The White Princess is the fifth book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins Wars series of novels. I started reading this book with considerable anticipation – I will freely admit that I adored the White Queen and I was really looking forward to reading more about Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, also called Elizabeth, the Princess of York.
The story starts in the aftermath of the death of Richard III, who it turns out was Elizabeth’s lover (despite his denials to his wife Anne in the Kingmaker’s Daughter). The story follows Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry Tudor and the challenges they faced as the royal family in the first decade or so of his reign. One of the major themes of the book is the threat (sometimes perceived, sometimes actual) of ‘pretenders’ to (or challengers for, depending on your view) the throne, culminating in the affair with ‘the boy’ who claims to be Elizabeth’s lost brother, Richard IV. The story also focusses a great deal of Henry and Elizabeth’s personal relationship, and the births and lives of their children.
In short, the novel did not disappoint. I warmed immediately to Elizabeth; I had already met her as a young girl in the White Queen and in this book we see her mature into a kind, careful and regal woman, who is brave and dutiful in the face of adversity. I cheered for her all the way through the book, and felt keenly her disappointments and setbacks. Next to her, her husband Henry is almost grotesque: to me he seemed deluded by his sense of entitlement, ruthless, cold and calculating, and I disliked him a lot. Nonetheless I found their relationship gripping; how Elizabeth manages (for a time at least) to grow to love this man, despite all his obvious failings, is testament to her character. I equally disliked his mother, the compulsively pious, similarly deluded Margaret Beaufort, who I’d met in the Red Queen. When reading that book I had felt some sympathy for her, but in this book My Lady the King’s Mother’s swing between self-congratulation and vengeful bitterness frankly left a bad taste in my mouth. The one other character I grew to particularly like, along with Elizabeth and her mother, was Elizabeth’s cousin Maggie, who I believe I will learn much more about in the next book, The King’s Curse.
This was perhaps the first of these books where I could see an obvious heroine, and an obvious villain. The tantalising part was that ultimately they had to share a marriage, a bed, a throne, and a common interest in the future of their heirs. This comes to mean tough choices for Elizabeth, a woman who has spent her life wading her way through competing loyalties, especially when ‘the boy’ comes along. It also leaves her with a tragic ending, and a lot to forgive. A fantastic book – can’t wait to read The King’s Curse next.