PHILIPPA GREGORY Three Sisters, Three Queens. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
In her new novel Philippa Gregory envisages the Tudor era from the perspective of three powerful women.
The celebrity status of the Tudors has lasted for over 500 years. Philippa Gregory has written of them in several popular novels, and in Three Sisters she turns her attention to Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England, Margaret Tudor, Queen of Scotland and Margaret’s baby sister Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France. Their images feature on the cover of the novel and we can see that Margaret was a sonsy beauty and that Mary was indeed very lovely. Katherine looks more austere. The Tudors were some of the earliest rulers to have their images recorded extensively, and the fact that we can see their representations increases our interest; in particular those glorious over-the-top clothes and jewels, lovingly described in this story, often because they indicate status.
Margaret and Mary were sisters of Henry the Eighth and, like all royal girls of the period, were destined for dynastically fruitful marriages. The fact that there are few records of Margaret and Mary gives Gregory a free hand and she has chosen to tell her tale through the first-person, present-tense account of Margaret, older sister of Henry, and through letters sent among the three.
Margaret first appears as a rather whingy, envious, status-conscious 12-year-old. She dislikes Katherine, Arthur Tudor’s Spanish fiancée, and calls her Katherine of Arrogant. It is hoped that Margaret’s marriage to James the Fourth of Scotland will foster peace between England and Scotland. James was really a Renaissance prince, much more progressive than Henry – even having his illegitimate sons educated in Europe – and when 14-year-old Margaret goes to Scotland as Queen her life there seems happy enough, despite some skirmishes with her husband when she thinks that her status is slighted. Throughout the narrative she vacillates between being spiteful and jealous of Katherine and patronising towards Mary. Occasionally she evinces some sympathy but on the whole she displays a certain self-centred perspective.
Meanwhile Katherine is victimised by Henry the Seventh; his son, Prince Arthur, her husband of six months, has died and her father has not paid all of her dowry. Her father-in-law keeps her in absolute penury, unable to afford clothing or to support her attendants.
Margaret at 16 is really no less sure of her own importance than she was at 12:
There is no doubt in my mind who is now the foremost of the three princesses, my sister-in-law Katherine of Aragon, my sister Mary, or myself: it is obviously me. Katherine failed to conceive a child with Arthur and then told everyone, ‘Alas, it never happened for us’, and now her marriage is never mentioned and she is a poor relation, an unwanted hanger-on.
Time passes and of the three, Margaret certainly seems to have had the most exciting and turbulent time. Katherine’s piety and inflexible belief in her later role as queen make her seem something of a wowser and there is no doubt about the sadness caused by her many pregnancies that produced no male heir. Mary is portrayed as lovable and loving but rather vapid, preoccupied with clothes, jewels, and fun at court. After her elderly French husband dies, she marries one of he brother’s friends, who is made Duke of Suffolk. This is probably the last bold thing she does. Margaret is not so biddable.
The times were of course not peaceful and the mores of those in power were brutal in spite of the growth of Humanism – which Katherine actually fostered in England (Erasmus wrote to her more often than any other woman). James the Fourth of Scotland is killed at the battle of Flodden by English forces in 1513. Katherine is by this time happily married to Henry, who is fighting in France, and as Queen of England orders that there are to be no prisoners taken. She also orders James’s blood-stained clothes sent to Henry. It is when dealing with issues like this that Gregory has the most difficulty in sustaining the idea of a sisterly connection. Margaret is very bitter, however within the year she marries Archibald, the Earl of Angus, one of the Douglas clan. The Scots clans are frequently in dissension and because of this marriage Margaret loses her regency and custody of her son and is forced to return to England under difficult and painful circumstances, carrying the baby who will become Margaret Douglas, grandmother of James the First of England. Gregory describes Queen Margaret’s trials in ways that reveal both the politics of Scotland and Margaret’s rather difficult character.
Safe in England, Margaret and Katherine meet. Gregory handles this with some credibility, but it is the nature of the relationship between the two that is the hardest to portray. Margaret returns to Scotland in an attempt to do as Katherine and Henry want – that is, for her to be reconciled with her husband. The Earl of Angus is, however, revealed to be ambitious and untrustworthy. Ultimately Margaret achieves a divorce and the regency, and her son James the Fifth is crowned. Her next young husband is also a Scottish lord. She does seem to have Tudor appetites.
Throughout, Gregory usefully has the dates placed at the beginning of every chapter and this gives the reader an understanding of very confusing times. As well, using Margaret as the narrator makes it possible to condense some of the chaotic politics, particularly those of Scotland, into an almost accessible framework.
Ironically she shows Henry encouraging Margaret to remain married to the manipulative and venal Earl of Angus shortly before his own battle for divorce alters his position on the status of marriage. Anne Boleyn’s rise is revealed through angry letters from Mary to Margaret.
Gregory’s accomplished writing skills make the story flow with vitality. It is hard to warm to Margaret and the basic premise of the continuing affection of sisters is tenuous, but the decided underlying feminist message is very clear. As Margaret says to a Papal Ambassador:
‘I don’t believe God wants me ill-educated and poor,’ I say staunchly. ‘I don’t believe that God wants any woman in poverty and stupidity. I believe that God wants me in His image, thinking with the brain that He has given me, earning my fortune with the skills that He has given me, and loving with the heart that He has given me.’
Philippa Gregory Three Sisters, Three Queens Simon & Schuster 2016 PB 400pp $32.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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