The red queen a review and Richard III a re assessment

I have just finished the Red Queen, I have read several Phillipa Gregory books and as always I am torn between enjoyment and irritation.

Phillipa Gregory’s books are well written and the plots interwoven into the bare bones of historical fact are clever and imaginative. The books backgrounds are obviously impeccably researched and their page turning brilliance often hides what is an impressive amount of background detail. Her novels are well grounded in detailed and wide-ranging research of what I assume is Primary as well as secondary sources. The background details are so carefully interwoven with the narrative they do not, as often happens in historical fiction  scream out “look, look I did my homework I know all this stuff about how they lived and I am sticking it in here because I really, really need to show off”

Her books are, en mass a wonderful exploration of the many varied ways that women could influence history and those around them. It explores their limited choices and how they react to them, without ever imposing modern views on her heroines. It’s often forgotten that the Tudor age was the Age of Queens rather than Kings .Women are the key characters behind most of the pivotal events of Tudor history.

Unfortunately what always spoils her books for me is the total lack of  historical sensitivity and the sneaking suspicion that her impeccable research is used by books publicists and her fans and made to create a d Vinci code confusion about exactly how factual her books are.

This is most obvious in her most famous book the Other Boleyn girl made famous by a movie whose costumes were as inaccurate as the interpretation of the story  itself. Of all the Phillipa Gregory books I have read this was the one which most frequently ignored the facts to create a good read. It has sadly spawned a completely  false view of Ann Boleyn a woman who Gregory could have been more sympathetic to,  as she is one of the very few women to radically alter English history by sheer force of personality.

The factual accuracy of the Red Queen with regard to the time period I have to confess I cannot comment on in any detail as the Wars of the Roses are not a period I studied in any great detail. However I am pretty sure theres a fair bit of flexibility with the truth .

What I found very interesting was the sympathetic treatment of Margret Beaufort, a lady I have tried hard to like but find I mostly loathe. Margret Beaufort is  usually seen  as a  Saint ,she was devote and clever ,she never strayed from a life of strict piety,she was devoted to a son she was separated from for many years , she was charitable and also sponsored learning and so the Tudor spawned myth goes .

However  she was also fiercely  ambitious and  I suspect arrogant and cold. Her darker side is seen most clearly  later on from the time covered by the book.Its shown by her treatment of other royal women once her son is crowned king .She is most aptly described as “the mother in law from hell” .She  lords it over both his wife and  the ladies of his court .She insisted on walking barely  one pace behind his wife and taking precedence over his mother in law Elizabeth Woodville who had ,once been queen of England .Its not recorded but it seems very likely she was behind the plight of Katherine of Aragon once she became Princess Dowager.

She  had a high profile role at court and styled herself Margret R which seems to have been universally seen as being Margret Regina ,though she could claim it merely stood for Margret Richmond.

Phillipa Gregory perfectly recreates the inner life of Margret and while presenting characters through the biased eyes of Margret still manages to convey that she is not entirely correct in her opinions of them which is very clever . The reactions of Margret to events sits fairly well at ease  with the mindset of a late medieval lady who is less than traditional . Phillipa Gregory puts forward the interesting idea that Margret is partly responsible for the death of the Princes in the tower through influencing Buckingham to arrange the murders and I find this an interesting and plausible idea.

Possible portrait of a young Margret Beaufort.

The supposed murder of the Princes in the Tower by Richard the third is often seen a proven fact .The truth is not quite so clear cut. There is no real proof the Princes, the uncrowned King Edward and his brother Richard were in fact murdered in the Tower of London and even less evidence to suggest Richard III was the one responsible. Even assuming the unlikely scenario that his character was as black as Shakespeare paints it there was no good reason for him to have killed the princes, He had declared them bastards, he was in reasonable control of much of the country and most  men preferred a strong adult king to a boy king controlled by his very unpopular mother however well-loved the children may have been by the populace.

In addition nothing in Richards character suggests him capable of such a crime ,he seems to have been devoted to his brother their father  ,he was unswervingly  loyal  in an age when people regularly  changed sides even if it involved betraying family .

He was pious and a just king once on the throne.Furthermore  he was highly intelligent and would have realised having the two children in his control was much more useful than having two children  murdered,The murder would be certain to become public and cause an outcry and would move his  other adult rivals especially  Henry Tudor closer to the line of succession ,Henry Tudor and others all adults where much less of a threat while to other potential heirs where still alive.

The other convincing proof of Richards innocence is that Elizabeth Woodville.She was  the boy’s mother and  long after rumours of the princes  death are circulating comes to Richards court and seems to be on good terms  with him even to the extent that there is gossip that he considers marrying her Daughter ,Elizabeth of York .It seems unlikely that she would have been so complaisant if she suspected he was capable of  the secret murder of her children.

It’s just possible that one or both princes died of the plague ,cholera or sweating sickness  or similar disease rampant in the city and for health reasons were buried quickly and inside the tower as so many other prisoners have been in the past. Richard may have been worried about rumours of his murdering  them and  would be unlikely to be able to convince people of his innocence.He may have planned on movign the bodies or adding a memorial once he had time ,However perhaps their mother was informed ,saw the bodies or heard the report from a trusted friend, this may be the simplest explanation for their disappearance and their mothers later actions.It would also explain how Henry Tudor decided to invade as his mother had contacts in the Tower .It should be remembered that the Tower was not at this point the place of terror it became later,it was a royal residence ,more valued for its security than comfort but still not as unpleasant as it later became.

It is also very possible that the Princes were murdered by other claimants during Richards’s absence on Progress which is the time at which rumours start. It has always seemed much more likely to me that it was Tudor supporters who killed the Princes either in the tower or elsewhere. Killing the princes would remove the two major obstacles to Henry Tudor’s succession and also blacken the name of Richard III; their supporters would flock to Henry.

It’s been suggested that the princes escaped ,perhaps there was an attempt to rescue them which partially succeeded one prince escaping while the other was killed or perhaps both escaped .

To me it does seem  plausible  that  the children are dead or have escaped at the point the rumours of their death are circulating or Richard would just have produced the children to disprove the rumours .It also seems unlikely that Elizabeth Woodville would have promised her daughter in Marriage to the princes rival Henry Tudor unless she had believed her sons dead.Henry Tudor passes an act which re legitimizes the children of Elizabeth Woodville in order to reinforce his future wife Elizabeth of York’s royal credentials and its effects would also mean the princes, if living would be the rightful monarchs not himself .So it’s unlikely he would have done that unless he was certain they were dead and not likely to be able to claim his crown. On the other hand it does appear that Henry VII was not personally responsible for the children’s fate, he did not know where the Princes were buried nor is he even certain that both are in fact dead, He seems ambivalent during the long years of the Perkin Warbeck threat  which could easily have been dispelled by producing bodies and witnesses . The widespread royal support afforded Warbeck  to me at least also suggests that those “in the know “did believe one child at least had escaped.

Henry Tudor when he recounted Richard the thirds crimes never mentioned the murder of the two princes and it was not universally believed at the time.

Richard the Third has always had a loyal following the North and even at the time of his death when to voice support for him was dangerous the citizens of York recorded

… king Richard late mercifully reigning upon us was through great treason of the duc of Northfolk [sic] and many other that turned ayenst hyme, with many other lordes and nobilles of this north parties was piteously slane and murdred to the grete hevynesse of this citie.

To me the chilling Margret Beaufort is a much better bet for the princes Murderer .


About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
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