Monday, September 19, 2011

The Women of the Cousin’s War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the Queen’s Mother by Phillipa Gregory, David Baldwin & Michael Jones — 352 pgs

Book Cover In this stellar work of comparative history, Phillipa Gregory and her counterparts David Baldwin and Michael Jones undertake a literary excavation of three of the most powerful and influential women at the center of The Cousin’s War (or the War of the Roses). As Gregory states in her introduction, there is so little documentation surrounding these women that the authors had to piece together documents and sometimes speculate about the history to uncover the secrets behind these women’s power, determination and drive. Sharing their information with clarity and skill, Gregory, Baldwin and Jones recreate for the reader the intricacies of 1400’s England and share the political intrigues and motives that sparked the most vicious conflict over succession in England’s history. As the authors explain the many details of the factions that tried again and again to advance their champions into the seat of power, they share the private lives and public challenges of the three women who were at the center of it all, and go on to share the secret longings, scandals and motivations that surrounded each of these women. This is a complete history of the Cousin’s War that spares no detail and is both delectably readable and compulsively entertaining. A more thorough history could not be imagined, and in Gregory’s treatment of the subject, even those who know little about the Cousin’s War can walk away replete with knowledge and deep understanding.

It’s no secret that Phillipa Gregory’s books and I get on like a house on fire. She is an author whom I’ve come to understand will give me the history that I need mixed with a generous dose of scandal and speculation in her historical novels. I can’t get enough of her writing, and indeed, when life gets overwhelming, her books are the ones I run to for comfort and respite. Gregory’s books are like the best kind of brain candy for me. I was very interested in reading this one, though it’s a departure for Gregory, because I was interested in seeing her try her hand at straight history. I wasn’t disappointed with it in the least. I especially admired Gregory’s brief essay at the beginning of the book regarding the differences and similarities between history and historical fiction, and why she makes the personal choice to write in the genre that she does. Settling into the grist of her tale, Gregory employs a great deal of skill in unpacking the Cousin’s War for her readers, never skimping on detail or drama. Her writing partners complemented her style wonderfully, and also did a great job with explaining the very complicated history surrounding this war.

Gregory was up first with her long essay on the Countess Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford. Jacquetta may be best known as the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, one time queen of England, but here Gregory gives her history lavish attention and explains how this woman changed the course of history. Jacquetta, a woman of royal birth, found herself as the first lady of both the Lancastrian and York courts, and was a great favorite of the Lancastrian queen, Margaret of Anjou, whom she was also in service to. In fact, aside from the queen, there wasn’t a lady of court that was more highly placed. Gregory goes into great detail recounting her first marriage to the Duke of Bedford, who died in the battle of Rouen in 1485, and the family’s political and social ties with the Lancastrian court. Jacquetta’s second marriage was a marriage of love, which was almost unheard of at the time, and this marriage eventually produced sixteen children. Though few historical documents exist to tell her tale, Gregory shares how the her family’s personal myth of Melusine and the allegations of witchcraft that surrounded her not only put her in the hot seat politically and personally, but how she rose above these concerns and eventually triumphed in securing the hand of King Edward VI for her daughter Elizabeth, which later reprised the allegations of witchcraft against her.

Next up was the essay on Elizabeth Woodville from David Baldwin. Elizabeth, daughter to Jaquetta, was originally married to a gentleman yeoman, John Grey, a marriage of duty that ended when her husband was killed in battle. One day, Elizabeth secures a chance meeting with King Edward VI, and the king immediately falls in love with her and marries her. A marriage for love in this time period is unusual, but the marriage of a commoner to a king is almost unheard of! Baldwin goes on to share the tale of Elizabeth and her great misfortune when her husband the king dies and she is left at the mercy of his brother, the new King Richard. Baldwin also delves into the mystery of the princes in the tower; two of Elizabeth’s sons who are in line for inheritance and who are spirited away by their uncle Richard, never to be heard from again. Like her mother Jacquetta, Elizabeth faces allegations of witchcraft that her status as regent do not protect her from, and her eventual fate indicates that far from being passive, Elizabeth may have had a part in plotting against kings, to her own eventual downfall.

The last essay, written by Michael Jones, focuses on Margaret Beaufort, mother to the eventual house of Tudor and King Henry VII. Margaret Beaufort was a strange specimen, for though she was very religious, she was also a consummate schemer and plotter when it came to putting her son on the throne of England. Whereas Margaret had a troubled childhood and had to live with family disgrace, her eventual childhood marriage to Edmund Tudor produced her only child Henry, who was the light of her life and the focus of her days. Margaret spent much time and attention in the fulfillment of a prophecy that assured her that her son would be king, and was shrewd with her dealings with both the Lancastrian and York courts, taking the opportunities for advancement where they came. Her scruples put her squarely in the camp of the plotters, but Margaret was able to escape this taint and eventually become mother to the King and founder of the Tudor court, her relationship with her son a powerful and strong one for all her life. Margaret’s ability to not only control her destiny, but the destiny of her son and the destiny of England, is a think to be admired and wondered at.

Though this is a long review, it barely begins to scratch the surface of all the intricacies of the Cousin’s War. Readers of this book will be pleased to know that Gregory and her co-authors do amazing things in order to make this tale understandable and involving. Where once there was a void concerning  these women, there is now a definitive text that elucidates curious readers on every aspect of the lives of these three very strong and impressive women and the history surrounding them. If you are at all curious about the Cousin’s War, I would urge you to pick this book up and give yourself over to these authors as they attempt to explain it all, for they do it with verve, wit, and aplomb. A great work of historical literature.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

17 comments:

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I have this one and I'm really looking forward to reading it. Philippa Gregory made me fall in love with historical fiction.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I am just so fascinated with how much ardor there is among contemporary readers for this period! It's definitely compelling, but I think I like the movies more just because of all the wonderful costumes!

Audra said...

I've got to be in the mood to really dig non-fiction but this sounds marvelous -- there's a skill to conveying dense history in a really readable way (I think Alison Weir is brilliant at that) -- will have to look for this one!

Daphne said...

I'll be reading this one soon - sounds like it's interesting!

Meghan said...

I'm just about to dig into this one and I'm so pleased you enjoyed it so much! It's definitely made me look forward to it much more than I was before!

Tracy said...

Thanks for an excellent review - this one sounds worth adding to my wishlist.

Kathy said...

Great review! I would have totally missed this one as this is an author I have not read. I am adding it to my TBR pile! thanks

Suko said...

Wonderful review, Zibilee! This sounds like an absolutely incredible book. I know next to nothing about the Cousin's War--or England in the 1400s (I must have been daydreaming in history class).

Aths said...

I haven never read a Phillipa Gregory though I've heard so much about her books! I really should read some of her works! Looks like this book was fabulous!

Kailana said...

I am not a big fan of Gregory, but I have to admit I am curious about this book.

Erin said...

Ooh, you had me at "stellar work of comparative history"! I just received this one for review and haven't started yet. Nor have I read anything by Gregory before, so I'm interested to see what she does! I bet Gregory's fiction-writing experience was really helpful in making this book so readable. I've long been curious about the Cousin's War but have yet to find a book that laid it out clearly. I'm so excited to read this one now!

Jenners said...

I've not gotten on the Phillpa Gregory bandwagon yet but I suppose it is inevitable. I think it is brave of her to talke on a non-fiction book like this.

Jenny said...

I actually know close to nothing about any of these people or this part of history. And I think I've been saying for AGES that I need to read one of her books! I will do so eventually. I am very interested in the essay by Gregory about the difference between history and historical fiction!

Darlene said...

I wouldn't mind reading this one at some point. I didn't take it for review because I thought it might be too in depth for my mood right now. I will be reviewing Lady of the Rivers one day soon here I hope. I'm glad you enjoyed this one.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I've been considering this book and am glad to read your review. Definitely sounds like something I'd enjoy! I'm ashamed to admit that I don't think I've read any Phillipa Gregory yet...

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

AhnYES, I've been waiting for your thoughts on this. Beautiful review, Heather. I'm really glad that it sat well wih you. I am so intrigued by these three women. It's a fabulous history of three really interesting people.

Bailey (The Window Seat Reader) said...

I love that Gregory's work is like brain candy for you! I think we all have a few go-to authors that allow us to escape and become engrossed. Personally, I've never read any of Gregory's books.

Since I'm a newbie, where do you recommend I start? I assume the beginning is logical (ha), but I thought maybe you have a particular one that's a favorite or something. (email: thewindowseatreader at yahoo dot com)

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