Gregory turns Tudor history on its head, recreating the early days of the union between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York in intimate detail, the brokenhearted Elizabeth pledged in marriage to the man who has killed her lover, Richard III, on Bosworth Field. The lines are drawn from the start: Henry VII and his mother, Margaret Beaufort, on one side, everyone else on the other. This is a court built on the vanquishing of the York cause and the establishment of a new English dynasty. From the historical perspective, the beautiful Elizabeth of York disappears with the ascendancy of her son, Henry VIII, the transition to a new dynasty a footnote in a history so remarkably defined by both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Gregory breathes fresh vitality into a controversy that bedevils both Richard III and Henry: the fate of the Princes in the Tower.
Though Henry has claimed the throne, he has not won the hearts of his subjects, a problem that chronically vexes both king and Margaret Beaufort. They bend their heads together, plotting, scheming, desperate that no one should wrest the throne from the newly crowned monarch. Beaufort has spent her life pursuing this goal, prone before the altar of her God at every turn, her son in exile awaiting the opportunity to embrace his destiny. Only marriage to Elizabeth of York can bind the families together, though her reputation has been tarnished through a notorious relationship with the slain Richard. It is Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the queen-to-be and the lost princes, Richard and Edward, who forces the new royals to keep their word. This is a chess game of masters with the stakes of a kingdom in play. Though York becomes the putative queen of England, it is Beaufort who follows Henry's every move, who takes up residence in the queen's apartments to be near her son, who pens a strict list of rules to govern her son's court, mostly meant to marginalize Elizabeth.
But for fate, Beaufort would rule at her son's side, her devotion erasing care and fear from his brow. Instead, both mother and son are repeatedly assaulted by rumors of a "pretender"--whether the ploy of York supporters to manufacture a challenge to Henry's claim or—the king's greatest fear—Richard of York, the missing prince in the tower emerging from hiding to march into London with his army. Turning the Tudor version of history on its head. Gregory describes an anguished, tormented Henry, poring over reports from his vast network of spies throughout France, Ireland and Scotland, troops of mercenaries engaging rebels and encroaching armies, for the king questions the loyalties of his own soldiers. Elizabeth's early repulsion toward her husband is gradually replaced by pity for a terrified man who cannot win the hearts of a kingdom, even affection that turns eventually to love: "It makes me tender towards him." Henry's romantic overtures are tempered by frequent attacks of suspicion, the king never sure of his wife's loyalty despite her vows and the heirs she has provided.
Gregory's images are striking. Beaufort haunts the halls of the royal residence, intruding on every conversation, grasping every opportunity to assert herself as the most important woman in the court. She compiles strict rules in an effort to dilute and diminish Elizabeth's importance, to cast aspersions on her character, Henry alternately raging and affectionate, trusting and suspicious. While Elizabeth's cousin Margaret is allowed to serve her queen, Maggie's younger brother, Edward, son of George, Duke of Clarence, is assigned to the tower on a pretense. He is, after all, a York heir. One after another, the rumors persist: "Princes. There are always more princes."
Plots and rebellions are dealt with, pretenders unmasked, until "the boy"--the handsome youth with the manners of a prince who draws a willing army to his cause. Many from Henry's court secretly support him, even Elizabeth Woodville on her deathbed at Bermondsey Abbey. This boy, Henry's "mirror king," undoes the sovereign, exposing him for the frightened man he is. Fate turns again, Henry hopelessly in love with the boy's beautiful wife. Elizabeth watches from the sidelines as once Anne Neville witnessed her husband and his lover. The court is in limbo, Henry unable to free himself from this conundrum, the boy perhaps the only one who can understand a life spent preparing to be king. The resolution is heartbreaking.
It is the monstrous Beaufort's fatal flaw, after all, not to have realized that her son knew nothing of grace, a boy grown into man crippled by his isolation in exile and never taught the accoutrements of princes. Prostrate before the God who ordains Margaret's greatest desire—the throne for her son—Beaufort has forgotten to teach him about love. Elizabeth's moment of satisfaction is bittersweet and fleeting, boldly declaring to her mother-in-law "What matters is that you have not made your boy the beloved of England." Through Elizabeth's eyes, Henry is not so much an ogre as the shell of a king, without compassion or trust for his fellow man, thrust into power and nearly undone by the beautiful young man with the smile of an angel. All are lost to history now, but the story so avidly spread of a murdering Richard III is showing cracks and fissures, a mystery never to be solved but given a fresh perspective in Gregory's artful melding of fiction and fact.