Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

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I said that there should be more books about Margaret Tudor 🙂 … and along came this one, Philippa Gregory’s latest. The “Three Sisters, Three Queens” of the title are Margaret herself, Queen of Scots, her younger sister Mary, briefly Queen of France, and their sister-in-law Catherine/Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England. However, the story is told from Margaret’s point of view.

It’s written in the first person and in the present tense, which I always find rather infantile, but that doesn’t really spoil it. It’s also fairly historically accurate by Philippa Gregory’s standards … although Mary’s second son doesn’t seem to be mentioned, and nor, strangely, does the birth of Elizabeth, although that could just be because the book ended in rather a hurry. The parts where it isn’t so accurate are mainly attempts at internal consistency with Philippa Gregory’s other books – the insistence that Henry VIII was the father of Mary Boleyn’s children, the hints that Perkin Warbeck really was Richard, Duke of York, and this silly notion about Jacquetta Woodville casting spells – and those could easily have been missed out completely. Shame they weren’t!

The three women all lived at court together for a while in their youth, and met again when Margaret briefly returned to London after losing control of affairs in Scotland. The closeness between Mary and Catherine is fairly well-known, but the relationships between them and Margaret aren’t really documented. And the attention given to Catherine generally focuses on the breakdown of her marriage to Henry, so that her conduct over the Battle of Flodden Field, having the body of her brother-in-law James IV seized and brought to London, and sending his bloodstained coat to Henry in France, is often overlooked. How did Margaret deal with that? Especially when, as a young, pregnant widow and mother of a toddler king, she needed Henry and Catherine’s support? We don’t really know, but Philippa Gregory does a reasonable job of imagining it. We also see Margaret’s conflicting emotions over Catherine’s rise and fall – again, we don’t really know how she felt, but it’s imagined and expressed pretty well.

Mary, however, is presented as a bit of a bimbo, which is a shame. There are so many fascinating questions about her, and about the contrast between her life and those of Catherine and Margaret. She never had any political power, but was she the happiest of the three? I love the fact that she defied Henry to marry Charles Brandon! OK, Brandon’s conduct before their marriage and after Mary’s tragically early death wasn’t exactly exemplary, but there’s no suggestion that he and Mary weren’t happy together.  Mary seems to have been happy with her choices in life.  So was she the one, of the three, whose life turned out best?

But Margaret also chose her own husbands. Her second and third husbands, that was. But she chose badly!   When the book ends, it’s Margaret who’s in the best position, with Mary dying and Catherine thrown over in favour of Anne Boleyn. But the fact that Margaret’s third marriage was as much of a disaster as her second is overlooked … and there’s another of Philippa Gregory’s historical inaccuracies!   Still, a contrast is drawn between Margaret and Mary, who to a considerable extent were able to choose their own paths, and Catherine, who, in the end, was no match for Henry’s power.

The ending’s actually very miserable, because it suggests that none of the women really have any power. I don’t know why Philippa Gregory chose to end the book like that, because it’s not the message that comes across elsewhere. Anne Boleyn’s even presented – by Margaret – as some sort of proto-feminist icon. She’s normally seen as the ultimate enemy of the sisterhood, That Woman, the younger, sexier women who steals a loyal, loving wife’s man … and it’s very unfair, because Henry went after her, not the other way round. But an interesting point’s made about how she, the descendant of London merchants, used her female power to become Queen of England. It’s an age in which the role of women was changing. Look at how well-educated Anne herself was, and, even more so, Catherine Parr, Elizabeth, and Lady Jane Grey. All of which makes it even more of a shame that the book ended on such a negative note.

I think it would have worked better if the book really had been “Three Sisters, Three Queens”, rather than being about one sister, one queen; but there are zillions of books about Catherine of Aragon and a few about Mary, whereas Margaret is generally neglected, so, hey, let Margaret take centre stage here! It’s also a shame that the book ends before the – admittedly brief – Anglo-Scottish peace of the mid-1530s, but I suppose it had to end somewhere. And, of course, Margaret’s great-grandson did eventually unite the thrones of England and Scotland, after all the Tudors’ well-known struggles to produce a male heir. This book suggests that she hoped all along that her descendants would inherit both thrones. Did she? Who knows? We know very little about her: that’s the problem. And that’s why – as yet another TV series about Henry VIII’s six wives is set to start! – it’s nice to see the neglected figure of Margaret take centre stage in this book. I think Philippa Gregory’s books are overrated, TBH, but they’re not bad. I keep reading them …

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The Queen’s Lady by Barbara Kyle

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Word PressI thought that this was going to be yet another book about Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was more about some of the neglected aspects of the Reformation era.  It also included quite a bit of the theology of the Reformation, which tends to be overlooked in books.  All right, the soap opera-esque story of the loyal wife being thrown over in favour of a younger model makes for a much better story than debates over (let’s see if I can remember how to spell this!) transubstantiation, but it’s good to see the actual religious issues being mentioned too!

The protagonist, Honor Larke, an orphan, becomes a ward of Thomas More – known to us as St Thomas More, the man for all seasons, the man who died rather than betray his beliefs, et al.  This book reminds us that More was very much involved in suppressing early attempts to bring the Reformation to England, and that a number of “heretics” were burnt at the stake during his time as chancellor.  There’s been debate over this in the past, and More was strongly criticised in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, but it’s not something that’s really mentioned now.  By the standards of the times, his actions were not severe – what he did was hardly the “Spanish Inquisition” – but it still doesn’t sit very well with the supposed ideas of humanism.  He’s also presented as a dirty old perv who lusted after young girls: that bit doesn’t really work, as I’m not aware that there’s any historical evidence for it.

Honor becomes involves in trying to protect early Protestants from More, but ends up having to leave England … and becomes involves with the Anabaptists, and the Munster Rebellion.  It’s unfortunate that the word “Anabaptist” has become identified with what went on at Munster, because the actual word “Anabaptist” just refers to the (IMO) very sensible idea that people should only be baptised, or otherwise join/be regarded as part of a religion, once they’re old enough to take that decision for themselves, rather than the idea, which most people hold, that parents and guardians and religious leaders should be able to try to force their own religious views on a young child.  Anyway, Anabaptism also came to encompass the rejection of civil society, which is fine when you’re talking about (later) peaceful groups like the Amish and the Mennonites but which, in the 1530s, resulted in an attempt to take over the city of Munster, in Westphalia, and then got wildly out of hand with its leaders legalising polygamy and trying to force women into marriage.

I think the idea of this book is that all forms of religious extremism and religious intolerance are very dangerous, and that’s obviously a lesson that’s very relevant today.  It really wasn’t what I expecting, because the blurb on the back cover gives the impression that it’s all about Henry and Catherine and Anne.  Even the title does that, because for a while Honor is a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon.  Honor does have rather more adventures in a short time than anyone is likely to, but, hey, it’s a book.  And it’s certainly a different take on things.  Worth a read!

Sons of the Blood by Robyn Young

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Word PressI’d been looking forward to reading this, because Robyn Young’s two previous trilogies had been so good, but I was a bit disappointed in it.  However, it’s obviously going to be the first in a series, so maybe things’ll get better.  It feels as if she’s going for a wider market by writing about Richard III, who’s been so much in the news this year, and channelling Dan Brown, but I’m not convinced that it’s worked very well.  On the other hand, trying to tie the much-discussed subject of the Princes in the Tower in with the Voyages of Discovery and the aftermath of the fall of Constantinople is certainly a bold and different approach, and maybe the sequels will be better.

So, what have we got?  The protagonist is Jack Wynter, fictitious illegitimate son of Thomas Vaughan, chamberlain to the young Edward V.  The book starts with Jack in Seville, where he’s been sent by his father because of some mysterious secret involving a map.  In this book, the fact that it’s Seville rather than anywhere else isn’t significant, but presumably at some later point it will become important that Seville is the city which will come to control trade with “the Indies”.  Vaughan is executed, along with various other supporters of Edward IV, by the Duke of Gloucester, who seizes power as Richard III.  At this point, the body count becomes so high that you start to feel that you’re in a computer nasty rather than a novel.  In Seville, in Lewes (Jack’s home town, to which he initially returns) and in London (where he goes next), people are tortured and murdered one after the other.  A lot of it feels rather gratuitous.  And there are all sorts of cryptic comments about secrets and mysteries involving the fall of Constantinople, Lorenzo de Medici.

Then we move over to the Princes in the Tower.  It seems to be the fashion these days for historical novelists to invent stories about the princes being rescued, presumably because that’s considered more exciting than the sad and almost certainly true version of events, that Richard had them murdered.  However, as long as the author points out that they’ve made their story up, that’s not a problem.  But this particular rescue story, without wanting to give too much away, didn’t ring very true.  One of the princes was in ill health, but it was the one whom history tells us was in good health, not the one who’s recorded as having been ill.  And the role of various people in the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense: their motives don’t seem very logical.  And Richard doesn’t do anything to try to find out what’s gone on.  Both he and Henry VII come across as very nasty pieces of work in this book.

Then there’s a lot more fighting and torturing.  And a lot of unanswered questions.  The Dan Brown-esque bit involves some sort of secret organisation apparently involving the Medicis of Florence, Thomas Vaughan, and a French monk who used to live in Constantinople, and a theory that everyone was the same religion until the time of Noah’s Ark (a Bible story they apparently take literally, but, OK, that works in the 15th century) and that the Church is rotten and (is this supposed to have some sort of message for modern times?)  the West should be working with the Ottomans.  Somehow linked to all this is a map showing lands to the far west, which, as the good reader knows, Christopher Columbus is about to “discover”.

At the end of the book,  we don’t know what’s happened to Edward V, we aren’t clear on what this secret society is all about, we’re not clear on whether or not there’s going to be a link-up with the Ottomans at some point and we are presumably meant to be desperate to read the next book in the series, when it comes out, and find out exactly what is going on.  And we’ve long since lost count of how many people have been casually murdered.  And are left to assume that some people who vanished were casually murdered as well.  But I didn’t feel that it really worked that well.  It was just too disjointed.  It wasn’t bad, but her first two series were far, far better.