From the #1 New York Times bestselling author behind the acclaimed Starz series The White Queen comes the story of lady-in-waiting Margaret Pole and her unique view of King Henry VIII’s stratospheric rise to power in Tudor England.
As an heir to the Plantagenets, Margaret is seen by the King’s mother, the Red Queen, as a rival to the Tudor claim to the throne. She is buried in marriage to a Tudor supporter—Sir Richard Pole, governor of Wales—and becomes guardian to Arthur, the young Prince of Wales, and his beautiful bride, Katherine of Aragon.
But Margaret’s destiny, as cousin to the White Princess, is not for a life in the shadows. Tragedy throws her into poverty, yet a royal death restores her to her place at young Henry VIII’s court where she becomes chief lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. There she watches the dominance of the Spanish queen over her husband and her tragic decline.
Amid the rapid deterioration of the Tudor court, Margaret must choose whether her allegiance is to the increasingly tyrannical Henry VIII or to her beloved queen. Caught between the old and the new, Margaret must find her own way, concealing her knowledge that an old curse cast upon all the Tudors is slowly coming true...
The King’s Curse WESTMINSTER PALACE, LONDON, 29 NOVEMBER 1499
In the moment of waking I am innocent, my conscience clear of any wrongdoing. In that first dazed moment, as my eyes open, I have no thoughts; I am only a smooth-skinned, tightly muscled young body, a woman of twenty-six, slowly waking with joy to life. I have no sense of my immortal soul, I have no sense of sin or guilt. I am so deliciously, lazily sleepy that I hardly know who I am.
Slowly, I open my eyes and realize that the light coming through the shutters means that it is late in the morning. As I stretch out, luxuriously, like a waking cat, I remember that I was exhausted when I fell asleep and now I feel rested and well. And then, all in a moment, as if reality had suddenly tumbled down on my head like glossy-sealed denouncements from a high shelf, I remember that I am not well, that nothing is well, that this is the morning I hoped would never come; for this morning I cannot deny my deadly name: I am the heir of royal blood, and my brother—guilty as I am guilty—is dead.
My husband, sitting on the side of my bed, is fully dressed in his red velvet waistcoat, his jacket making him bulky and wide, his gold chain of office as chamberlain to the Prince of Wales splayed over his broad chest. Slowly, I realize he has been waiting for me to wake, his face crumpled with worry. “Margaret?”
“Don’t say anything,” I snap like a child, as if stopping the words will delay the facts, and I turn away from him into the pillow.
“You must be brave,” he says hopelessly. He pats my shoulder as if I were a sick hound puppy. “You must be brave.”
I don’t dare to shrug him off. He is my husband, I dare not offend him. He is my only refuge. I am buried in him, my name hidden in his. I am cut off from my title as sharply as if my name had been beheaded and rolled away into a basket.
Mine is the most dangerous name in England: Plantagenet, and once I carried it proudly, like a crown. Once I was Margaret Plantagenet of York, niece of two kings, the brothers Edward IV and Richard III, and the third brother was my father, George, Duke of Clarence. My mother was the wealthiest woman in England and the daughter of a man so great that they called him “Kingmaker.” My brother, Teddy, was named by our uncle, King Richard, as heir to the throne of England, and between us—Teddy and me—we commanded the love and the loyalty of half the kingdom. We were the noble Warwick orphans, saved from fate, snatched from the witchy grip of the white queen, raised in the royal nursery at Middleham Castle by Queen Anne herself, and nothing, nothing in the world was too good or too rich or too rare for us.
But when King Richard was killed, we went overnight from being the heirs to the throne to becoming pretenders, survivors of the old royal family, while a usurper took the throne. What should be done with the York princesses? What should be done with the Warwick heirs? The Tudors, mother and son, had the answer prepared. We would all be married into obscurity, wedded to shadows, hidden in wedlock. So now I am safe, cut down by degrees, until I am small enough to conceal under a poor knight’s name in a little manor in the middle of England where land is cheap and there is nobody who would ride into battle for the promise of my smile at the cry of “À Warwick!”.
I am Lady Pole. Not a princess, not a duchess, not even a countess, just the wife of a humble knight, stuffed into obscurity like an embroidered emblem into a forgotten clothes chest. Margaret Pole, young pregnant wife to Sir Richard Pole, and I have already given him three children, two of them boys. One is Henry, named sycophantically for the new king, Henry VII, and one is Arthur, named ingratiatingly for his son Prince Arthur, and I have a daughter, Ursula. I was allowed to call a mere girl whatever I wanted, so I named her for a saint who chose death rather than be married to a stranger and forced to take his name. I doubt that anyone has observed this small rebellion of mine; I certainly hope not.
But my brother could not be rechristened by marriage. Whoever he married, however lowly she was, she could not change his name as my husband has changed mine. He would still hold the title Earl of Warwick, he would still answer to Edward Plantagenet, he would still be the true heir to the throne of England. When they raised his standard (and someone, sooner or later, was bound to raise his standard) half of England would turn out just for that haunting flicker of white embroidery, the white rose. That is what they call him: “the White Rose.”
So since they could not take his name from him, they took his fortune and his lands. Then they took his liberty, packing him away like a forgotten banner, among other worthless things, into the Tower of London, among traitors and debtors and fools. But though he had no servants, no lands, no castle, no education, still my brother had his name, my name. Still Teddy had his title, my grandfather’s title. Still he was Earl of Warwick, the White Rose, heir to the Plantagenet throne, a living constant reproach to the Tudors, who captured that throne and now call it their own. They took him into the darkness when he was a little boy of eleven and they did not bring him out until he was a man of twenty-four. He had not felt meadow grass under his feet for thirteen years. Then he walked out of the Tower, perhaps enjoying the smell of the rain on the wet earth, perhaps listening to the seagulls crying over the river, perhaps hearing beyond the high walls of the Tower the shouts and laughter of free men, free Englishmen, his subjects. With a guard on either side of him, he walked across the drawbridge and up to Tower Hill, knelt before the block, and put his head down as if he deserved to die, as if he were willing to die; and they beheaded him.
That happened yesterday. Just yesterday. It rained all day. There was a tremendous storm, as if the sky was raging against cruelty, rain pouring down like grief, so that when they told me, as I stood beside my cousin the queen in her beautifully appointed rooms, we closed the shutters against the darkness as if we did not want to see the rain that on Tower Hill was washing blood into the gutter, my brother’s blood, my blood, royal blood.
“Try to be brave,” my husband murmurs again. “Think of the baby. Try not to be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid.” I twist my head to speak over my shoulder. “I don’t have to try to be brave. I have nothing to fear. I know that I am safe with you.”
He hesitates. He does not want to remind me that perhaps I do still have something to fear. Perhaps even his lowly estate is not humble enough to keep me safe. “I meant, try not to show your grief . . .”
“Why not?” It comes out as a childish wail. “Why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I grieve? My brother, my only brother, is dead! Beheaded like a traitor when he was innocent as a child. Why should I not grieve?”
This reading group guide forThe King’s Curseincludes 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.
Lady-in-waiting Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, has spent her entire life attempting to deny her own royal blood and Plantagenet name while in service of the Tudor court. Her proximity and understanding of the court give her a unique view of Henry VIII’s stratospheric rise to power in Tudor England.
England is under a Tudor king. Henry VII, has two sons with Elizabeth of York, which should have secured his line, yet his court is still filled with fear and suspicion. Plantagenet is a dangerous name to carry and the heiress Margaret Pole, cousin to Elizabeth of York (known as the White Princess) and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, is married off to a steady and kind Lancaster supporter—Sir Richard Pole. But her brother Edward’s claim cannot be ignored. Henry executes him on Tower Hill, leaving Margaret to face a lifetime of uncertainty. Caught between the old world and the new, Margaret has to find her own way as she carries the knowledge of an old curse on the house of Tudor.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The King’s Curse spans over forty years of Lady Margaret Pole’s presence in and around the Tudor court, as she and her family rise and fall from favor with Henry VII and then Henry VIII. How do Lady Margaret, her characteristics, and her goals change over the course of her life at and away from court?
2. Discuss the meaning of the title, The King’s Curse. What is the actual curse? How does Henry VIII’s belief that he is cursed affect his behavior? Do you believe that the curse that Elizabeth of York and her mother spoke against the Tudors comes to fruition?
3. Consider how deeply Margaret is affected by the execution of her brother Edward, “Teddy,” the Earl of Warwick. How does this affect her familial loyalty and influence her actions? What does it mean to Margaret to bear the name Plantagenet? What does the White Rose mean to her?
4. How does Margaret see Henry VIII change over the course of his life? As a child, how was he different from his brother Arthur, Prince of Wales? What are his primary characteristics as a young king, and then as an aging monarch?
5. Describe the ways in which motherhood and maternity are portrayed in The King’s Curse. How does the pressure to produce a male heir define the role of royal mothers? How does Margaret’s presence at the loss of so many royal babies affect her own view of motherhood? Compare the differences between Katherine of Aragon’s and Margaret’s sense of motherhood.
6. Lady Margaret Pole is a unique figure in the Tudor court: when her title is restored to her, she becomes one of the wealthiest individuals in England in her own right. In what ways does Margaret use her position and influence that was unusual for a woman of this time?
7. “‘It’s just that from boyhood, the king has never admired something without wanting it for himself,’” Margaret cautions her cousin Edward, Duke of Buckingham. How does Margaret’s advice to her family to desire obscurity, and therefore safety, contradict her ambitions for her family, her sons in particular, and desire for power? What does the loss of Margaret’s son Arthur mean to her? Consider this moment: “We walk back to the house, and I look at the great house that I have renewed, with my family crest above the door, and I think, as bitterly as any sinner, that all the wealth and all the power that I won back for myself and my children could not save my beloved son Arthur from the Tudor sickness.”
8. Margaret forces Reginald to stay in the king’s service as a scholar and theologian, even if it means being exiled to Padua, Paris, and Rome and separated from his family; Reginald resents his mother for much of his life because of this. Do you think this shaped Reginald’s opinion toward the new religion and his eventual letter to the king on his findings? Why or why not?
9. Compare and contrast Margaret’s attitudes about illness, contagion, and death with those of Henry VIII. How does each handle the Sweat and other diseases among their subjects? How is each affected by the death of Katherine of Aragon?
10. Think back to the promise that Margaret made to Katherine when she first revealed Prince Arthur’s deathbed wish to his young wife: If Margaret had not promised to keep Katherine’s secret then, how might have the following events turned out differently?
11. The wheel of fortune, or rota fortunae, is a popular notion in medieval philosophy that refers to the unpredictability of fate: the goddess Fortuna spins the wheel at random, changing the positions of those on the wheel. Keeping this in mind, discuss the many great fortunes and misfortunes that befall Margaret and her family, and England as a whole, throughout the novel. What is the driving force behind these quick changes of fortune?
12. “The one thing I would have taught him, if I had kept him at my side, is to never weary of life, but to cling to it. Life: at almost any cost. I have never prepared myself for death, not even going into childbed, and I would never put my head down on the block.” Margaret encourages her children to choose life on multiple occasions, even over loyalty or truth. What does this tell us about Margaret’s moral compass? How does this guide the decisions she makes for herself and her children?
13. Lady Margaret Pole was beatified by the Catholic Church as a martyr in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII; her feast day is celebrated on May 28. In The King’s Curse, Margaret is portrayed as devout to the church and the old ways and is outraged when Henry VIII allows Cromwell to shut down England’s abbeys, priories, and monasteries. How does Margaret’s religious devotion influence her family’s involvement with the Pilgrimage of Grace? How do you think Margaret reconciles her disagreement with the king over religious issues, but outward loyalty to the throne?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The King’s Curse provides a different perspective on some of the same events that are included in many Tudor novels, including books by Philippa Gregory, such as The Other Boleyn Girl. Compare Margaret Pole’s version of events with those in works of historical fiction set in this era. If you haven’t read any, check out the other books in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series and Tudor Court novels.
2. Read a nonfiction account of the life of the real Lady Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, born Margaret of York, such as Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, 1473–1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership by Hazel Pierce, and don’t miss the extensive bibliography at the end of The King’s Curse for further reading.
3. Visit Philippa Gregory’s website, www.philippagregory.com, to learn more about the author, the Plantagenet family tree, and history.
4. Follow Philippa Gregory on Facebook, www.facebook.com/PhilippaGregoryOfficialFanPage, or Twitter, @philippagbooks, for regular updates about Philippa’s research and historical characters.
A Conversation with Philippa Gregory
What first interested you in Margaret Pole?
I was aware of Margaret as the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, as one of the children of the three brothers of York: Edward, George, and Richard. But she really came to my attention when I was writing The White Princess and I understood her intimacy and shared interests with Elizabeth of York, her cousin.
How did Margaret’s role on the outskirts of the Tudor court allow you to create a unique insight into the events of Henry VIII’s rise and reign?
She is a marvelous character to use as a narrator since she is intimate with Henry from his earliest years, a close friend of his mother, and then the friend and constant companion of his first wife. She sees him as only a member of his family could see him grow and mature, and she is uniquely placed to watch his deterioration.
What were some of the challenges of using a lesser-known historical figure as a narrator at the center of a novel compared to one that has been written about extensively, such as Anne Boleyn or Henry VIII himself?
The advantage of a character whose life has not been thoroughly researched is that you avoid strong preconceptions and prejudices from the reader; as a writer of fiction based on the facts you are able to tell the story as you see it—and not be constantly compared to another writer’s version. The disadvantage of course is that there are gaps in the historical record and gaps in the speculation which historians bring to well-worked topics. For much of the time we don’t know what Margaret was doing in response to the great events of her time or what she thought of them. Even the evidence for her treason—the badge of the white rose—was produced by Thomas Cromwell but there is no proof that it was hers. As I looked at her life I began to think that she must have supported the Pilgrimage of Grace, and the attempts to secure the safety of Mary Tudor—but this was a conspiracy and the secrets are still hidden.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
I read! It’s almost always lots and lots of reading. I visited some of the places, even driving around her home at the village of Stourton. I revisited Ludlow Castle and the Tower of London and the familiar Tudor places. But the main research for all these Plantagenet and Tudor books is the extensive reading of primary but mostly secondary sources.
Margaret holds a strong opinion for her entire life that the Plantagenets were the true royal family of England. Do you agree with her?
Absolutely, there is no argument that Henry VII took the throne by force, that he tried to justify the claim through his marriage to Elizabeth, and the blackening of Richard III’s reputation was to bolster his taking of the throne in combat. The true heir to Richard III’s throne would have been his nephews by Edward IV (the Princes in the Tower if they had survived) or his nephew by George, Duke of Clarence—Margaret’s brother, Edward of York.
Is there any evidence of a curse on the house of Tudor, spoken by Elizabeth of York and her mother, or by any other?
This has been one of the fascinating unfolding research stories during the course of writing fiction. I first invented a curse when I wanted Elizabeth Woodville (Edward’s queen) and her mother, Jacquetta, to respond to the news that the Princes in the Tower were missing, presumed dead. Writing a novel it seemed to be a nicely rounded piece of fiction for them to curse the line of the murderer of their boys, which raised a question about the guilt of both Richard III and Henry VII—the two suspects. The curse also foreshadowed the great tragedy for the Tudors—their inability to raise to manhood a son to carry the line. So I described this in three books previous to The King’s Curse without any idea that it would play through the series in this way. Then when I came to research the deterioration of Henry VII’s reputation and that of his son I discovered that there were rumours that the line was cursed, and that people responded to the loss of the Tudor babies with gossip that the line was certain to fail. Finally, as a fascinating piece of research I came across the work of Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer who suggest that Henry may have had the rare Kell positive blood type which can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death when the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. Whitley and Kramer also suggest that Henry’s later symptoms of paranoia and anger may have been caused by McLeod syndrome, which can develop in midlife. Sometimes fiction seems to have an understanding of fact. If Henry did have this disease and syndrome it would have been a hereditary disease, like a curse, and it would have come through the matrilineal line—from his mother, Elizabeth of York, from her mother, Jacquetta.
There are persistent themes in several of your historical novels: maternity and motherhood, the relationships between mothers and sons, and the role that apparently powerless women seem to play: why is it important for you to write about these topics?
I didn’t plan to write fictions based on womens’ history, but this has become a natural subject for me because of my interest in women generally, and because one fascinating woman’s story has led me to another. This has meant that I have had the privilege of researching less well-known women and bringing their stories to a wide public. What has been interesting about this also is finding how many women who are in the background of published histories were often working powerfully and effectively behind the scenes, and you can see this if you read their stories with a feminist eye. For instance, many historians write off Margaret Beaufort as the obedient wife of three men, a pawn in family dynamics, and a woman better suited to be a nun because of her proclaimed piety. But if you look beyond the obvious circumstances of her life and consider whether she was making conscious and deliberate political choices, you see a woman whose first marriage may have been outside her control but whose second and third marriages placed her (and thus her son) in a powerful position to draw close to, and take the crown. She was massively ambitious for her sons to be king, and hugely acquisitive for her own fortune and lands. She’s very far from the passive saint of the older histories. I write about mothers and children because this is such a key role for women of this time—both as emotional beings and as founders of dynasties. I also think a lot and write about female connections—another area often overlooked by earlier historians—who traced male kinship and comradeship but failed to see that sisters, cousins, mothers and daughters, and especially women with young kinswomen in their service make profound connections and forge alliances with female bonds. As to why I am interested in women’s history—it’s partly because I am a woman, it’s partly because I am a historian who likes new research, it’s because I am a novelist and women’s stories resonate for me, and more than anything else—these are our foremothers, these are our heroines.
What are you working on next?
I’m starting work on a new historical novel but I am not yet sure who is going to be the principal character. I’m reading around.
Philippa Gregory is the author of many New York Times bestselling novels, including The Other Boleyn Girl, and is a recognized authority on women’s history. Many of her works have been adapted for the screen including The Other Boleyn Girl. Her most recent novel, The Last Tudor, is now in production for a television series. She graduated from the University of Sussex and received a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, where she is a Regent. She holds 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 is an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. She founded Gardens for the Gambia, a charity to dig wells in poor rural schools in The Gambia, and has provided nearly 200 wells. She welcomes visitors to her website PhilippaGregory.com.
“Gregory’s fans will recognize Margaret from ‘The White Princess,’ but the character comes into her own in ‘The King’s Curse’ as a multifaceted, ultimately sympathetic character. . . . The book . . . moves smoothly toward its harrowing finish. It is one of Gregory’s best efforts yet.”
– Roanoke Times
“The book’s greatest strength is its first-hand, fascinating yet horrifying view of Henry VIII’s transition from handsome young prince to monstrous tyrant. . . . Gregory takes us beyond the seductive trappings of historical detail and makes us feel the terror of what living through that turbulent period might have been like.”—Miami Herald
“Without a doubt, Gregory has made another powerful addition to the genre (so much so that I hesitate to even call it historical fiction). This historian’s extensive knowledge of the English monarchy truly brings this famous story to life.”—The Sun-News (Myrtle Beach)
“An excellent addition to the Tudor royalty genre, not only for its unique perspective, but also the easy flow of the narrative and the intriguing complexities of characters’ personalities.”—Historical Novel Society
“[A] gripping and detailed chronicle, with plenty of court intrigue and politics to spice up the action . . . . Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Nobody does dynastic history like Gregory.”
"Gregory manages to keep us in suspense as to what will befall her characters....Under [her] spell, we keep hoping history won't repeat itself.”
– Kirkus Reviews
"An illuminating portrait. . . Gregory moves confidently through a tangle of intrigue, revenge, and tyranny toward a shocking betrayal."
– Publishers Weekly
"Loyalties are torn, paranoia festers and you can almost hear the bray of royal trumpets as the period springs to life. It’s a bloody irresistible read."
– People Magazine, on The White Princess
"Bring on the blood, sex and tears! . . . You name it, it's all here."
– USA Today, on The White Princess
“This rich tapestry brings to vivid life the court of Henry and Elizabeth. Meticulously drawn characters with a seamless blending of historical fact and fiction combine in a page-turning epic of a story. Tudor-fiction fans can never get enough, and they will snap this one up.”
– Library Journal (starred review), on The White Princess
"The White Princess features one of the more intriguing theories about the possible fate of the princes."
– The Washington Post, on The White Princess
“The queen of royal fiction.”
– USA Today
“There's no question that she is the best at what she does.”
– Associated Press
“Philippa Gregory turns real-life historical royalty into royally entertaining novels.”
“If only grade-school history books were written so vividly.”
– Entertainment Weekly
“In thoroughly researched, wonderfully realized settings, she can make a period come alive.”
– The Boston Globe
“Gregory ... always delivers the goods.”
– New York Post
– New York Daily News
“Margaret’s story is shocking, deeply moving and offers an alternative view on a much-told tale. Gregory is on form here; her depiction of Henry VIII’s transformation from indulged golden boy to sinister tyrant is perfectly pitched and seems more horrific still when we are made intimate witnesses to the devastation of Margaret’s family. . . . I defy anyone to remain dry-eyed as the story reaches its tragic denouement.”—The Sunday Express (UK)
“Infuses vitality into an oft-forgotten player in the aftermath of the War of the Roses—Margaret Poole, heiress to the defeated Plantagenet clan.”—Closer