Philippa Gregory has a lot of loyal fans and a lot of rather vicious detractors — especially now that a TV miniseries, The White Queen, has been based on her version of the Wars of the Roses. Personally, I’m on the fence — I’ve really enjoyed some of her books and been underwhelmed by others. The White Princess continues the stories of the women involved in England’s long and bloody civil war by telling the story of Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and wife of Henry VII, whose marriage was supposed to unite the warring houses and end the conflict. Which it did, to a certain extent — though rebellions and pretenders kept cropping up throughout Henry Tudor’s reign, making it impossible for the new dynasty to ever really sit comfortably on their thrones.
Gregory has quite a difficult challenge at hand in this novel, as she has to work with a main character who — unlike Elizabeth Woodville or Margaret Beaufort — the White Queen and Red Queen of earlier novels — is essentially passive. There’s little historical evidence to suggest that Elizabeth of York ever played an active role in determining her own fate, except, perhaps, if you believe that as a young girl she actively pursued an affair with her uncle Richard III — a theory that Gregory’s novel supports. Even if you buy that debatable interpretation of her motives, though, this novel still leaves her mourning for a now-dead Richard and pretty much at the mercy of her upstart husband Henry Tudor and his ambitious mother Margaret Beaufort. She’s like a vital playing piece on a game board — the game can’t be played without her, but she has no agency of her own.
Keeping that limitation in mind I thought this book was interesting, but not my favourite of the series, which will always be The Red Queen, with the magnificently love-to-hate-her heroine Margaret Beaufort. I also wish this book had taken Elizabeth’s story a bit further, up to the death of her son Arthur. There’ll be one more book in the series but as it will be the story of a different character, we won’t get to see Elizabeth’s reaction to the shattering tragedy that led to Henry VIII becoming king of England.