Book review: The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory
‘Mine is the most dangerous name in England: Plantagenet.’
When Elizabeth of York married Lancastrian King Henry VII, another royal-blooded Plantagenet woman remained in the shadows to cast a dark cloud over the new Tudor dynasty.
With the Wars of the Roses effectively over and her brother Edward executed as a Yorkist threat, Margaret Pole would spend the rest of her turbulent days under suspicion and in fear for life.
Philippa Gregory is on top form in the latest gripping book in her remarkable Cousins’ War series which gives voice to royal women on both sides of the medieval conflict… some of them helpless victims and some prime movers in the political struggles.
The story of Margaret Pole, daughter of George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence (famously reputed to have chosen to drown in a butt of Malmsey wine as punishment for treason), is amongst the most moving and tragic to come out this bitter family feud.
With her trademark vivid imagination and powerful sense of the communion of women, Gregory portrays Margaret’s harrowing life and times against the backdrop of the second Tudor king Henry VIII’s descent from golden prince to irrational tyrant.
And it is this electrifying depiction of the king’s terrifying paranoia and his uncertain grip on the throne that steals the show, adding palpable tension to the plight of a woman caught between the past and the present.
By 1499, the Tudors are firmly in the ascendancy, the name Plantagenet has become the most dangerous in England, a curse rather than the crowning glory it seemed when Margaret’s uncles Edward IV and Richard III were kings.
To ward off plotters, Margaret was given in marriage to Henry VII’s cousin, Sir Richard Pole, a humble knight who is now chamberlain and guardian to Arthur, Prince of Wales, at Ludlow Castle.
‘Married into obscurity…hidden in wedlock,’ Margaret knows better than most that life is a risk, that ‘death walks behind my family the Plantagenets like a faithful black hound.’ The best she can hope for her five children is that they survive in the shadows.
But there is another curse at work in the royal court. Henry VII’s wife Elizabeth has a dark secret… whoever murdered her two York brothers in the Tower of London is doomed to lose their own son and grandson. Could the curse that Elizabeth helped to set in motion destroy her own family?
When Prince Arthur dies and his wife Katherine of Aragon marries his younger brother Prince Henry, Margaret becomes her lady-in-waiting and grows to love the Spanish princess like her own daughter.
The death of Margaret’s husband leaves her virtually penniless but in an act of unity and reconciliation, the now King Henry VIII restores her land and wealth, and finds positions at court for her sons.
All changes when Queen Katherine, unable to bear Henry a son and heir, is sidelined for the charms of Anne Boleyn and Margaret remains loyal to the former queen, her now rejected Catholic faith and her daughter Princess Mary.
It’s an allegiance that propels Margaret into the heart of a deadly political maelstrom that will engulf all those who dare to defy a king hell bent on destruction and the continuation of his dynasty.
Once again, Gregory throws new light on a medieval woman of substance, allowing us an internalised view of her disturbing plight which has been largely subsumed by the leading male protagonists and political and military battles which have dominated the history of the Wars of the Roses.
Margaret, whose ultimate fate is both cruel and shocking, arrived in the world just as her Plantagenet family’s fortunes were on a dangerous, slippery slope. Straddled between the old and new orders, her story is inevitably one of scheming, rivalry, treachery and devastating betrayal. Gregory’s book ensures that 500 years later, it is still has the power to haunt…
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £20)