from Margaret’s perspective, as she is sent as a teenage bride to Scotland to marry King James. Widowed with two young heirs to the throne, she proceeds into two later marriages, both for love but causing huge problems for Scotland. Gregory has set this up as three women who are united as family and by position, yet constantly at the mercy of the men who rule the world, and their own ambition.

The Constant Princess is Katherine of Aragon, mainly in the younger days of her life, first married to Arthur (Prince of Wales) and then in the early years to his brother Henry VIII.

The Other Boleyn Girl -  Mary, sister to Anne, was the first Boleyn to fall under the spell of Henry VIII.  Producing two bastard children by him, she must later watch as her sister ascends the throne.

The Boleyn Inheritance charts the lives of three women – Jane Boleyn (Anne’s sister in law), Anne of Cleves (wife #4) and Katherine (wife #5).   Truly the lives of these women were miserable – each a pawn in the game of trying to please Henry VIII.

One of my favourite’s was The Taming of the Queen, about Kateryn Parr, Henry’s 6th wife.   She seems to have been truly converted to the Christian faith and instrumental in the development of the translation of parts of the bible, and the prayer book. She was the first women in England to have her work published under her own name. Yet she still lived under the rule of a truly murderous, controlling and self-absorbed man.  The only reason I could read it with some semblance of peace was I knew the rhyme regarding the fate of Henry’s wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”.

Then to The Queen’s Fool, with the interesting character of Hannah Green, Queen Mary’s Fool, who is a secret Jew yet lives as a faithful Catholic or Protestant, whichever way the law of England currently requires. Through her eyes you see the life of Queen Mary, with all its ups and downs in love, ruling and the murderous way she tried to force the Catholic faith back on the people of England.

The Virgin’s Lover is the story of Elizabeth I and her lover Sir Robert Dudley. In the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, she falls madly and hopelessly in love with the married Dudley. He is willing to risk everything for her, including considering putting his wife aside; or is he really just pursuing his own ambition to be on the throne?

And finishing with The Other Queen, about Mary Queen of Scots and her long ‘imprisonment’ by the English at the ongoing order of her cousin Elizabeth I; and the couple who had to ‘host’ her.  

Throughout I have been impressed by Gregory’s ability to write from many different perspectives.  In one book, she can rigidly portray the Catholic point of view, and yet in another champion the Protestant. You can also read a fair amount of ‘tongue-in-cheek’ comments in both, noting both sides were often in clear error and sin.  While it’s clearly fiction, the basis in solid history leaves the impression that monarchs often acted on a whim, were very persuaded by influential counsel, and that there were far-reaching effects of their decisions on the common people and their own practice of faith. I am certainly even more thankful now to be in a democracy, whatever its faults!  I have enjoyed my time in these books.   

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