Philippa Gregory – Queen of historical novels

A few days ago I announced an upcoming surprise interview, and here she is: well-established and much loved author and historian Philippa Gregory hardly needs an introduction. Through her novels both the court of Henry VIII and his daughter has been brought to life and over the last few years she has let us all get to know the main players during the Wars of the Roses through the book series “The cousin´s war”. Needless to say, I was more than delighted when she took the time to answer a few questions of mine


Philippa_gregory_2011Your books about the Cousins´ War and the Tudor court are immensely popular. What is it that makes events taking place at courts and in battlefields centuries ago so alluring?

It’s all very exciting (if you’re not actually there with a real risk of being beheaded)! History can be better than anything you can make up, and I think people particularly like that they are reading about something that actually happened. The period was also so significant to how our world has become what it is today – it marks the transition from the medieval to the modern period. When you read these stories you realise the small bits of chance which led to England being a Protestant country, not being ruled by Spain, forming a United Kingdom with Scotland and more than anything else creating an empire. All of us have a personal history which reflects these great events, and these events take us back to the medieval world.

While history in general tends to be the story of men, you have allowed a number of strong and fascinating women to come out from the shadows of time. Are the Middle Ages and the Tudor era exceptional in the number of women who were determined to shape their own lives against all odds, The other boleyn girlor do you believe they can be found in any period of time?

For years I have talked about the ‘exceptional’ women that I found in the historical record as a footnote or as a companion to male actions; but just recently I began to see that if I keep finding them they can’t really be exceptional – there are so many of them! There are many many powerful decisive active interesting women struggling with the times they were in, and their stories are sometimes to be found if the historian can be bothered to look, but sometimes they have almost disappeared. I don’t agree that ‘history in general tends to be the story of men’- I think we really have to examine this. English history as published up to 1950 was almost completely written by men (since women could not attend university until 1920)  and was almost exclusively about power and the levers of power – military and political history and the men (all men) who were generals and politicians. So while the world of the past is populated with men and women, all of them living their lives, taking decisions and acting on their circumstances, the history up to about 1950 studied only a few of them, mostly men. It was a huge breakthrough when historians started to look at the history of labouring people, common people, enslaved people and women. I think that when you look for the history of a group you will find it, and there are as great a proportion of active brave courageous women in the Tudor period as there is now. They didn’t have our opportunities, and they were often not acknowledged but I think the ability of women extends across time.

One of the biggest causes for under-reporting of women of ability is the disapproval of the society – so some powerful and able women conceal their activity (like mother of Henry VII, Margaret Beaufort in The Red Queen,) and some are reported very unjustly, like the so-called she-wolf, Margaret of Anjou. I see you ask about her below!

The white queenAt least three of these women, Margaret of Anjou, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville, have been portrayed rather unflatteringly both by their contemporaries and historians through the centuries. Do you believe that their reputation would have been different if they had been men?

Yes, absolutely – the criticism levelled at Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville was unwomanly ambition. Once the society defines natural feminine behaviour in a very small compass, any woman who steps outside it is going to be criticised for being ‘unnatural’. Think of Lady Macbeth steeling herself for murder by praying ‘unsex me here’ as if women cannot commit murder. The chroniclers of the period were all educated by the misogynistic church, and very quick to detect the folly or wickedness of Eve.  Interestingly, Margaret Beaufort commissioned the historian of her son’s reign, Polydore Vergil and whitewashed her own reputation. We know that she was deeply involved in rebellion against Richard III but she ensured that his history blames the Duke of Buckingham for the rebellion and credits her son and Thomas Stanley for the alliance which won Bosworth. Margaret Beaufort rightly knew that you could not be a woman held in high regard if it looked like you fought for your place in the world. (Hilary Clinton knows this too)>

Is there a character, man or woman, in your books – and in history -, that you have become The red queenparticularly attached to while writing?

Many! I get attached to each one of my main characters during the research and writing process, as I try to get into their heads and their circumstances. Among my favourites are Katherine of Aragon, Elizabeth Woodville and Jacquetta of Luxembourg. They were each so courageous in forging their path. Katherine of Aragon stuck to her principles despite the cost, Jacquetta made her own marriage completely against the values of her class, and Elizabeth Woodville is just so charismatic with such an extraordinary story of love, ambition and survival. Currrently I am fascinated by the last wife of Henry VIII, Kateryn Parr as I am working on her now.

Just one last question, this one in regards to the adaptation of The White Queen for TV; the actor Aneurin Barnard has almost reached cult status for his portrayal of Richard III, not least for being so far removed from earlier interpretations. Is he, in appearance, how you imagined Richard while researching and writing?

Aneurin provided an excellent portrayal of Richard and I think matches the looks of the young Richard very well – although of course Richard ages a lot more during my books than can be shown in a TV show. I think his acting really captured the ambiguity of the character – a man that so many either love or hate. You struggle to tell what Aneurin as Richard is really thinking, and yet you sympathise so much with him. He’s a particularly nice man, he was so thrilled to be crowned king, I enjoyed the time I spent with him on set. I was so pleased to hear that he has been cast in War and Peace, I think he will be brilliant.


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