The study of England’s 15th-century Wars of the Roses has been known to give British schoolchildren howling fits, trying to differentiate between the Lancasters and the Yorks, false heirs to the throne, the murdered princes in the tower, treacherous brothers, plotting earls and “my kingdom for a horse.” Needless to say, many Americans have found it even more confusing. How lucky then for present day readers that Philippa Gregory, whose The Other Boleyn Girl became a successful film and a #1 New York Times bestseller, uses historical facts to create a fascinating fiction about this period of time, The White Queen.
The title comes from the symbols each faction used in their battles against each other: the Yorks wore a white rose, the Lancasters a red rose. It wasn’t until Henry VII married Elizabeth of York in 1486 that the symbol of the monarchy became the two intertwined blossoms, signaling the end of the Wars of the Roses.
Elizabeth Woodville (the White Queen) married Sir John Grey in 1452; he was killed at St. Albans in 1461, fighting for the Lancastrian side. As legend has it (a legend Gregory heartily endorses), Elizabeth took her two fatherless boys to wait by the side of the road for arrival of the victorious Edward IV, hoping to petition him for the return of her lands. Regardless of how they met, there is no doubt theirs was a love match—the two married secretly in 1464, and over the course of the next 18 years, Elizabeth bore him nine children, seven of which survived infancy.
Edward crowned Elizabeth queen the year after their marriage, and she lost no time promoting her extensive Woodville family to positions of power. This won her no fans among the York nobility, who had helped Edward take the throne from Henry VI. Nor did the marriage sit well with his mother, the Duchess of York, or the Earl of Warwick, who was known as “The King Maker.” They were arranging a marriage for Edward with the daughter of the French king and both were furious to have their plans thwarted by this less-than-royal match. Warwick had long fancied himself the power behind the throne, and seeing Edward take control of his own life propelled Warwick to seek another possible royal puppet; in this case, Edward’s younger brother, George, who was eventually convicted of and killed for treason.
One of the joys of Gregory’s books, of course, is their ‘history made easy’ quality. It’s one thing to read in a ‘just-the-facts’ history book that Warwick captured Edward IV. It’s another to read of Elizabeth’s fear for Edward’s life, of her seeking sanctuary in Westminster Abbey to save herself and her children, of her constant worry for all their futures, of her fervent hopes for word of Edward’s well-being and her inexpressible joy at his release.
No examination of Elizabeth’s life, fictional or otherwise, could ignore her brother-in-law, Richard III, nor the death of her two sons in the Tower of London. History, written primarily after Henry VII seized the monarchy, paints Richard as the villain, and there’s no denying he stole the crown from 12-year-old Edward V. But Gregory raises the possibility (as did Josephine Tey before her, among others) that Richard was innocent of this crime. Why, Richard posits in The White Queen, would he commit such a heinous crime when it gains him nothing politically and damns him in the eyes of the people? As Gregory tells it, both Richard and Elizabeth lay the crime at the feet of Henry Tudor. Indeed, one wonders if Shakespeare had not painted such a black picture of Richard III in his plays (plays written under Tudor rule), whether or not history might have treated Richard more leniently.
Regardless, all the people in this important and fascinating time in British history come marvelously alive in The White Queen. Indeed, compared to the intrigue, drama, murder and political machinations of 15th-century England, life in the 21st-century seems a delightfully quiet place in which to live.