After Henry Tudor slays Richard III and assumes the throne of England, Elizabeth of York delivers peace to the war-torn country by marrying the new king. By no stretch of the imagination is Henry VII a sensitive man, often brutal and pragmatic. The new queen is overshadowed by the pervasive presence of Henry’s overbearing mother, Margaret Beaufort; Elizabeth’s own mother, Bess Woodville, assumes a lesser role. Into this court Anne Easter Smith inserts her protagonist, a woman vaguely mentioned by history, Grace Plantagenet.
Illegitimate daughter of Edward IV, Grace is first taken into Woodville’s household just before the royal marriage. Grace becomes a familiar of her half-sisters, particularly Elizabeth and Cecily (who will eventually marry Henry’s step-uncle). Linking the novel with Woodville allows Easter Smith to draw from the vibrant history of Edward IV as well as the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Grace Plantagenet becomes a vehicle for a plotline that focuses on the fate of the princes in the Tower.
One of the great mysteries of the era is the fate of Woodville’s sons, Edward V and Richard of York (Dickon), who disappeared from the Tower near the end of Richard III’s reign. Although many believe the princes were murdered by Richard, there is some speculation that Henry Tudor might have played a part in the fates of two boys whose very existence posed a threat to Henry’s throne.
Grace Plantagenet plays a pivotal role in exposing the underlying tensions that surround Henry’s kingship, the constant Yorkist plots to unseat him, and Bess Woodville’s natural sympathy for a successful rout. Unfortunately for Bess, she is suspected of cooperating with the Yorkists. Her household is removed to Bermondsey Abbey, with the faithful Grace in attendance.
No longer able to influence her daughter or the court, Woodville lives in reduced circumstances, Grace doing her bidding and enduring the same trials. A bit of a cipher, Grace remains affectionate toward Woodville, a stubborn, self-centered woman who did much to undermine her husband’s popularity with his subjects. But Grace suffers in silence, happy to share the meager existence at the abbey while daydreaming of an older cousin with whom she has fallen in love.
Margaret of York works tirelessly behind the scenes, encouraging the Yorkist cause, secretly educating a young boy who will later achieve notoriety as Perkin Warbeck - the surviving prince in the Tower, Richard of York. If Grace is the vehicle, Warbeck is the central character in the novel on which all the rest is based. As Woodville’s confidante, Grace is an integral part of the scheming, even making a secret trip to Burgundy to meet with Margaret of York.
After a few years, Woodville releases Grace to marry a childhood acquaintance, although the young woman continues to carry a torch for the cousin she cannot have. Of all Grace’s traits, perhaps the most irritating is her inability to commit to her husband, clinging to a doomed romance in the face of considerable patience. With the fate of Perkin Warbeck comes the resolution of the novel, Grace’s cousin beheaded as an enemy of the crown.
Although I have greatly enjoyed Anne Easter Smith’s other forays into this period of history, The King's Grace is perhaps the weakest in execution, based on a less than substantial protagonist.