Thursday, November 11, 2010

Another potboiler!

Just finished The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory. Yes, I know she plays fast and loose with the facts sometimes - even she admits that a lot of her books are "what if?" scenarios - and she paints a very bleak picture of how greedy and ambitious humans can be. But you can't deny her books are entertaining, and I had this one on reserve at my library as soon as I heard it was coming out!

Any student of the Tudor period knows the bare facts of how Henry VII, the founder of the dynasty, came to be. His father was Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, son of Katherine of Valois (widow of Henry V) by her second union with Welsh nobleman Owen Tudor, and thus half-brother of Henry VI, although with no claim to the throne. His mother was Margaret Beaufort, a great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt by his last marriage to Katherine Swynford, whose descendants were legitimized by special decree, but barred from inheriting the throne since John and Katherine's children were born before they were married. So she was fairly closely related to the king, but theoretically had no claim to the throne either.

But the bare facts aren't always the most interesting ones. Marriages were made for dynastic reasons back then; obviously it was thought Edmund and Margaret would be a "good match" without any consideration given to their feelings about the matter, but that's how it was if you were royalty or nobility. In Gregory's book, the marriage between 25-year-old Edmund and 12-year-old Margaret is a grim, joyless affair. They have little in common, and the sex is a painful nightly duty to conceive an heir. I read another book about Margaret a few years ago, the name of which escapes me, which has them fall madly in love with each other and Margaret absolutely crushed when Edmund died a few months before their son was born.

History doesn't tell us how they felt about each other; I'd be willing to bet the truth is somewhere in between.

Anyway, their son Henry Tudor, who under any other circumstances would have been an obscure nobleman enjoying a close kinship to the king without any claim himself, became an important little boy as the Wars of the Roses dragged on and his distant cousins all killed each other. He ended up being the Lancastrian heir to the throne. It is known that his mother Margaret was remarried to a couple of Yorkist noblemen, but of course her efforts were all aimed at putting her son on the throne. We know that she had a secret correspondence with Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of Edward IV, about Henry marrying their daughter Elizabeth. Of course as we all know, this is eventually what happened, uniting the two lines of the rival descendants of Edward III and putting an end to the Wars of the Roses, other than a few fitful rebellions which were swiftly put down.

How far did Margaret go beyond that, though? Gregory has her ordering the deaths of the Princes of the Tower, although it appears someone else beat her to the punch... their fate is one of the great unsolved mysteries of history, and the debate rages on to this day over who was actually responsible, or even what actually happened. Although Margaret was definitely one of the people with the most to gain from their deaths, she was so devoutly religious that she had calluses on  her knees from kneeling and praying so much, so I really can't see her ordering the murder of two children... but of course I wasn't there so I can't say.

This is incredibly nerdy but one thing I find odd too is how Margaret supported the Lancastrian cause, yet if you look at genealogy she was actually more closely related to Edward IV than to Henry VI, although of course her first husband was his half-brother. People forget that Edward IV's maternal grandmother was also a Beaufort, a daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. Edward IV was descended from three sons of Edward III, Henry VI and Margaret Beaufort from only one, as far as I can remember. Medieval royal and noble genealogy can be breathtakingly complicated and you can go blind studying all the intermingled lines, but that's just my observation.

Anyway, I enjoyed this book.