The Red Queen
by Philippa Gregory
‘ “You are a girl; girls have no choice. You could never choose your own husband; you are of the royal family …. It is forbidden for one of royal blood to marry their own choice.” ‘
Margaret Beaufort knows she is chosen by God for a great purpose. As a child, her heroine is Joan of Arc, and she believes her destiny is to follow the same path. But twice a wife and once a widow by the age of fifteen, Margaret soon learns that, in the England of King Henry VI (as in many ages to follow), a woman has no power to choose. Now married to Sir Henry Stafford, more than twice her age, she decides to devote her life to her son by her first husband, Edmund Tudor, half-brother of the weak king. The baby Henry is left under the care of Edmund’s brother Jasper, Duke of Pembroke.
‘ “This is what I feared would come, this is what I have dreaded…. It is a muddle and a mess, and a sinful waste, and good men have died, and more will follow.” ‘ [Stafford to Margaret]
Stafford is a peaceable man, a kindly man, who treats Margaret well but is unable to impregnate her. She comes to despise his reluctance to take sides and support King Henry and his queen, Margaret of Anjou, in the war against the Yorkists. When Stafford finally takes up arms, it is to support Edward, Duke of York in his bid to take the throne. The Lancastrian side loses and the Duke takes the throne as King Edward IV. Stafford is fatally wounded and Margaret is again a widow. Jasper has to flee and Margaret’s child is handed over to a Yorkist guardian. It is only one of many setbacks to her ambition.
‘All along the way there are men begging for help to get home, or lying down in the hedgerow and dying for lack of friends …. I see hideous sights, a man with half his face cut away,a man tying a shirt over his belly to stop his lights from spilling out ….’
Margaret courts and marries Thomas Stanley, who has influence at the royal court. She waits and she plots, never sure whether her husband is on her side or that of the Yorkist king. In an effort to build a lasting peace between Lancaster and York, she commits to a marriage between her son Henry and Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. But when opportunity knocks again, it too brings failure. With Edward dead, the throne of England is taken by his brother Richard. Jasper and the young Henry Tudor go into exile, first in Brittany, then in France.
Finally, at the head of a rag-a-taggle army of French convicts and mercenaries, Henry invades England. Supported at the last moment by the Stanley forces, he wins a decisive victory at the battle of Bosworth and is crowned as King Henry VII. His mother can now sign herself as Margaret Regina.
Narrated as an autobiography by Margaret, The Red Queen is a powerful reconstruction spanning forty years of English history. Treason, plot and murder abound as the male claimants of the rival houses of Lancaster and York fight one another for the throne. We meet the women too, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville and others, who cling as best they can to whichever prince or duke will advance their position and that of their children. Margaret Beaufort strides through it all, her objectives, her weaknesses, her deceits and her prejudices plain for all to see. She is not always a likeable protagonist but at least the reader can understand her passion.
As the day of the final reckoning at Bosworth approaches, Philippa Gregory gives space to the feelings of the two commanders, their hopes, their fears and their nightmares. The outcome of the battle hangs in the balance as King Richard’s forces face a battle technique never before seen in England and Henry risks everything on the word of an unreliable ally. Although the outcome is already written, the quality and suspense of the narrative forces the reader to hang on to the very end of the novel.
The Red Queen is a novel which combines history with imaginative fiction and speculation. The story of the Princes in the Tower is handled ambiguously, the author leaving us to decide for ourselves which of the commonly held theories is correct. Readers of the sequel, The White Princess, or anyone who has watched the TV adaptation, will know that Gregory manipulates one theory cleverly to make an interesting subplot.
The Red Queen is a story of the stupidity and futility – of the cruelty and bloodiness – of war. The novel leaves unresolved the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, although Philippa Gregory speculates on more than one theory of what may have happened to them. Was it King Richard, or the Duke of Buckingham, or perhaps even Margaret Beaufort herself who spirited them away? The build-up to the showdown at Bosworth and the battle itself are brilliantly told. There is a wonderful description of the opposing lines on the eve of battle. The feelings of the respective commanders, their fearsold