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Philippa Gregory on a Tudor smear campaign

October 6, 2009 |  8:00 am

Richard-the-third

Philippa Gregory’s novel “The White Queen” is about the trials of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV during the period of English history known as the Wars of the Roses. One of the book’s many surprises is its retreat from portraying Richard III as the tyrannical, hunchbacked usurper crying “A horse! A horse!” in Shakespeare’s play. Another is Gregory’s speculation about what really happened to the two young princes, the sons of Edward and Elizabeth, whom history says Richard had murdered to clear his path to the throne.

Richard is hardly monstrous in “The White Queen” — in fact, he is so sympathetic that the reader keeps thinking, what is going on here? Is this the same figure Lawrence Olivier played as a cunning Machiavellian and Ian McKellen, pictured, played as a tyrant of Hitler-like proportions?

What gives?

“It’s an act of historical recovery,” Gregory says about her latest book, which is enjoying a healthy position on bestseller lists across the country, including The Times'.

On tour, Gregory stopped by The Times' offices to talk about attitudes to Richard and why she sides with those who see him as the victim of an extraordinary propaganda machine. (It’s a viewpoint, by the way, shared by Ann Wroe in “The Perfect Prince: Truth and Deception in Renaissance Europe” and Josephine Tey in “The Daughter of Time,” though others, such as Desmond Seward in “Richard III: England’s Black Legend,” attempt to find a midpoint between both views.) “The White Queen” is the first of a six-book series, and nothing pleases Gregory more than being able to educate readers about the overlooked world of the Plantagenet rulers — not to mention the hopeful possibility that a TV series like Showtime’s “The Tudors” might one day become a reality for them.

Jacket Copy: Now that I’ve finished “The White Queen,” I can honestly say I am sitting here with a latter-day Yorkist, is that right?

Philippa Gregory: Absolutely. I am so a Yorkist. I live in Yorkshire; for my daughter’s wedding, I had every hedge around my house planted with the Yorkists' white roses. In my writing what I’m trying to do is give a side of history that hasn’t been visible.

JC: That certainly seems clear from the novel. Your portrayal of Richard III is so surprising: He isn’t the tyrannical figure we’ve all learned about.

PG: When you turn to the history, all you get are stories of Plantagenets acting badly. The more I found out, the more I realized it was no accident that these are the only stories we find. The Yorkists lost to the house of Lancaster, and history, of course, gets told by the victors. That’s what Shakespeare tapped into in his play about Richard — that and a medieval belief that a malformed mind led to a malformed body.

JC: Didn’t Richard loathe his brother?

PG: Richard certainly didn’t like Elizabeth Woodville, who narrates the book, that’s clear, but he was loyal to Edward IV. He dearly loved Edward. Richard’s motto was "Loyaulte me Lie" — “Loyalty is mine,” or “Loyalty binds me.”

JC: This sense of loyalty, then, extended to Elizabeth and the princes?

PG: Yes, I believe there was a rapprochement between Richard and Elizabeth after Edward's death. Why else would she have placed her daughters into the hands of someone who had already murdered her sons? If you look at what Thomas More has to say about it, he explains Elizabeth’s reason by just saying Elizabeth is a woman, and women’s natures are constantly changeable. Now hang on a minute. Think logically about it. There must be another reason — that she truly trusted, that she didn’t believe he was responsible. Let’s look at what historians have said about this, and you find there’s a case to be made for Richard’s innocence. Just as there’s a case to be made for the guilt of others like the Duke of Buckingham and Henry Tudor.

All of this, however, has been obscured. When you read the histories for this period, you find the absolute triumph of Tudor propaganda.

JC: What are other examples of this triumph?

More after the jump.

PG: Well, the battle of Bosworth Field and the picture we have of Richard as being unprepared — that he was sleepless, incompetent, disorganized — I think it was really Henry who was that way; this was his first big battle. Richard, on the other hand, had been in the field since he was 14, fighting on behalf of Edward. He knew what had to be done.

The calling for “a horse, a horse!” marks him as a coward, one who wants to escape, when other sources — even the historian Polydore Vergil, who counted on the patronage of the Tudors — say his last words were really “treason, treason, treason,” because Richard saw his allies turning against him. That is such a heartbreaking scene.

JC: How do you create suspense when the history is known?

PG: When you write a novel, you’re asking your readers to suspend their knowledge. By putting it all in the first person, you’re asking them to imagine that moment — forget, for example, that we know Anne Boleyn was beheaded. Instead, think of how she agreed to an annulment, believing that Henry VIII would have mercy and let her go into exile. If you had been there, you would’ve thought the same — that she wasn’t going to be killed. In writing a novel, you want to make that here-and-now so believable that readers share in the ignorance of the characters; that they won’t bring the hindsight given them by history into the story.

JC: There’s a moment, in the novel when Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, advises her on what being a queen really means. It’s hardly ceremonial or glorious. She tells Elizabeth that being queen is “a battle to the death. ... The road you have chosen will mean that you have to spend your life scheming and fighting.”

PG: When you research these periods of history, what you find in the royal courts are succeeding tyrannies. Elizabeth’s mother knew that. She understood the levers of power, and that is why in the novel she wants her daughter to swiftly educate herself on these matters. Official history of that period says Elizabeth was greedy, that she filled key positions with her people because of her ambition — it wasn’t that. She did that in order to survive. You have to place your people in power.

This aspect is overlooked, and that’s a tragedy, really, like every new production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Each time a production gets staged, we’re repeating the lesson that Richard was nothing but a hunchback villain. That’s the tragedy.

-- Nick Owchar

Photo: Ian McKellen in "Richard III" (1995). Credit: Alex Bailey

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