Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The King's Curse


Regarded as yet another threat to the volatile King Henry VII’s claim to the throne, Margaret Pole, cousin to Elizabeth of York (known as the White Princess) and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, is married off to a steady and kind Lancaster supporter—Sir Richard Pole. For his loyalty, Sir Richard is entrusted with the governorship of Wales, but Margaret’s contented daily life is changed forever with the arrival of Arthur, the young Prince of Wales, and his beautiful bride, Katherine of Aragon. Margaret soon becomes a trusted advisor and friend to the honeymooning couple, hiding her own royal connections in service to the Tudors.

           After the sudden death of Prince Arthur, Katherine leaves for London a widow, and fulfills her deathbed promise to her husband by marrying his brother, Henry VIII. Margaret’s world is turned upside down by the surprising summons to court, where she becomes the chief lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. But this charmed life of the wealthiest and “holiest” woman in England lasts only until the rise of Anne Boleyn, and the dramatic deterioration of the Tudor court. Margaret has to choose whether her allegiance is to the increasingly tyrannical king, or to her beloved queen; to the religion she loves or the theology which serves the new masters. Caught between the old world and the new, Margaret Pole has to find her own way as she carries the knowledge of an old curse on all the Tudors.


            I have recently finished devouring the greatly anticipated finale to Philippa Gregory’s Cousin’s War Series entitled The King’s Curse, and I must say it was well worth the wait! In this final installment, Gregory brings the reader into the lavish and dangerous court of King Henry VIII as seen through the eyes of Margaret Pole. Margaret is the close cousin of Elizabeth of York, mother of King Henry VIII. She is the daughter of his uncle George, Duke of Clarence, who was killed for speaking treasonously against his own brother, King Richard. With such a strong link to the throne, Margaret is safely married off to a loyal Knight to ensure that she is not a threat to the reign of King Henry VII, a Tudor and sworn enemy of the York dynasty. She lives in utter anonymity until the fateful day when the newly married Prince of Wales is sent to live under her roof.
As the story opens, Arthur, the Prince of Wales and his young Bride, Katherine of Aragon are being looked after by Margaret, who has been appointed their royal guardian during their honeymoon. Events quickly turn tragic, and Prince Arthur falls ill and dies of the Sweat, leaving poor Katherine a young widow. On his deathbed, Arthur commands Katherine to promise that she will deny that they consummated the marriage, leaving her free to marry his younger brother Henry, who is to be the heir to the throne. Katherine, strong willed just as her mother the Spanish militant Queen Isabella I, heads for London to fulfill her promise to her dying love. Once there, the accusations stir up in regard to her claim of a non-consummated marriage to Arthur, prompting Margaret to be summoned for questions by the overly pious grandmother of the king. Margaret keeps her promise to Katherine and Arthur, and never reveals the knowledge of their honeymoon bliss, insisting that Katherine is a still as pure as the driven snow. Margaret is rewarded by being installed as Queen Katherine’s chief Lady-in-Waiting, beginning a fiercely loyal and loving bond between the two women.
Rumors and turmoil begin to fly around the court as the King openly courts, not one, but two young Boleyn girls, leaving many to wonder what type of king would raise a commoner so high. While many at court privately discuss their displeasure, no one dares confront him on the matter for fear of being on the receiving end of his ever increasing temper. Katherine is publicly shamed with the knowledge that her once dotting husband has allowed not only his eyes, but his heart to stray, leaving her devastated and demeaned in the wake of the Boleyn scandal that all but shattered England. Though it threatens to destroy all that she holds dear, Margaret manages to hold firmly to her beliefs, even when confronted with the choice between her fealty to a pompous and irresponsible King and her love and loyalty for Katherine. This determination to do what is right, however, may very well cost her her life.
 If I have not already expressed this fact, I feel I must disclose out of complete transparency that Philippa Gregory is my favorite author of this genre of historical fiction. I particularly like her way of telling the story not from the obvious voice of the royal involved, but often from a bystander, or from the vantage of someone who merely plays a supporting role. She is a master of finding the strength and fortitude of the women who becomes the storyteller. Also, her attention to historical detail and accuracy speaks volumes to her academic prowess in research and writing. I have previously reviewed the series “The White Queen” that covers the material in this, as well as three other books in the Cousin’s War series. (The White Princess, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter). I highly recommend the series, both book and film, to anyone interested in this time period.
Now, back to this novel. . . In the final installment of the Cousin’s War, Gregory totally outdoes herself, and writes a book that, even as a standalone, is captivating and full of royal intrigue. This is by no means a Chick-lit book. Oh no! Margaret and Katherine are tough, independent women who stand up for what they believe, regardless the cost. This story does not mince words when it comes to violence and death, allowing the reader an intimate and accurate look into the Tudor Era. As told from the perspective of Margaret Pole, a York royal denied her birthright, The King’s Curse takes you from the elegant, over-the-top court of Henry VIII to the gritty, backroom conspiracies that directed the course of British, and quite possibly world history. It was bittersweet to finish this book knowing it was the last in the series, but I feel as though I have been thoroughly entertained and completely educated given her strict adherence to using a fact based timeline of events. I give this book a full 5 stars, and wait with baited breath to see what Philippa Gregory comes up with next!

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