Book review: Philippa Gregory’s ‘The King’s Curse’

The King’s Curse. Philippa Gregory. Simon & Schuster. 597 pages. $28.99.
The King’s Curse. Philippa Gregory. Simon & Schuster. 597 pages. $28.99.

As readers and viewers, we have an apparently limitless appetite for the Tudors. And why not? On screen or on the page, their saga is satisfying for all the right reasons: power, sex, religion — and fabulous costumes.

Philippa Gregory understands this passion; her best known book, The Other Boleyn Girl, is set at the court of King Henry VIII. Now she returns there in the final volume of her Cousins’ War series, which roughly covers the 15th-century Wars of the Roses.

A woman directly involved in the struggle for the English throne between the houses of Lancaster and York narrates each of the books, which have varied widely in tone and appeal depending on the agency, if not likability, of their narrators.

The King’s Curse technically is set after the final conflict of the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth, in which Henry Tudor defeated Richard III, then married a York princess to unite the two houses. But the rivalries and executions did not end with the Tudor victory.

Once again, a woman central to the action acts as narrator: Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, a royal cousin on the York side. Though she believes her house to be the true heirs and despises the upstart Tudors, Margaret keeps her head down and serves the new royal family. She and her husband are even chosen to run the household of Arthur, Prince of Wales, who is eventually joined by his future wife, Katherine of Aragon.

Margaret is devoted to Katherine, who becomes Henry’s wife after Arthur dies. Margaret shares the couple’s devastation when their infant sons are lost at birth or shortly afterward. She often has to carry the news to the young king.

The book’s greatest strength is its first-hand, fascinating yet horrifying view of Henry VIII’s transition from handsome young prince to monstrous tyrant — a view that is particularly horrifying for Margaret, who has known him since he was born.

Gregory faces the challenge of any writer dealing with prominent, real-life historical figures: We already know the plot. Her strength lies in filling in the background and providing new perspectives off the main stage.

Margaret has been a supporting character in the Tudor court dramas, but her own story is powerful and her perspective is intriguing. We see, for example, Katherine not as a long-suffering, martyred wife but as a passionate (and duplicitous and ambitious) young woman. Margaret’s perspectives on Henry, for whom she sometimes serves as a mother figure, are complex. He’s the Tudor upstart’s heir but also a son of York. He is intelligent and a powerful leader for England, but his lack of a male heir drives him to drastic action.

For those caught in the maelstrom of Henry’s wish to part from Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn, choosing sides tests their honor, loyalty and religious faith. This civil war is conducted by courtiers in whispers and innuendo. Gregory takes us beyond the seductive trappings of historical detail and makes us feel the terror of what living through that turbulent period might have been like.

“Since truth has become only what the king tells us, and since we have sworn to believe whatever he says — however ridiculous — we are uncertain about everything,” Margaret says. “His wife is not the queen, his daughter is not a princess, his mistress has a crown on her head, and her bastard is served by his true heir. In a world like this, how can we know anything for sure?”

Nancy Klingener is a writer in Key West.