I’ve been a huge fan of Philippa Gregory for years, ever since I read The Other Boleyn Girl. In fact, I’d go as far as to credit Philippa Gregory with kick starting my love of historical fiction, which is now one of my all time favourite genres!
However, I definitely haven’t read all of her books (she has so many!), so I thought it was about time to catch up on a few that have been on my TBR list for ages, and I did so very cheaply! I borrowed The Lady of the Rivers from the library and got The Taming of the Queen for 99p on my Kindle. Both books were about historical figures I knew less about – Jacquetta Woodville and Katherine Parr – so they made for really fascinating reads!
The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory
‘Any woman who dares to make her own destiny will always put herself in danger.’
When her husband, the Duke of Bedford (Uncle to Henry’s VI of England) dies, Jacquetta of Luxembourg shocks the world by marrying his squire, Richard Woodville. With the love of her life at her side, Jacquetta begins to carve out a place for herself in the turbulent court of Henry VI, befriending his young, fiery wife Margaret of Anjou. But the country and court are becoming restless, and rebellions are rising amongst both the nobles and the commoners, and England is suddenly a very dangerous place. Jacquetta must seek to protect her growing family at all costs – particularly her daughter Elizabeth Woodville, for whom she senses a dazzling future.
Jacquetta Woodville has appeared as a minor character in many books I’ve read about the Wars of the Roses, and so I didn’t know much about her or realise what a turbulent life she actually had. I was riveted by the story of her growing up in Luxembourg, and her childhood friendship with Joan of Arc (which I think is just speculation on Gregory’s behalf?), to her marriage to Henry V’s brother the Duke of Bedford, and then her marriage for love to Richard Woodville. I only knew her as the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, and so I was really surprised to find that she was such an integral part of the Lancastrian court considering how her daughter eventually married the Yorkist King Edward IV.
One of my favourite things about The Lady of the Rivers was its’ focus on female friendship and being a woman at that time, as opposed to romance and marriage. Of course, they are aspects of the book, but the book gets to Jacquetta’s second (and very happy) marriage fairly quickly, and then the bulk of the book is spent on the rocky friendship between Jacquetta and Margaret of Anjou.
Margaret of Anjou is a historical figure I always find fascinating, and so I liked that she was such a big part of this book, and I liked how Gregory cast her as such a complex character. She was unlikable in a lot of ways (for example, she’s very vengeful and reacts without thinking), but you also couldn’t help but feel for her, in the same way that Jacquetta is both fond of her yet also wants to shake her a lot of the time.
I also enjoyed the magical aspects of this book, which is surprising! I’m not always a fan of mystical elements being brought into historical fiction books even if people would have believed in them at the time – it just takes away some of the realism for me. But I thought it was subtle enough in this book, and was definitely necessary, as both Jacquetta Woodville and her daughter Elizabeth are historical figures often associated with witchcraft.
Overall I really enjoyed this book, as there certainly never seemed to be a dull moment in the life of Jacquetta Woodville! I loved its’ tight focus on the female characters and it was interesting to see the start of the War of the Roses from a different perspective than usual. This was definitely one of those historical fiction books that I read, and then went straight onto Google to research the character and what was real and what wasn’t, because The Lady of the Rivers left me fascinated by the story of Jacquetta Woodville!
The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory
‘Without comment, she lays before me Katherine of Aragon’s famous necklace of plaited gold. Another purse is undone and there are Anne Boleyn’s rubies. The royal jewels of Spain come from one great box, the dowry of Anne of Cleeves is spread on the floor at my feet. The treasure the King showered on Katherine Howard comes in a chest all to itself, untouched since she was stripped of everything and went out to take the axe on her bare neck.’
When the infamous Henry VIII asks the widowed Katherine Parr to be his sixth wife, she is horrified, and not simply because the once golden King is now old, ill and overweight. As history has proven, being married to Henry VIII is fraught with danger…especially when you’re madly in love with someone else.
I found this book to be really interesting because, despite my knowledge of the Tudor period, Katherine Parr is the one queen I didn’t know a great deal about. I think because she survived Henry VIII she is often overlooked as the least interesting of his wives, but The Taming of the Queen proved otherwise!
For one thing, I loved how the book immediately seems to have such high stakes, and really focuses on how terrifying it must have actually been to marry Henry VIII, the man who has a habit of putting aside or beheading his many wives. Katherine Parr is clearly walking on egg shells from the very beginning, always worrying that something she will say or do will be her downfall.
I hadn’t actually realised that Katherine Parr came so close to meeting the same fate as her predecessors, or that her religious beliefs garnered her so much enmity. In fact, that was one downfall of the book for me – the endless discussion amongst the characters about religion – which was understandably necessary considering how dangerous it was to have certain beliefs at that time. But at the same time, it did become a little tedious at times (although I liked the bits about Katherine’s own writing and her studies), and I was hoping to get more of the human story of Katherine Parr as she struggles to get used to wearing the same clothes and jewels as the first five, ill-fated wives and put aside her love for the dashing Thomas Seymour.
Thomas Seymour as the love interest was quite a peripheral figure for much of the book, but Katherine’s relationship with the aged Henry VIII was certainly interesting, yet disturbing. The way he uses his power to play with the people around him, particularly Katherine, made him such an unpleasant and repulsive character, especially the way he treats Katherine after the try to reconcile their differences after her brush with death. In most fictional accounts of his earlier life he is certainly spoiled and fickle, but also gallant and generous. Therefore it was interesting to read an account of his later life, where he is portrayed as a bitter, and extremely twisted man, and a master manipulator.
Overall I really enjoyed this book and was surprised to find it contained as much tension as Gregory’s books on characters like Anne Boleyn who rose so high, only to fall spectacularly. Even though I know from history that Katherine Parr outlived Henry VIII (even if it was only by another year), I still found myself glued to the book, worrying about her fate because Gregory’s telling of her story was so enthralling. I could have done with a little less of the religious talk, although I understand its inclusion in the story, but overall I think this is a must-read for historical fiction fans!
So have you read The Lady of the Rivers and/or The Taming of the Queen? What did you think of them? Are you a fan of Philippa Gregory’s books?