- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009



By Philippa Gregory

Simon and Schuster, $25.99, 432 pages

Reviewed by Muriel Dobbin

Elizabeth Woodville is hardly a household name in the roster of medieval English royalty, but this fictional account of her role as the wife of the Plantagenet Edward IV suggests she was a ruler to be reckoned with in the bloody wars between the feuding aristocratic families of York and Lancaster.

She was not only a beautiful woman, but even more fascinating, perhaps she was also a witch. After her first encounter with King Edward, readers learn that Elizabeth practiced magic to extend her hold on him. Her reeling in of a thread of silk wound around a tree trunk leads to the discovery of the golden ring she uses in the marriage ceremony with the king a few weeks later.

Yet Elizabeth reminds her mother, a master of the dark arts, that such magic is forbidden and can lead to a sentence of death by drowning or strangling by the village blacksmith. “Magic,” agrees her mother. “Powerful magic for a good cause. … I didn’t raise you to be a poor widow.”

Nor did she. Elizabeth becomes the first English commoner to wed a monarch.

Elizabeth and her mother were reputedly descendants of the water goddess Melusina. As the author relates the legend, “The tragedy of Melusina, is that whatever song it sings, a man will always promise more than he can do to a woman he cannot understand.”

The exotic connection, which resulted in her mother narrowly escaping a charge of witchcraft, equips Queen Elizabeth with a dark power to use against her enemies - like throwing in a fire a cord of cloth that belonged to a hostile duke while chanting, “Lose your strength. Let your sword arm grow weak. Sicken and weary and burn up like this.”

Her curses worked, which probably was one reason why she wasn’t too popular at the 14th-century court, especially since it was rumored that her rapturous romance with the king was the result of a spell she cast after that first meeting on a forest road, which produced a ring and a wedding in record time.

Elizabeth’s mother Jaquetta, one of the more interesting characters of the book, is superstitious to the point that she “brews up tisanes and pours them into the river, whispering words that no one can hear, and throws powder in fires to make them burn green.” And her daughter has learned enough that her wedding ring is the result of using such powers.

Philippa Gregory, who has worked her literary way through ranks of kings and queens, has written a galloping and gory soap opera of a book in which there are endless battles and betrayals as families compete for the throne, and there are few high-level scandals left out, not to mention some that haven’t been aired before.

Elizabeth would have been formidable in any circumstance, but she also was the mother of Edward V, one of two young princes who never emerged from their brutal imprisonment in the Tower of London. This is a mystery that has survived the centuries and the killer of the boys, who were only 10 and 14 years old, was believed to be their uncle, the notorious King Richard III, Edward’s brother.

According to the author, her research into the lurid family history unearthed the report that Queen Elizabeth’s daughter, Elizabeth of York, wanted to wed her Uncle Richard despite the fact that he was already married and was suspected of murdering the princes in the tower, one of whom was her brother and the rightful king. There was no proof of Richard’s guilt, however, and their affair never ended in marriage.

It also seems unlikely, even in those barbarous days, that Elizabeth of York had an affair with her wicked Uncle Richard before she became the wife of King Henry VII. But it is certainly one of the more riveting pieces of historical gossip.

The charges of witchcraft brought against the queen and her mother may be equally questionable, despite the Melusina legend, and there is evidence that the royal couple were genuinely in love, despite the king’s record number of infidelities. The queen was so often pregnant that she didn’t complain for years about her royal husband’s extra-marital cavortings, of which he made no secret.

Elizabeth was aware of the succession of women who sashayed through Edward’s bedroom, yet apparently was so much in love with him that she never strayed herself. Or complained about it.

She was even pragmatic enough to accept the friendship of a woman she referred to as “Shore the whore” after the king’s death, despite the fact that she was the only one of his lovers that she ordered banished from the court.

It was not easy being a woman, let alone a queen, in the 14th century, and little reliance could be placed on filial loyalties. For Elizabeth, her mother was the only person in whom she could place trust, but Jaquetta’s powers made her a politically dangerous woman.

When Edward was home, he was in bed with Elizabeth. Whatever her power was over him, it lasted. But he was more likely to be careening around the countryside battling for his throne in the bloody Wars of the Roses that Ms. Gregory calls the “Wars of the Cousins.”

It was the launching of the era of the Plantagenets when the Yorks and Lancasters behaved in a manner similar to the Hatfields and McCoys, although for far higher stakes. In between, the king was worrying about the ever-present danger that even if he held on to his position through his successes on the battlefield, he was still at risk from assassins in his own palace.

Treachery and murder were commonplace in that era, and although Elizabeth had emotional influence over her husband, it would take another century before a woman could exercise real power from the throne. She was strong and determined, but even she was, to a certain extent, a prisoner of her ostensibly glamorous environment.

She won the man she wanted so desperately, but he was a king, and as such, he could never give her what she wanted, which had nothing to do with the supernatural and a great deal to do with whom and what she was and could be.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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