Book Review: “The Women of the Cousins’ War” by Philippa Gregory et al

Apparently Philippa Gregory, a prolific writer of historical fiction, came up with the idea of collaborating with historians David Baldwin and Michael Jones to produce a book with the biographies of three women who played a significant role in the Wars of the Roses. I haven’t been able to find any primary references that state categorically that this conflict was called the “Cousin’s War” contemporaneously. If anyone can direct me to proof of this, please comment below. The women covered are Jacquetta of Luxembourg, mother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Queen Elizabeth Woodville herself and Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, the first king of the Tudor dynasty.

The introduction of the book is written by Gregory. It seems to be a kind of essay where she discusses the process of writing historical fiction and non-fiction. This section of the essay doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and I’m still not sure what her point is. She then goes on to discuss the history of the study of women’s history. This section is certainly more interesting. Women’s history has made great strides in recent years. But she discusses how women have been and are discriminated against in history and historical studies. She then proceeds to disparage the historical record of Margaret Beaufort, saying none of it is believable and calls her a virtuous and pious stereotype. I’m really puzzled by this. She appears she to have a bias against Beaufort and the Lancastrians.

Gregory wrote the essay on Jacquetta of Luxembourg. This chapter of the book has what little factual information there is on this intriguing woman. But it is basically a short history of the Wars of the Roses and is filled in with lots of “Jacquetta probably attended…” or “Jacquetta was possibly there…”. This basically confirms the fact there is precious information about her in the historical record which is really a shame.

The late David Baldwin, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 2014, wrote the essay on Elizabeth Woodville. This chapter is an abridged version of his book, “Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower” which was first published in 2002. Of course the essay is excellent but if a reader is looking for more in depth information, I would recommend the book itself.

The essay on Margaret Beaufort was written by the expert, Michael Jones. Again, this is an abridged version of the author’s own book “The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby” by Jones and Malcolm Underwood. The essay is very good but I would also recommend Jones and Underwood’s biography or that of Elizabeth Norton if you want a complete picture of her life.

I have to say this is a strange book. I’m sure it was published with good intentions. The authors opted not to footnote their work and instead have given notes and bibliographies at the end of each chapter. There are also several black and white and color photographs, family trees, a list of battles of the Wars of the Roses and a map showing the location of the battles. If the reader is seeking quick and brief knowledge on these women and a short run down on the Wars of the Roses, this is your book. But I strongly suggest reading the full biographies for better and fuller historical material.

Book Review: Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty by Elizabeth Norton

Margaret Beaufort book cover

I had heard all the usual things about Margaret Beaufort. She was married very young, had a child and was never able to conceive again, connived and conspired to put her son Henry on the throne of England and she was the mother-in-law from hell. I had no idea if any of this was true or not and wanted to learn more. When I heard Elizabeth Norton had written a biography of Margaret, I ordered my copy and settled down to read it.

Norton’s writing style is very linear and chronological. It really made reading the book flow. And to my surprise, I found Margaret to be a very sympathetic character. Her early childhood was marred by the apparent suicide of her father but she was sincerely close to her mother and her step-sisters and brothers. She received a more than adequate education, unusual at the time for a woman. Margaret’s value as an heiress and good match was recognized early. Margaret was contracted to marry at the age of nine but this marriage was never consummated and was eventually annulled.

Margaret was associated with the House of Lancaster but managed to negotiate the landmine that was the War of the Roses very adeptly. King Henry VI gave Margaret to his half-brother Edmund Tudor in marriage and it was with him she had her son Henry to whom she devoted her entire life. When Edmund died young, Margaret was astute enough to find another husband and protector. She was forced to marry again when her third husband died after suffering wounds in battle. During all the ups and downs of the different kings on the throne between Lancaster and York, Margaret was flexible and agreeable and managed to carry on with her comfortable life until Richard III took the throne.

Margaret was certainly guilty of conspiring to elevate her son to the throne. At one point she was attainted by the government, lost all her wealth and land holdings and suffered house arrest. But her fourth husband Thomas, Lord Stanley, allowed her to continue to communicate with her son who was in France. Eventually Henry Tudor was successful in bringing forces to England and winning the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Margaret was now able to live her life as a free and independent woman and greatly enjoyed a high position at court. She was also a generous supporter of charity and university education.

And perhaps she wasn’t the mother-in-law from hell after all. The evidence from this book and from other biographies of Margaret’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth of York all suggest the women probably got along quite well. That’s not to say they didn’t disagree on occasion. But there appears to have been some family unity. Norton has certainly done her research and her writing style makes this an informative and pleasant read. Norton also includes a transcription of all the surviving letters written by Margaret herself. I enjoyed the book very much and came to admire Margaret Beaufort as the formidable survivor that she was.