Periodically, I like to read about an era I know nothing much about. I recently read The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King’s Mother by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin, and Michael Jones to get a feeling for some of the more important females during the Wars of the Roses between the Yorks and Lancasters in England. Apparently, the book is a nonfiction companion to Gregory’s fictional accounts of the three women written about – Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford; Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV; and Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII.
Here is an excerpt of a summary of the book from the publisher’s website:
In her essay on Jacquetta, Philippa Gregory uses original documents, archaeology, and histories of myth and witchcraft to create the first-ever biography of the young duchess who survived two reigns and two wars to become the first lady at two rival courts. David Baldwin, established authority on the Wars of the Roses, tells the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the first commoner to marry a king of England for love; and Michael Jones, fellow of the Royal Historical Society, writes of Margaret Beaufort, the almost-unknown matriarch of the House of Tudor.
In the introduction, Gregory writes revealingly about the differences between history and historical fiction. How much of a role does speculation play in writing each? How much fiction and how much fact should there be in a historical novel? How are female historians changing our view of women in history?
The book is divided into three parts – each part about a different woman by one of the authors. Nearly half of the book is devoted to Jacquetta and is written by Gregory. Baldwin writes about Elizabeth Woodville in the second part of the book and Jones finishes the book with writing about Margaret Beaufort. I believe all three parts are well-written and contain more information than I ever knew about the role these women played in shaping English history.
Gregory’s part on Jacquetta is longer because I think there is more primary source material on her. However, as Gregory so adeptly mentions in the introduction to the book, there is not much primary source material on women in general from this period. Writers and historians from the Wars of the Roses period do not give much attention to women because they were considered unimportant. Military and political men dominated the writings of this time period.
As mentioned in the summary above, Gregory has a fairly extensive discussion of the role of historical fiction compared to history. I found this part of the book the most interesting. She brings forth the many challenges and benefits of writing historical fiction. The one challenge is to write in a way that is creative, but accurate. It is good to humanize historical figures in historical fiction, but the author must stay within the historical record (if the record is known).