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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