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Philippa Gregory, Thank You.

The King's Curse - Philippa Gregory

Oh, Philippa. Brave, courageous, wonderful Philippa.
You did it.
You have finished the Cousins' War series, paralleling it to the rise of the Tudor line, with a skill that I think no one else could have achieved.
Yes, it is true, as you said in your Afterword, that Margaret Pole's life mirrors the great and monumental changes in England from 1501-1540s, from the rise of an insecure Tudor victor to the swelling hubris of his son's lavish and increasingly terrifying court.
You have done the women of this period---and women of history--well. From Jacquetta Woodville to Elizabeth Woodville to Elizabeth of York; from Margaret Beaufort (sorry, didn't like her much) to Anne and Isobel Neville, you have done the female voice justice in this series.

This is why I love Philippa Gregory. You need only read the Afterword of this book to see her philosophy on fiction, history, and the blending of the two. To those who say that she is too "popular", or that she "sensationalizes" history, I say this: history is more than words on a page; it is more than fables passed down; history is the living, breathing flesh of people...who happen to be long dead. History cannot be one-sided. It cannot be simple. It cannot exist away from wondering and imagination. For, in our own lives, do we not sometimes do contrary things? Do all of our actions make sense? How can we distill these people into two-dimensional figures simply because they lived so long ago?

I happen to believe, as Philippa does, that Catherine of Aragon's marriage to Prince Arthur was consummated. It makes sense. There was no record of unusual marital activity at the time; and they were put to bed with all the customary ritual. Arthur's famous quip about the wedding night has been elsewhere recorded. I find it hard to believe that the marriage truly was not consummated, and so I take Philippa's understanding completely. As she says, it is a Victorian-inspired view of Catherine of Aragon that, because she was a "good, chaste, virtuous woman", she could not tell a lie. No. It demeans women to make them this one-dimensional. It demeans women and history itself to make Catherine the "Madonna" to Anne Boleyn's "whore". Catherine could lie. Anne could be virtuous. There is no one figure. These women were women, just as women are today. Women, like all people, can be one thing at one moment and another at another. They can change, have their own agendas, their own ideas of morals, and, by God, yes, they can change sides and order horrible things and repent and forgive and condemn. That is the nature of humanity and seeing Catherine of Aragon as a saint and Anne Boleyn as a demon is perhaps the clearest example of this historical myopia---largely perpetrated by male historians--that will run history into the ground.

I really feel, that, with this book, Dr. Gregory has wrapped up the herstory of the Tudors and their predecessors, the Plantagenets. And in so doing, she has made a mark, a searing comment that cannot go unheard, to fellow historians and teachers and scholars. To reduce the voices of women in history is to study fake history. To deem certain "pockets" of history as "women's history" or "social history" is inane. How on Earth do you think the Reformation would have happened had it not been for Anne Boleyn? Yes, a single woman. Do you not notice that the Inquisition came to England with the reign of Queen Mary I? Yes, another woman. And, for God's sake, stop calling her "Bloody Mary" unless you are prepared to call her father, Henry VIII "Bloody Henry" too.

I think that Philippa started writing these books (The Queen's Fool and The Other Boleyn Girl first) in an attempt to offer a somewhat "alternate" history of the Tudors. As she notes in The King's Curse's afterword, Henry VIII is seen as something of a dashing, interesting hero today. He is "the guy who married all the wives" or "the man who killed two of his wives". There's a grotesque acceptance, and even celebration of a man who, as Philippa so perfectly puts it, was a tyrant, a murderer, a child abuser, and a wife-killer. He was a despot. And the sooner we stop romanticizing him and Tudor history, the closer we are to embracing wholeheartedly the view of history that is objective and entirely inclusive.

And so I return to gender, as, I think, Philippa's aim (in all her works, but particularly in this one) was.

I am tired of hearing of phrases like "the women of Tudor history" or "the women's perspective" of an issue.

There is no separating the women of history from history. Women make history, as men do. They shape history, as men do. They write history, as men do; they do terrible things (see Margaret Beaufort) and wonderful things (see everyone else) as men do. I am tired of hearing the phrase "the social history of the Tudors." Nonsense. I am tired of having women delegated to footnotes in history or to one-liners. "Henry VIII wanted to marry Anne Boleyn, so he made the Church of England." Really? You discount that Anne Boleyn was an avid scholar of the Reformation and, in fact, urged Henry to break with Rome?
"Mary I killed many people in the English Inquisition." Indeed, she did, and I do not condone it. But what made her that way? Do you not think that her father's persecution of her mother and of her faith embedded in her an emotionally dogmatic need to "put the country to rights"? My point here is that women are far more crucial to history than history and historians themselves would have us think. They simplify women and women's lives---which, in the sixteenth century, centered around multiple pregnancies, the expectation of infant mortality, the fear of dying in childbirth, the wrestling of what to do with a philandering husband [that hasn't changed much], AND the so-called "mainstream" historical themes of ambition, greed, pride, sorrow, jealousy, and every other emotion and motive known to humankind.

We see male historical figures with much more depth than that afforded to female figures.

I think Philippa Gregory has just put a HUGE smack into that wall. She's thrown a boulder into it.

I read her first book when I was 14. It's a decade later and even though some of her books have wobbled, she's never really faltered.

This book, The King's Curse, is Philippa Gregory's manifesto. Perhaps read it first if you haven't read her works, for it is the culmination and best elucidation of objective Tudor history and the historian's craft of inference and judgment. She doesn't make up fictions on a whim; she judges what might be most historically accurate (see Catherine and Arthur's wedding) and writes towards that.

I hope that, when children study Henry VIII in school, they no longer hear of the jolly, somewhat stud-like manly king who, interestingly, killed two of his wives. I hope they don't see him as an anomaly. Because, even though he was an increasingly insane-sounding man, the same thing would happen and was happening in different parts of the world through different dynamics. Rulers acting despotically. Leaders executing anyone for any reason. Men killing women. One religion persecuting another. Is Henry VIII really an anomaly, given the violent hubris of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance?

Also, I have FINALLY heard a theory of Henry's illness (or "madness") and a genetic theory of why he couldn't beget children easily. (Kell's disease). Whether that is true or not, or whether it's a bit of a stretch is irrelevant. Male-centered history has focused too much and for too long on women as present but never important. I'm channeling Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" here.

By fleshing out these characters, from the ones we were taught to hate ("Bloody Mary" in The Queen's Fool or Anne Boleyn in "The Other Boleyn Girl"), by challenging our assumptions (of "the virtuous and ergo faultless Queen Catherine of Aragon in "The Constant Princess and "The King's Curse"), and in breathing life into women whose names were forgotten or passed over by history (Isobel and Anne Neville in "The Kingmaker's Daughter", Jacquetta Woodville in "The Lady of the Rivers", Elizabeth Woodville in "The White Queen", Elizabeth of York in "The White Princess", Margaret Beaufort in "The Red Queen", and, yes, triumphantly, Margaret Pole in "The King's Curse"), Philippa Gregory has bashed the greatest dent into the corrosive view of history that has pervaded schools of thought until this decade.

Call her a revisionist; call her a reformer. But she is, first and foremost, what a true historian should be. She highlights what is in the shadows; she challenges convention. This is "historical imagination", and it is treasured by so-called "traditional" historians at traditional institutions like Oxford and Cambridge. Philippa Gregory, really, is no more revolutionary than is the modern view of history: flesh out the past; understand that the people living in it were people, not monoliths. Ascribe to them the same nuances you understand in people today.


And one more thing. The crowning jewel of this book---and, I think, of all Philippa's work---is the moment [SPOILER] of Margaret Pole's death. We know, before reading the book, what will happen to her. We wonder how, in the winding road of the Tudor lives, during which she kept her family safe while clinging to her dynastic sense of pride, she began life as steps away from the throne and ended it in one of the most infamous scenes of Tudor history: in a botched and brutal execution, during which she ran from the block, a woman of 67.


Previous histories have portrayed this undoubtedly sickening scene by making Margaret Pole piteous or pitiful. A poor woman, running for her life.


Maybe she was. I wondered, as I was reading this book, as Philippa was describing this stalwart, iron-willed woman of principle, how on earth she was going to end up writing the scene in which Margaret runs piteously for her life before being executed.


She doesn't.


Again, the afterword, Dr. Gregory does justice to this woman, Margaret Pole, and to female historical figures in general.

She chose to portray Margaret's death in a way that mirrored the way she believed Margaret Pole lived her life: defiantly.


Margaret Pole was Catherine of Aragon's dearest English friend. She was Mary I's beloved governess. She was the last of the Plantagenets. She was also a survivor. As beloved as she was to Catherine of Aragon, she, like other nobles, signed the King's Act of Succession that declared his first marriage invalid and designated Mary I as illegitimate. I doubt Margaret Pole believed the veracity of the document she signed. She did it to survive.


MAJOR SPOILER: And so, when Margaret Pole begins to lay her head upon the block at the end of this book, when she begins to passively put her life down to allow it to be ended  with the swing of an axe, she is really symbolizing all the female historical figures who have laid down and let their stories be retold and scrambled by other historians.

When she begins to lay her head on the block and spread her arms wide, to indicate to the executioner that she gives him assent to strike her head off (a strange custom of Renaissance England), Margaret symbolizes, just for a moment, women giving up.


And then she runs.


And it is not piteous. It is not pitiful.

Philippa writes it as a rush of joy, of adrenaline, of defiance, of fierceness. Margaret Poe is 67 years old and she is not a darling grandmother running for her life. She is a woman thought to be more royal than the Tudors, who fought tooth and nail to keep her family safe after her father and brother were executed. She is not a woman to run away from death because she fears it.


She drags herself away from the block because, suddenly, whilst about to give up er life, she realizes that she wants it. Just as she has fought for survival for 60 years, Margaret Pole (as Philippa writes her) is not going to give up and meekly die now. She's of royal blood. She saw Henry VIII when he was a little boy. Her act of dragging herself from the block is a symbol of her dissent.


Where once she laid her head upon the block, now she drags it away. Even with wounds on her head and blood running down her face, even as she feels her life running away, she is fiercely joyful in finally being able to say aloud, in the face of this tyrannical Tudor king: "I dissent."


"I dissent. I do not comply. I revoke my assent. You do not have my authority to kill me. I will not die as you want me to."


Philippa hasn't changed history; she's written one of Tudor history's most iconic scenes in a way that matches the character she has coaxed out of history books. This is how Philippa's Margaret Pole would have died; not begging for mercy as the king's scorned councilor Thomas Cromwell did, but with sheer, bold defiance.

It is the largest "no" ever committed.


Margaret Pole dies with the word "No" on her lips. It is not an "I cannot believe this is happening-no". It is, very firmly, and to the core, a "I refuse. I rebel. You cannot take me. You might kill me, but know that I dissent. NO."


"It is no small thing, this, for a woman: freedom." (the last line of Philippa's The Boleyn Inheritance, and a quote that I think has a stunning universality to it.)

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to write the hell out of a historical novel.
And how to burst the hell through a historical mode of thought.

I've said this before when delighted with her books, but I'll say it again in this, her manifesto and symbol of her body of literature.

Bravo, Philippa Gregory. Bravo. You are a historian with no parallel.Thank you.