"Gregory applies her romantically written fictionalization of history to the powerful story of Elizabeth Woodville, the first English born commoner to become Queen of England. Her marriage to King Edward IV became part of the aristocratic battle of kin against kin for the crown during the turbulent and tragic years of the War of the Roses. From the fairytale-like introduction to the loss of her two young princes in the Tower of London, Elizabeth tells her own tale of joy and grief. Bianca Amato narrates the story with little vocal embellishment. It is a reading rather than a performance, and, in this instance, wholly successful. Rather than a creating a host of character voices, Amato uses her strong, haunting and cultured tone and accent so that listeners hear Elizabeth herself. A Touchstone hardcover (Reviews, Jun. 29)." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Philippa Gregory is the New York Times bestselling author of several books, including The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance. A writer and broadcaster for radio and television, she lives in England. She welcomes visitors and messages at her website, www.philippagregory.com.
The bestselling author presents the first title in a new series set amidst the turmoil and intrigue of England's passionate family feud, The War of the Roses.
In the darkness of the forest the young knight could hear the splashing of the fountain long before he could see the glimmer of moonlight reflected on the still surface. He was about to step forward, longing to dip his head, drink in the coolness, when he caught his breath at the sight of something dark, moving deep in the water. There was a greenish shadow in the sunken bowl of the fountain, something like a great fish, something like a drowned body. Then it moved and stood upright and he saw, frighteningly naked: a bathing woman. Her skin as she rose up, water coursing down her flanks, was even paler than the white marble bowl, her wet hair dark as a shadow.
She is Melusina, the water goddess, and she is found in hidden springs and waterfalls in any forest in Christendom, even in those as far away as Greece. She bathes in the Moorish fountains too. They know her by another name in the northern countries, where the lakes are glazed with ice and it crackles when she rises. A man may love her if he keeps her secret and lets her alone when she wants to bathe, and she may love him in return until he breaks his word, as men always do, and she sweeps him into the deeps, with her fishy tail, and turns his faithless blood to water.
The tragedy of Melusina, whatever language tells it, whatever tune it sings, is that a man will always promise more than he can do to a woman he cannot understand. SPRING 1464
My father is Sir Richard Woodville, Baron Rivers, an English nobleman, a landholder, and a supporter of the true Kings of England, the Lancastrian line. My mother descends from the Dukes of Burgundy and so carries the watery blood of the goddess Melusina, who founded their royal house with her entranced ducal lover, and can still be met at times of extreme trouble, crying a warning over the castle rooftops when the son and heir is dying and the family doomed. Or so they say, those who believe in such things.
With this contradictory parentage of mine: solid English earth and French water goddess, one could expect anything from me: an enchantress, or an ordinary girl. There are those who will say I am both. But today, as I comb my hair with particular care and arrange it under my tallest headdress, take the hands of my two fatherless boys and lead the way to the road that goes to Northampton, I would give all that I am to be, just this once, simply irresistible.
I have to attract the attention of a young man riding out to yet another battle, against an enemy that cannot be defeated. He may not even see me. He is not likely to be in the mood for beggars or flirts. I have to excite his compassion for my position, inspire his sympathy for my needs, and stay in his memory long enough for him to do something about them both. And this is a man who has beautiful women flinging themselves at him every night of the week, and a hundred claimants for every post in his gift.
He is a usurper and a tyrant, my enemy and the son of my enemy, but I am far beyond loyalty to anyone but my sons and myself. My own father rode out to the battle of Towton against this man who now calls himself King of England, though he is little more than a braggart boy; and I have never seen a man as broken as my father when he came home from Towton, his sword arm bleeding through his jacket, his face white, saying that this boy is a commander such as we have never seen before, and our cause is lost, and we are all without hope while he lives. Twenty thousand men were cut down at Towton at this boy's command; no one had ever seen such death before in England. My father said it was a harvest of Lancastrians, not a battle. The rightful King Henry and his wife, Queen Margaret of Anjou, fled to Scotland, devastated by the deaths.
Those of us left in England did not surrender readily. The battles went on and on to resist the false king, this boy of York. My own husband was killed commanding our cavalry, only three years ago at St. Albans. And now I am left a widow and what land and fortune I once called my own has been taken by my motherin-law with the goodwill of the victor, the master of this boy-king, the great puppeteer who is known as the Kingmaker: Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who made a king out of this vain boy, now only twenty-two, and will make a hell out of England for those of us who still defend the House of Lancaster.
There are Yorkists in every great house in the land now, and every profitable business or place or tax is in their gift. Their boyking is on the throne, and his supporters form the new court. We, the defeated, are paupers in our own houses and strangers in our own country, our king an exile, our queen a vengeful alien plotting with our old enemy of France. We have to make terms with the tyrant ofYork, while praying that God turns against him and our true king sweeps south with an army for yet another battle.
In the meantime, like many a woman with a husband dead and a father defeated, I have to piece my life together like a patchwork of scraps. I have to regain my fortune somehow, though it seems that neither kinsman nor friend can make any headway for me. We are all known as traitors. We are forgiven but not beloved. We are all powerless. I shall have to be my own advocate, and make my own case to a boy who respects justice so little that he would dare to take an army against his own cousin: a king ordained. What can one say to such a savage that he could understand?
My boys, Thomas, who is nine, and Richard, who is eight, are dressed in their best, their hair wetted and smoothed down, their faces shining from soap. I have tight hold of their hands as they stand on either side of me, for these are true boys and they draw dirt to them as if by magic. If I let them go for a second, then one will scuff his shoes and the other rip his hose, and both of them will manage to get leaves in their hair and mud on their faces, and Thomas will certainly fall in the stream. As it is, anchored by my grip, they hop from one leg to another in an agony of boredom, and straighten up only when I say, "Hush, I can hear horses."
It sounds like the patter of rain at first, and then in a moment a rumble like thunder. The jingle of the harness and the flutter of the standards, the chink of the chain mail and the blowing of the horses, the sound and the smell and the roar of a hundred horses ridden hard is overwhelming and, even though I am determined to stand out and make them stop, I can't help but shrink back. What must it be to face these men riding down in battle with their lances outstretched before them, like a galloping wall of staves? How could any man face it?
Thomas sees the bare blond head in the midst of all the fury and noise and shouts "Hurrah!" like the boy he is, and at the shout of his treble voice I see the man's head turn, and he sees me and the boys, and his hand snatches the reins and he bellows "Halt!" His horse stands up on its rear legs, wrenched to a standstill, and the whole cavalcade wheels and halts and swears at the sudden stop, and then abruptly everything is silent and the dust billows around us.
His horse blows out, shakes its head, but the rider is like a statue on its high back. He is looking at me and I at him, and it is so quiet that I can hear a thrush in the branches of the oak above me. How it sings. My God, it sings like a ripple of glory, like joy made into sound. I have never heard a bird sing like that before, as if it were caroling happiness.
I step forward, still holding my sons' hands, and I open my mouth to plead my case, but at this moment, this crucial moment, I have lost my words. I have practiced well enough. I had a little speech all prepared, but now I have nothing. And it is almost as if I need no words. I just look at him and somehow I expect him to understand everything -- my fear of the future and my hopes for these my boys, my lack of money and the irritable pity of my father, which makes living under his roof so unbearable to me, the coldness of my bed at night, and my longing for another child, my sense that my life is over. Dear God, I am only twenty-seven, my cause is defeated, my husband is dead. Am I to be one of many poor widows who will spend the rest of their days at someone else's fireside trying to be a good guest? Shall I never be kissed again? Shall I never feel joy? Not ever again?
And still the bird sings as if to say that delight is easy, for those who desire it.
He makes a gesture with his hand to the older man at his side, and the man barks out a command and the soldiers turn their horses off the road and go into the shade of the trees. But the king jumps down from his great horse, drops the reins, and walks towards me and my boys. I am a tall woman but he overtops me by a head; he must be far more than six feet tall. My boys crane their necks up to see him; he is a giant to them. He is blond haired, gray eyed, with a tanned, open, smiling face, rich with charm, easy with grace. This is a king as we have never seen before in England: this is a man whom the people will love on sight. And his eyes are fixed on my face as if I know a secret that he has to have, as if we have known each other forever, and I can feel my cheeks are burning but I cannot look away from him.
A modest woman looks down in this world, keeps her eyes on her slippers; a supplicant bows low and stretches out a pleading hand. But I stand tall, I am aghast at myself, staring like an ignorant peasant, and find I cannot take my eyes from his, from his smiling mouth, from his gaze, which is burning on my face.
"Who is this?" he asks, still looking at me.
"Your Grace, this is my mother, Lady Elizabeth Grey," my son Thomas says politely, and he pulls off his cap and drops to his knee.
Richard on my other side kneels too and mutters, as if he cannot be heard, "Is this the king? Really? He is the tallest man I have ever seen in my life!"
I sink down into a curtsey but I cannot look away. Instead, I gaze up at him, as a woman might stare with hot eyes at a man she adores.
"Rise up," he says. His voice is low, for only me to hear. "Have you come to see me?"
"I need your help," I say. I can hardly form the words. I feel as if the love potion, which my mother soaked into the scarf billowing from my headdress, is drugging me, not him. "I cannot obtain my dowry lands, my jointure, now I am widowed." I stumble in the face of his smiling interest. "I am a widow now. I have nothing to live on."
"My husband was Sir John Grey. He died at St. Albans," I say. It is to confess his treason and the damnation of my sons. The king will recognize the name of the commander of his enemy's cavalry. I nip my lip. "Their father did his duty as he conceived it to be, Your Grace; he was loyal to the man he thought was king. My boys are innocent of anything."
"He left you these two sons?" He smiles down at my boys.
"The best part of my fortune," I say. "This is Richard and this is Thomas Grey."
He nods at my boys, who gaze up at him as if he were some kind of high-bred horse, too big for them to pet but a figure for awestruck admiration, and then he looks back to me. "I am thirsty," he says. "Is your home near here?"
"We would be honored..." I glance at the guard who rides with him. There must be more than a hundred of them. He chuckles. "They can ride on," he decides. "Hastings!" The older man turns and waits. "You go on to Grafton. I will catch you up. Smollett can stay with me, and Forbes. I will come in an hour or so."
Sir William Hastings looks me up and down as if I am a pretty piece of ribbon for sale. I show him a hard stare in reply, and he takes off his hat and bows to me, throws a salute to the king, shouts to the guard to mount up.
"Where are you going?" he asks the king.
The boy-king looks at me.
"We are going to the house of my father, Baron Rivers, Sir Richard Woodville," I say proudly, though I know the king will recognize the name of a man who was high in the favor of the Lancaster court, fought for them, and once took hard words from him in person when York and Lancaster were daggers drawn. We all know of one another well enough, but it is a courtesy generally observed to forget that we were all loyal to Henry VI once, until these turned traitor.
Sir William raises his eyebrow at his king's choice for a stopping place. "Then I doubt that you'll want to stay very long," he says unpleasantly, and rides on. The ground shakes as they go by, and they leave us in warm quietness as the dust settles.
"My father has been forgiven and his title restored," I say defensively. "You forgave him yourself after Towton."
"I remember your father and your mother," the king says equably. "I have known them since I was a boy in good times and bad. I am only surprised that they never introduced me to you."
I have to stifle a giggle. This is a king notorious for seduction. Nobody with any sense would let their daughter meet him. "Would you like to come this way?" I ask. "It is a little walk to my father's house."
"D'you want a ride, boys?" he asks them. Their heads bob up like imploring ducklings. "You can both go up," he says, and lifts Richard and then Thomas into the saddle. "Now hold tight. You on to your brother and you -- Thomas, is it? -- you hold on to the pommel."
He loops the rein over his arm and then offers me his other arm, and so we walk to my home, through the wood, under the shade of the trees. I can feel the warmth of his arm through the slashed fabric of his sleeve. I have to stop myself leaning towards him. I look ahead to the house and to my mother's window and see, from the little movement behind the mullioned panes of glass, that she has been looking out, and willing this very thing to happen.
She is at the front door as we approach, the groom of the household at her side. She curtseys low. "Your Grace," she says pleasantly, as if the king comes to visit every day. "You are very welcome to Grafton Manor."
A groom comes running and takes the reins of the horse to lead it to the stable yard. My boys cling on for the last few yards, as my mother steps back and bows the king into the hall. "Will you take a glass of small ale?" she asks. "Or we have a very good wine from my cousins in Burgundy?"
"I'll take the ale, if you please," he says agreeably. "It is thirsty work riding. It is hot for spring. Good day to you, Lady Rivers."
The high table in the great hall is laid with the best glasses and a jug of ale as well as the wine. "You are expecting company?" he asks.
She smiles at him. "There is no man in the world could ride past my daughter," she says. "When she told me she wanted to put her own case to you, I had them draw the best of our ale. I guessed you would stop."
He laughs at her pride, and turns to smile at me. "Indeed, it would be a blind man who could ride past you," he says.
I am about to make some little comment, but again it happens. Our eyes meet, and I can think of nothing to say to him. We just stand, staring at each other for a long moment, until my mother passes him a glass and says quietly, "Good health, Your Grace."
He shakes his head, as if awakened. "And is your father here?" he asks.
"Sir Richard has ridden over to see our neighbors," I say. "We expect him back for his dinner."
My mother takes a clean glass and holds it up to the light and tuts as if there is some flaw. "Excuse me," she says, and leaves. The king and I are alone in the great hall, the sun pouring through the big window behind the long table, the house in silence, as if everyone is holding their breath and listening.
He goes behind the table and sits down in the master's chair. "Please sit," he says, and gestures to the chair beside him. I sit as if I am his queen, on his right hand, and I let him pour me a glass of small ale. "I will look into your claim for your lands," he says. "Do you want your own house? Are you not happy living here with your mother and father?"
"They are kind to me," I say. "But I am used to my own household, I am accustomed to running my own lands. And my sons will have nothing if I cannot reclaim their father's lands. It is their inheritance. I must defend my sons."
"These have been hard times," he says. "But if I can keep my throne, I will see the law of the land running from one coast of England to another once more, and your boys will grow up without fear of warfare."
I nod my head.
"Are you loyal to King Henry?" he asks me. "D'you follow your family as loyal Lancastrians?"
Our history cannot be denied. I know that there was a furious quarrel in Calais between this king, then nothing more than a young York son, and my father, then one of the great Lancastrian lords. My mother was the first lady at the court of Margaret of Anjou; she must have met and patronized the handsome young son ofYork a dozen times. But who would have known then that the world might turn upside down and that the daughter of Baron Rivers would have to plead to that very boy for her own lands to be restored to her? "My mother and father were very great at the court of King Henry, but my family and I accept your rule now," I say quickly.
He smiles. "Sensible of you all, since I won," he says. "I accept your homage."
I give a little giggle, and at once his face warms. "It must be over soon, please God," he says. "Henry has nothing more than a handful of castles in lawless northern country. He can muster brigands like any outlaw, but he cannot raise a decent army. And his queen cannot go on and on bringing in the country's enemies to fight her own people. Those who fight for me will be rewarded, but even those who have fought against me will see that I shall be just in victory. And I will make my rule run, even to the north of England, even through their strongholds, up to the very border of Scotland."
"Do you go to the north now?" I ask. I take a sip of small ale. It is my mother's best but there is a tang behind it; she will have added some drops of a tincture, a love philter, something to make desire grow. I need nothing. I am breathless already.
"We need peace," he says. "Peace with France, peace with the Scots, and peace from brother to brother, cousin to cousin. Henry must surrender; his wife has to stop bringing in French troops to fight against Englishmen. We should not be divided anymore, York against Lancaster: we should all be Englishmen. There is nothing that sickens a country more than its own people fighting against one another. It destroys families; it is killing us daily. This has to end, and I will end it. I will end it this year."
I feel the sick fear that the people of this country have known for nearly a decade. "There must be another battle?"
He smiles. "I shall try to keep it from your door, my lady. But it must be done and it must be done soon. I pardoned the Duke of Somerset and took him into my friendship, and now he has run away to Henry once more, a Lancastrian turncoat, faithless like all the Beauforts. The Percys are raising the north against me. They hate the Nevilles, and the Neville family are my greatest allies. It is like a dance now: the dancers are in their place; they have to do their steps. They will have a battle; it cannot be avoided."
"The queen's army will come this way?" Though my mother loved her and was the first of her ladies, I have to say that her army is a force of absolute terror. Mercenaries, who care nothing for the country; Frenchmen who hate us; and the savage men of the north of England who see our fertile fields and prosperous towns as good for nothing but plunder. Last time she brought in the Scots on the agreement that anything they stole they could keep as their fee. She might as well have hired wolves.
"I shall stop them," he says simply. "I shall meet them in the north of England and I shall defeat them."
"How can you be so sure?" I exclaim.
He flashes a smile at me, and I catch my breath. "Because I have never lost a battle," he says simply. "I never will. I am quick on the field, and I am skilled; I am brave and I am lucky. My army moves faster than any other; I make them march fast and I move them fully armed. I outguess and I outpace my enemy. I don't lose battles. I am lucky in war as I am lucky in love. I have never lost in either game. I won't lose against Margaret of Anjou; I will win."
I laugh at his confidence, as if I am not impressed; but in truth he dazzles me.
He finishes his cup of ale and gets to his feet. "Thank you for your kindness," he says.
"You're going? You're going now?" I stammer.
"You will write down for me the details of your claim?"
"Yes. But -- "
"Names and dates and so on? The land that you say is yours and the details of your ownership?"
I almost clutch his sleeve to keep him with me, like a beggar. "I will, but -- "
"Then I will bid you adieu."
There is nothing I can do to stop him, unless my mother has thought to lame his horse.
"Yes, Your Grace, and thank you. But you are most welcome to stay. We will dine soon...or -- "
"No, I must go. My friend William Hastings will be waiting for me."
"Of course, of course. I don't wish to delay you..."
I walk with him to the door. I am anguished at his leaving so abruptly, and yet I cannot think of anything to make him stay. At the threshold he turns and takes my hand. He bows his fair head low and, deliciously, turns my hand. He presses a kiss into my palm and folds my fingers over the kiss as if to keep it safe. When he comes up smiling, I see that he knows perfectly well that this gesture has made me melt and that I will keep my hand clasped until bedtime when I can put it to my mouth.
He looks down at my entranced face, at my hand that stretches, despite myself, to touch his sleeve. Then he relents. "I shall fetch the paper that you prepare, myself, tomorrow," he says. "Of course. Did you think differently? How could you? Did you think I could walk away from you, and not come back? Of course I am coming back. Tomorrow at noon. Will I see you then?"
He must hear my gasp. The color rushes back into my face so that my cheeks are burning hot. "Yes," I stammer. "T...tomorrow."
"At noon. And I will stay to dinner, if I may."
"We will be honored."
He bows to me and turns and walks down the hall, through the wide-flung double doors and out into the bright sunlight. I put my hands behind me and I hold the great wooden door for support. Truly, my knees are too weak to hold me up.
"He's gone?" my mother asks, coming quietly through the little side door.
"He's coming back tomorrow," I say. "He's coming back tomorrow. He's coming back to see me tomorrow."
When the sun is setting and my boys are saying their evening prayers, blond heads on their clasped hands at the foot of their trestle beds, my mother leads the way out of the front door of the house and down the winding footpath to where the bridge, a couple of wooden planks, spans the River Tove. She walks across, her conical headdress brushing the overhanging trees, and beckons me to follow her. At the other side, she puts her hand on a great ash tree, and I see there is a dark thread of silk wound around the rough-grained wood of the thick trunk.
"What is this?"
"Reel it in," is all she says. "Reel it in, a foot or so every day."
I put my hand on the thread and pull it gently. It comes easily; there is something light and small tied onto the far end. I cannot even see what it might be, as the thread loops across the river into the reeds, in deep water on the other side.
"Magic," I say flatly. My father has banned these practices in his house: the law of the land forbids it. It is death to be proved as a witch, death by drowning in the ducking stool, or strangling by the blacksmith at the village crossroads. Women like my mother are not permitted our skills in England today; we are named as forbidden.
"Magic," she agrees, untroubled. "Powerful magic, for a good cause. Well worth the risk. Come every day and reel it in, a foot at a time."
"What will come in?" I ask her. "At the end of this fishing line of yours? What great fish will I catch?"
She smiles at me and puts her hand on my cheek. "Your heart's desire," she says gently. "I didn't raise you to be a poor widow."
She turns and walks back across the footbridge, and I pull the thread as she has told me, take in twelve inches of it, tie it fast again, and follow her.
"So what did you raise me for?" I ask her, as we walk side by side to the house. "What am I to be? In your great scheme of things? In a world at war, where it seems, despite your foreknowledge and magic, we are stuck on the losing side?"
The new moon is rising, a small sickle of a moon. Without a word spoken, we both wish on it; we bob a curtsey, and I hear the chink as we turn over the little coins in our pockets.
"I raised you to be the best that you could be," she says simply. "I didn't know what that would be, and I still don't know. But I didn't raise you to be a lonely woman, missing her husband, struggling to keep her boys safe; a woman alone in a cold bed, her beauty wasted on empty lands."
"Well, Amen," I say simply, my eyes on the slender sickle. "Amen to that. And may the new moon bring me something better."
Copyright © 2009 by Philippa Gregory Limited
This reading group guide for The White Queen includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Philippa Gregory. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Questions For Discussion
1. Discuss Elizabeth's first few encounters with Edward and her motives for seeking him out. Do they marry for love? Did you find it surprising that Edward defied his mentor Warwick and upheld his secret marriage to Elizabeth? Why or why not?
2. How does Elizabeth and Edward's clandestine marriage change England's political landscape?
3. Anthony tells Elizabeth that she and Edward are creating enemies by distributing wealth to their "favorites, not the deserving" (page 204). What are your thoughts on Edward and Elizabeth as monarchs? How adept is Elizabeth at playing the political game, both before and after Edward's death?
4. What is your view of Elizabeth as a daughter, a sister, and a mother? Her daughter Elizabeth says to her, "You love the crown more than your children" (page 312). Does Elizabeth, in fact, place her ambition ahead of her children's well-being? How does she regard her daughters versus her sons?
5. Compare the Plantagenets and the House of York with the Woodvilles. What are the most apparent differences between the two families? What similarities do they share?
6. Elizabeth makes some questionable moral choices, such as standing silently by while her husband and his brothers murder Henry IV and knowingly putting a page boy in harm's way by sending him to the Tower in place of her son. Are her actions justifiable or not? How does she feel about the choices she made?
7. What is the significance of the legend of Melusina? Anthony dismisses Elizabeth's belief in Melusina and in her own mystical abilities as "part fairy tale and part Bible and all nonsense" (page 239). Is he right, or are she and Jacquetta really able to perform magic? With the penalty for witchcraft being death, why do they take the risk? What unintended consequences are there of some of their actions?
8. In what ways are women especially vulnerable during this tumultuous time? What power do women have? How do Elizabeth, Jacquetta, Cecily, and other female characters in the novel use their intelligence and influence?
9. Elizabeth is aware of and even tolerates the king's adultery. Why then does she take exception to his association with Elizabeth Shore? Why does Edward's former mistress later come to the queen's aid while she is in living in sanctuary?
10. When the younger Elizabeth pleads with her mother to come to an agreement with Duke Richard, why does she refuse to even consider the idea? How does the relationship between mother and daughter change while they are in sanctuary for the second time?
11. "Despite my own caution, despite my own fears, I start to hope," muses Elizabeth. "I start to think that if King Richard marries Elizabeth and makes her his queen I will be welcomed at court again, I will take up my place as My Lady, the Queen's Mother" (page 392). After all the bloodshed, why is she willing to risk putting her daughter on the throne?
12. The fate of the two princes in the Tower is a mystery historians have been trying to solve for centuries. What is your opinion of the way Philippa Gregory presents this aspect of the story? Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is suspected of being responsible for their deaths. Why is Elizabeth inclined to believe him when he says he did not order her sons to be killed?
13. Elizabeth paid a high price for the throne, losing her father, brothers, and two of her sons. What, if anything, do you think she would do differently if given the chance? What would you have done in her situation?
14. When Edward is overthrown and flees to France, Elizabeth says, "It is as he warned me: he could not spread out the wealth quickly enough, fairly enough, to enough people" (page 130). What does The White Queen reveal about human nature?
15. How does The White Queen compare to other works of historical fiction you have read, including books by Philippa Gregory? The novel has somewhat of a cliffhanger ending. Are you interested in reading the next book in the series? Why or why not?
A Conversation with Philippa Gregory
For readers who love your books set in Tudor England, what you would like them to know about the Plantagenets and the House of York?
I suppose I'd like them to know that here is a family just as fascinating as the Tudors, perhaps more so. Certainly, they are more complicated, more wicked, and more passionate -- takers of great risk. I think people have been put off this period because it has been so well studied by military historians that it has been regarded as being just about battles. But there is so much more to it than this! The history of the women of the period has been very neglected because of this emphasis on battles and thus the male leaders.
What appealed to you about using Elizabeth Woodville as the main character in a novel? In what ways do you think modern women can identify with Elizabeth?
The things I discovered about Elizabeth in the first days of my reading about this period told me at once that she would fascinate me, and she has done so. Her background as a descendant of a family who claim to be related to a goddess was enough to have me absolutely enchanted straightaway. It is in the historical record that her mother was widely believed to be a witch, and that charge was leveled at Elizabeth also. This is exciting enough, but it also indicates that people were afraid of Elizabeth's power, and I am interested in powerful women. I think she will fascinate modern women in the same way that many historical women strike a chord: despite so many changes in the world, women are still trying to find happiness, manage their children, seek advantage, and avoid the persecution of misogynists. As women of any time, we have a lot in common. Despite the amazing advances in the rights of women (and I am so grateful for these myself), the struggle for women's freedom, independence, and the right to exercise power goes on.
Throughout the novel there are scenes relating the story of the goddess Melusina. Is this based on an actual historical fable, or is it something you created for the novel?
The fable of Melusina is well known, perhaps to everyone, in its retelling as the story of the Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen and then in the Disney movie. As I say at the beginning of the novel, the legend of Melusina goes far back in time, perhaps to the classical legends, perhaps even earlier. The fable was studied by Carl Jung; Melusina has been identified as a form of the material of the world -- the dark, watery element that combines with the sun in the alchemist's "chemical wedding." This is a potent myth, indeed, and I retell the story here in a way that speaks to my characters and to me.
"These are not chivalrous times; these are not the times of knights in the dark forest and beautiful ladies in moonlit fountains and promises of love that will be ballads, sung forever" (page 22), you write in The White Queen. Is there a tendency to romanticize history, both for writers and readers? How do you make sure to realistically portray all aspects of the time period you're depicting, even the more difficult ones?
Yes, indeed. These are not chivalrous times. I suspect that no times have ever been chivalrous times. We glamorize the past, and we romanticize it; we even look back at our own personal histories and cast a rosy glow or an enhanced dark shadow over our own childhoods. I keep my writing grounded in realism by reading a great deal before I start writing, by looking at the record with a critical eye, and by being skeptical of grandiose claims. Having said that, I too find it hard to resist the charm of Edward or Elizabeth or the marvelous character Jacquetta or any of the other powerful and interesting people who strove for themselves and for their families in these dangerous times. These are not chivalrous or romantic times, but they are times of danger -- and in such circumstances one sees both the worst and best in people.
What challenges, if any, did you face when writing about the battle scenes and the military strategy, which was often a crucial factor in determining who took the throne? Did you visit any of the places where the battles took place?
I became a researcher in military history, which is not my natural home! I visited battle sites and I read long and complicated descriptions of battles and the modern speculations. In the end I found myself absolutely intrigued and fascinated by how the battles were lost and won by small events, even sometimes by luck. The mist at Barnet is a recorded fact, and it was possible for me to weave it into the story of Elizabeth and her mother as well as to see it as a determining factor on the battlefield. The three suns of Towton were both a real phenomenon and a powerful metaphor for the troops. The history of battles is a central part to the story of the Cousins' War, and part of my task in this novel and the others in the series was to take this history, as I take any other, and make it come alive in the novel.
The fate of Edward and Richard, the princes in the Tower, is a subject that has confounded historians for centuries. Why did you decide to approach this aspect of the story the way you did? Is there evidence to suggest that Elizabeth sent her son Richard into hiding and a page boy in his place to the Tower?
Part of my response to this story was simply emotional: I have a son of my own, and the thought of Elizabeth losing both her sons was tremendously painful. So I confess a bias to wanting at least one to survive. Then there is the historical evidence. A very interesting book by Ann Wroe, Perkin, suggested to me that the so-called pretender Perkin Warbeck might well have been the surviving prince, Richard. Her case for it is very compelling, as others have suggested too. There is other persuasive evidence that both boys were not killed as the traditional history (and Shakespeare) suggests. Even the traditional history -- of them being suffocated in their beds in the Tower and buried beneath a stair -- is filled with contradictions. If Perkin was Richard -- and this is speculative history, as indeed all history around this genuine mystery must be -- then Richard must have somehow survived. How could this have happened? It seemed to me most likely, not that he escaped from the Tower, but that he was never sent to it. His mother knew the danger her older son was in, had herself seen Henry VI murdered in the Tower, and was highly aware of the danger to her sons. It seemed to me most unlikely that she would hand over a second son when she had lost the first. The changeling page boy is my invention, but the history of Perkin in Flanders is based on his own confession. His story will continue in the series.
Elizabeth's father says to her, "We are forming a new royal family. We have to be more royal than royalty itself or nobody will believe us. I can't say I quite believe it myself" (page 63). How unlikely was it that Elizabeth Woodville would become queen? How has she been remembered by historians?
Elizabeth's ascent to the throne is one of the great triumphs of a commoner and was considered so exceptional in her own time that one of the explanations offered was witchcraft. It is really a triumph of unlikely events. How unlikely that Edward, raising troops for a battle, would be diverted by a woman he must have met by chance? How unlikely that he would offer marriage when he knew as well as Warwick that to secure his reign he must marry well, preferably a European princess? How unlikely that even after a secret marriage he would honor his vows? It is a catalogue of unlikely events, and the only coherent explanation is that Edward and Elizabeth fell in love at first sight and married for love. Elizabeth, like many powerful and effective women, has been unkindly treated by historians. Some follow the gossip against her at the time that begrudged her good fortune; some point to the alliances she made for her family as symptoms of greed and self-aggrandizement. She gets little credit for surviving two periods in sanctuary, nor for her courage during the siege of the Tower. She is like many women "hidden from history" in the phrase of historian Sheila Rowbotham, and when her role is acknowledged she is often treated with very harsh criticism.
Anthony Woodville, the queen's brother, seemed to be ahead of his time in regard to education and culture. What more can you tell us about him? Was Elizabeth honoring his memory by becoming a patroness of Queens' College Cambridge?
Elizabeth took over the role of patron of Queens' College from her predecessor Margaret of Anjou, but her interest in education and culture may have been inspired and would certainly have been encouraged by her brother, who was a true Renaissance man: spiritual, martial, thoughtful, and innovative. He brought the printer William Caxton to England and sponsored the first printed book; he was famous for his ability in the joust; and he was a loyal brother to Elizabeth and a devoted uncle to her son. The poem I quote in the book was indeed the poem he wrote the night before he died. We can only speculate as to the sort of man he can have been that he should spend his last hours on earth, not in rage or grief, but in crafting a poem of such detachment and clarity.
If you could go back in time and live in any of the royal courts you've written about, which one would it be and why?
I would be absolutely mad to want to be a woman of any of these times. A Tudor or Plantagenet woman was wholly ruled by men: either father or husband. She would find it difficult to seek any education, make her own fortune, or improve her circumstances. Her husband would have a legal right over her that was equal to his ownership of domestic animals; and the chances of dying in childbirth were very high. If one could go back in time and be a wealthy man, these would be times of adventure and opportunity but still tremendously dangerous. I think I would prefer the Tudor period to diminish the danger of being killed in battle, but there were still regular plagues and foreign wars to face. I cannot sufficiently express my enthusiasm for modern medicine, votes for women, and safe contraception.
The younger Elizabeth emerges as quite a vivid and spirited character. Will we be seeing more of her in a future book?
Elizabeth, the Princess of York, goes on to marry Henry VII and so is mother to a royal dynasty, just as her father and mother hoped they were creating a royal dynasty. She is, of course, mother of Henry VIII, and her granddaughter is England's greatest queen -- Elizabeth I. Elizabeth of York will be the subject of the third book of this series, to be called The White Princess. But coming next is the story of the mother of Henry VII, the indomitable Margaret Beaufort, whom you may have glimpsed in this novel but who deserves a book all to herself. It is called The Red Queen.