Tuesday, October 18, 2011
The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory: A must read
It was about five or six years ago when I first discovered Philippa Gregory. I was browsing in an airport bookstore, when I picked up Gregory's Meridon, the first book in the Wildacre Trilogy.
Meridon was a real page turner. When I got back home, I headed back to the bookstore and bought the second and third books in the trilogy. I was hooked. I had found a new author to love and devour and wait anxiously for each new book.
Philippa Gregory is one of the best, if not the best historical novelists, writing today. For starters, she's got a Ph.D in history from Edinburgh University, and she is an acknowledged expert in women's history. She's very different from the late Jean Plaidy, another favorite, because she is not afraid to tackle the strong, controversial women of history. Her characters are fleshed out with reality, reflecting the warts and all. The women Gregory writes about are not always virtuous. They use their bodies and their minds to get what they want, not just for themselves but for their families, too.
All of her novels feature strong women, allowing Plantagenet and Tudor women to step forward and be the stars, determined women with roles to play. Her Tudor Court Novels included The Other Boleyn (about Mary Boleyn) and The Boleyn Inheritance. The Other Boleyn was made into a BBC Series and a movie. (The BBC adaptation was far better than the movie.)
Gregory's latest series, The Cousins' War, is about the women who feature in the War of the Roses, the Plantagenet battles between the Houses of Lancaster and York. The first book in the series, The White Queen, a superbly crafted novel about Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV. After the death of her husband, Elizabeth found herself trying to keep her family together after her brother-in-law, Richard III usurped her son's throne. What happened afterward remains open to historical interpretation.
The Lady of the Rivers: A Novel (The Cousins' War)
Elizabeth played a role, arranging for the marriage of her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, to Henry Tudor, the son of Margaret Beaufort, one of the leading protagonists for the House of Lancaster. The marriage between the York and Lancaster heirs brought the war of the Roses to an end and established the House of Tudor.
Margaret Beaufort's story was brought to life in The Red Queen, an equally riveting tale of intrigue, where the heroine is first seen as the puppet, in an arranged marriage with Edmund Tudor. But as Margaret matures, marries two more times, feigns loyalty to the Yorkists while plotting to restore the House of Lancaster to the throne, she becomes pro-active, a very determined woman. She sees Elizabeth Woodville as one of her greatest adversaries, but for Margaret's plan to come to fruition, she needs to arrange a marriage between Elizabeth's daughter and her son.
Margaret was a Beaufort, a scion of the House of Lancaster with the blood the Plantagenets coursing through her veins. Elizabeth Woodville was the daughter of a minor English nobleman and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, a descendant of Melusina, the water goddess.
Jacquetta is the star of Philippa Gregory's newest book, The Lady of the Rivers (Simon & Schuster $27.99). She is one of the under appreciated Plantagenet (by marriage) woman But her story needs to be told, and Gregory tells it well. She weaves a tale of a woman who never gives up, who loves deeply and strongly, and who remains loyal to the Lancaster side until circumstances lead to her family switching sides. This decision ultimately led to Jacquetta's daughter marrying the Yorkist king.
Jacquetta grew up a Luxembourg court that is allied with England. She is a young child visiting her uncle, the reigning Lord of Luxembourg, when she meets the imprisoned Joan of Arc, who claims to have visions. Jacquetta, even as a child, is aware of her ability to see things. She cannot convince the young Joan to save herself, and Joan's death will haunt her for years to come.
The Lady of the Rivers: A Novel (The Cousins' War)
Family connections lead to a marriage between Jacquetta and the Duke of Bedford, a member of the English royal family, who is the Regent of France. The Duke, a younger brother of Henry V, is much older than Jacquetta, a widower, and a man of means. He is well-read, and he dabbles in alchemy.
This is a dangerous time for Jacquetta as her husband wants her to use her powers to assist him. He is not interested in the marital bed, and when he dies several years after the marriage, Jacquetta is a very young woman, very wealthy, a member of the English royal family, in love with Richard Woodville, one of the Duke of Bedford's squires. They are in married in secret before Henry VI can arrange a new marriage for the young duchess.
Jacquetta becomes a close friend of confidante of Henry VI's wife, Margaret of Anjou, an equally strong woman, who fights tooth and nail to save her husband's throne for their son. Years of battles between cousins led to the growing strength of the House of York. Margaret relies on Jacquetta for council, for her friendship, and for her visionary gifts. It is Jacquette and several other noblewomen who try to arrange for Margaret and Henry to enter London, but are unsuccessful. Margaret flees to Wales and then to the north to regroup.
The Yorkist led by Richard, Duke of York, and his eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, take the city and the crown. Edward eventually takes the crown, and, in secret, marries Jacquetta's widowed daughter, Elizabeth, Lady Grey.
But Edward IV's throne is not safe, not from Margaret of Anjou's forces or from Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who captures the king. He also conspires against Jacquette with trumped up charges of witchcraft, charges that are later dropped after Edward is released and restored to the throne.
So how does a power hungry Lord deal with a strong woman: call her a witch. For many women, such charges led to death, something Jacquetta knew well.
The Lady of the Rivers is an amazing book, a true page turner, emboldened by the character of a truly fascinating woman: Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford. Her story, a historical linchpin in the war of the Roses, has been largely untouched by historians. I am glad Philippa Gregory gave Jacquetta her due.
This book is full of pathos, adventure, passion, the struggles of an internecine conflict that was largely focused on women and the succession to the throne.
The Lady of the Rivers: A Novel (The Cousins' War)
When Edward III, the father of twelve children, died in 1377, he was succeeded his grandson, Richard II, the son of Edward's eldest son, Edward, the Black Prince, who had died a year earlier. Richard was ten years old when he came to the throne, and his government was ruled by a regency that included John of Gaunt, one of Edward III's younger sons.
The family struggles began during the final years of Richard's reign. In 1389, he wrested control from the regency, turned against John of Gaunt and his family, and disinherited John's son, Henry Bolingbroke.
But this did not sit well with Bolingbroke, who raised an army, and deposed Richard in 1399. But Henry was not the rightful heir to the throne. There was no defined act of succession in the 14th century, but the English monarchs largely followed primogeniture, sons before daughters, brothers before sisters. John of Gaunt was the third son of Edward III. In theory, Richard's heirs were the descendants of the second son of Edward III: Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, who died in 1368.
Lionel had one daughter, Philippa (1355-1382). She was Richard's heir, and would only be displaced in the succession by Richard's own children. Her son, Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March, was named as Richard's heir after Philippa's death. Roger died a year before Richard II, and his son, Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March, became Richard's heir.
Henry Bolingbroke took the throne from Richard II, causing a major rupture in the line of succession, ignoring the descendants of Lionel largely because of the female line of descent.
This usurpation would lead to what is known as the War of the Roses. Although Edmund Mortimer supported Henry V and was one of Henry VI's regents, his brother-in-law (and cousin), Richard, Earl of Cambridge, who was married to Edmund's sister, Anne, was a part of an attempt to put Mortimer on the throne, but Mortimer would have none of it, He told the king, and Cambridge was attainted and executed.
Mortimer's titles were inherited by his sister, Anne's son, Richard Plantagenet. (The late Earl of Cambridge was a descendant of Edmund of Langeley, fourth son of Edward III). Richard, Duke of York, had a very strong claim to the throne due to his descent from Philippa Mortimer.)
The Duke of York was a particularly ambitious man, and determined to secure the throne for he and his sons, claiming the the right due to their senior line of descent from Richard III.
By 1460, York, aided by Richard Neville, Earl of Neville, lead another campaign to claim the throne. He was killed in battle. Only weeks after his death, his eldest son, Edward, was proclaimed king, after a Yorkist defeat of the Lancastrian forces at the Battle of Towton.
But Warwick, known as the Kingmaker, soon turned again the young king he put on the throne. Among other things, he did not approve of Edward's secret marriage with Elizabeth Woodville. Warwick married his daughters, Isabel, to Edward's younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence, and Anne, first to Henry VI's son, Edward, and later to King Edward's youngest son, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
The Earl of Warwick turned against Edward VI, and restored Henry VI, briefly to the throne, after a failed attempt to replace Edward with his younger brother, George. But in April 1871, King Edward defeated Warwick in battle, and reclaimed his throne. He reigned until April 1483, when he died suddenly, and was succeeded by his elder son, twelve-year-old Edward V.
The Plantagenet family had come full circle. One hundred and six years after the death of Edward III and the ascension of the child king, Richard II, a new child sovereign is on the throne, setting up yet another struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster. This time a new line emerges: the Beauforts, the descendants of John of Gaunt and his third wife, Katherine Swynford, a line that was originally illegitimate.
Enter Lady Margaret Beauford, daughter of John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, grandson of the Duke of Beaufort, Margaret inherited her father's fortune and estates, and an great asset to the House of York. She feigned support for the Yorkists, hiding her true desires to see the House of Lancaster back on the throne.
She bided her time, watching as the House of York collapsed after the death of Edward VI, and the turncoat actions of the Earl of Warwick. She watched as Edward's brother, Richard III, usurped the throne from his nephew, the young Edward V, who disappeared with his younger brother, soon afterward. The boys were sent to the Tower of London and never seen again.
Biding his time, too, was Margaret's only son, Henry Tudor, and only two years after Richard took the throne, he was killed in at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor, who was proclaimed king. He cemented his position by marrying the Yorkist heir, Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Edward VI and Elizabeth Woodville, The young Elizabeth was the rightful heir to the throne after the deaths of her two brothers.
The Plantagenet women, in spite of their sex, played important roles in the War of the Roses. Elizabeth Woodville married a king for love, trusted her brother-in-law to protect her sons (he didn't), and forged an alliance with Margaret Beaufort, fighting to bring her son to the throne.
Elizabeth's power came from her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, an equally formidable, determined woman, not afraid to use her wiles or her brain, to fight for what she believed in, and what she wanted for her family.
These ladies are power characters, nourished by the rich writing of Philippa Gregory, who certainly knows how to bring her stories to life. The Lady of the Rivers is terrific. A wonderful book to curl up with on the couch or something to tuck into while commuting to work.
The fourth book in The Cousins' War series will be about Isabel and Anne, the two daughters of the Earl of Warwick. One usually thinks of these two women being used by their father solely for his desire for power. I am sure, however, Philippa Gregory, will give these two women voices as well.
Read The Lady of the Rivers. You will not regret it.
The Lady of the Rivers (The Cousins' War)
The Red Queen: A Novel (The Cousins' War)
The White Queen: A Novel (Cousins' War (Touchstone Paperback))
Philippa Gregory is also one three authors of The Women of the Cousins War: the Duchess, the Queen and the King's Mother (Simon & Schuster: $26.00) This book is pure history, not historical fiction. I will be reviewing this book soon.
The Women of the Cousins' War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King's Mother
Posted by Marlene Eilers Koenig at 5:22 PM