This review contains spoilers.
It’s been a while since I pulled The Cousins’ War series out of my book jar and it’s time for this review to finally come out of my drafts folder. I’ve read and enjoyed The Tudor Court books and expected similar juicy historical fiction from this more recent series.
I read the books in chronological order:
- The Lady of the Rivers
- The Red Queen
- The White Queen
- The Kingmaker’s Daughter
- The White Princess
The Lady of the Rivers, which told the story of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, had me hooked with the legend of Melusina and Jacquetta’s supernatural leanings. Having never studied the War of the Roses (as the Cousins’ War is now known) and knowing very little about British history, I had no idea that Joan of Arc would make an appearance. For some reason I thought she lived in a much earlier period. Philippa Gregory worked with what little historical material on Jacquetta was available and crafted a fierce and well-developed character. Jacquetta is often praised in the books as being a great beauty but it’s her intelligence and insight that inspired my strong affection for her. Whether it was the gift of foresight from her mystical roots or simply a savvy and almost business-like approach to her life, Jacquetta made every hardship she faced work in her favour.
Margaret Beautfort was renowned for her piety. In her novel, The Red Queen, Beaufort spent a lot of the book praying. Philippa Gregory cleverly wove this into the plot by having a lot of Beaufort’s schemes (and there were many) develop as a direct result of her prayers. Beaufort was constantly interpreting ‘God’s will’ to mean exactly what she wanted or needed at the time. Aside from the praying, the majority of the book was taken up with waiting: waiting for the opportune moment, waiting for her son to be allowed home from exile, waiting for responses from key players in the war. I felt like all the waiting slowed the book down and made it drag, despite it being the shortest books in the series.
Philippa Gregory has commented that Elizabeth Woodville, The White Queen, is her favourite heroine. In truth, I found Elizabeth Woodville to be one of the least engaging narrators. Don’t get me wrong: she was a strong woman and I respected her character. I liked her at the beginning of the novel but when she became queen consort, my affection dwindled. Whether intentional or unintentional, the writing seemed to demonstrate how the tumultuous court life (and several stints in forced sanctuary) turned Elizabeth Woodville into a hardened and shrewd woman. This book deals with the mystery of the Princes in the Tower and suggests that Elizabeth Woodville played a part in ensuring the survival of one of her sons—a mystery which comes into play in every book besides The Lady of the Rivers.
Although it’s been a while since I read The Tudor Court series, I don’t remember much overlapping between the stories; each character had her own story to tell in a certain period. With The Cousins’ War, I felt like I was reading the same events over and over again from different points of view, particularly in The Red Queen and The White Queen, since the bulk of their important events were so closely entwined.
While The Kingmaker’s Daughter covered much of the same events as The Red Queen and The White Queen, I found Anne Neville’s story to be far more interesting. Here, Elizabeth Woodville was painted as a villain and Anne’s loyalties followed her father’s twists and turns in his political plots and ‘kingmaking’. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, helped put Edward IV on the throne and expected to be a trusted advisor. After Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville, Neville was no longer the king’s right hand.
Neville changed tack, marrying his eldest daughter, Isabel, to George, Duke of Clarence (Edward IV’s brother). George and Isabel never succeeded in taking the throne. Neville then changed sides completely, marrying his youngest, Anne, to Edward of Westminster, son of Henry VI and heir to the Lancaster line.
Henry VI was reinstated as king for less than six months before Edward IV reclaimed the throne. In the ensuing battles, both Richard Neville and Edward of Westminster were killed and Anne’s mother fled to sanctuary, leaving Anne orphaned and widowed at just 15 years of age. But this was a game of thrones and Anne Neville was one of the heiresses to an impressive fortune. Philippa Gregory paints Anne Neville as ‘a player in her own right’. She went on to marry Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Edward IV’s other brother). Eventually, after the untimely deaths of both Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence, Richard became king and Anne became queen consort, finally fulfilling her father’s dreams.
Philippa Gregory makes it unclear at times whether Richard married Anne for love or money, though Anne remains besotted and unwavering in her loyalty, even when her husband seemed to be betraying her in favour of an affair with his niece. The death of her son left Anne despondent and unable to bring herself to fight for Richard’s love.
The White Princess acts as a bridge between The Cousins’ War and The Tudor Court and ties together the stories of all of our previous narrators. Elizabeth York is the granddaughter of Jacquetta of Luxembourg and the daughter of Elizabeth Woodville. Both Anne Neville and her husband, Elizabeth’s lover, are dead by the start of this book but Elizabeth is haunted by the memory and pays dearly for her affair. After marrying Henry Tudor, Margaret Beaufort becomes Elizabeth’s mother-in-law.
Since I had developed such an affinity for Anne Neville in The Kingmaker’s Daughter, I was prepared to hate on Elizabeth of York because she was doing some heavy-duty fraternising with Anne’s husband. (I was also hating on Richard. I’m not saying it was all Elizabeth’s fault because clearly it was not.) But Elizabeth was somehow enchanting. Though the previous women of the Cousins’ War had all dealt with danger in life and love, Elizabeth’s predicament seemed even more perilous.
Henry Tudor’s obsession with denying any claims to the throne and being seen as a worthy monarch makes his relationship with Elizabeth a difficult one. Their relationship is in equal turns violent and horrifying, and tender and loving, but constantly fraught with mistrust.
Elizabeth is left to deal with the aftermath of the Princes in the Tower mystery when various claimants to the York throne come out of the woodwork. One of these claimants is Perkin Warbeck, who purports to be Richard of Shrewsbury, the younger son of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, and Elizabeth of York’s younger brother. Despite believing Perkin Warbeck to truly be her brother, Elizabeth has to distance herself and hide any sign of affection in order to prevent Henry Tudor from executing him.
Bonus book: The Women of the Cousins’ War
This isn’t really part of The Cousins’ War series. It’s a book of essays written by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin, and Michael Jones about Jacquetta of Luxembourg (The Lady of the Rivers), Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen) and Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen). I had a hard time getting into this because I don’t really read essays that often now that I’ve graduated from uni. I found the essays on Jacquetta and Elizabeth to be consistent with the information from the series. I was really glad to read the essay on Margaret Beaufort, though. As I’ve said, The Red Queen suffered from some pacing issues and was, at times, boring. The essay in The Women of the Cousins’s War provided an explanation of Margaret Beaufort’s family and why she was such a key player in the Cousins’ War—something which I felt was a bit lacking in the actual novel.
The verdict: Jacquetta of Luxembourg (The Lady of the Rivers), Anne Neville (The Kingmaker’s Daughter), and Elizabeth of York (The White Princess) were my favourites. I wasn’t a huge fan of Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen but I liked her better than Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen), who was depicted as a straight-up evil mother-in-law in The White Princess.