by Rebekah Benoit
I have to admit, it’s been awhile since I’ve read a Philippa Gregory book and really torn through it. As an avid fan of historical fiction, I fell in love with her earlier books – The Constant Princess, The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance were excellent examples of what a well-researched expert on a historical era can do when she’s also a great writer, at least in my opinion. Mind you, Gregory’s earlier books came out when the historical fiction genre was just beginning its most recent resurgence, and her books kicked off a fascination with the Tudor court that spread into movies (The Other Boleyn Girl was made into a movie, which wasn’t great), TV (The Tudors TV series, starring yummy Jonathan Rhys Meyers, which I loved), and a massive flood of copycat novels about Henry VIII, which ranged from pretty good to just plain terrible.
It was around this time I just got tired of Gregory’s books. After watching The White Queen series on TV, however, I found myself drawn to Gregory’s newest series, which focuses on the War of the Roses and the generations that came just before Henry VIII, and I was hooked once again. There’s something eminently comforting about returning to a favourite author after a long break, similar to pulling on a beloved old pair of sweat pants – you know they don’t look great, but they’re just so comfortable and familiar.
So it is with The King’s Curse, the sixth in Gregory’s Cousins War series. Using Gregory’s characteristic first-person narration, The King’s Curse tells the story of Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury and the last of the Plantagenet line. Descended from George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward III, and Anne Neville, Margaret Pole belongs to what was once the most powerful family in England, with royal blood flowing in her veins.
But Margaret, like so many other Plantagenets, has grown up constantly looking over her shoulder, fearing the paranoia of the Tudor family and the ever-present shadow the executioner’s axe. The Tudor reign, which began with the defeat of Richard III by Henry VII, has always been threatened by the Plantagenets, who hold much of the country’s wealth and the loyalty of the English people, and present a very real and legitimate threat to the throne. Margaret’s own brother was imprisoned in the Tower from age 11 until his execution at age 14, simply for the crime of being born a Plantagenet. Margaret has always feared the possibility that she might die, too, by the executioner’s axe, for the crime of carrying royal blood.
Cousin to Queen Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s wife, Margaret has always been close to the throne. When the young prince Arthur marries 15-year old Katherine of Aragon, Margaret finds herself a confidante to the young princess, and begins to believe that she might shrug off the curse which connects her to the Tudors and makes her a potential target for their royal wrath. The death of Arthur from sweating sickness is a terrible blow for Margaret, who loved Arthur like one of her own sons, but when the dowager princess manages to catch the eye of the new king Henry VIII, Margaret’s fortunes rise once again.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the Tudor period is familiar with the rocky marriage of Katherine of Aragon to Henry VIII, which spanned decades and gradually moved from a love match to an all-out battle between the king and queen which would eventually result in religious upheaval and civil war. Margaret, always faithful to her beloved Queen Katherine, sees her family’s fortunes rise from near-obscurity with the match between Katherine and Henry. With the king’s favour, Margaret becomes one of the wealthiest women in the land, governess to the king’s ill-fated children with Katherine including the only one to survive infancy, Princess Mary. But when Henry’s obsession with producing a male heir turns to near-madness and he seeks to throw his wife aside in favour of the bewitching Anne Boleyn, Margaret’s long-held fears of death at the king’s hand come roaring back. She and her sons are drawn into the turmoil of Henry’s rein, and soon they must make a choice – continue their fierce loyalty to Princess Mary and face the consequences of Henry’s growing paranoia, or switch allegiances to a king and an England that they barely recognize any more.
I really did like this book. Gregory, as always, deftly maneuvers the often-confusing historical events of the period, and really, that’s no easy feat when every third person is named Margaret, Mary, Anne or Henry. She turns what could be a dry or bewildering historical narrative into a well-timed plot with plenty of twists and turns. And she does an admirable job of bringing to life a character who has been left out of so many of the historical accounts of this period. Even though Margaret Pole is a fascinating character – she was the oldest of Henry VIII’s victims on the scaffold, her royal pedigree was impressive and she was close to the throne her entire life – but she has been consistently ignored by history in favour of the more salacious or sympathetic figures of Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon or Elizabeth I.
Granted, there’s nothing earth-shakingly different here. The King’s Curse is much like all of Gregory’s other books, so if you’re looking for a different narrative style, you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re a fan of Gregory’s earlier works, you’ll find reading this one is akin to slipping into that comfy old pair of sweatpants – it’s comfortable and familiar, satisfyingly so.