York vs. Lancaster
The book begins with the triumph of York over Lancaster. With the help of his mentor Warwick and his brothers Richard and George, Edward of York — the handsome ladies' man and invincible captain — has destroyed the last of the Lancaster resistance. The insane King Henry VI is now locked in the Tower of London, and his terrifying wife Margaret d'Anjou has run back to France.
But this is not a story about Edward and Henry. "The White Queen" is about the recently widowed Lady Elizabeth Grey, whose husband fell defending the lost cause of Lancaster. Elizabeth is now widowed and dependent on her family's charity to support herself and her two sons. Driven to desperation, she dresses in her best and stands with her sons by the side of the road, hoping to catch the new King Edward's eye and earn his pity. If the King is generous, he will restore her lands and widow's jointure.
The Cost of True Love
Elizabeth does more than catch his eye and his sympathy — she attracts his heart. Although she is nearly 10 years older than Edward, they fall in love and are secretly married. Against the wishes of the nobility, Lord Warwick and both their families, Edward upholds the marriage and crowns her Queen of England. Marrying a commoner, however, cannot go over without strife. Lord Warwick turns Edward's own brother George against him, and although Edward defeats the uprising, Elizabeth's father and one of her brothers are killed. It is then that Elizabeth writes Warwick's, George's and Richard's names on a piece of paper in her own blood, vowing to see them destroyed in revenge for her family. Though she later repents of her vengeful act of witchcraft, she continues to blame herself for her father and brother's deaths and also feels responsible for the bloodshed that is to come.
During the time of the Wars of the Roses, witchcraft was thought of very differently than we think of it today; indeed, very differently even than in Tudor times. There was a concept of good and bad witches, for instance. Witches were thought to be able to work the weather, assist in childbirth and with fertility, make love potions, bewitch men, and curse their enemies. Many people said that Elizabeth entrapped Edward with witchcraft. While Gregory makes it clear that their controversial marriage sprang from love, she also makes witchcraft an important part of "The White Queen." In history, Elizabeth was accused of being a witch and her own mother was held and tried for witchcraft (though acquitted). In Gregory's adaptation, both women are witches — or at least, they believe they are. And when it comes to strong-minded women who want to get their way and secure the throne for their heirs, it hardly matters whether the witchcraft they believe they're doing is real or not.
The Descendants of a Water Goddess
One of the most fascinating parts of "The White Queen" is the legend of Melusina, which Gregory makes a central part of how Elizabeth perceives herself, her family and her house. Elizabeth's mother is as extraordinary a woman as Elizabeth herself. Born into the French nobility, a royal cousin to powerful Burgundy, she married a lowly commoner for love and ran to England. Elizabeth, then, is related to French royalty — but she also believes she and the rest of the Rivers/Woodville family are descended from the French water goddess Melusina. The story goes that a man came upon a beautiful woman swimming in a forest pool and proposed marriage. The woman, a daughter of Melusina, agreed — with the stipulation that every month, she be left alone in her bath to be herself. During this time, she would transform into a fish. The legend goes on to say that she built her husband a magnificent house with a crooked foundation, and that her daughters were beautiful but her two sons were malformed. Eventually, she is abandoned by her husband when he looks through the window into her bath and sees her transform into a fish.
Gregory tells the legend piecemeal in short, italicized sections, so that the myth progresses just as the novel does. The legend has eerie parallels to the life of Elizabeth Grey: she marries a prince for love but cannot give him a perfect house; she has many daughters but only two sons; and her sons are dead by the end of the book. The York line is carried on instead by her oldest daughter, also named Elizabeth, with her engagement to Henry Tudor of Lancaster. The White Queen marries the Red King — the alchemical union of which, Gregory points out, is the rose. Whether this means the Tudor rose of red and white or their first son Arthur, the "Rose of England," the author does not discount the mysticism in which her historical characters believed.
Elizabeth Grey — A Sympathetic Portrayal
Historians have often taken a disapproving, even harsh view of Elizabeth Grey. In the play "Richard III," Shakespeare calls her a weak and foolish woman for agreeing to her daughter's engagement with Richard — her dead husband's brother and the tyrant that took England from its rightful heirs. In "The White Queen," however, we see Elizabeth's motives and cunning explained differently. She engages her daughter publicly to Henry Tudor, heir of Lancaster, but secretly agrees to Richard's proposal as well. No matter which side wins the war for England, her daughter will be Queen.
In the author's note, Gregory points out that many strong female historical figures are treated unsympathetically because it is considered unfeminine to be ambitious. The characters of "The White Queen," including Elizabeth, are terrifyingly ambitious — but they are also very sympathetic. One of the most important, likeable characters is Elizabeth's brother Anthony Rivers, who is very much the Renaissance man. He dies at the hand of Richard III trying to protect his young nephews, but before his execution writes a sonnet that shows a man in a calm, composed state of mind. Other favorite characters include Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta — her argument with Edward's mother the Queen is one of the sauciest, funniest scenes in the novel — and her oldest daughter Elizabeth, who falls in love with her uncle Richard despite his tyranny.
Full of complex characters, twisted relationships, intrigue, romance and war, "The White Queen" is a stellar beginning to "The Cousins' War Trilogy."
Gregory, Philippa. The White Queen. Simon & Schuster, 2009.