Thursday, June 26, 2014

Should I Give Philippa Gregory Another Chance?

I read The Other Boleyn Girl and The Queen's Fool and found them repetitious in structure and plot devices; I refused to read The Constant Princess because she made Katherine of Aragon into a liar. Now Philippa Gregory has written a historical fiction novel that is out in the UK now (see the top cover) and will be issued later this year in the USA (see the bottom cover) in "The Cousins' War Series"--and it's about the Countess of Salisbury, Blessed Margaret Pole:

This is the story of deposed royal Margaret Pole, and her unique view of King Henry VIII’s stratospheric rise to power in Tudor England.

Margaret Pole spends her young life struggling to free her brother, arrested as a child, from the Tower of London. The Tower – symbol of the Tudor usurpation of her family’s throne – haunts Margaret’s dreams until the day that her brother is executed on the orders of Henry VII.

Regarded as yet another threat to the volatile King Henry VII’s claim to the throne, Margaret is buried in marriage to a steady and kind Tudor supporter—Sir Richard Pole, governor of Wales. But Margaret’s quiet, hidden life is changed forever by the arrival of Arthur, the young Prince of Wales, and his beautiful bride, Katherine of Aragon, as Margaret soon becomes a trusted advisor and friend to the honeymooning couple.

Margaret’s destiny, as an heiress to the Plantagenets, is not for a life in the shadows. Tragedy throws her into poverty and rebellion against the new royal family, luck restores her to her place at court where she becomes the chief lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine and watches the dominance of the Spanish queen over her husband, and her fall. As the young king becomes increasingly paranoid of rivals he turns his fearful attention to Margaret and her royal family.

Amid the rapid deterioration of the Tudor court, Margaret must choose whether her allegiance is to the increasingly tyrannical king, Henry VIII, or to her beloved queen and princess. Caught between the old world and the new, Margaret has to find her own way and hide her knowledge of an old curse on all the Tudors, which is slowly coming true . . .

The author's note about her research makes me wonder, especially when I read the words with my added emphasis (in bold):

This is a novel which changed its nature, content and significance from when I started research until publication. Right up until the last stage of copy editing I was revising and adding material and characters to this dark story. I started it, thinking that it would be a relatively simple telling of the tragic story of Margaret Pole - daughter of George, Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville. George was the brother of Edward IV, probably drowned in a vat of Malmsey wine for treason against Edward and Queen Elizabeth. As the book progressed I discovered that Margaret was a central figure in the Tudor court, and probably actively involved in the endless conspiracies against the Henry VIII and his advisors. This hidden rebellion reached its peak in the uprising of the North called the Pilgrimage of Grace. The pilgrims won their aims of defending the Roman Catholic traditions and the return of the traditional advisors, but Henry reneged on his promises and sent his troops for a terrible persecution to men who held a royal pardon. Margaret, and her entire family, came under suspicion too and this novel moved far from the template of a persecuted heroine and became the story of a merciless murder of a family. Margaret's betrayer, and her defenders all come under the gaze of a king who was increasingly frightened and, I believe delusional. It's been a chilling and powerful book to write and the image of Henry VIII, composer of 'Greensleeves' beloved of primary school history, will never be the same again for me. He was a serial killer and this book traces his steps towards psychosis.

I don't think there is much evidence that Margaret Pole was "actively involved in the endless conspiracies against Henry VIII and his advisors". Her arrest and subsequent attainder and execution were mostly driven by Henry's anger with her son Reginald's "Pro ecclesiasticæ unitatis defensione", and the only "evidence" presented against her was a white silk tunic with the Five Wounds of Jesus embroidered on the back. Although devotion to the Five Wounds was a constant in England at that time, Cromwell and Henry used the presence of such an embroidered tunic as an indication of Margaret Pole's support of the Pilgrimage of Grace. Otherwise, we know that Henry did target the entire Pole family--Margaret Pole's grandson Henry (1st Baron Montagu Henry Pole's son) was held in the Tower of London until his death (possibly by starvation), Reginald was condemned in absentia (Parliament had to pass a law removing the penalty of death for his return to England in 1554 as Papal Legate).

These hints about Gregory's historical view of Margaret Pole and her family make me a little leery of her fictional presentation of this great lady's story--perhaps our local public library will have a copy when it's released and I can check it out.


  1. I think you are right to be sceptical about the novels of Philippa Gregory. Although she has a PhD in history, she does, as you say, make things up in her novels. I have read them all, having an abiding passion to discover new things about the era, but sad to say, have found emotional and unsubstantiated suppositions in every one of the "Cousins War" series.

    I think the problem is that a novelist in today's world has to be fairly sensational in order to be read at all. Certainly don't spend your own money on this book. I borrowed it from the local library and don't feel the need to have my own copy.

    1. Indeed, I have not even searched for this book! Instead I read Desmond Seward's "The Last White Rose", and I am looking forward to Susan Higginbotham's biography of Margaret Pole. Thanks for the advice.