“I am a woman who makes things happen, and I am not defeated yet… no man will ever walk away from me certain that he won’t walk back.”
What kind of confidence must it take for a woman to make herself queen of England? What kind of drive and ambition? With England torn apart during the Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth Woodville put herself and her family at great risk when she secretly married Edward, the newly-declared York king of England, after losing her husband in battle fighting for the Lancaster king, Henry. History tends to be unkind to Elizabeth; she seems to have been overly ambitious and hungry for power. But Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen gives readers a fascinating glimpse of the tumultuous struggle for the throne from Elizabeth’s point of view. The queen who was not altogether well-liked still must have had feelings, right? And who wouldn’t do what they could to advance their family if the opportunity presents itself? Gregory says that she wanted to take the opportunity to write about England from the point of view of a “generally disregarded… queen…”
The story goes that King Edward IV found that he was very attracted to the widowed Elizabeth Woodville after she (as the story goes) presented herself to him on a road near her home in order to ask for his help in regaining properties for her sons. He granted his help, and made his attraction known to her; but rather than become another of Edward’s many mistresses, Elizabeth vowed she would remain pure and only return his advances after they were married. The story goes on that Edward tried to force himself on her, and Elizabeth protected herself with this king’s own dagger. When I read this portion early on in The White Queen, I knew I had a formidable protagonist before me. Indeed, Elizabeth proves again and again throughout the novel that she is a force to be reckoned with.
King Edward does marry Elizabeth, and her family turns quickly from their Lancastrian devotion to the York king. The marriage, performed in secret, outrages Edward’s closest advisor – the man who essentially made him king. This Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, is not the only one who is unhappy with the match; Edward’s family despise the lower birth of Elizabeth and her family, whom Edward gives high positions and advantageous marriages. Warwick, and plenty of others, stir up trouble for Edward, his wife, and heirs. In and out of sanctuary, secure on the throne one minute and fighting for it again the next, Edward and Elizabeth struggle to keep their reign.
I became enthralled with this story, the further I went. After I finished, I found myself reading nonfiction and historical documents about this particular family. And I found that not only had Gregory stayed rather faithful to historical accuracy, but she also did so artistically and creatively – in my opinion, the mark of great historical fiction. Without giving away too many details, I must say that one particular instance in this story – the disappearance of King Edward’s sons after his death – has captured my attention. If Elizabeth Woodville is portrayed as a power-hungry, ambitious queen, her brother-in-law Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is hardly painted more favorably. Even in Shakespeare’s Richard III, he is given the appearance of evil, physically and otherwise. With Edward’s death, Elizabeth fears – rightly so – that Edward’s brother Richard would seize the throne for himself rather than acting as guardian of Edward’s heir, Edward V, until he came of age to rule. There is little known about what happened to Edward V and his younger brother, also named Richard, after their uncle took the throne himself. But it is known that they disappeared. And the discovery of two child-sized skeletons buried in the Tower of London seems to support the theory that they were murdered by their uncle, King Richard, as rivals for the throne. Of course, there are more people at play in this drama than simply King Richard, and nothing can be fully proven.
By the end of the novel, Elizabeth has been driven from London by Richard, but her daughters attend his wife Queen Anne at court. Elizabeth still lives comfortably, and she has received word that perhaps her younger son is safe and can someday rival his uncle for the throne. Indeed, there are reports that another child was imprisoned with Edward V in place of his brother, allowing the younger one to escape; but little is known of the validity of these claims. Elizabeth’s eldest daughter is also in place to wed the man who will be king – whoever that may be, as the crown is still not secure on any one man’s head at this point.
In my own current situation, I find it refreshing and uplifting to read about strong characters facing and beating the odds even when it means taking serious chances. I have recently begun finding some inner strength and resolve to make some things happen in my life. (Another blog, another time…) And whether I am simply finding some healthy pride and confidence rather than becoming a power-hungry, overly ambitious, take-over-all-of-England type that history tends to portray Elizabeth Woodville as, I still find it encouraging to read the thoughts that Gregory imagines for Elizabeth: “I am a woman who makes things happen, and I am not defeated yet…”
Total pages for Friends of Atticus: 37,960