Book review: Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

In my early years as a Philippa Gregory fan, her books were less about the history and more about the intrigue, the personalities and the drama.

But as she has amassed a mini-library of historical fiction titles and as I have grown up as a reader, reading a Gregory is becoming more about unveiling the (often unknown) tidbits of history and less about royal salaciousness.

I really felt this in Gregory’s latest title, Three Sisters, Three Queens, which is the story of King Henry VIII’s sisters Mary and Margaret, and his (first) wife Katherine of Aragon, and which reveals the roles played by the three queens.

Set to become the Queens of England, Scotland and France respectively, Katherine, Margaret and Mary are allies and enemies; supporters and challengers; partners and rivals – subject both to Henry’s unpredictable whims and to the vagaries of court life. Nothing is constant. Everything is uncertain.

Because Margaret Tudor was largely overlooked by history, this is a fascinating portrayal, in which she makes one bad choice after another, changes alliances with the wind, and constantly chafes at her ties to her queenly sisters Katherine of Aragon and the Dowager French Queen, Mary.

Three Sisters is told from Margaret’s viewpoint and she is – to put it plainly – largely unlikable. But Gregory isn’t afraid to create characters who are insufferable or indeed stupid (remember Margaret Beaufort and little Kitty Howard?), which makes for interesting if not particularly nuanced reading.

So, if you like this sort of thing, read it and enjoy. If you’re not usually one for historical fiction, this shouldn’t be your first Gregory. Either way, you can expect to encounter the story of the three women’s troubled marriages, told mostly through letters to Margaret. And, since all of these are state marriages, you’ll shortly discover the extent to which affairs of state tend to bind women in mutual sorrow, and be grateful for your own comparatively simple life.

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