Although I don’t share the enthusiasm that millions of viewers have for the TV fantasy series ‘Game of Thrones,’ I am fascinated by the lives and machinations of real-life monarchs. I recently learned that the idea for that series derives from the actual history of France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and I realized that it also bears a resemblance to the history of England at the same time, the period of civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. This was brought to the small screen in the excellent BBC series ‘The White Queen,’ which itself was based on the book of that title by Philippa Gregory.
So I was overjoyed when our good friends from the Netherlands brought me a copy of the novel entitled ‘The King’s Curse,’ by the same author. That book deals with the life and times of Henry VIII, the son of the Tudor King Henry VII, whose defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and subsequent marriage to Margaret of York, Richard’s niece, put an end to tha conflict. It is a large tome, comprising almost 600 pages, so I had to wait until I had a decent period of time in which to devote myself to the book, and I found that once I had started reading it I couldn’t put it down.
It starts in the year 1499 in London, where Henry VII has just executed the brother of the heroine-narrator of the story, Lady Margaret Pole, another niece of King Richard III. Lady Margaret is cousin to the queen and also her trusted lady-in-waiting and confidante. As a girl, together with her late mother, Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York had pronounced a curse on whoever had murdered her two young brothers in the Tower of London, thus ending any hopes the Plantagenets may have had of providing a successor to Richard III. Under the curse, the culprit would be left without male issue – the sine qua non for succession to the throne of England. According to Shakespeare it was Richard who was responsible for the murder, but evidently Philippa Gregory does not subscribe to that view.
From the viewpoint of Margaret Pole, who has been stripped of her royal rank but permitted to remain at court in the position of lady-in-waiting to the queen, we learn about the way the life of the court is conducted, the political maneouvering within the nobility, and the tyrannous hold King Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, has over her son and hence over everything that is decided at court and in the entire kingdom.
After the death of her own husband, followed by that of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Pole is banished from court and forced to seek refuge in a nunnery, together with her two youngest children, while the two oldest boys are sent to live with a relative and the third son is placed in a monastery while still a child. The vicissitudes of Margaret’s life are described in detail, and eventually she is restored to her former estate and brought back to court.
English history comes to life through the account Margaret Pole gives of the marriage of the heir to the throne, Prince Arthur, to Princess Katherine of Aragon, the death of the young bridegroom followed by that of his father, Henry VII, and the accession to the throne and marriage to Katherine of the younger brother, who becomes Henry VIII. The vagaries of the relationship between the husband and wife, focusing on the latter’s failure to give birth to a boy, dominate the narrative at this point. Our narrator, Margaret, becomes lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine and develops a close friendship with her, to the extent that she is appointed governess of her daughter, Princess Mary.
After Anne Boleyn’s entry onto the scene, first as Henry’s current love interest, later as his wife, the need for a male heir is the overriding subject that dominates that couple’s relations with one another and, eventually, Henry’s attitude to the accepted religion, the Pope and his own role as king. It is this which constitutes the motivation for the dissolution of the monasteries, the Reformation and the establishment of the Anglican church in England, revolutionizing the established social order and the relations between church and state in the kingdom.
The rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, followed by the careers and fates of Henry VIII’s other advisors, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, also play a significant part in the book, and through them we gain a better understanding of how and why the various measures were introduced, steps taken and laws introduced, still affecting our world today.
The reader gains insight into life in Tudor England at the level of the minutiae of individual life as well as at those of national politics and sociological developments. Never writing in a dry, academic way, Philippa Gregory reveals her deep and extensive knowledge of her subject, though her writing is never boring. This book provides the reader with a broad view of a time and place when people’s lives and motivations bore a clear resemblance to those of today, one that still reverberates throughout our current existence but one in which – thankfully – the English monarch no longer wields the power to execute subjects whom he or she regards as disobedient or menacing.
In an author’s note at the end of the book Ms. Gregory mentions recent medical research which suggests that Henry VIII may have belonged to a rare blood type, inherited from his mother, which was incompatible with that of his wives, causing them to miscarry male babies, and also giving rise to his paranoia and physical degeneration in later life. This might explain some of Henry’s behavior, but I’m convinced that no imaginary TV series could ever come up with a better explanation.