Following the War of Roses through England

Destination: England

Book: The Red Queen (NEW: August 2010) by Phillipa Gregory

Boy, for a small island, and a relatively brief history (after all we don’t know much about them before the Romans) the British sure have had a lot going on.  For all those who despair of ever figuring out all those branches of the royal family and the numerous (numbered) Henrys and Williams and whatever, historical novels come to the rescue.

The Red Queen, by Phillipa Gregory not only introduced me to a formidable British woman, but helped me sort out the lengthy, and sometimes seemingly pointless War of the Roses. And sorting out British history becomes essential if you want to enjoy the many castles and shires and Royal roads of England.

Tower of London
Tower of London

The new historical novel reminded me that the Big Red Bus took me to the Tower of London. Those who went to the Tower of London in olden days did not have the privilege of riding in a double-decker sightseeing bus. And their “ticket” did not include a river cruise on the Thames.

We arrived at Heathrow at 6:00 a.m., stowed our luggage at the airport and took a train in to town.  With only one day to get for our first visit to London, we chose the zippy way. We found the bus a block away and rode through the drizzle, half  listening to the recorded spiel while we gaped at all the history around us.

Jet lag soon began to win out over my usual excitement at seeing new things, and the Tower remains a bit blurry in my mind. I do recall that the gray walls looked even gloomier in the rain on the day we visited.

I also remember the low passageway leading to the river from within the walls.  Prisoners could be brought in quietly at night and dead bodies spirited away.  That setting plays a part in the book The Red Queen. Margaret Beaufort, our heroine, wears the red rose of Lancaster. The other Queen–the one who married a York–is tossed into the Tower.  (Gregory wrote about The White Queen in a previous book.)  A visitor reports back to Margaret that the York Queen communes with the River Spirits, beings still be be feared in the fifteenth century.

Margaret,  determined to become Queen, or a very least Queen Mother, gained later fame as the matron of the Tudor line (mother of Henry Tudor) and one of those rarities of the middle ages–a female scholar. As the rival armies of York and Lancaster go marching back and forth, Phillipa Gregory gives us quite the tour of England, which underlines why this makes a good addition to a traveler’s library.

Unlike some historical novels that get waterlogged in detail, The Red Queen skims through Margaret’s life and keeps the reader turning the pages to see when she and her house will finally triumph. The novel is a story told by Margaret, from her strong-willed point of view, in the present tense, which helps build suspense–even for those well versed in British history.

You may find The White Queen a more sympathetic character when you realize that it was her two little boys who were imprisoned by Richard III and then disappeared. Shakespeare talks about them in his drama, Richard III, and Gregory, true to historical fact, throws plenty of false clues around but does not give us a firm answer as to what happened to the unfortunate children.

Gregory has more than 25 novels to her credit, but is best known for her series on the Boleyn sisters, particularly after The Other Boleyn Girl became a movie. Her attractive web site includes a nice interview with CNN. She has a Facebook page, too, if you want to keep track of her on the Internet. Once you’ve read The Red Queen, you may want to go back and dip into more of her views of British history, particularly if you are traveling to England.

The Red Queen was provided by Simon and Schuster for review purposes. The gloomy picture of the Tower comes from Flickr with Creative Commons license. Click on the picture to learn more.

Our first choice of sights in London, was The Tower.  It might have been the British Museum, but I knew that I would be frustrated if I had only a few hours there.  I think I was influenced by Shakespeare’s dramas. Anybody who was anybody wound up in the Tower. What is the first thing you wanted to see–or want to see–in London?

Other reviews: The Book Bluff, a personal review Book Addict, another blog review.

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

24 thoughts on “Following the War of Roses through England

  1. If I’m not mistaken she has another book coming out soon, I believe she was recently interviewed on talk of the nation on NPR–I’ll have to look that up. She was just so welcoming and warm.

    Now the Tower of London, I’ve been there and I can’t imagine spending my final days–or really anything more than a walk through–stuck there.

    1. In answer to My Kids Eat Squid: Check out Gregory’s web site. It is beautiful, informative, and has info about the next book–a part of this sequence that started with White Queen then Red Queen.

  2. The Other Boleyn Girl is one of my favorite historical fiction books. Thanks for reminding me about Phillipa Gregory. It’s time another one of her books rested on my nightstand.

  3. To me, that time of English history had enormous personalities in it (in contrast to, say, its current batch of boring royals). When I visited the Tower, I thought mostly about poor Lady Jane Grey, who was Queen of England for only nine days, was sent to the Tower and eventually beheaded by Mary Tudor.

  4. I am such a sucker for historical novels like this, and Gregory is one of the masters. I wonder how this will fit with my memories of another beloved novel that I think was set during the Wars of the Roses, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow?

  5. Phillipa Gregory is my go-to girl when I want a good, easy to slip into story that gives me a little more insight into history, too. I like to think that I’m learning something of the convoluted English history while I’m reading. Someday (someday…) I will get to the Tower myself.

  6. What an interesting idea – combining a book review with actual travel to its setting. Great job – I heartily enjoyed your review and firsthand account of The Tower.

  7. on London, the churches: Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s, and St.Brides. the Tpwer has never been on my list of must see things, so I’ve not made it yet.

    we don’t know much about the English before the Romans?

    1. Yes, the Irish we know quite a bit about–but Europe in general thought England a backward and primitive place until the Romans came and starting keeping track.

      1. they thought that about Ireland and Scotland then, as well — but I took your comment to mean that we still know little about England before to Romans, which had me thinking of Stonehenge, Glastonbury, Avebury, the tin trade across the Med, and so forth, all of which were before the Romans got there — and the tin was probably one of the reasons they came, if I remember my history correctly.

        anyway, not meaning to get off track from the Wars of Roses. certainly a lot of English history by that time.

  8. That low boat passageway is one of the most vivid memories from my trip to the Tower 20 years ago… haunting in more ways than one.

    1. I realize that Gregory is accused of lacking depth, but she certainly has the academic credentials. I guess fluffy is in the eye of the beholder. This is not, as I understand it, typical in that there is less romance than in some of her books. But when it comes to the complexities of British monarchy, I guess maybe fluffy is my speed.

      1. Or….is popularizing of history a bad thing? Particularly if it does not wander into historical inaccuracy? I’m no expert, but it seemed she was very cautious not to proclaim unknowns as facts–and when you dig back that far the truth gets rather slippery.

        1. I have no idea of her academic credentials or even what the critics have said. The one Phillipa Gregory that I read was more bodice-ripper than historical novel, but maybe I chose poorly. Nothing wrong with bodice-rippers either, if that is what you are looking to read.

          I particularly enjoy the Sharon Kay Penman books on the Plantagenet dynasty. Definitely popularized history, but not so marshmallowy to my taste.

  9. My sister loves historical fiction, especially anything to do with England..I’ll have to tell her about this book!

  10. Paris was really my thing, so I did not pay much attention when I visited London at 17. If I went back, I would like to see the park. I remember doing the tower and not being too impressed. I especially liked the guards in front of Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard, as in that poem about Christopher Robin who went down with Alice ….

  11. I love history! My wife and I did a part of our honeymoon in London…one of the few out and out tourist things we did was visit the Tower. I will have to read Phillipa Gregor’s Red Queen on the nook.

    You should do a “top movies that feature London!”


    1. Richard:
      Maybe after France is out of my system, and we’ve done the September Italy Giveaway, we can move on to England. And by the way, if you are going to read the Red Queen, you might also want to read the White Queen–she’s the one who actually went to the tower. I see on Gregory’s web site that the next character is the White Queen’s mother. Supposedly she threw her daughter at the King, and the first marriage for love to a commoner in England ensued.

  12. i love her books – i haven’t read this one yet but i am SURE i will. thanks for the great review! and i know exactly what you mean about that first, jetlagged day.

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