Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory – A rich novel of loyalty, love and ambition against a background of uncertainty and fear

Dawnlands by Philippa Gregory

This is an historical novel infused with tales and images of beliefs and traditions, while being absolutely full of the actual historical and economic realities of the time. A family has been fighting to survive the pressures of poverty, a man returns to London after a traumatic time in America, and most significantly for the fate of a country only recently riven by civil war, a queen is frightened for her faith and fate.

Set in 1685, this book reveals the role of women in the political history of the country, in particular how the scheming of one woman can influence a queen, Mary of Modena, as she comes to terms with her challenging marriage to James II. It continues the story of Alinor, whose past is full of difficult memories, but who has a sort of contentment in a family who have found relative financial security in the merchant society of London. Into this country scarred by civil war which resulted in the death of a king and the rule of Protector Cromwell, where religion and politics motivated so many, a man returns with a notion of righteous rebellion. Ned Ferryman does not return alone however; he brings with him a companion whose family and community have been forcibly removed. That companion’s status and identity provide a vivid illustration of the line between slave and servant, condemned and free, and will show a unique version of loyalty. As the ambitious Duke of Monmouth plans to threaten the insecure king and royal court, many are drawn into a battle for political and religious power and freedom. The political is made personal, the threat of insecurity affects large parts of the land, and families seek the security and peace once known in other places and times.

This book, in common with so many of Gregory’s books which have featured the excesses of the Tudor court, the confusion of the Cousins’ or Wars of the Roses, the realities of life in various historical periods and times are seen through the eyes of women. In this novel Livia has a past, a marriage to a wealthy and influential man, and now an ambition to influence a nervous and uncertain queen. The second wife of a openly Catholic monarch, many people can remember the devastation that was caused to much of the country in earlier times, and Mary trembles that the throne is threatened once more. She fears for her safely as rebellious forces approach the capital as her husband seems so uncertain of what to do. Her role is to provide a healthy male heir, but all has been disappointment. Seeking reassurance and the promise of safety, she becomes attached to Livia who wishes to encourage this dependence for her own ends. Livia has a special link with Alinor’s family; she knows what Alinor wants above all things, a return to her beloved Fowlmire and Tidelands. She also knows that a young man, and those who have become his family, is also a connection that can be used to her advantage in a worse case.

This is a complex novel that has various themes and stories contained within it. It is the third book in series featuring a family shaped by war, inequality and the fear of poverty and vulnerability, yet works as a stand alone  novel in a period which brings its own challenges. As always with Gregory’s books, I enjoyed the insight she builds into the narrative of what being a woman was like in this time, in the huge questions of political and economic uncertainty, and the small questions of daily life in terms of family, love and loyalty. The women in this book emerge as vibrant, lively individuals, motivated by the past, concerned for the present, and uneasy about the future. The research behind the novel is immense as Gregory looks at the differences in dress, and the constrictions of expectations against a background of political uncertainty and religious motivations. I recommend this book as a big, satisfying read which shows a keen insight into the actual lives of women in a disturbed historical period beautifully expressed.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory – the story of both Boleyn sisters and their relationships

The Other Boleyn Girl

A dated historical novel? Those readers who have read the more recent ‘Cousin’s War’ series or indeed her most recent bestseller ‘Tidelands’  may wonder why I am reviewing a much older book, but the simple answer is that it is a wonderful historical novel originally published in 2001. Written from the point of view of Mary Boleyn/Carey, a young woman who becomes the mistress of Henry VIII, mother to a least one child by him, and most famously predecessor of her sister Anne. This is an historical fiction. In some sources she was a famous mistress to others while in the court of the French king, in others she was part of a family who had other dubious ‘contact’ with Henry. In this book, despite her early marriage, she is still essentially innocent and surprised that the handsome, powerful king has looked in her direction.She is flattered and confused; her family, the Howards, push her towards where they see most political advantage. The power and influence of a woman’s family is one of the main themes of this book, another is the efforts made by Anne to ensnare the king into marriage for various motives. Whatever the truth of the various women’s experiences, this is a book which tries to explain how a woman could become a queen and yet go on to be executed in the most public way. It tells of  loyalty to a tragic queen who was rejected, and the family influence on a woman who must strive to preserve what what becomes important to her. It has romance and danger, details of life at the times through the clothes and the settings, and the behaviour of an ambitious woman and a changeable king. There is so much to enjoy in this book, as well as challenge and learn about the lives of women in a different era with some familiar difficulties. 


The book opens with Mary witnessing the execution of Duke of Buckinghamshire, hoping that at the last minute there will be a reprieve. This chilling glimpse of the future shows that the stakes are indeed high for individuals who were are some point favoured by the king. This is a young Henry, attractive, powerful and majestic, yet also open to being manipulated by those around him. As Mary unintentionally attracts his interest, she is encouraged by her ambitious family to submit to his attentions. Anne, attractive in a completely different way, becomes involved with a nobleman, but when thwarted becomes vengeful. As Mary begins to realise how she is betraying Katherine, Henry’s first queen, and when she gives birth to children, she knows she is no longer the chief object of the king’s interest. It is Anne who becomes the focus of all the attention, and she lives up to her reputation for being difficult. 


Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Henry VIII is the famous second marriage which did not produce the much wanted male heir, but instead produced one of England’s greatest monarchs. Anne’s controversial end can obscure the background story of her family, and the essential purpose of this novel is to give a voice and identity to her sister Mary. While not all the narrative is true, this novel provides an enjoyable and solid read which exposes the position of women in a society which has some overlaps with our own, and reveals a fascinating portrait of both Boleyn girls.  

Three Sisters, Three Queens – Philippa Gregory

A book that covers some of the ground of our holiday and where we used to live, Phillippa Gregory’s latest features Margaret, older sister of Henry VIII. It covers her life growing up in the English court, her marriage to James IV of Scotland, his defeat and death at Flodden (which we visited a few weeks ago, on the day of the Brexit vote!) and her subsequent marriages, battles and involvement with the life of her son, James V. The other two sisters of the title are Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first Queen, and Mary, Margaret’s younger sister briefly married to the King of France before marrying Charles Brandon in St. Mary’s church, which is opposite our old house in Bury St. Edmunds. It is far more impressive inside.

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It is on the whole, a good book, presenting a view of Katherine through Margaret’s eyes, which is not as sympathetic as often found in books where the rejected wife is the subject (Alison Weir being one of the latest to construct a sympathetic portrait).Mary does not leap off the page, except as a fashion obsessed younger woman, deeply in love with her second husband.

It is quite a confusing tale of love and lust as the Scottish lords fight over the person of the young king, as seen by Margaret who often has to flee as England and France seek to influence the power in Scotland. Margaret visits Berwick (a bit of a bleak place today too!) where she is sent on to Morpeth. Having worked and visited there often I cannot remember even the remains of a castle. Apparently it does exist, looking far more civilised than in this novel…

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This book is written in the first person, which means all the action is seen through the maturing eyes of a surprising young woman, who alternates between frustrating decisions and brave action. It allows her challenges, jealousy and fear to emerge, particularly in letters from her “sisters”, who seek to manipulate her actions to suit their own agendas. The attitudes of Katherine really affect Margaret’s situation, even if mediated through Mary. There are lost babies and desperation, culminating in Katherine’s downfall contrasting with Margaret’s hopes.

It is a book which requires perseverance as the many battles and fights can be confusing, but it probably reflects the border lands of the sixteenth century and the monarchy of Scotland well. It is not just another “Tudor Wives” book but presents a picture of the young Henry among the women that surrounded him, as being to a certain extent manipulated and easily impressed. Margaret emerges as a strong woman whose first impulses are not always the best, but nevertheless manages to survive loss and challenge in a time when women could just be seen as weak symbols of royalty important only when they married and when, if, they produced male heirs. This is a less depressing novel than many historical books, as it tries to show Margaret’s actions as affecting three kingdoms. It is worth pressing on with to the end!

The King’s Curse – Philippa Gregory

Just to prove I’m not obsessed with historical crime – well, only a little- here is prove that I do still read historical fiction. Eventually.

As a book obsessed child, I would read anything, or at least most things. I especially loved the Jean Plaidy books. The young Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Henry’s wives; I read and re read. When I got to A level history, I read my way through her version of the Norman conquest and firmly fixed the events in my head. I still have a large number of her books on my shelves, as she wrote prodigious amounts under each name she chose there is plenty of scope (ninety odd books ?!?).

So when I discovered Philippa Gregory I realised that this was a contemporary author also tackling the Tudors in a very personal way, after her books of other periods (Restoration, 18th century slave trade etc). I loved books like The Constant Princess about Katherine of Aragon, and The Queen’s Fool. The White Queen saga had some books that were better than others, but was overall an interesting look at the Cousin’s War.

So The King’ Curse looked interesting. Back to the Tudors. albeit at the slightly less well known viewpoint of Margaret Pole, near to the throne but never a serious contender in her own lifetime. There was to be a lot about Henry VIII, and seemed to link in with that interesting character, Elizabeth of York. History nerds seemed well catered for!

This is a sad, grumpy, discontented book. Margaret Pole saw her brother executed, lost at least one son to the executioner’s axe, and was consistently challenged by the outcome of Henry’s whim regarding his first wife and daughter, later Mary I. On the other hand, she did have four children who survived into adulthood and prospered for most of their lives. She was close to the court, was incredibly wealthy in her own right, and survived until she met her death on the block at sixty seven. While at times in danger because of her Plantagenet name. and widowed relatively young, spending sometime in a convent when thoroughly out of favour, overall there must have been times of joy, positive pride in her possessions, satisfaction that she was surviving and her children were not starving. Times when she looked around her lands, savoured her influence with the highest families, and enjoyed herself. Not according to this book.

One of the criticisms of Hilary Mantel’s book is that she has Cromwell lamenting his lost family throughout. Not surprising given the suddenness of their deaths, perhaps. I found the first two books of that trilogy fascinating for so much else, however. His kindness to others. His shrewd operations, his disposal of Anne Boleyn, or at least his involvement in his downfall. I have no doubt that Margaret, as a woman subject to the whims of Henry, had some extremely bad times. She had been on the side of a Queen who lost everything, including many babies, but had also had been the friend of royalty, had amazing wealth in her own right, and seen her sons rise to power and influence.  Gregory never gives the woman a break. Gloom, sadness, grief, constant fear and expectation of downfall. No great evenings of feasting, contentment in her extended family, appreciation that for some time at least, she was alive and enjoying life.

Opening the book at random, there are sentences such as “And you are right. What you fear is a terrible curse.” This is a well written book. It seems correct in historical detail, and there is every reason to suspect that Henry was a quixotic individual who was easy to displease. There is no positive in this book. No golden court of his early reign. No day to day enjoyment on Katherine’s part of his early devotion to her. Just gloom, fear and grief. I know that we are dealing with women who had sad ends, and we can easily discover how and when they died. One of the problems of historical fiction is that they all die in the end. This novel gives little sense of the good times they enjoyed before they did. Medieval life may have been nasty, brutish and short, but there must have been some good times, some enjoyment of what was going on. Some satisfaction in faith, wealth or love. Gregory gives little sense of this in this novel, yet I have read her books where there is optimism, affection and even joy, perhaps short lived. So, this is a worthwhile book. It gives a female perspective on life in the Tudor court, or at least on the edge of it. It is not an enjoyable read, but a worthy one.

The White Queen /The Lady of the Rivers – Gregory’s Girls!

Many keen fans of the historical drama were counting down the hours last Sunday waiting for the BBC’s version of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. Well, I certainly was! I had just been at a talk about the Lindisfarne Gospels  (quite an obsession round here at the moment – blame the church festival) and there was a bit of concern that the speaker would get back to Durham in time. 

Well, it was fairly faithful to the book:

Which, having read most of Gregory’s books as they have come out I read a few years ago. I remember it being a bit difficult to follow; as Ms Gregory said at her talk in Alnwick in 2010, everyone being called Mary or Elizabeth or Margaret doesn’t help. Also, I think I know about the Tudors, but the various battles, sides and would be Kings and Queens of the Wars of the Roses (or Cousins’ War) is a little baffling. It is undoubtedly a fascinating period in British history, and the women probably did play an enormous part in motivating, enabling and caring for the men who were actually doing the fighting. I was particularly touched during  the novel at the fate of Elizabeth’s family, not just her famous sons who disappeared in the Tower, but also her other children and brothers. What comes over from the novel is a strong woman who does so much to protect and provide for her family. I believe I enjoyed the novel because of Gregory’s skill at depicting a woman in difficult or impossible circumstances, who loves greatly if ultimately tragically.

As for the tv production, well, it was very pretty, with pretty people in a family setting. So many children around in such sunny times it reminded me more of the Sound of Music…The King going off to battle seemed no worse than him popping off for his daily commute, and the mild peril of whether he would choose to remember his marriage to Elizabeth was a little worrying. The whole thing seemed to have been filmed in a sunny bit of France rather than anywhere in an ordinary British summer. In many ways it only improved when they got to court, when there was some promising skirmishing between Jacquetta and Cecily. The floors, the clothes and the interiors all looked so clean! I was so keen to see a non- Tudor drama that I will watch the next episode and indeed the whole series if possible, but let’s hope for a little more drama and a little less prettiness.

The Lady of the Rivers (The Cousins' War, #3)

I have read this week the very interesting The Lady of the Rivers, the third book in the series of Gregory’s novels on the Wars period. It actually goes back into the life of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta, who was an influential force as England descended into war. It is a book full of her trials and tribulations during a life full of supporting Henry VI’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, and worrying about her gifts of foreseeing the future. I really felt that this was a love story, complete with many children. The characters felt real, the battles muddy, the deaths tragic. Despite the complexity of the power struggles, I felt that I had managed to understand the  narrative and get a sense of the reality of the people’s plight. Given the strength of the performance of Janet McTeer in the first episode, it seems a shame that I think that this book is not due to be dramatised. I think that this is a better book than the White Queen, but I may be alone in that…









A White Queen, with a Red one to follow

Panic not! This is not a beginner’s chess lesson, but some intensive historical knowledge would help. A few months ago, myself and the intrepid CB travelled to Alnwick Castle (and hear -eventually) Philippa Gregory talk about her new series, beginning with The White Queen, her novel of Elizabeth Woodville.

It was a packed hall in the beautiful castle. Afternoon tea was mentioned, but not being a tea drinker and seeing the length of the queue we found some seats. The room was full of mainly ladies of a certain age, which probably reflects Gregory’s readership, and the people who could afford the time and the ticket price of the event. (Part of the Hexham literary Festival). The introduction to the speaker was good, except that the sound seemed to have packed up. Given that presumably they have many an event in this Hall, we were unimpressed. Not as unimpressed as Ms Gregory, who refused to utter a word until she was sure that everyone could hear her. She was a very interesting speaker, who had obviously done her research well. She also has a great feeling for the characters involved, asking the what ifs of history, if one of the Princes in the Tower had survived,or if one of Elizabeth’s most admirable brothers had prospered. I enjoyed listening to her greatly, but sadly, even with the addition of questions, she did not speak for very long. It was also quite a time before her new book, The Red Queen, was due to be published, and so she had to speak of that in the future.

When I read The White Queen subsequently, I had to agree that one of the problems of writing of the War of the Roses period is the fact that all the women seemed to be called Margaret, Elizabeth or Anne, which is confusing, as well as the fine tradition of naming sons after their fathers and Uncles. Despite this being the first in the series, it also felt that we had joined the story part way through, with many references to Elizabeth’s mother’s exciting marital career, and some of the motivation of the characters which already seemed to be established and understood. While I must admit to my relative ignorance of this period, I’m not sure that Gregory ought to depend on her readers knowing this period as well as they do the Tudor period which has been the subject of so much screen time. I appreciate that Gregory is trying to write a series of novels each depicting a different character,but  I think it’s going to be difficult to keep up with the time frame. Also, I think that the third novel is about Elizabeth’s mother, which will necessitate going back in time again.

Gregory is a confident, knowledgeable historical novelist. But I struggled to enjoy this novel. I’m not sure whether it was the subject matter (the body count is high, counting battles, infant mortality and missing, presumed dead), or the historical background which I found confusing, but I think it compares unfavourably with the Tudor novels. The characters, especially the central Elizabeth, seemed more one dimensional, and unconvincing in joy or grief. But the biggest defect to me seemed to be the writing throughout in the present tense. While appreciate it reflects how life is lived, it doesn’t admit to analysis of the situation or reflection on what is past, especially when the events are confusing.  I have not gone back through the other Gregory novels to see if that is her normal practice, but I certainly struggled with it in this book. I suppose that when a few more books in the series are written, the jigsaw may fit together and I may understand it better, but I think it will be difficult to hold all the books in mind, especially when there is at least eighteen months before they each come out.

This is a good book and I would encourage you to read it. But it is not as good as her Tudor books in many ways, and I would suggest that it would be better to start with those, especially The Other Boleyn Girl.