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Book Review: The King’s Curse

By (September 9, 2014) No Comment

Keeping Up With the Tudors

The King’s Curseking's curse cover

by Philippa Gregory

Touchstone, 2014

There was only one way, really, for Philippa Gregory’s multi-volume series of novels about the Wars of the Roses to end. Some of those novels have been among the best books this author has written; The White Queen and The Red Queen in particular very skillfully brought to life the colorful personalities on either side of the long conflict between the York and Lancaster branches of the Plantagenet dynasty. That long conflict was abruptly ended on August 22, 1485 when the Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor, won the Battle of Bosworth Field and took the crown from Richard III. He married Elizabeth of York in a move to heal the partisan infighting in his newly-acquired kingdom, but of course civil wars don’t end in PR stunts. There were plenty of Plantagenets still alive, and not one of them ignorant of the fact that their dynasty had ruled England for centuries – and Henry VII knew that too: throughout his reign, he was beset by Plantagenet claimants to his throne.

Gregory’s already covered the cataclysm, and now she ends her long series by dissecting the bitter aftermath, and she makes the marvelous dramatic decision to do that in the person of Margaret Pole, cousin to Elizabeth of York and focal point for the very active Plantagenet contingent at the Tudor court and throughout the kingdom. It’s in the close, muttering atmosphere of this contingent that Margaret Pole is forever hearing things like “The return of the Plantagenets … Ironic, if after all this, it should come back to one of us” and “We are the Plantagenets, the natural rulers of England. The king is our cousin. We have to bring him back to his own.” That’s trouble brewing, in other words, and Gregory is an old hand at stretching out trouble into a whole book’s worth of shot and incident. The King’s Curse might be the last gasp of a long series, but it reads with unflagging energy from its first page to its last, cleanly gliding the age of the Plantagenets into the age of the Tudors.

The Plantagenets disapprove of the Tudors, predictably enough, and Gregory playfully characterizes it as very close to a parental disapproval: the remnants of the older royal house consider the new royal house to be unprincipled brawling brats – especially Henry VIII himself, who rumbles through the book like a long bout of food poisoning. Margaret confers with her cousins, George Neville and the Nevilles, the Duke of Buckingham, and others, and she watches – and we watch through her – all the signal, familiar events of the reign: the split with Queen Katherine of Aragon, the infatuation with Anne Boleyn, the break with Rome, the Pilgrimage of Grace and the rivalry with King Francis I of France and the rampage of the Sweating Sickness and all the rest. And through it all, Margaret and the Plantagenets disapprove:

While Henry roisters with the minions, all the work of the kingdom is done by his smiling helper, Cardinal Wolsey. All the gifts and privileges and high-paying places pass through the cardinal’s soft, warm hands, and many of them slide up his capacious red sleeves. Henry is in no hurry to invite grave older councillors back into his presence to question his increasing enthusiasm for another handsome young king, Francis of France, and will not hear anything about the increasing folly and extravagance of his friends.

It can’t end well, especially since Gregory has Henry’s paranoia continue to grow as the years go by without a male Tudor heir to solidify the new dynasty. Readers coming to The King’s Curse with some knowledge of Tudor history will know what the “curse” in the title is, although it takes poor Margaret a few hundred pages – and a final imprisonment – to figure it out, realizing the Henry is not imprisoning traitors but rather simply Plantagenets, irrespective of their complicity in any plots real or imagined. “There is no charge, there can be no charge,” she sees from her bleak prison cell in the novel’s concluding segment, “It is the king gathering Plantagenet sons into his keeping, like Moldwarp undermining a house, like a monster in a fairy tale, eating children, one by one.” Her hope is as stubborn as all the other parts of her character:

All summer I wait to hear that the king has come out of his melancholy, all autumn, then when the weather starts to get cold again, I think that perhaps the king will pardon and free us in the new year, after Christmas, as part of the celebrations of the season; but he does not.

Some of those readers familiar with the time period will also know before starting The King’s Curse what gruesome end awaits Margaret herself, who was hauled from her cell at age 67, pushed neck-down onto the block, and hacked to pieces by an inept executioner (Gregory is so eager to use the horrific scene that she dutifully continues Margaret’s first-person narration right up to the last axe-stroke, even though it’s notoriously difficult to write up your own murder). That grim ending of Margaret Pole is also the grim ending of this novel, which leaves the reader – and wretched England – in the hands of a bloated monster-king … which is right where Gregory found it way back in 2001 when she wrote The Other Boleyn Girl. So: the Stuarts, anyone?