It’s a dangerous thing to be a Plantagenet in Tudor England, as Lady Margaret Pole knows only to well. Henry the VII is a paranoid king whose enemies’, or perceived enemies’, heads decorate poles atop the gates despite the fact that his queen, Elizabeth of York, was daughter to Edward IV, and Margaret’s cousin. As The King’s Curse begins, narrator Margaret Pole is desperately aware of the thin line she must walk: her brother, Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, named by Richard III as heir to the throne of England, has been beheaded the previous day and she must not even show her grief. Her brother’s crime? He was a Plantagenet prince with a better claim to the throne than the usurper king sitting on it.
When Margaret’s uncle, King Richard had been killed on the battlefield, she and all the remaining Plantagenets went from being heirs to the throne to being pretenders.
What should be done with the York princesses? What should be done with the Warwick heirs? The Tudors, mother and son, had the answer prepared. We would all be married into obscurity, wedded to shadows, hidden in wedlock. So now I am safe, cut down by degrees, until I am small enough to conceal under a poor knight’s name in a little manor in the middle of England where land is cheap and there is nobody who would ride into battle for the promise of my smile at the cry “À Warwick!”
Sir Richard Pole is chamberlain to young Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, and so Lord and Lady Pole spend most of their time at Ludlow Castle training the prince to be a kind and good king. When Arthur marries Katherine of Aragon, Margaret becomes very attached to the new Princess of Wales, a young girl, alone in a strange land, with stranger foods, harsh winters, and an unfamiliar language. However, the prince and princess are in love and so it is an almost idyllic life for them all, away from the jealous, tyrannical court, and the fears and constraints that puts on a Plantagenet heir. But tragedy comes when Arthur is struck ill with the sweats and dies, his young widow desolate but determined to fulfill her last promise to him — to become queen of England. Eventually, she succeeds, marrying Arthur’s spoiled younger brother, Henry on her promise that the first marriage was not consummated and on a dispensation from the Pope.
When Henry becomes king, Margaret becomes lady-in-waiting and loving friend to the queen. She is viewed as a trusted friend to the royal family, having loved Henry’s mother as did he, and she helps raise and educate the royal princess, later Queen Mary. From this point, though, the story becomes a study of Henry’s deterioration into a form of madness in his quest for a male heir and how this affected his whole court, the nation, and most particularly, Margaret’s family.
Gregory has done extensive research, and while the story, which dextrously weaves fact with fiction, is a compelling work of suspense and, often, terror for Margaret, her children and grandchildren, the author’s note at the end of the book puts the finishing touches to the tale. Among other things, she cites research by Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer where they suggest that
Henry may have had the rare Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths when the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. Whitley and Kramer also suggest that Henry’s later symptoms of paranoia and anger may have been caused by McLeod syndrome — a disease found only in Kell positive individuals. McLeod syndrome usually develops when sufferers are aged around forty and causes physical degeneration and personality changes resulting in paranoia, depression, and irrational behaviour.
It explains much. We see Margaret watch helplessly as the spoiled boy becomes the glorious, pampered king, a king to whom no-one will say ‘nay’ or argue common sense. As his desires become more unpredictable, his courtiers find it increasingly precarious to agree or disagree, for what was his will ten minutes ago may not still hold true. Margaret fears that the lack of male heirs is because of a curse that her Aunt Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV, and her cousin, Elizabeth, wife to Henry’s father, called down upon those who killed the two little York boys in the Tower of London, for she believes that the murders were committed on Tudor orders. We watch with her as she sees Henry set his first queen aside, accuse the second of adultery and treason, mourn for his third wife, and divorce the fourth, by which time Henry is exceedingly fearful that the Tudor line will end with him (as the curse predicted) and his need to eliminate Plantagenet pretenders becomes paramount.
It may be history but I don’t want to spoil the suspense. For anyone who is fascinated by this period of British history, this is a great read. While it has many ideas familiar to those who have read other novels by Philippa Gregory from her Tudor Court novels and The Cousins’ War series, the perspective is entirely unique and the story focuses on a previously almost obscure player on the scene. Gregory is an acknowledged authority on women’s history; her writing is rich and compelling. * * * * *