The Red Queen: A review of the book by Phillippa Gregory
The Red Queen is a novel of historical fiction about Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII of England. Ms. Gregory calls her book some history, some speculation, and a lot of fiction. She says that her book “is about a woman who triumphed in the material world and tried at the same time to serve God.” She writes many scenarios of Margaret on her knees or prostrate praying to God to grant her desires. Margaret comes through as an extremely selfish, ambitious woman who, rather than trying to do the will of God, appears to be trying to convince God to do her will.
Gregory depicts Margaret as an overly pious woman with an obsession to be like Joan of Arc. The book begins with the young Margaret’s vision after praying through the night. She experiences herself as Joan being burned at stake. This may be the source of her delusions, including her ambition to become an abbess and run a convent. Her dreams are shattered when her mother informs her that her duty is to become the mother of the next Lancastrian king.
Joan of Arc with Archangel Michael
Married at a tender age
Her betrothal to John de la Pole lost its political advantage and is broken. Then Margaret is married at the tender age of 12 to Edmund Tudor, the half brother of King Henry VI, Their bumbling liaison produces a son, but posthumously. The War of the Roses has just broken out, and Edmund, a Lancastrian like Margaret, dies of the plague after being captured by Yorkist forces and imprisoned at Carmarthen. Margaret and the baby Henry are left in the care of Edmund’s brother, Jasper, until Tudor lands and the castle are given by the new king to Yorkist Lord Herbert of Ragland. Margaret is separated from the baby, and Jasper is named as his guardian. Her contact with her son is mostly by letters and a few visits. The author hints that during those visits, love grows between Margaret and Jasper but it is unrequited.
Margaret marries Sir Henry Stafford, and except for wanting her son back, she is content. The gentle Lord Stafford, who straddles the fence in the war, earns the reader’s sympathy as he is nagged by his pious wife to go to war to fight for the Lancastrians, which she knows will gain Henry into her possession and assure him a place in line for the throne.
Such piety and devotion
Ms. Gregory writes many scenes of Margaret’s prayers and devotion to her obsession of putting her son Henry on the English throne. As a child, Margaret was proud of what she terms her “saint’s knees,” namely knees that had become callused from spending so much time on them in prayer. By this time, the reader is becoming well-acquainted with Margaret’s piety and should be beginning to wonder how much of her declaration of “God’s will” is actually her own strong will.
The War of the Roses continues, and I do not intend to go into the politics because as the author has stated, much of this book is fiction. However, the young Yorkist Prince Edward pushes Richard aside and becomes king. He summons the hesitant Lord Stafford to gather an army to join him in his fight to hold the throne. Margaret loses her gentleman husband to a battle wound, but that does not impede her conviction that it is God’s will that her Lancastrian son should be king.
Marriage to Lord Stanley
She proposes a marriage alliance with the ruthless Thomas, Lord Stanley. It is this celibate but powerful marriage that enables her to formulate a plan to regain the throne for Lancaster and put Henry on it. She is either a fool, is just lucky, or is truly ordained by a sadistic god, and after much shedding of blood, her plan succeeds and the rest of the true story is in the history books.
Much of this book is devoted to Margaret’s piety and her conviction that it is God’s will that she should be the mother of the king. She practices writing her signature as “Margaret R., Margaret Regina. The reader gets the idea loud and clear that her ambition is for herself and her son, whom by now is almost a stranger to her, is merely a tool for her ambition.
Even her third husband, Lord Stanley, throws it in her face that he does not believe it is God’s will but her own selfish ambition. Before I was halfway through this book, I started to become disgusted with Margaret’s piety. She clearly cannot see her own self-aggrandizement. She constantly compares herself to her “sainted Joan,” and begs God for another vision. She confesses her sin of not seeing the "queen’s blind ambition” that she has allowed to get in the way of her own. Her constant blaming others for her own failures tear on the reader’s nerves. One would hope that the real Margaret was not the person depicted by Ms. Gregory.
Her criticism and obvious jealousy of the beauteous former Queen Elizabeth Woodville (depicted as the White Queen in another of Gregory's books. The White Queen has been made into a TV series on Starz), sister-in-law to King Richard, and her beautiful daughters lend definite clues to the blinders that Margaret wears. She cannot analyze a situation and see where she might have contributed to its failure.
My favorite part of the book
When she was at court, she betrothed Henry to Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, Elizabeth, in a shrewd political maneuver. However, after the death of Queen Anne, young Elizabeth and the newly widowed Yorkist King Richard fall in love. Meanwhile, Henry and the army he and Jasper amassed have landed on the shores of England and are coming after Richard’s armies. Elizabeth is sent to Margaret for safekeeping. Jealous and resentful, she treats the young lady uncharitably. My favorite part of the book: Margaret, seated like royalty and requiring the girl Elizabeth to stand in her presence, tells her that regardless of the outcome, she will either be married to a man who hates her (Henry) or to a man who is blamed for the murder of her family (Richard). Margaret says, “Either way, you will be disgraced … shamed in public for all to see.”
Elizabeth replies, “Yes, but either way, shamed or not, I will be Queen of England, and this is the last time you will sit in my presence.”
I found the author’s use of her characters’ last names confusing. I am sure that she wrote this way to keep similar given names straight, but in the 10 years’ war, it was difficult to keep names like Neville, Woodville, and Rivers sorted out. The reader must remember that this was a time period when nobility was being established and many commoners became nobility through service or, as in the case of the Woodvilles, beauty.
Considering the description that Ms. Gregory gave of her character, I am confused. She describes Margaret as a triumphant woman who tried to serve God. Does the author really see her character that way? I do not see her charactization of Margaret Beaufort in that light, and I wonder if she read her own book.
Margaret, heiress to the Red Rose of Lancaster, was never the queen but history says that she did rule jointly with her son Henry, I assume the reference to the “Red Queen” was to her. However, Margaret is known in history for more than her ambitions to put her only child on the throne.
Margaret is revered as the founder of education for women
She was a supporter of education and is credited with founding education for women in England as well as a supporter of the church. Roles Ms. Gregory conveniently left out of her book, but of course, she does bill it as "historical fiction," which would give her leave to reflect her own prejudices.