The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory
I’m a sucker for a good series. Once I start, I can’t stop. And I’m just a teeny bit of an Anglophile. So when a former college instructor of mine recommended The White Queen, book one of The Cousins’ War series, I jumped in. And I loved it. This series tells of the Cousins’ War, or the War of the Roses, fought for the throne of England between the houses of Lancaster and York, from the point of view of the women involved – a unique perspective. I loved learning about Elizabeth Woodville, the first known queen of England whom a king married for love rather than arrangement. How influential she was in the War, how she was loved by some and hated by others, how she strove for power, how she loved her children… She was painted as ambitious and power-seeking, yet as the protagonist, readers sympathized with her as she strove for influence and greatness and as she worked to advance her children in the world. We cried with her when she hid in sanctuary in fear for her life and her children’s lives. Gregory caused us to feel for Elizabeth and the Yorks.
But in The Red Queen, the second book in the series, Gregory completely shifts the point of view from York to Lancaster, from Elizabeth Woodville to Margaret Beaufort – mother of the last Lancaster heir. This purposeful shift in point of view was the most striking part of this book. Rather than continue in the spirit of York, readers are given a dose of the Lancaster side of the fight, specifically through the eyes of the mother of Henry Tudor.
The shift in point of view from Elizabeth of York to Margaret of Lancaster is a bit of a jolt; I remember describing it to a friend right after I finished, saying that the shift in perspective was the best part: readers see and sympathize with both sides. “In the first book, you really felt for Elizabeth and wanted her to succeed, even though she was a schemer; but now, hearing from Margaret, you’re all, ‘Go, Lancaster! We hate Elizabeth and Richard!’” It shows how hard it can be to pick sides sometimes, and how enlightening it can be when forced to examine both sides carefully.
While the point of view did change completely, I was not entirely surprised at the characterization of Margaret Beaufort; I knew she would be a formidable enemy of the Yorks. Even from her early childhood years, she believes that she was born for something great, that she understood a calling of God Himself for her life. She dreams of Joan of Arc, the French heroine who led troops into battle after visions from Heaven and angels guided her. She possesses callused, “Saint’s knees” from her long hours spent in prayer. She wants to be an abbess, to serve God, to study about God and His Word, to live a pious, devoted life. But all those plans seem to crumble about her when Margaret’s mother tells her she must be wed at the young age of fourteen to a Tudor heir in order to produce more Tudor – Lancaster – heirs. Margaret does go on to marry Edmond Tudor and have his son, Henry. When Henry is born, Margaret’s belief in her own destiny shifts.
When Henry is born, Margaret realizes that, contrary to her childhood notions of sainthood, God’s destiny for her life is that she be the mother of the true King of England, and she embraces this destiny. She believes herself to be led by God Himself, and with this conviction, she schemes for decades to put Henry, the son she rarely even has occasion to see, on the throne. She prays for the downfall of the Yorks while serving Elizabeth Woodville at Court. She plays her part until the time comes to act in order to gain Henry his throne.
Like Elizabeth, Margaret is an influential woman at a time in history in which few women seemed to have any significant influence. And she is not afraid to use that influence. Margaret’s mother tells her that to be a woman is to simply be a stepping-stone, a bridge between generations. A baby-factory, essentially. And while Margaret is unhappy with the notion, she resigns herself to this fate, although she feels she is wasted in this type of existence. But when her son Henry is born, she reevaluates what that actually means. Instead of simply being that bridge from one heir to another, she actually takes destiny into her own hands to make her son a king rather than sitting idly by and feeling that her part was over just in giving birth.
Margaret uses her intelligence and position to her advantage; but in addition, throughout the novel, she follows her belief that she is chosen by God Himself, that He leads and speaks to her, that God desires Lancaster on the throne. And she never backs down from that conviction. Arguably, this conviction is simply self-serving ambition; even her husband Stanley calls attention to this: “‘…you think God wants your son to be King of England. I don’t think your God has ever advised you otherwise. You hear only what you want. He only ever commands your preferences…. He always tells you to strive for power and wealth. Are you quite sure it is not your own voice that you hear…?”’ Nevertheless, Margaret never falters in her belief: “‘I tell you that God will have my son Henry on the throne of England, and those who laugh now at my visions and doubt my vocation will call me My Lady, the King’s Mother…’”
This spirit of influence, determination, and intelligence is refreshing to see in a female historical figure. Although Margaret has been sometimes viewed by historians as power-hungry and overly ambitious (like Elizabeth Woodville), she is nevertheless an example of a strong woman who wouldn’t simply resign herself to being the bridge between generations and nothing more; she worked to affect and even create destiny for the Lancasters. Lover her or hate her, she ushered the Red Rose back into London. And that was no small feat.