The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory
Margaret Pole was cousin to Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII. She loses her brother to the executioner so that Katherine of Aragon will come from Spain to marry Arthur Tudor, heir to the throne and her ward. When Arthur dies, she supports Katherine in saying the marriage was never consummated (this is most of the plot of The Constant Princess, another of Gregory’s books). That makes her lots of enemies in the Tudor court, until Henry VII dies and his son wants to marry Katherine. Margaret’s family rides that wave of good fortune for as long as that marriage remains happy, and she becomes the guardian to their daughter Mary. When Henry divorces Katherine for Anne Boleyn, Margaret and her family begin a downward spiral, including plotting rebellion. For most of this book, she’s an old woman. In the end, she becomes the oldest person to be killed by order of Henry VIII.
Margaret is not Gregory’s most appealing protagonist. She’s entitled, resentful, and conservative. Her early experiences of fear and imprisonment, and the loss of her father and brother to the executioner’s axe, make her willing to do almost anything to keep herself and her children alive. The way she describes Anne Boleyn and some other women is pretty vicious. At the same time, you can see why she felt that way. She did have a pretty remarkable amount of wealth and power for a woman of that time, though not enough to save herself from the Tower.
Gregory’s books are long, and I think her style is a bit repetitive. Maybe that’s part of her attempt to give readers the flavor of Tudor-era English, or formal court language. But every time Margaret is affronted in some way, she mentally recounts all of the kings and queens she’s been related to, all of her family’s past honors, and that gets old after a while.
The weird thing about reading Gregory’s books and most other historical fiction that sticks as close to the real story as hers do, is the way the plot seems nonsensical and capricious. The twists and turns feel random, rather than motivated by any logical progression or character growth the way it would be in most fictions. Perhaps it’s especially the case here, since the plot is determined so strongly by the whims of Henry VIII. Margaret’s family falls into and out of favor so many times it’s dizzying, and rarely do her actions or those of her sons have much to do with it. She concludes at the end that Henry is killing her and her family just because they’re members of the old royal family, the family his father usurped. My God, if you didn’t already know that Henry VIII was an insane, murderous tyrant, a courtly terrorist, this book will show you the extent of his madness and his horrifying control over all aspects of life, especially for the people closest to him. A theme is that no one can ever tell him bad news because he really will kill the messenger. That’s a great way to run a country, isn’t it?
The “curse” of the title is Gregory’s attempt to make some meaning out of the events of the end of the Wars of the Roses and Henry VIII’s reign. In the mythology Gregory creates in this series, the mysterious deaths of the two young York princes in the Tower called down a curse on their murderer that explains the early deaths of Arthur Tudor and Henry VIII’s infant sons, and finally cut short the dynasty. It’s an interesting way to novelize history.