Hazel McHaffie

Historical fiction

Nobody illuminates the life and times of Tudor England better than Philippa Gregory. Meticulous research, vibrant prose, vivid re-imagining, everything combining to capture the colour, the textures, the intrigue, the suspense, the jealousies, the sheer brutality of court life at the time. She brings both characters and places alive. We are there!

It’s a while since I savoured one of her many novels, so Three Sisters, Three Queens was exactly what I needed this week. It centres on Henry VIII‘s older sister Margaret, born in 1489, a much-overlooked character, only 12 when the story opens but already convinced she is chosen by God for great things. The first-person telling, in the present tense, gives an urgency and psychological authenticity to her story. As the author says herself:
The rules of writing history mean that a historian can only speculate about her emotions; but a novelist is allowed, indeed, obliged to recreate a version of them.This is where historical fiction – the hybrid form – does something I find profoundly interesting – takes the historical record and turns it inside out; the inner world explains the outer record.

In this way Gregory takes us inside the head of a privileged, entitled, little girl and convey her petty jealousy, her huge ambition, her spiteful tantrums, with humour and authenticity. And alongside her portrayal of Margaret, she paints a convincing broader backdrop of the political shenanigans, the huge stakes, the precarious thrones across Europe in those times. Life seems so cheap; infant mortality high, wars and revenge killing common, alliances and loyalties so easily won and lost; all an accepted part of life.

At the tender age of 13, Margaret must combine the responsibility of being married to the 30-year old king of Scotland, with being crowned queen of a wild and at times lawless country not by birth her own. She must do all in her power to produce legitimate heirs whilst accepting a bevy of her husband’s bastard children. As Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England, tells her:
You can’t do what you want when you are a princess. You have to obey God and the king and queen, your mother and father. You’re not free, Margret. You’re not like a ploughman’s daughter. You are doing the work of God, you are going to be the mother to a king, you are one below the angels, you have a destiny.

Royal marriage is a transaction.
I have never been beloved by a man who wants me for myself, and not as an emblem of a treaty between two countries.
When Margaret does later choose a love match, disaster follows on disaster, as if to confirm what she has been told about her duty to the crown far eclipsing her personal preferences. In reality, she is way ahead of her time in choosing a husband for love, not once but twice.

Being something of a royal brood mare comes with enormous pressure. When things go wrong there’s precious little time to grieve or recover. Immediately after the death of her second baby, her husband James visits Margaret in the confinement chamber and without preamble asks: Do you think it possible you are cursed? Not quite the comfort and support we might expect today, huh?! And perhaps particularly irksome since the Queen of England has signally failed to give King Henry a child in that rival royal cradle.

Though death in the 16th century was commonplace, deaths in the royal family – kings and princes, queens and queen mothers – are not just about private family bereavement; rather they entail a seismic shift in the power structure across the land, political repercussions across countries. The yo-yoing of Margaret’s emotions as she loses one after another of her relatives, captures beautifully the precarious position of the women-folk whose prime job it is to produce and support their husbands and children in the struggle to gain and then keep power.

The other two sisters of the title are Margaret’s own younger sister Mary, an acknowledged beauty and equally ambitious, destined first to be Queen of Spain, then Queen of France; and Katherine of Aragon (or Arrogant as Margaret spitely renames her) initially the wife of Margaret’s elder brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, and later of their younger brother Henry (VIII).

But in time the queens themselves become widows, regents and dowagers, re-marry ill-advisedly, struggle to retain power, to keep control of their households and their children. And throughout, these three princesses compete for prestige and wealth and status as well as in the fertility stakes. Margaret’s son, James, is not yet 2 when he becomes King of Scotland, and Katharine fails to produce an heir to the English throne, so there are huge stakes to play for. Loyalties wax and wane. Margaret’s fulmination against her sister in law captures the conflicts:
She [Katharine] is a barbarian, worse than a barbarian … she is no sister to me, she is a harpy – a monster who tears at flesh.
I will never speak of [her treatment of my husband’s body] either. I cannot put it out of my mind. But they must never know how I hate them for this and how I will never forgive her. I am going to make peace with this thief, this grave robber. I am going to have to claim sisterhood with this wolf that feasts off the dead. I am going to have to send ambassadors and write letters and perhaps even meet the man who was once my brother and the vulture that is his wife. If I am to be queen and get my son on the throne, I am going to need their support and their help. I am going to beg for it and never let them see the contempt in my eyes. I am going to have to be what my husband commanded me to be: a great woman and not a silly girl. But she is a demon, a woman who besmirches the honour of her place, who has smeared my mother’s throne with blood. She is a woman who wants to be equal with a king, a woman who sat beside her husband’s deathbed, and ordered the killing of my husband. She is a Lilith. I hate her.

It takes many vicissitudes to teach this proud and haughty woman humility. Her life is not charmed. Her birth does not make her invincible. Her choices are not divinely inspired. Not even her family will always love and support her. Even arranged marriages can be annulled or disregarded. Women in their world have no power, they own nothing, and must conform to their husband’s will. So any threat to their status as wives or princesses carries grave risks.
If a woman cannot marry knowing that she will be a wife till her dying day, then where can she find safety? If a man can put his wife aside on a whim then no woman can count on her fortune, her life, her future. If the king shows that marriage vows mean nothing, then all vows are nothing – we will live in a world of nothingness as if there is no law and no God.

Nothing is secure – not thrones, not status, not treaties, not lands and possessions. As Gregory, concludes: Everyone seeking power in Europe in the late medieval period changed loyalties with remarkable speed and lack of honour. For Margaret too, the only way to survive was to change allies, plot against her enemies, and move as unexpectedly as she could to outwit them.

I loved that the settings for each scene are the ancient castles we now visit as historic buildings – Linlithgow, Stirling, Craigmillar, Tantallon, but back then owned and inhabited, beseiged and destroyed. As Gregory says, ruined or restored, they are truly beautiful, a fitting backdrop to the story of such a complex and interesting woman.

Fascinating too, to note that familiar-to-us ceremonies like the handing of the keys to the reigning monarch at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the daily firing of the 1 o’clock gun from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, were already institutions so long ago.

All in all a brilliant book.






, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.