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This reading group guide forThe White Princessincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Philippa Gregory. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The White Princess opens with Elizabeth of York grieving the loss of her lover, Richard III, who was killed at the battle of Bosworth by his Lancastrian rival, Henry Tudor. As soon as Henry claims the crown to become Henry VII, he cements his succession by demanding Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. While Elizabeth dutifully bears a male Tudor heir and endures her husband’s suspicion of her York relations, her mother, Elizabeth of Woodville, concocts a plan for revenge. Making the most of her York connections, Elizabeth Woodville secretly supports an uprising against Henry, placing her daughter, now Queen to Henry’s King, between two families. When Henry learns of the treasonous plot, he imprisons his mother-in-law and becomes preoccupied with capturing “the boy”—the handsome leader of the rebellion whose adherents claim is the true York heir. But when the King arrests the imposter, who strongly resembles Elizabeth’s missing brother, Prince Richard, his Tudor court is thrown into turmoil. Elizabeth must watch and wonder as her loyalty between family and crown is divided once more.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How would you describe the grief Elizabeth experiences in the aftermath of her uncle, Richard III’s death? What notable details about their relationship does her grief expose? How does Richard’s untimely demise imperil the future of the York line?
2. “Henry Tudor has come to England, having spent his whole life in waiting…and now I am, like England itself, part of the spoils of war.” (3) Why does Elizabeth consider herself a war prize for Henry, rather than his sworn enemy for life? What role does politics play in the arrangement of royal marriages in fifteenth-century England?
3. Why are Maggie and Teddy of Warwick, the orphaned children of George, Duke of Clarence, in a uniquely dangerous position in the new court led by Henry Tudor? Why do Elizabeth and her family go to such great efforts to keep these York cousins away from Henry and his mother, Margaret, even though they know full well of their existence?
4. The mysterious disappearance of the young York princes, Richard and Edward, during their captivity in the Tower of London haunts all of the figures in The White Princess. What does the curse that Elizabeth and her mother cast on the boys’ presumed murderer reveal about their family’s belief in mysticism and witchcraft? How does the fact of this curse complicate Elizabeth’s dreams for her own offspring and their Tudor inheritance?
5. “Daughter mine, you have known for all your life that you would be married for the good of the country and the advancement of your family. You will do your duty like a princess…and I expect you to look happy as you do it.” (41) Why is Elizabeth’s betrothal to Henry Tudor, the future king of England, an especially advantageous marriage for the York family? What might their union represent to England in the aftermath of the War of the Roses? To what extent does Henry’s decision to refuse his future bride and her family at his coronation suggest about his true feelings for the Yorks?
6. How does King Henry VII justify his rape of his betrothed, Elizabeth of York? To what extent is their impending marriage a union that he desires as little as she? Why does Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, demand proof of Elizabeth’s fertility prior to their actual wedding? Why isn’t Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, able to do more to protect her daughter from such violation?
7. “The king says he is only acting to protect Teddy. He says that Teddy might be seized by rebels and used by them as a figurehead. He says that Teddy is safer in the Tower for now.” (130) How does the rebellion against King Henry in the north of England endanger young Teddy? To what extent is King Henry justified in keeping Teddy confined to the Tower? Why does he keep him sequestered as long as he does?
8. In what ways does Elizabeth’s terror of confinement during her first pregnancy seem warranted? How have her various experiences of hiding in sanctuary and the crypt during her childhood and young adulthood affected her? How might her fears of what happened to her brothers in the Tower play into her concerns for her own confinement?
9. “He once said to me that nobody could understand the boy but him—and that nobody could understand him but the boy.” (514) How does King Henry feel about the series of young men who emerge during his reign, claiming York blood and demanding recognition by him? How does Henry’s own status as an outsider and foreigner affect his feelings toward these pretenders?
10. Describe the images of maternity that appear throughout The White Princess. How does Margaret Beaufort’s unusually close attachment to her adult son, Henry, compare to the motherly love Elizabeth Woodville expresses for her daughter, Elizabeth of York? When Elizabeth is forbidden to feed her newborn son, Arthur, and must give him up to a wet nurse, how does she come to understand her maternal obligations as queen? How does the imperative to produce male heirs for the throne define royal motherhood?
11. What does Elizabeth Woodville’s correspondence with old York families and former members of her household suggest about her fidelity to the reign of her new son-in-law, King Henry? Given that she has committed acts of treason against the king in fomenting and supporting rebellion, why does Henry allow her to live in Bermondsey Abbey? How does Elizabeth feel about her mother’s open betrayal of her husband?
12. “I have a spy in every port in England. Nobody can come or go without me knowing it within two days.” (197) How does Henry’s paranoia about treachery in his kingdom influence his governance? How does it impact his ability to lead his nation? Why does Elizabeth feel she ought to help Henry navigate the complex social expectations England has of its King?
13. Describe the curious personage of “the boy”—the golden-haired young man who is known variously at court as Pero Osbeque, Perkin Warbeck, and Peter Warboys. What is his true identity? How does Elizabeth receive him? To what extent does she believe he is her long-lost brother, Richard? Why doesn’t Henry choose to have him put to death immediately?
14. “I was once the girl that everyone watched as they turned their backs on the queen.” (p. 451) How does Elizabeth experience her husband’s infatuation with Lady Katherine Huntly, the beautiful wife of “the boy”? What does Elizabeth recognize about the pain that she caused to Queen Anne, Richard III’s wife, when she was the other woman? How would you characterize the nature of her feelings toward Lady Katherine?
15. In the final scene of The White Princess, Henry begs Elizabeth of York to forgive him for the deaths of “the boy”—either her brother, Richard of York, or an exceptionally convincing pretender—and of her innocent cousin, Teddy of Warwick. Given all that Henry has done to her family, why does Elizabeth choose to forgive him? How does the image of a broken king begging his wife for forgiveness give a clearer picture of Elizabeth’s power in their marriage?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. “I dream that I am in his arms and he is waking me with a kiss.” (p. 2) In Elizabeth’s dreams she is reunited with her deceased lover, Richard. Members of your book group may want to keep a dream diary for a week and share what occurs to them while they sleep. How closely do their dreams mirror real life? What and whom do they dream about? Do people from their past ever visit them in their dreams? How do they interpret the meanings of their dreams?
2. “‘Choose to be brave,’ she urges me. ‘All the women of your family are as brave as lions. We don’t whimper and we don’t regret.’” (p. 134) As Elizabeth enters childbirth for the first time, her mother urges her bravery. Ask members of your group to remember times when they have chosen to be brave. What challenge did they face, and how did they maintain their courage?
3. Of the many unanswered secrets in The White Princess, Elizabeth’s mother never completely reveals what she knows about the whereabouts of her two missing sons. Ask each member of the group to write down an anonymous secret on a slip of paper—it can be a secret kept or a secret revealed. Then, ask each member of the group to select one slip from the pile and read it aloud. How many of these secrets can be connected to their authors? What kinds of secrets do people guard? Your group may want to consider why parents keep secrets from their children.
4. If you loved The White Princess, make sure you check out the rest of Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novels, which can be found at PhilippaGregory.com.
A Conversation with Philippa Gregory
Can you elaborate a bit more on the legend of Melusina that surrounds Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother, Jacquetta?
Melusina was the founder of the House of Luxembourg, a water goddess who appears as a matter of fact on their family tree. Jacquetta of the House of Luxembourg used the symbols of Melusina in heraldry. The presence of a water goddess in the Rivers’ family tree probably encouraged the belief that Jacquetta and her daughter Elizabeth used witchcraft. They were both rumored to create enchantments and Jacquetta was actually tried and found guilty of being a witch - the trial was overthrown by her son-in-law the king. Her biography has not been written – I wish someone would do it! But I have published a biographical essay about her in my history, The Women of the Cousins’ Wars, and I wrote a novel about her, The Lady of the Rivers.
How likely is it that King Henry would have enlisted spies within his court to eavesdrop on his own wife, Queen Elizabeth? Was this practice commonplace?
Henry VII was a spy master, the greatest that England had seen until then. His son increased the surveillance network and Cecil and then Walsingham under Elizabeth created a fully fledged secret service. This was not new–Edward IV had a series of watchers and Richard III had spies watching Henry Tudor. Henry VII’s surveillance of his own court and even his own family proved to be essential in defending his throne against the York conspiracies.
At many points in the novel, characters refer to the irresistible charm of the Yorks. Why were the Yorks so beloved by their subjects?
It is that mysterious human trait: charm. Edward IV was famously handsome and engaging, taking the throne by public acclaim and recapturing it with popular support. His brother George was also famously attractive. Richard III was adored in the lands where he spent most of his time: the North of England. The women of the family tended to be beauties and Elizabeth of York was very popular. Henry VIII perhaps inherited it, his father Henry VII could not learn it.
In The White Princess you contend that Elizabeth would have despised Henry Tudor as the murderer of her uncle, King Richard III. How compelling is the historical evidence that Elizabeth and Richard were in fact lovers?
The most compelling piece of historical evidence is missing: a letter from Elizabeth to the Duke of Norfolk begging him to assist her marriage to Richard, which makes clear that she is in love with him and that they are lovers. The letter was copied but the original lost. Other suggestive evidence is the record of gossip at the time, and perhaps most persuasive–Richard had to deny in public that he was intending to marry Elizabeth–so many people thought that was his intention.
In the novel, you examine the rise of pretenders: lookalikes like Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck who sought to gain political advantage through tenuous or false connections to the royal family. To what extent was the mysterious disappearance of the princes in the Tower the explanation for this upsurge of imposters? Were pretenders always a problem in this era?
There was a surge of imposters against the Tudors and also a lot of potential rival heirs. Henry Tudor was the last most likely heir of the Lancastrian side but the Yorks were very fertile and there were many possible heirs that could claim the throne and show a better claim than the Tudors. Henry’s fear of rival claims was rightly strong. His inability to produce the bodies of the princes or explain how they died made his problem even worse since anyone could coach a pretender. Personally, I think that “the boy” the youth that Henry said was Perkin Warbeck probably was Richard of York, and this opinion is shared by several historians whose books are listed in the bibliography at the end of the novel. It’s a fascinating mystery–we certainly don’t yet have a definitive answer.
This is your twenty-fifth book. How did the experience of writing The White Princess compare with some of your earlier books? Which one has been your favorite book to write?
The White Princess was one of the most controversial books, I think. My view of Henry Tudor was not common when I started the novel but during the writing a very fine biography by Thomas Penn was published that tended to share my view of him as suspicious verging on paranoid. Imagining what this would be like for his wife–herself the daughter of a phenomenally popular king–was also new. But while the material was new and difficult, the writing was very fluent. I really loved Elizabeth of York and her mother Elizabeth Woodville and some of the central characters of the books were great favorites that I had worked on through several previous novels.
Before becoming a novelist, you were also a journalist and historian. Do you ever think of returning to either of these professions?
Of course, I am still a historian. Mostly I present my research in fictional form so I am a novelist as well, but my book The Women of the Cousin’s War, written with fellow historians David Baldwin and Mike Jones, was published as a popular history book. I enjoyed telling the history of Jacquetta Duchess of Bedford, without fictional devices but I enjoyed writing Lady of the Rivers, my novel based on her life, even more.
The White Queen TV series will be airing in spring 2014 on BBC One in the UK and later in the year on Starz in the US. How involved were you with this production? What do you think viewers have to look forward to most in this small screen adaptation?
It’s a real epic, ten hours based on three books: The White Queen, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter, beautifully shot with fantastic performances. I think it’s going to be completely absorbing for viewers and introduce them to an historical period that few people know well. I am particularly pleased the way the dramatization has kept the heart of the piece based on the women and on their battles for power and supremacy. I was executive producer and focused most of my attention on the scripts, which reflect the books very closely.
What’s next for Philippa Gregory?
I’m really enjoying researching and writing my new novel about Margaret of Warwick, who goes on to be chief confidante and best friend of Katherine of Aragon. She’s a most interesting character, on the edge of the court, a royal but a woman who chooses to keep a distance from the throne. The challenge has been to move on and away from Elizabeth of York, who has been a most engaging heroine, but Margaret’s eventful and courageous life is keeping my attention.
Philippa Gregory is the author of many bestselling novels, including The Other Boleyn Girl, and is a recognized authority on women’s history. Her Cousins’ War novels are the basis for the critically acclaimed STARZ miniseries The White Queen. Her most recent novel is Three Sisters, Three Queens. She graduated from the University of Sussex and received a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, where she is a Regent. She holds two honorary degrees from Teesside University and the University of Sussex. She is a fellow of the Universities of Sussex and Cardiff and was awarded the 2016 Harrogate Festival Award for Contribution to Historical Fiction. She welcomes visitors to her website, PhilippaGregory.com.