Three Sisters, Three Queens | Philippa Gregory | 2016 (9 August) | Simon & Schuster | 560p | Review copy | Buy the book
When Katherine of Aragon arrives in England at the turn of the 16th century to marry Prince Arthur, heir to the Tudor throne, the feelings of Arthur’s sister Margaret are conflicted. While she is pleased to welcome another sister and potential ally to court, her envy of Katherine’s superior status as Princess of Wales threatens to consume her. Margaret and her younger sister Mary are Tudor princesses, arrogantly confident in their superiority, perhaps, paradoxically, because their dynasty is the newest in Europe, the crown seized in battle not inherited. But Katherine’s fortunes are to waver as Arthur dies and Henry VII seems reluctant to honour her subsequent betrothal to the new heir, Prince Henry. Margaret couldn’t be more delighted.
As Katherine’s position at court flounders, Margaret’s ascends. She is married to James, King of Scotland, becoming Queen of this richly cultured and volatile land. But Margaret’s position is threatened by none less than Katherine. Now Henry VIII’s Queen, it is Katherine as Regent during Henry’s absence in France who destroys Margaret’s life, with Margaret’s despair compounded by her sister Mary’s illustrious marriage to the King of France. As the tables turn once again, Margaret must contend with everything pitted against her and the list is long. The result for Margaret is heartbreak, helpless love, betrayal.
Three Sisters, Three Queens is the tale of Margaret, Katherine and Mary – Queens of Scotland, England and France – but it is Margaret who dominates and it’s her voice that tells the story, spoken in the present tense to give us even greater access into the motivation that drives her on despite all that is thrown against her. We follow Margaret from her childhood and so the narrating voice is initially that of a child but, as time passes, the voice alters, the cares and emotions become those of an adult, a wife, a mother, but some things never change. And here that is Margaret’s competitive envy of her sisters, her need to surpass them but also to please them. Love and hate co-exist here just as they seem to co-exist in so many of Margaret’s relationships. Margaret is a complicated person, and so too is her relationship with Katherine in particular.
Katherine’s presence is felt throughout this novel and her influence on Margaret’s life is powerfully felt. The two women meet little but Katherine is never far from Margaret’s thoughts, as seen by their letters and news from the English court where Katherine is slowly losing her influence and place in Henry’s heart. Both women have grief and treachery to overcome but they continue to tread carefully around the other. Mary on the other hand is a glamorous, beautiful figure – the favourite – but even she is bound to suffer. I did enjoy the moments when Mary comes on to the stage. There’s an innocence to Mary which is missing from Margaret. As Margaret is all too aware – it’s so easy to fall for Mary.
I was utterly captivated by Three Sisters, Three Queens. Margaret isn’t the easiest woman to warm to – her arrogance and jealousy aren’t the most attractive traits – but her life is astonishing. Always overshadowed by Henry VIII, who plays a relatively minor part here and when he does appear it’s in the unfamiliar role of brother, Margaret more than deserves a novel in her own right, as Philippa Gregory demonstrates so wonderfully. You couldn’t make this story up and as a result the novel is packed full with drama, intrigue, action and peril as well as intimate moments of love and tragedy. I couldn’t help but warm to Margaret while, by contrast, I was little moved by Katherine. But this book is full of fascinating, memorable figures, particularly in the Scottish court, and the action is moved along by politics at their most devious and treacherous.
I used to think that I wouldn’t be able to read another Tudor novel but it’s books like this, a marvellous book, that reveal that there is so much more to explore in this most extraordinary, larger than life period of history.
The Taming of the Queen