“You will be queen of England and we will be England’s ruling family, even if no one in England wants us.” The essence of Gregory’s The White Queen is captured in this one sentence as commoner Lady Elizabeth Grey weds Edward IV, and the Woodville family establishes a foothold in Edward’s kingdom to the shock of the king’s intimates, including the infamous Kingmaker, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick.
Much scorned by history, Elizabeth Woodville is made more accessible in this treatment, a clever and beautiful woman who falls in love with a king but refuses to sell herself cheaply. In her inimitable fashion, Gregory takes hold of this ambitious character and her unique place in history during the Cousins’ War (later to be known as The War of the Roses), imbuing her with the will and political instincts to succeed in such a dynamic situation.
As Edward’s queen, Bess incites the enmity of others, positioning her family in power; her sons and brothers assume lands and titles coveted by others. It is she who whispers into Edward’s ear in the dark of night, who shares in the planning and governance of the country. In Gregory’s telling, there is symmetry to Elizabeth’s greed, supposedly to create a house free of the divisions of the houses of York and Lancaster, a kingdom without the constant drain of warfare and civil unrest.
Adding another element to this tale, Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, a self-avowed witch, claims blood ties to Melusina, a creature of myth, half-woman and half-sea creature, a water fairy who marries a knight. Elizabeth strongly identifies with Melusina and embraces the duality of her position as woman, married to a king but keeping her own counsel and intimate secrets. It is not unusual for mother and daughter to cast spells, to order the seas to rise in their favor and defeat an invading army, to weaken the sword-arm of one who would defeat the Woodville cause in battle. There is an element of enchantment to Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward and to the fate of her sons, the princes in the Tower.
In this novel more than in previous work, Gregory goes beyond the whimsical and frivolous in writing her female protagonist, concerned more with archetypes and the position of women in a male-dominated society. To secure the future of her children Elizabeth uses her feminine wiles and political skills in innovative ways, circumventing the male power structure and achieving her goals however necessary. Gregory also gives one of the most cogent renderings of the Cousins’ War in recent historical fiction, the endless juggling for power between rival houses that steeps the country in civil war after civil war.
The novel begins with the royal marriage and ends with Woodville scheming for a union between her daughter, Elizabeth of York, and the king of England, whether Richard III or his natural enemy Henry Tudor. Gone are the days of beauty and influence, her compulsive political machinations bringing Woodville to sanctuary twice, all her grand hopes left in the dust of history. Relegated to backroom meetings, the next chapter will be written by Elizabeth’s daughter.
Gregory excels at such stories, creating a pageant of glory and despair from the bed of the king to the petty revenges of power to the mysterious fate of the princes in the Tower and Elizabeth of York’s pursuit of her uncle, Richard III, until circumstances force her to take another route to her fate: marriage to Henry Tudor. Through the birth and loss of her children, the death of her beloved Edward and the secret plots she cannot fail to encourage to wend her way back into the corridors of political influence, Bess endures. At no time does Woodville lay down the sword of ambition, even at her most affectionate with Edward. Bess’s daughter, another political pawn, remarks with bitterness: “You are locked to the throne of England and you have enslaved us too.”
Perhaps one of the most fascinating and pivotal women of the era, Elizabeth Grey, commoner, leaves her mark on the world, changes the direction of the kingdom and has bequeathed one of the most pervasive mysteries of the 15th century, the fate of the princes in the Tower - to which Gregory adds yet another layer of speculation. To be sure, Gregory has just begun another foray into the lives of extraordinary women, The Red Queen to follow this novel, the author single-handedly creating a new audience for the great dramas that informed the great dynasties of 15th-century England.