Book Review: The White Queen

Rating: *** of 5 

Right before we ran off on our Christmas adventures, I did a last-minute run to our tiny library to find something to read. I was in a hurry and Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen caught my eye. 

I’ll be honest, I stayed far, far away from her books because of The Other Boleyn Girl. The movie came out while I was still in university and was a pedantic history snob that couldn’t read or watch historical fiction without a lot of fact checking, eye-rolling, and general snark. Thankfully, I don’t have to be a pedantic history snob all of the time anymore. I just do it when it’s fun for me, like when I watched Braveheart for the first time a couple of months ago.

Anyway, back to the book. Something about The White Queen said “read me,” so I picked her up and took her on vacation.

The book, set in the late 1400s, tells the story of the Plantagenets, the War of the Roses, and the rise (and fall) of King Edward IV through the eyes of Elizabeth Woodville, a widow who would become Edward IV’s queen. 

Elizabeth Woodville was beautiful and ambitious. She was said to be a descendant of Melusina, a female water spirit who entered into an ill-fated marriage on land. Elizabeth, therefore, inherited a special connection to rivers and waters along with “sight” and other magical powers. 

When her first husband, Sir John Grey, died fighting for King Henry VI and the House of York, she waits with her two Grey sons in the forest for the new king, Edward IV of the House of Lancaster, to ride through so she can make her case for dowry land. Using her wiles (and a little witchcraft) she wins Edward’s favor. Not long after, they marry secretly in the middle of the night and Elizabeth becomes the Queen of England. She and Edward contend with almost constant family drama and battles for the throne. Nearly everyone is power-hungry and underhanded. 

Oh, and you know the famous Princes in the Tower? The ones that were locked up in the Tower of London who died from mysterious causes? Those are Elizabeth and Edward IV's boys. And Richard III? The one who was said to be the evil hunchbacked killer of the Princes in the Tower? Yeah, well that’s their uncle and Edward IV’s brother who took the crown for himself after Edward’s death.  

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on in this book, which made it a quick and engaging read. I will be clear, though. I didn’t love it. I found most of the characters unlikeable, especially Elizabeth. I found her vindictiveness became annoying, partly because it seemed like any powerful move she made came from a spell. I know this is fiction and I’m fine with some of the supernatural. I just think when you reduce a historical woman to actual witch, you undermine a better story of how she maneuvered in a world of relative power as queen—compared to other English women—and relative powerlessness—compared to the high-ranking men of her life. 

Somehow, despite all of this, I was very tempted to go straight to the library and get the next book in the series, The Red Queen, which follows Elizabeth and Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth and Henry Tudor, to the throne.