The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

Reviewed by Becky Benoit

After reading the first three books in the Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory, and being enthralled by her retelling of the cataclysmic civil war that rent England for generations, now known to history as the War of the Roses, I had to read the final book and find out how the story ended.

I wasn’t disappointed. Like most of her other historically-based novels, Gregory fully admits that she takes a great deal of creative license with her characters. Though she’s a recognized student of history and takes pains to learn as much as she can about the historical figures she’s bringing to life, she’s the first to admit that she sometimes plays fast and loose with what history has recorded as indisputable fact, and the intriguing possibilities of what might have been. While some might find this frustrating, I personally enjoy Gregory’s unique take on a much-written about time period. That’s why it’s called historical fiction, after all – as a reader, I’m not looking for a dry and dusty recitation of known facts, I’m looking for real, human characters, filled with flaws and failings just like the rest of us.

The White Princess tells the story of Elizabeth of York, daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and much-loved princess of the house of York, now defeated by Henry Tudor who has returned from France to claim the long fought-over throne of England. While Tudor is victorious on the field, he has yet to win the hearts and loyalty of the English people, many of whom still remain faithful to the house of York. Henry knows that to have any chance of success as a king, he must join with the York family in an advantageous marriage to the most accomplished and eldest of the York princesses, the lovely Elizabeth.

It’s far from a love match, however. Elizabeth still pines for her beloved, her uncle Richard III, who was killed in battle by Henry Tudor himself. Secretly loathing his murderer, Elizabeth has sworn she won’t marry him, but her mother Elizabeth Woodville, as well as Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort, have other plans.

The dowager Queen Elizabeth is determined to see at least one of her children on the throne. She pushes her daughter into marriage, gritting her teeth at her family’s loss of status. Though both of her sons have ostensibly died at the hands of her enemies, possibly the Tudors themselves, Elizabeth Woodville has never stopped scheming for power. She has a secret of her own, the knowledge that, unbeknownst to the Tudors and their adherents, one of her sons survived, and may yet return to England to claim his throne.

Elizabeth and Henry’s marriage is stormy from the beginning. Elizabeth resents his domineering manner, and Henry is deeply distrustful of her, believing her to be plotting with her mother and his enemies to wrest the throne from him. And his reign is far from peaceful – secret York plots are constantly being discovered and overthrown. Henry spends nearly all of his time meeting with his various spies, searching under every stone for potential plots and schemes, and raising taxes to pay for the interminable mustering of armies to stamp down treasonous plots brewing all over England.

As time goes on, the two develop a fondness for one another, helped along by the birth of princes and princesses to secure the Tudor line. Elizabeth learns battle strategies to help her live with her domineering mother-in-law, the woman who wields more power than the queen or even the king himself.

But when a pretender to the throne, who looks suspiciously like Elizabeth’s long-lost brother Richard, presents a real and significant threat to Henry’s reign, Elizabeth is forced to choose sides. Will she choose her family and the beloved brother she’s believed dead for so many years, or take the side of her husband and protect the inheritance of her children? It’s a choice that will shape the face of England for centuries to come.

If you’ve read any of the other books in the Cousins’ War series, you won’t want to miss this final installment. Granted, Gregory’s writing can seem a bit formulaic at times, but she manages to create in Elizabeth of York a unique character, torn by divided loyalties and haunted by secrets and echoes of the past.

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