In his history plays, there is one character who William Shakespeare obviously chose to overlook in his depiction of the English monarchy: Henry VII. Skipping, instead, from Richard III to Henry VIII, Henry VII was a king considered so dull that not even the Bard could do him justice.
Equally, Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York is largely ignored in history, despite the role she played as daughter, niece, wife and mother to four kings of England (Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII and Henry VIII respectively).
However, all this has now changed with Philippa Gregory’s excellent new book, The White Princess, the latest in her Cousins’ War series.
For the uninitiated, the Cousins’ War series follows the women behind the warring Plantagenets, the royal family that ruled before the Tudors. The White Princess is told from the viewpoint of Elizabeth of York; previous books in the series have been narrated by Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Anne Neville.
As well as exploring two largely unknown characters in the British monarchy, The White Princess also breathes life into one of the greatest mysteries in English history – the disappearance of the two princes in the Tower of London, and the subsequent uprisings led by the ‘pretenders’ who claim to be them.
It is clear where Gregory stands when it comes to the Princes in the Tower myth. Her Elizabeth of York is convinced that the latter pretender, Perkin Warbeck, is her younger brother Richard, and must choose between loyalty to her husband Henry VII and loyalty to her family, the York clan who Henry removed from the throne. The result is a compelling read that will leave you wondering how much we can ever really know about history.
Whilst Elizabeth is torn between family loyalties, the Yorks have no such qualms; her aunt and grandmother support the pretender, and half of the English court declares their loyalties to him. To Henry VII – who has spent the majority of his life fighting for the throne – the pretender is another threat, another hurdle blocking him from his rightful duty.
Gregory takes the reader on a psychological tour de force, twisting and turning its way through one of the murkiest mysteries in English history. She even suggests that Henry VII was fully aware that ‘Perkin Warbeck’ was in fact Richard of York (and the rightful claimant to the English throne), and relished in creating a back-story for the pretender so as to discredit his threat.
Gregory also uses the gift of hindsight to give her leading lady an eerily accurate sense of prediction throughout the novel. For instance, Elizabeth and her mother place a curse on any man (and his son and grandson) who kills the Princes in the Tower. This is before they know whether or not the boys have been killed; following the death of Perkin Warbeck, Henry VII’s eldest son, Arthur, and his only grandson, Edward IV, both died in their youth. Again, Gregory suggests what she considers to be the true version of events in this most confusing of periods – and you are inclined to agree.
The novel ends with Henry VII sobbing for his ‘loss of innocence’ as his wife looks coolly on. It makes for an utterly compelling read – I devoured it in a day – but you will be left frustrated by the fact that still, over 500 years later, we are none the wiser regarding what really happened to the Princes in the Tower.
The White Princess, RRP £20, by Philippa Gregory (Simon & Schuster), is available to buy here.