Reviewed by Becky Benoit
After being thoroughly engrossed in Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen, I couldn’t resist the next book in Gregory’s Cousins’ War series, The Red Queen.
Philippa, known as the first lady in historical fiction these days, can spin a fabulous yarn when it comes to the women of English history, as many readers know from her gripping novelizations of the Tudor wives. I was curious about how she was going to portray the “Red Queen” herself, Margaret Beaufort.
History paints a conflicting picture of Margaret Beaufort. By some accounts, she was a deeply religious woman who felt she was divinely inspired by God to put her son, Henry Tudor, on the throne, against all odds. By others, she was relentless grasping, scheming woman who became, in Gregory’s words, “the mother-in-law from hell.” I was curious to see how Gregory would reconcile these wildly differing accounts of the same person, using only the historical sources left available to us and her own vivid imagination.
As is usually the case with Gregory, I was not disappointed. The historian-turned-novelist has brought the dusty figure of Margaret to vivid life as a woman driven by religious fervor and a deep-seated thirst for power, and yet as flawed and imperfect as any other mortal.
As a direct descendant of the House of Lancaster, Margaret Beaufort has been raised from the cradle to be a woman of power. Her family traces its lineage to the king himself, and Margaret confidently expects that her children, if not king and queens themselves, will be royal dukes and duchesses at the right hand of the royal family.
But when King Henry, Margaret’s kinsman, is stricken with a strange mental illness which leaves him silent and earns him the nickname “the sleeping king”, suddenly the Lancastrian hold on the throne becomes tenuous. The rival House of York, seeing an advantage, pushes Henry from the throne and, after years of warfare, sends his wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou, fleeing to the safety of France. Now there’s a new king, Edward of York, on the throne, putting all of Margaret’s dreams of power and prestige at risk.
Married at only 12 to Edmund Tudor, head of the ruling family of Wales, Margaret gives birth to a son only to have her husband killed in the civil wars which have engulfed the country as the Yorks and the Lancasters battle for the throne. Though Margaret is far from devastated at the loss of a brutish husband she barely knew, she worries for the fate of her son, little Henry. Her year of mourning is barely over before she is remarried to Lord Stafford, a match she struggles to endure due to her new husband’s loyalty to the ascending York family.
Margaret is seized by what she sees as divine inspiration from God to put her own son, Henry Tudor, on the throne, and is infuriated by her new husband’s desire for peace above all, and stubborn loyalty to the Yorks.
Though she hates Edward of York, and his queen who is rumoured to be a caster of spells and notorious witch, Margaret will stop at nothing to advance her son’s cause, and in order to do this, she must work her way into the trusted circle of the new royal family. Methodically and patiently, she wins the trust of a king and queen, a family she secretly despises, until she is in the perfect position to hatch a scheme which will topple the Yorks for good and push her son into the place she has envisioned for him since the moment of his birth: the throne of England.
This book was every bit as satisfying as The White Queen. Gregory does a masterful job of bringing Margaret Beaufort to vivid life as a woman who believed she was divinely inspired, who would stop at nothing to achieve her political goals while conveniently seeing the workings of the divine in every action she undertook, no matter how cruel or underhanded. A riveting second installment in a series that will hook anyone who loves historical fiction with a strong female lead.