A Conversation with Philippa Gregory, author of The White Queen
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.
A Conversation with Philippa Gregory, Author of The Red Queen
Margaret Beaufort is a very different character than Elizabeth Woodville, star of The White Queen. Was it difficult for you to shift perspective and write in the voice of a woman, in this case The Red Queen, who is the enemy of the main character of your previous book?
One of the most difficult things I have ever done in writing was shift my own perspective so that after three years of thinking entirely from the point of view of Elizabeth Woodville and from the point of view of the house of York, I had to convert to the view of Margaret Beaufort and the house of Lancaster. I thought at the time that the only way to do it would be to find some sort of key to the girl that Margaret was, in order to understand her as a woman. There are three extant biographies of her and I read them all and then thought that the secret to Margaret is her genuine and deep faith. That led me to the picture of this very precocious and serious little girl and once I could imagine and love her – I could imagine the woman that her hard life and disappointments create.
Margaret’s mother tells her “since you were a girl you could only be the bridge to the next generation.” (59) Do you feel sympathy for Margaret and her thwarted ambition? What would her life have been like if she were born a man?
Of course I feel intense sympathy for Margaret who is used by her family, as so many women of this period were used – as a pawn in a game of dynasties. However, to be cheerful about it – if she had been a man she would almost certainly have been killed in a battle or in an attack – all the other heirs on the Lancaster side were killed and she sent her son away to keep him safe. Perhaps the greatest disappointment for Margaret was that she was not allowed a religious life. There is no doubt in my mind that she would have made a wonderful abbess both as a landlord and community leader and as a scholar.
Taken together, The White Queen and The Red Queen present very different portraits of marriage in the fifteenth century. Was either woman’s experience more indicative of the time?
Margaret has the more typical life of a woman of her class. Many of the noblewomen of this time were placed in arranged marriages for the advantage of their families, she was exceptionally young, but most noblewomen could expect to be married at sixteen. What is unusual about Margaret is that it seems likely that her third marriage was indeed arranged by herself, to position herself at the York court, and to give her son a stepfather of immense wealth and influence. In this she was very powerfully taking control of her own destiny, and this was unusual, even for widows. Elizabeth Woodville’s first marriage is also very typical of the time. Her marriage was arranged when she was about sixteen to the wealthy heir of a great estate in a neighbouring county. The Grey family gained the Woodville’s connections at court and the royal and noble connections of Elizabeth’s mother, and the Woodvilles got their daughter into a wealthy house. Elizabeth’s second marriage was, of course, unique. She was the first English commoner to marry a king of England, and the first queen married for love. They married in secret without the knowledge the king’s advisor and mentor. It was an extraordinary marriage.
Sir Henry Stafford is an interesting contrast to so many of the striving, power-hungry men and women in this novel. How much of his thoughts did you base on real life and how much was your own interpretation of his character?
Sir Henry, like so many men and women of his time has left little or no record of his thoughts, and only scanty records of his actions. I had to look at what we knew about him: his age, his decision not to ride out to battle in any of the many battles of the wars: except when he went out for Lancaster in 1561, and for York a decade later. Therefore I had to consider why a man would have fought in the sixth and the fifteenth battle: but no others; and why a man tied to the house of Lancaster by family and habit would change his mind so completely as to fight for York. That was all I had to go on: as well as my general reading about the feelings of so many men who were forced to take difficult decisions about their private and family hopes and fears at a time of constant challenge.
There are three pivotal women in this novel, Elizabeth Woodville, her daughter, Lady Elizabeth and Margaret Beaufort. Do you think they are able to rise above what was considered acceptable for women’s roles in their time?
I think what these women demonstrate in this novel is the range of responses that were possible for women; and that this range is probably wider than we as readers of the period might generally think. Because the history of the period has been mostly written by men (for two reasons: that until the 20th century almost all historians were men since only men attended universities, and that histories of war seems to attract mostly male historians) we have very scanty records of what women were feeling thinking and even doing. And those reports we have are often biased against women who seek power. Thus we simply don’t know the extent of the involvement of Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort in the Buckingham rebellion or the Tudor invasion, we can only deduce that they were deeply involved. But we do have very negative views of Elizabeth Woodville as a mother failing to protect her children, as a panic-stricken woman fleeing into sanctuary, and as a hard-hearted manipulator sending her daughters out to the uncle who may have killed her sons. That these views of her are exaggerated and indeed contradictory does not seem to trouble some historians whose view of her is determinedly negative. In contrast, the positive views taken of Margaret Beaufort emphasize her suffering and endurance and not her political skill and manipulation. In this book I suggest that Princess Elizabeth fell in love with King Richard her uncle. This is based on a letter which was seen by an historian but is now missing, and it would suggest that she also had the courage and passion to try to choose her own life. These are women of exceptional courage and determination, but I think they show that even in a society where women are powerfully repressed both legally and culturally, that there are still women who will find ways to express themselves.
How does history remember Margaret Beaufort? Do you feel that she is dealt with fairly by historians and writers?
There are two main opinions on Margaret Beaufort that have emerged for me from my reading. One, very positive, is based on the Tudor hagiography which sees her as the matriarch of the house and a woman who spent her life in the service of her son. It follows the sermon preached by Archbishop Fisher who stressed her suffering as a young woman, and her very early sense of destiny when she believed that she was advised by the saints to marry Edmund Tudor and thus have a Tudor heir to the Lancaster throne. This view sees her as a divinely inspired matriarch, to a family called by God, and was incorporated into the Tudor history of their own line. The other, more modern view of her, is less admiring of her as a spiritual woman but emphasizes her political ambitions and her powers of manipulation. In this view she is sometimes regarded critically as a woman of excessive ambition and greed and suggests that she dominated the household of her son, and influenced the upbringing of her grandsons.
Can you tell us a little about the next book in the series? Is Lady Elizabeth going to feature prominently?
The next book tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother who is glimpsed in this novel. She was Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of Luxembourg, and kinswoman to half the royalty of Europe, who was married first to the great Englishman John Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI. Widowed at the age of nineteen she took the extraordinary risk of marrying a gentleman of her household for love, and then carved out a life for herself as Queen Margaret of Anjou's close friend and a Lancaster supporter – until the day that her daughter Elizabeth Woodville fell in love and married the rival king Edward IV. Of all the little-known but important women of the period, her dramatic story is the most neglected. With her links to Melusina, the founder of the house of Luxembourg and her reputation for making magic, she is a most haunting heroine. The story opens as her uncle, Louis of Luxembourg captures Joan of Arc and Jacquetta sees, for the first time, the dangers facing a girl who dares to be extraordinary.