In the last installment of Gregory’s “The Cousins’ War” series, we meet Lady Margaret Pole, daughter of George, Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville. A Plantagenet and niece to two kings, Margaret’s father and brother were both executed for treason. But now that the Tudors sit on the throne and Margaret’s cousin Elizabeth of York is Henry VII’s queen, Margaret hopes to close the door on the past. Of course, she couldn’t be more wrong, as the highs and lows of the next nearly 40 years prove. As the book opens, Margaret and her husband are in charge of the household of Arthur, the young Prince of Wales, and Margaret herself welcomes Arthur’s young bride Katherine of Aragon. Margaret warms to the young princess and dotes on Arthur. But a visit between Margaret and Elizabeth of York reminds the readers of the “curse” put in place by Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her mother Jacquetta, where anyone responsible for the deaths of Elizabeth Woodville’s sons (the Princes in the Tower) will have all their male heirs die and their line will end with an infertile female. Elizabeth and Margaret speculate that if the Tudors did in fact kill the princes, now Elizabeth and her children are unwitting participants in something Elizabeth’s mother and grandmother put into motion.
The sudden deaths of Arthur, his mother Elizabeth, and Margaret’s husband Sir Richard change everything. Margaret is now a pauper and without a place in the royal court. Despite her pleas, Henry VII refuses to help and her family is disbanded – her son Reginald to the church, the older boys with relatives, the younger children with their mother in a convent. Margaret’s family fortunes fell upon Henry VII’s victory at Bosworth when she was married off to a loyal Tudor knight. But once widowed and out of favor at court, Margaret can no longer feed or cloth her family.
Her family’s lands and titles are abruptly reinstated, however, when a young Henry VIII succeeds his father and seems eager to move past old disputes. Again, all seems well until Henry’s wife Katherine fails to give him a son. The idea of the curse is reinforced but Margaret of all people knows how dangerous unsubstantiated rumors can be. When Princess Mary is born, Margaret is named her governess, but her job becomes almost impossible as Henry puts aside Katherine, disinherits Mary, and takes up with Anne, who also proves unable to provide him with a male heir. Rumors of the curse gain momentum as all Henry’s legitimate sons die before or shortly after birth. Margaret and her sons Geoffrey and Montague work with Thomas Cromwell to annul Henry’s marriage to Anne, hoping to restore Princess Mary to the line, yet they get more than they planned when instead of an annulment, Henry orders her execution. The Poles’ horror increases as things spin out of control, especially when Henry deals dishonestly with the northern rebels in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace and many of their Plantagenet cousins meet the block. Margaret’s life feels like a spinning top, with positive events quickly followed by disaster. Margaret’s oldest son, Lord Montague, calls the Tower their “family’s home” since so many Plantagenets meet a violent end there during the reign of the Tudors, which are words that become prophetic.
This version of Margaret Pole’s story doesn’t reveal anything that Tudor enthusiasts don’t already know, but it does make for a fast-paced, intriguing read. Although I felt this book had some issues, this was a big improvement over the previous book “The White Princess”. Many of the same complaints I had with that one still hold in this one, although I believe Margaret to be a stronger character than Gregory’s young Elizabeth of York was. My number one problem with Gregory is the repetition. I think we are told at least six times in the first 100 pages that Margaret’s brother Edward of Warwick was executed as a condition of Katherine of Aragon’s marriage to Arthur. This is just one example of many I could name. But it feels like Gregory is talking down to the readers, most of whom are Tudor enthusiasts and therefore already know these facts. I felt that the repetition was much worse in “White Princess”, but it was certainly present here too. Another wrinkle with this book is the first-person narration. I am a big fan of first-person POV, but the problem here is that Margaret doesn’t actually witness many of the pivotal events in the story, so she receives news about them from servants, letters, or visitors, which slows down the momentum quite a bit when you feel left on the sideline rather in the midst of things.
Finally, I am thrilled that Gregory has told this story of the Cousins’ War. This tale has many fascinating female characters who have long been overlooked. My issue is this. Gregory’s versions of these women (generally speaking) are unappealing. Not exactly someone you want to root for, in other words. For instance, in “Red Queen” and really throughout the series, Lady Margaret Beaufort was portrayed as a maniacal zealot – mean, scary, controlling, and warped. Some might interpret that as “strong” but really, she comes off as insane. Then the young Elizabeth of York in “White Princess” sounds like a vapid young girl, almost “too stupid to live”. No one likes a heroine like that. And then you have Margaret Pole. Now, no one can say for sure whether or not she was guilty of conspiracy or simply an inconvenient nuisance that Henry wanted rid of. Evidence suggests she was set up. But in this book, Gregory shows Margaret subverting the king by trying to help Princess Mary escape with the help of the Spanish ambassador. That seems extremely stupid of her since she of all people had good cause to know what happens when you cross a king, especially a Tudor. Although the books are solid historical fiction adventures (Gregory’s lack of adherence to the historical record won’t be rehashed here), it seems a shame that the heroines aren’t a little less cartoonish.
Amazon link for the book is here.