The Red Queen
Philippa Gregory’s most recent work of historical fiction, The Red Queen, describes the bloody War of the Roses from the perspective of Margaret Beaufort, a member of the house of Lancaster and, perhaps most famously, grandmother to Henry VIII. Gregory’s second book in the Cousins’ War series, The Red Queen serves as a foil to The White Queen, which presented the war from the perspective of the York Queen Elizabeth Woodville.
As a child, Margaret is fervently devout, with a special devotion to Joan of Arc and the Virgin Mary. Her desire to join a religious order is, however, of little importance to her family, who hope that she will provide an heir to the throne. She is married at the age of twelve to Edmund Tudor, King Henry VI’s twenty-four-year-old half brother, and widowed shortly after becoming pregnant. Margaret faces death herself during a difficult childbirth, and becomes convinced God spared her life in order for her to fulfill her destiny and make her son the King of England. Devoting her life to this ambition, Margaret carefully navigates the shifting court politics of a nation seething with civil war. Her determination and clever plotting allow her to infiltrate the house of York and orchestrate one of the greatest rebellions in British history—calling her son back from exile in order to wage war, seize the crown, and become the king she always knew he would be.
Margaret is presented as the antithesis of her rival Elizabeth, the protagonist of The White Queen: Margaret is plain, Elizabeth famously beautiful; Margaret’s life lacks romance, Elizabeth’s is a love story; Margaret is a pious Catholic and Elizabeth practices magic. Allied with opposing sides, the women’s experiences of the wars are also quite disparate. It was interesting to see the events presented from the women’s different points of view, but as divergent as their stories were, this approach to the series occasionally made it feel as if I had already read the book.
One of the most interesting aspects of Margaret in The Red Queen is her central role in the murder of the two princes in the tower, both Elizabeth’s sons. The person responsible for their murder is left a mystery in The White Queen, and remains one of history’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Gregory’s choice to have Margaret order their execution, while a historically plausible theory, is a risky one for an author. It is a testament to Gregory’s writing and character development that she can create a sympathetic character out of a cold-blooded killer.
Another intriguing aspect of the book is Gregory’s exploration of women’s religious beliefs and practices, which is also a central theme in The White Queen. Margaret’s constant assertions that she is favored by God and that her political plots are in accordance with divine will is repetitive and tiresome at times, but using religion to legitimize ambition and power was a frequent trope in women’s lives. Gregory uses this device, not to suggest any divine origin of Margaret’s unlikely rise to power, but to demonstrate the way Margaret herself might have negotiated and viewed that power. Furthermore, Gregory’s depiction of Margaret’s constant recourse to prayer—like Elizabeth’s use of magic—elucidates how women viewed their relationship with the divine as a way to control events over which they actually had very little control.
Serious historians may be frustrated with Gregory’s highly fictionalized writing, and Margaret is a very complex character to be explored in such an easy-to-read, breezy novel. Ultimately, however, Gregory is to be commended for bringing attention to women’s history. Margaret is a fascinating historical figure whose role in her son’s climb to power and influence over the early Tudor kings has often been overlooked. I recommend The Red Queen as a thoroughly enjoyable examination of Margaret and the War of the Roses, a delightfully crafted story of the woman who brought the Tudors to the throne.