Having written six novels set during the Tudor period— spawning films and TV series along the way— Philippa Gregory changed publishers last year and turned her hand to a new period spanning the Wars of the Roses. At her new home, Simon & Schuster, The White Queen— a first person narrative of the life of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and mother of the ill-fated Princes in the Tower— was an instant success, and she follows it this August with a book about a woman on the other side of the war: The Red Queen.
That Gregory is writing what is now the Cousins War series is somewhat accidental. While carrying out research for her 2005 novel The Constant Princess (HarperCollins) about Catherine of Aragon, she became interested in her father-in-law Henry VII. "He was clearly such an interesting person, nouveau royalty—suddenly I realised there was this fantastically turbulent period of very rapid regime change that I wanted to write about."
But it was not the men who interested her primarily— as with her other novels, Gregory's main focus is the "extraordinary women who survive years of incredible danger". She bristles at any suggestion their role in history is beefed up in her novels. "They have been almost totally concealed, but history of that period as it's been written is military, and about the doings of 'great men'— but all the time women are plotting and conspiring in the background."
The titular Red Queen is Margaret Beaufort, mother of the boy who later becomes Henry VII&— although the novel ends just as he takes the crown. Relatively little is known about her, although academics agree she was married at 12 years old, became a widow at 13 and a mother shortly afterwards. She was also extremely religious from a young age, and in the novel hankers after being "the next" Joan of Arc— with a passion that mirrors the way a young girl might today wish to the point of believing that she is "the next" Cheryl Cole. Although she married twice more, Beaufort had only one child— perhaps as a result of actually giving birth, a harrowing experience which Gregory depicts as taking two days and nearly ending in Beaufort's death.
Woodville and Beaufort's destinies are inextricably linked, although they are clearly polar opposites, and comparisons between the two characters will be inevitable. The Red Queen is perhaps less obviously likeable than Woodville— her passions are largely concentrated on religion, which even her contemporaries in the novel see as excessively zealous, and her son, who she is constantly scheming to manouvre onto the throne.
"Margaret was harder to get into, initially because I had been Elizabeth Woodville for three years," admits Gregory. "But once I started thinking about this endearing little girl, forced to survive on her own at an appallingly young age, I became very interested in her. She is intractable, because she clearly lives a very spiritual life, and that is absolutely key to understanding her— even when one reads histories of her, historians struggle to understand her because of this. But nobody makes allowances for the fact that she married two other times, that she was happy to deploy herself as a sexual pawn in politics— to grasp her ambitions."
As with her Tudor series, Gregory is not writing the books in chronological order: the third novel in the series is on the early life of Woodville's mother Jacquetta, daughter of the king of Luxembourg. Gregory is also working on her first non-fiction piece on Jacquetta, for a book on women of the era. Two authors she has relied on for her research— David Baldwin and Mike Jones— are also contributing with work on Woodville and Beaufort.
Research is crucial to the creation of Gregory's novels: she studied Woodville for roughly three years before she began writing, studied Beaufort for two before embarking on The Red Queen, and has been working on Jacquetta for two years. A quick check through reviews of earlier books shows less criticism from "serious" historians than some might expect. But Gregory is not trying to convince anyone of her academic credentials, describing her work as "a true hybrid" between historical fact and fiction. "I am not a novelist by accident— it isn't what I'm doing because I can't be a historian," she says. "I want to write a novel, so I am creating a fiction, although it is very much based on historical likelihood."
Writing about the women in this period of history, therefore, has its benefits. There are times when the characters are "visible to history" when you can be "smack on the historical record", but much of the time it is a case of making assumptions, or interpreting what has been recorded. This is particularly the case with the Princes in the Tower, still disputed by academics, on which Gregory takes an unequivocal stance. For example she posits that the pretender Perkin Warbeck was the younger of the two princes, smuggled out of the country, while a servant boy was sent to the tower in his stead. "Everybody knows that we don't know what happened, so you have to take a view," she says. "If you are writing a history, you can say 'she might be here or there', but that is not how a novel works— you have to say 'she's there' and make it convincing."
But Gregory has no plans to stop there; she is already planning a novel on Woodville's daughter, who becomes Henry VII's wife— bringing together the families of the White and Red Queens— and the two daughters of the "Kingmaker" the Earl of Warwick. "There will certainly be six novels, but there might be seven or eight," she says. "I can't predict how many other people will come to me— that is the real joy of doing research and being able to to respond to it. I'm not bound to any contract, so I am really going where my inspiration will take me."