“He promised her that he would give her everything…as men in love always do”; yet this Queen of England must make her own way to secure her future and fortune.
Set in Medieval England amidst the bloody turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, the novel follows the remarkable rags to riches story of one incredible woman: Elizabeth Woodville. Beginning in 1464, as the two rival factions of English royalty – Lancaster and York – tear themselves apart in the battle for the crown, the young widow must petition her new Yorkist King Edward to restore her lands and inheritance. A Lancastrian by birth, and thus natural enemy of the new King, she forced by desperation to beg for the wealth her husband – killed fighting for the losing side in the last battle for the throne – left for her. Standing gracefully underneath the grand old oak tree by the side of the road near her parent’s ancestral home, she entrances the young King, enrapturing him with her beauty; within weeks, they are secretly married, and she ascends to the highest position in the land: Queen of England.
Her ascension is unprecedented and unwelcome: she is a woman of low standing, and a widow, not the rich bride intended for the new King of England, a bride that should have brought profitable treaties with foreign allies. She and her family are disliked by the King’s mother, his greatest friend and mentor Lord Warwick, and the King’s younger brother George. Yet survive they must, especially when Edward the King is still not secure on his throne. Cousin against cousin, brother against brother, families must contend for victory on the battlefield. Trusted friends turn traitor, and no-one can be certain of each other’s loyalty. The throne of England becomes a curse, doomed to ruin all those who seek to claim it.
Yet Elizabeth and her King manage to survive – for the moment – bearing numerous children that appear to demonstrate God’s blessing on their divine House of York. Most importantly, there are sons, guarantees that Edward’s rule can last beyond the volatility of civil war. Yet with each year there is rebellion; and with each rebellion, tragedy strikes. Already with two sons from her first marriage, two from her second and with several brothers to fight her cause, Elizabeth seems secure in her regal splendour at court; but in this novel, it is the women who hold the power, casting deadly curses on all those who seek to thwart their dominance.
When disaster crushes their family stability, it is the women – Elizabeth and her daughters – who must flee to safety, plotting and avenging their male kinsman. It appears only the mystical power of their enchanted ancestress, Melusina, passed down through the generations, can rescue them from ruin; yet perhaps their ruthless ambition curses them eternally, and they are running from an inescapable destiny.
Well crafted and brilliantly executed, this novel is a must-read for any interested in history, or just the intrigue of female ambition in Medieval England. It is certainly interesting to see the story of the Wars of the Roses told from a woman’s point of view, Gregory cleverly voicing the distresses and hardships they must bear as well as remaining true to the bloody history they were entrapped in. Though based heavily on fact, some parts are clearly fictionalised, and though they add interest to the story and colour sections that Gregory must have needed to fill, they tend to stereotype women’s positions in a way that is not so revolutionary as the female perspective might suggest. Witchcraft and magic are prevalent, though I suppose in the context of the 1400s, powerful women would always be suspected of enchantment.
Ultimately, it is an impressive dramatisation of one of the most intriguing episodes of English history, and I have no doubt that its adaptation on the small screen – produced by the BBC in 2013 – does it magnificent justice. It must serve as a brilliant reminder that Queens of England are just as much a force to be reckoned with as their Kings.