If you’ve ever read or seen Alice in Wonderland, you might be suspecting that The Red Queen is not such a promising nickname. You’d be right. In this historical novel by Philippa Gregory, the title refers to Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor who spends her life plotting to put her son on the throne of England. She is called the “Red” Queen since the House of Lancaster is typically symbolized by a red rose, while the rival House of York is symbolized by the white.
The story is told in first person and in present tense. This somewhat unusual method of narration gives the author ample scope to present Margaret’s internal dialogue. From the very beginning of the story, Margaret is portrayed as very religious and very proud of her religiosity. As a young girl, she frequently prays all through the night and hopes that everyone will notice the rough callouses of her “saints’ knees.” Her early ambition is to enter a convent and become an abbess, but since she is closely connected to the ruling Lancaster line, her mother forces her to marry to produce an heir that might one day be king.
Her first marriage to Edmund Tudor, the half-brother of King Henry VI, lasts a very short time, but she gives birth to a child, Henry Tudor. Though she is not allowed to raise her own son, Margaret redirects her thwarted ambition to join a convent into a new ambition to see him crowned king of England. She is delighted with the idea of becoming the Queen Mother and is certain that this is God’s will for her life.
Margaret’s second and third marriages (to the Earl of Stafford and to Lord Stanley) overlap the tumultuous events of the Wars of the Roses. The half-mad Lancaster king, Henry VI, is removed from power by Edward of York, providing a disappointing blow to Margaret’s hopes of dynastic succession. Convinced that her wishes are nothing other than the will of God, however, Margaret uses every weapon in her power–intrigue, alliances, deception–to further her son’s interest.
When Edward of York is succeeded by his power-hungry brother Richard III, Margaret knows that it is time to act. She works to unify the Yorkists (who would prefer the young son of the deceased Edward of York) and the Lancastrians (who would prefer her own son as king). Together those two powers can overthrow Richard III, but once that is done, Margaret must make sure that her son Henry Tudor is not passed over in favor of Edward of York’s progeny.
Richard III, in his bid for the crown, had already imprisoned his two young nephews in the Tower. One of histories mysteries (as touted on the History Channel), is what happened to the two little princes in the Tower? Did their uncle Richard kill them? Did Henry Tudor kill them after he became king? The author Philippa Gregory puts her own construction on events, ascribing the plot to Margaret and the work to Margaret’s dupe, the Duke of Buckingham. With Edward of York’s children dead, Henry Tudor had only Richard III to reckon with.
The final chapters of the story lead up to the climactic Battle of Bosworth Field. Henry Tudor comes over from France with an invasion force, but it is less than half the size of Richard’s army. Margaret must persuade her husband Lord Stanley (a notorious turncoat and temporizer) to switch sides, to leave Richard and join with her son Henry at the crucial moment when the battle begins.
As history would have it, Margaret does succeed in all her ambitions; however, the end of the novel is, in a way, peculiarly unsatisfying. Throughout the book, the author has portrayed Margaret as a very unsympathetic woman, a religious hypocrite with a lust for power. Her megalomaniacal desire to see her son on the throne makes her a less than three-dimensional character. Philippa Gregory tries to soften her by adding an unconsummated love interest with Jasper Tudor, the brother of her first husband, but this falls somewhat flat.
The style of historical fiction in The Red Queen is almost a polar opposite of the style of the last historical fiction book I read, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. The Red Queen deals almost exclusively with documented political events of the time and creates virtually no fictional characters; The Pillars of the Earth focuses almost exclusively on fictional characters, using them as a window into the life of ordinary people and medieval civilization. The Red Queen provides a portrait of one, not very likeable, medieval noblewoman. The Pillars of the Earth provides a portrait of an entire half a century with all its wickedness, warts, worries, and wonders.