When Henry Tudor picks up the crown of England from the mud of Bosworth field, he knows he must marry the princess of the enemy house—Elizabeth of York—to unify a country divided by war for nearly two decades.
But his bride is still in love with his slain enemy, Richard III—and her mother and half of England dream of a missing heir, sent into the unknown by the White Queen. While the new monarchy can win power, it cannot win hearts in an England that plots for the triumphant return of the House of York.
Henry’s greatest fear is that somewhere a prince is waiting to invade and reclaim the throne. When a young man who would be king leads his army and invades England, Elizabeth has to choose between the new husband she is coming to love and the boy who claims to be her beloved lost brother: the rose of York come home at last.
About the Author
Date of Birth:January 9, 1954
Place of Birth:Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa
Education:B.A. in history, Sussex University, 1982; Ph.D., 18th-century popular fiction, Edinburgh, 1984
Read an Excerpt
Sheriff Hutton Castle, Yorkshire,
I wish I could stop dreaming. I wish to God I could stop dreaming.
I am so tired; all I want to do is sleep. I want to sleep all the
day, from dawn until twilight that every evening comes a little
earlier and a little more drearily. In the daytime, all I think about
is sleeping. But in the night all I do is try to stay awake.
I go to his quiet shuttered rooms to look at the candle as it
gutters in the golden candlestick, burning slowly through the
marked hours, though he will never see light again. The servants
take a taper to a fresh candle every day at noon; each hour burns
slowly away, although time means nothing to him now. Time is
quite lost to him in his eternal darkness, in his eternal timelessness,
though it leans so heavily on me. All day long I wait for the
slow rolling in of the gray evening and the mournful tolling of
the Compline bell, when I can go to the chapel and pray for his
soul, though he will never again hear my whispers, nor the quiet
chanting of the priests.
Then I can go to bed. But when I get to bed I dare not sleep
because I cannot bear the dreams that come. I dream of him.
Over and over again I dream of him.
All day I keep my face smiling like a mask, smiling, smiling,
my teeth bared, my eyes bright, my skin like strained parch-
ment, paper-thin. I keep my voice clear and mellow, I speak
words that have no meaning, and sometimes, when required,
I even sing. At night I fall into my bed as if I were drowning
in deep water, as if I were sinking below the depths, as if the
water were possessing me, taking me like a mermaid, and for a
moment I feel a deep relief as if, submerged in water, my grief
can drain away, as if it were the river Lethe and the currents
can bring forgetfulness and wash me into the cave of sleep; but
then the dreams come.
I don’t dream of his death—it would be the worst of nightmares
to see him go down fighting. But I never dream of the
battle, I don’t see his final charge into the very heart of Henry
Tudor’s guard. I don’t see him hacking his way through. I don’t
see Thomas Stanley’s army sweep down and bury him under
their hooves, as he is thrown from his horse, his sword arm failing,
going down under a merciless cavalry charge, shouting:
“Treason! Treason! Treason!” I don’t see William Stanley raise
his crown and put it on another man’s head.
I don’t dream any of this, and I thank God for that mercy at
least. These are my constant daytime thoughts that I cannot escape.
These are bloody daytime reveries that fill my mind while I
walk and talk lightly of the unseasonal heat, of the dryness of the
ground, of the poor harvest this year. But my dreams at night are
more painful, far more painful than this, for then I dream that
I am in his arms and he is waking me with a kiss. I dream that
we are walking in a garden, planning our future. I dream that I
am pregnant with his child, my rounded belly under his warm
hand, and he is smiling, delighted, and I am promising him that
we will have a son, the son that he needs, a son for York, a son
for England, a son for the two of us. “We’ll call him Arthur,” he
says. “We’ll call him Arthur, like Arthur of Camelot, we’ll call
him Arthur for England.”
The pain, when I wake to find that I have been dreaming
again, seems to get worse every day. I wish to God I could stop
My dearest daughter Elizabeth,
My heart and prayers are with you, dear child; but now, of all
the times in your life, you must act the part of the queen that you
were born to be.
The new king, Henry Tudor, commands you to come to me at
the Palace of Westminster in London and you are to bring your
sisters and cousins. Note this: he has not denied his betrothal to
you. I expect it to go ahead.
I know this is not what you hoped for, my dear; but Richard
is dead, and that part of your life is over. Henry is the victor and
our task now is to make you his wife and Queen of England.
You will obey me in one other thing also: you will smile and
look joyful as a bride coming to her betrothed. A princess does
not share her grief with all the world. You were born a princess
and you are the heir to a long line of courageous women. Lift up
your chin and smile, my dear. I am waiting for you, and I will
be smiling too.
Your loving mother
Dowager Queen of England
I read this letter with some care, for my mother has never been
a straightforward woman and any word from her is always
freighted with levels of meaning. I can imagine her thrilling at
another chance at the throne of England. She is an indomitable
woman; I have seen her brought very low, but never, even when
she was widowed, even when nearly mad with grief, have I seen
I understand at once her orders to look happy, to forget that
the man I love is dead and tumbled into an unmarked grave, to
forge the future of my family by hammering myself into marriage
with his enemy. Henry Tudor has come to England, having spent
his whole life in waiting, and he has won his battle, defeated the
rightful king, my lover Richard, and now I am, like England itself,
part of the spoils of war. If Richard had won at Bosworth—and
who would ever have dreamed that he would not?—I would have
been his queen and his loving wife. But he went down under
the swords of traitors, the very men who mustered and swore to
fight for him; and instead I am to marry Henry and the glorious
sixteen months when I was Richard’s lover, all but queen of his
court, and he was the heart of my heart, will be forgotten. Indeed,
I had better hope that they are forgotten. I have to forget them
I read my mother’s letter, standing under the archway of the
gatehouse of the great castle of Sheriff Hutton, and I turn and
walk into the hall, where a fire is burning in the central stone
hearth, the air warm and hazy with woodsmoke. I crumple the
single page into a ball and thrust it into the heart of the glowing
logs, and watch it burn. Any mention of my love for Richard
and his promises to me must be destroyed like this. And I must
hide other secrets too, one especially. I was raised as a talkative
princess in an open court rich with intellectual inquiry, where
anything could be thought, said, and written; but in the years
since my father’s death, I have learned the secretive skills of a
My eyes are filling with tears from the smoke of the fire, but I
know that there is no point in weeping. I rub my face and go to
find the children in the big chamber at the top of the west tower
that serves as their schoolroom and playroom. My sixteen-yearold
sister Cecily has been singing with them this morning, and
I can hear their voices and the rhythmic thud of the tabor as I
climb the stone stairs. When I push open the door, they break
off and demand that I listen to a round they have composed.
My ten-year-old sister Anne has been taught by the best masters
since she was a baby, our twelve-year-old cousin Margaret can
hold a tune, and her ten-year-old brother Edward has a clear
soprano as sweet as a flute. I listen and then clap my hands in
applause. “And now, I have news for you.”
Edward Warwick, Margaret’s little brother, lifts his heavy
head from his slate. “Not for me?” he asks forlornly. “Not news
“Yes, for you too, and for your sister Maggie, and Cecily and
Anne. News for all of you. As you know, Henry Tudor has won
the battle and is to be the new King of England.”
These are royal children; their faces are glum, but they are
too well trained to say one word of regret for their fallen uncle
Richard. Instead, they wait for what will come next.
“The new King Henry is going to be a good king to his loyal
people,” I say, despising myself as I parrot the words that Sir
Robert Willoughby said to me as he gave me my mother’s letter.
“And he has summoned all of us children of the House of York
“But he’ll be king,” Cecily says flatly. “He’s going to be king.”
“Of course he’ll be king! Who else?” I stumble over the question
I have inadvertently posed. “Him, of course. Anyway, he
has won the crown. And he will give us back our good name and
recognize us as princesses of York.”
Cecily makes a sulky face. In the last weeks before Richard
the king rode out to battle, he ordered her to be married to Ralph
Scrope, a next-to-nobody, to make sure that Henry Tudor could
not claim her as a second choice of bride, after me. Cecily, like
me, is a princess of York, and so marriage to either of us gives a
man a claim to the throne. The shine was taken off me when gossip
said that I was Richard’s lover, and then Richard demeaned
Cecily too by condemning her to a lowly marriage. She claims
now that it was never consummated, now she says that she does
not regard it, that Mother will have it annulled; but presumably
she is Lady Scrope, the wife of a defeated Yorkist, and when we
are restored to our royal titles and become princesses again, she
will have to retain his name and her humiliation, even if no one
knows where Ralph Scrope is today.
“You know, I should be king,” ten-year-old Edward says, tugging
at my sleeve. “I’m next, aren’t I?”
I turn to him. “No, Teddy,” I say gently. “You cannot be
king. It’s true that you are a boy of the House of York and Uncle
Richard once named you as his heir; but he is dead now, and the
new king will be Henry Tudor.” I hear my voice quaver as I say
“he is dead,” and I take a breath and try again. “Richard is dead,
Edward, you know that, don’t you? You understand that King
Richard is dead? And you will never be his heir now.”
He looks at me so blankly that I think he has not understood
anything at all, and then his big hazel eyes fill with tears, and he
turns and goes back to copying his Greek alphabet on his slate.
I stare at his brown head for a moment and think that his dumb
animal grief is just like mine. Except that I am ordered to talk all
the time, and to smile all the day.
“He can’t understand,” Cecily says to me, keeping her voice
low so his sister Maggie cannot hear. “We’ve all told him, over
and over again. He’s too stupid to believe it.”
I glance at Maggie, quietly seating herself beside her brother
to help him to form his letters, and I think that I must be as
stupid as Edward, for I cannot believe it either. One moment
Richard was marching at the head of an invincible army of the
great families of England; the next they brought us the news that
he had been beaten, and that three of his trusted friends had sat
on their horses and watched him lead a desperate charge to his
death, as if it were a sunny day at the joust, as if they were spectators
and he a daring rider, and the whole thing a game that could
go either way and was worth long odds.
I shake my head. If I think of him, riding alone against his enemies,
riding with my glove tucked inside his breastplate against
his heart, then I will start to cry; and my mother has commanded
me to smile.
“So we are going to London!” I say, as if I am delighted at the
prospect. “To court! And we will live with our Lady Mother at
Westminster Palace again, and be with our little sisters Catherine
and Bridget again.”
The two orphans of the Duke of Clarence look up at this.
“But where will Teddy and me live?” Maggie asks.
“Perhaps you will live with us too,” I say cheerfully. “I expect
“Hurrah!” Anne cheers, and Maggie tells Edward quietly that
we will go to London, and that he can ride his pony all the way
there from Yorkshire like a little knight at arms, as Cecily takes
me by the elbow and draws me to one side, her fingers nipping
my arm. “And what about you?” she asks. “Is the king going to
marry you? Is he going to overlook what you did with Richard?
Is it all to be forgotten?”
“I don’t know,” I say, pulling away. “And as far as we are
concerned, nobody did anything with King Richard. You, of
all people, my sister, would have seen nothing and will speak of
nothing. As for Henry, I suppose whether he is going to marry
me or not is the one thing that we all want to know. But only he
knows the answer. Or perhaps two people: him—and that old
crone, his mother, who thinks she can decide everything.”
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The White Princess includes 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.
The White Princess opens with Elizabeth of York grieving the loss of her lover, Richard III, who was killed at the battle of Bosworth by his Lancastrian rival, Henry Tudor. As soon as Henry claims the crown to become Henry VII, he cements his succession by demanding Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. While Elizabeth dutifully bears a male Tudor heir and endures her husband’s suspicion of her York relations, her mother, Elizabeth of Woodville, concocts a plan for revenge. Making the most of her York connections, Elizabeth Woodville secretly supports an uprising against Henry, placing her daughter, now Queen to Henry’s King, between two families. When Henry learns of the treasonous plot, he imprisons his mother-in-law and becomes preoccupied with capturing “the boy”—the handsome leader of the rebellion whose adherents claim is the true York heir. But when the King arrests the imposter, who strongly resembles Elizabeth’s missing brother, Prince Richard, his Tudor court is thrown into turmoil. Elizabeth must watch and wonder as her loyalty between family and crown is divided once more.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How would you describe the grief Elizabeth experiences in the aftermath of her uncle, Richard III’s death? What notable details about their relationship does her grief expose? How does Richard’s untimely demise imperil the future of the York line?
2. “Henry Tudor has come to England, having spent his whole life in waiting…and now I am, like England itself, part of the spoils of war.” (3) Why does Elizabeth consider herself a war prize for Henry, rather than his sworn enemy for life? What role does politics play in the arrangement of royal marriages in fifteenth-century England?
3. Why are Maggie and Teddy of Warwick, the orphaned children of George, Duke of Clarence, in a uniquely dangerous position in the new court led by Henry Tudor? Why do Elizabeth and her family go to such great efforts to keep these York cousins away from Henry and his mother, Margaret, even though they know full well of their existence?
4. The mysterious disappearance of the young York princes, Richard and Edward, during their captivity in the Tower of London haunts all of the figures in The White Princess. What does the curse that Elizabeth and her mother cast on the boys’ presumed murderer reveal about their family’s belief in mysticism and witchcraft? How does the fact of this curse complicate Elizabeth’s dreams for her own offspring and their Tudor inheritance?
5. “Daughter mine, you have known for all your life that you would be married for the good of the country and the advancement of your family. You will do your duty like a princess…and I expect you to look happy as you do it.” (41) Why is Elizabeth’s betrothal to Henry Tudor, the future king of England, an especially advantageous marriage for the York family? What might their union represent to England in the aftermath of the War of the Roses? To what extent does Henry’s decision to refuse his future bride and her family at his coronation suggest about his true feelings for the Yorks?
6. How does King Henry VII justify his rape of his betrothed, Elizabeth of York? To what extent is their impending marriage a union that he desires as little as she? Why does Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, demand proof of Elizabeth’s fertility prior to their actual wedding? Why isn’t Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, able to do more to protect her daughter from such violation?
7. “The king says he is only acting to protect Teddy. He says that Teddy might be seized by rebels and used by them as a figurehead. He says that Teddy is safer in the Tower for now.” (130) How does the rebellion against King Henry in the north of England endanger young Teddy? To what extent is King Henry justified in keeping Teddy confined to the Tower? Why does he keep him sequestered as long as he does?
8. In what ways does Elizabeth’s terror of confinement during her first pregnancy seem warranted? How have her various experiences of hiding in sanctuary and the crypt during her childhood and young adulthood affected her? How might her fears of what happened to her brothers in the Tower play into her concerns for her own confinement?
9. “He once said to me that nobody could understand the boy but him—and that nobody could understand him but the boy.” (514) How does King Henry feel about the series of young men who emerge during his reign, claiming York blood and demanding recognition by him? How does Henry’s own status as an outsider and foreigner affect his feelings toward these pretenders?
10. Describe the images of maternity that appear throughout The White Princess. How does Margaret Beaufort’s unusually close attachment to her adult son, Henry, compare to the motherly love Elizabeth Woodville expresses for her daughter, Elizabeth of York? When Elizabeth is forbidden to feed her newborn son, Arthur, and must give him up to a wet nurse, how does she come to understand her maternal obligations as queen? How does the imperative to produce male heirs for the throne define royal motherhood?
11. What does Elizabeth Woodville’s correspondence with old York families and former members of her household suggest about her fidelity to the reign of her new son-in-law, King Henry? Given that she has committed acts of treason against the king in fomenting and supporting rebellion, why does Henry allow her to live in Bermondsey Abbey? How does Elizabeth feel about her mother’s open betrayal of her husband?
12. “I have a spy in every port in England. Nobody can come or go without me knowing it within two days.” (197) How does Henry’s paranoia about treachery in his kingdom influence his governance? How does it impact his ability to lead his nation? Why does Elizabeth feel she ought to help Henry navigate the complex social expectations England has of its King?
13. Describe the curious personage of “the boy”—the golden-haired young man who is known variously at court as Pero Osbeque, Perkin Warbeck, and Peter Warboys. What is his true identity? How does Elizabeth receive him? To what extent does she believe he is her long-lost brother, Richard? Why doesn’t Henry choose to have him put to death immediately?
14. “I was once the girl that everyone watched as they turned their backs on the queen.” (p. 451) How does Elizabeth experience her husband’s infatuation with Lady Katherine Huntly, the beautiful wife of “the boy”? What does Elizabeth recognize about the pain that she caused to Queen Anne, Richard III’s wife, when she was the other woman? How would you characterize the nature of her feelings toward Lady Katherine?
15. In the final scene of The White Princess, Henry begs Elizabeth of York to forgive him for the deaths of “the boy”—either her brother, Richard of York, or an exceptionally convincing pretender—and of her innocent cousin, Teddy of Warwick. Given all that Henry has done to her family, why does Elizabeth choose to forgive him? How does the image of a broken king begging his wife for forgiveness give a clearer picture of Elizabeth’s power in their marriage?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. “I dream that I am in his arms and he is waking me with a kiss.” (p. 2) In Elizabeth’s dreams she is reunited with her deceased lover, Richard. Members of your book group may want to keep a dream diary for a week and share what occurs to them while they sleep. How closely do their dreams mirror real life? What and whom do they dream about? Do people from their past ever visit them in their dreams? How do they interpret the meanings of their dreams?
2. “‘Choose to be brave,’ she urges me. ‘All the women of your family are as brave as lions. We don’t whimper and we don’t regret.’” (p. 134) As Elizabeth enters childbirth for the first time, her mother urges her bravery. Ask members of your group to remember times when they have chosen to be brave. What challenge did they face, and how did they maintain their courage?
3. Of the many unanswered secrets in The White Princess, Elizabeth’s mother never completely reveals what she knows about the whereabouts of her two missing sons. Ask each member of the group to write down an anonymous secret on a slip of paper—it can be a secret kept or a secret revealed. Then, ask each member of the group to select one slip from the pile and read it aloud. How many of these secrets can be connected to their authors? What kinds of secrets do people guard? Your group may want to consider why parents keep secrets from their children.
4. If you loved The White Princess, make sure you check out the rest of Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novels, which can be found at PhilippaGregory.com.
A Conversation with Philippa Gregory
Can you elaborate a bit more on the legend of Melusina that surrounds Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother, Jacquetta?
Melusina was the founder of the House of Luxembourg, a water goddess who appears as a matter of fact on their family tree. Jacquetta of the House of Luxembourg used the symbols of Melusina in heraldry. The presence of a water goddess in the Rivers’ family tree probably encouraged the belief that Jacquetta and her daughter Elizabeth used witchcraft. They were both rumored to create enchantments and Jacquetta was actually tried and found guilty of being a witch - the trial was overthrown by her son-in-law the king. Her biography has not been written – I wish someone would do it! But I have published a biographical essay about her in my history, The Women of the Cousins’ Wars, and I wrote a novel about her, The Lady of the Rivers.
How likely is it that King Henry would have enlisted spies within his court to eavesdrop on his own wife, Queen Elizabeth? Was this practice commonplace?
Henry VII was a spy master, the greatest that England had seen until then. His son increased the surveillance network and Cecil and then Walsingham under Elizabeth created a fully fledged secret service. This was not new–Edward IV had a series of watchers and Richard III had spies watching Henry Tudor. Henry VII’s surveillance of his own court and even his own family proved to be essential in defending his throne against the York conspiracies.
At many points in the novel, characters refer to the irresistible charm of the Yorks. Why were the Yorks so beloved by their subjects?
It is that mysterious human trait: charm. Edward IV was famously handsome and engaging, taking the throne by public acclaim and recapturing it with popular support. His brother George was also famously attractive. Richard III was adored in the lands where he spent most of his time: the North of England. The women of the family tended to be beauties and Elizabeth of York was very popular. Henry VIII perhaps inherited it, his father Henry VII could not learn it.
In The White Princess you contend that Elizabeth would have despised Henry Tudor as the murderer of her uncle, King Richard III. How compelling is the historical evidence that Elizabeth and Richard were in fact lovers?
The most compelling piece of historical evidence is missing: a letter from Elizabeth to the Duke of Norfolk begging him to assist her marriage to Richard, which makes clear that she is in love with him and that they are lovers. The letter was copied but the original lost. Other suggestive evidence is the record of gossip at the time, and perhaps most persuasive–Richard had to deny in public that he was intending to marry Elizabeth–so many people thought that was his intention.
In the novel, you examine the rise of pretenders: lookalikes like Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck who sought to gain political advantage through tenuous or false connections to the royal family. To what extent was the mysterious disappearance of the princes in the Tower the explanation for this upsurge of imposters? Were pretenders always a problem in this era?
There was a surge of imposters against the Tudors and also a lot of potential rival heirs. Henry Tudor was the last most likely heir of the Lancastrian side but the Yorks were very fertile and there were many possible heirs that could claim the throne and show a better claim than the Tudors. Henry’s fear of rival claims was rightly strong. His inability to produce the bodies of the princes or explain how they died made his problem even worse since anyone could coach a pretender. Personally, I think that “the boy” the youth that Henry said was Perkin Warbeck probably was Richard of York, and this opinion is shared by several historians whose books are listed in the bibliography at the end of the novel. It’s a fascinating mystery–we certainly don’t yet have a definitive answer.
This is your twenty-fifth book. How did the experience of writing The White Princess compare with some of your earlier books? Which one has been your favorite book to write?
The White Princess was one of the most controversial books, I think. My view of Henry Tudor was not common when I started the novel but during the writing a very fine biography by Thomas Penn was published that tended to share my view of him as suspicious verging on paranoid. Imagining what this would be like for his wife–herself the daughter of a phenomenally popular king–was also new. But while the material was new and difficult, the writing was very fluent. I really loved Elizabeth of York and her mother Elizabeth Woodville and some of the central characters of the books were great favorites that I had worked on through several previous novels.
Before becoming a novelist, you were also a journalist and historian. Do you ever think of returning to either of these professions?
Of course, I am still a historian. Mostly I present my research in fictional form so I am a novelist as well, but my book The Women of the Cousin’s War, written with fellow historians David Baldwin and Mike Jones, was published as a popular history book. I enjoyed telling the history of Jacquetta Duchess of Bedford, without fictional devices but I enjoyed writing Lady of the Rivers, my novel based on her life, even more.
The White Queen TV series will be airing in spring 2014 on BBC One in the UK and later in the year on Starz in the US. How involved were you with this production? What do you think viewers have to look forward to most in this small screen adaptation?
It’s a real epic, ten hours based on three books: The White Queen, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter, beautifully shot with fantastic performances. I think it’s going to be completely absorbing for viewers and introduce them to an historical period that few people know well. I am particularly pleased the way the dramatization has kept the heart of the piece based on the women and on their battles for power and supremacy. I was executive producer and focused most of my attention on the scripts, which reflect the books very closely.
What’s next for Philippa Gregory?
I’m really enjoying researching and writing my new novel about Margaret of Warwick, who goes on to be chief confidante and best friend of Katherine of Aragon. She’s a most interesting character, on the edge of the court, a royal but a woman who chooses to keep a distance from the throne. The challenge has been to move on and away from Elizabeth of York, who has been a most engaging heroine, but Margaret’s eventful and courageous life is keeping my attention.