As sisters they share an everlasting bond; as queens they can break each other’s hearts…
When Katherine of Aragon is brought to the Tudor court as a young bride, the oldest princess, Margaret, takes her measure. With one look, each knows the other for a rival, an ally, a pawn, destined—with Margaret’s younger sister Mary—to a unique sisterhood. The three sisters will become the queens of England, Scotland, and France.
United by family loyalties and affections, the three queens find themselves set against each other. Katherine commands an army against Margaret and kills her husband James IV of Scotland. But Margaret’s boy becomes heir to the Tudor throne when Katherine loses her son.
Mary steals the widowed Margaret’s proposed husband, but when Mary is widowed it is her secret marriage for love that is the envy of the others. As they experience betrayals, dangers, loss, and passion, the three sisters find that the only constant in their perilous lives is their special bond, more powerful than any man, even a king.
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
Three Sisters, Three Queens
BAYNARD’S CASTLE, LONDON, ENGLAND, NOVEMBER 1501
I am to wear white and green, as a Tudor princess. Really, I think of myself as the one and only Tudor princess, for my sister Mary is too young to do more than be brought in by her nurse at suppertime, and taken out again. I make sure Mary’s nursemaids are quite clear that she is to be shown to our new sister-in-law, and then go. There is no profit in letting her sit up at the table, or gorge on crystallized plums. Rich things make her sick and if she gets tired she will bawl. She is only five years old, far too young for state occasions. Unlike me; I am all but twelve. I have to play my part in the wedding; it would not be complete without me. My lady grandmother, the king’s mother, said so herself.
Then she said something that I couldn’t quite hear, but I know that the Scots lords will be watching me to see if I look strong and grown-up enough to be married at once. I am sure I am. Everyone says that I am a bonny girl, stocky as a Welsh pony, healthy as a milkmaid, fair, like my younger brother Harry, with big blue eyes.
“You’ll be next,” she says to me with a smile. “They say that one wedding begets another.”
“I won’t have to travel as far as Princess Katherine,” I say. “I’ll come home on visits.”
“You will.” My lady grandmother’s promise makes it a certainty. “You are marrying our neighbor, and you will make him our good friend and ally.”
Princess Katherine had to come all the way from Spain, miles and miles away. Since we are quarreling with France, she had to come by sea, and there were terrible storms and she was nearly wrecked. When I go to Scotland to marry the king, it will be a great procession from Westminster to Edinburgh of nearly four hundred miles. I shan’t go by sea, I won’t arrive sick and sopping wet, and I will come and go from my new home to London whenever I like. But Princess Katherine will never see her home again. They say she was crying when she first met my brother. I think that is ridiculous. And babyish as Mary.
“Shall I dance at the wedding?” I ask.
“You and Harry shall dance together,” my lady grandmother rules. “After the Spanish princess and her ladies have shown us a Spanish dance. You can show her what an English princess can do.” She smiles slyly. “We shall see who is best.”
“Me,” I pray. Out loud I say: “A basse danse?” It is a slow grand grown-up dance which I do very well, actually more walking than dancing.
I don’t argue; nobody argues with my lady grandmother. She decides what happens in every royal household, in every palace and castle; my lady mother the queen just agrees.
“We’ll have to rehearse,” I say. I can make Harry practice by promising him that everyone will be watching. He loves to be the center of attention and is always winning races and competing at archery and doing tricks on his pony. He is as tall as me, though he is only ten years old, so we look well together if he doesn’t play the fool. I want to show the Spanish princess that I am just as good as the daughter of Castile and Aragon. My mother and father are a Plantagenet and a Tudor. Those are grand enough names for anyone. Katherine needn’t think that we are grateful for her coming. I, for one, don’t particularly want another princess at court.
It is my lady mother who insists that Katherine visit us at Baynard’s Castle before the wedding, and she is accompanied by her own court, who have come all the way from Spain—at our expense, as my father remarks. They enter through the double doors like an invading army, their clothes, their speech, their headdresses completely unlike ours and, at the center of it all, beautifully gowned, is the girl that they call the “infanta.” This too is ridiculous, as she is fifteen and a princess, and I think that they are calling her “baby.” I glance across at Harry to see if he will giggle if I make a face and say “ba-aby,” which is how we tease Mary, but he is not looking at me. He is looking at her with goggle-eyes, as if he is seeing a new horse, or a piece of Italian armor, or something that he has set his heart on. I see his expression, and I realize that he is trying to fall in love with her, like a knight with a damsel in a story. Harry loves stories and ballads about impossible ladies in towers, or tied to rocks, or lost in woods, and somehow Katherine impressed him when he met her before her entry into London. Perhaps it was her ornate veiled litter, perhaps it was her learning, for she speaks three languages. I am so annoyed—I wish he was close enough for me to pinch him. This is exactly why no one younger than me should play a part in royal occasions.
She is not particularly beautiful. She is three years older than me but I am as tall as her. She has light brown hair with a copper tinge to it, only a little darker than mine. This is, of course, irritating: who wants to be compared to a sister-in-law? But I can hardly see it, for she wears a high headpiece and a thick concealing veil. She has blue eyes like mine too, but very fair eyebrows and lashes; obviously, she’s not allowed to color them in like I do. She has pale creamy skin, which I suppose is admirable. She is tiny: tiny waist pinched in by tight lacing so she can hardly breathe, tiny feet with the most ridiculous shoes I have ever seen, gold-embroidered toes and gold laces. I don’t think that my lady grandmother would let me wear gold laces. It would be vanity and worldly show. I am sure that the Spanish are very worldly. I am sure that she is.
I make certain that my thoughts don’t show on my face as I examine her. I think she is lucky to come here, lucky to be chosen by my father to marry my elder brother Arthur, lucky to have a sister-in-law like me, a mother-in-law like my mother and—more than anything else—a grandmother-in-law like Lady Margaret Beaufort, who will make very sure that Katherine does not exceed her place which has been appointed by God.
She curtseys and kisses my lady mother and, after her, my lady grandmother. This is how it should be; but she will soon learn that she had better please my lady grandmother before anybody. Then my lady mother nods to me and I step forward, and the Spanish princess and I curtsey together at the same time, to exactly the same depth, and she steps forward and we kiss on one cheek and then the other. Her cheeks are warm and I see that she is blushing, her eyes filling with tears as if she is missing her real sisters. I show her my stern look, just like my father when someone is asking him for money. I am not going to fall in love with her for her blue eyes and pretty ways. She need not imagine she is going to come into our English court and make us look fat and stupid.
She is not at all rebuffed; she looks right back at me. Born and raised in a competitive court with three sisters, she understands rivalry. Worse, she looks at me as if she finds my stern look to be not at all chilling, perhaps even a little comical. That is when I know that this is not a young woman like my ladies-in-waiting who has to be pleasant to me whatever I do, or like Mary, who has to do whatever I say. This young woman is an equal, she will consider me, she might even be critical. I say in French: “You are welcome to England,” and she replies in stilted English: “I am pleased to greet my sister.”
My lady mother lays herself out to be kind to this, her first, daughter-in-law. They talk together in Latin and I cannot follow what they are saying so I sit beside my mother and look at Katherine’s shoes with the gold laces. My mother calls for music, and Harry and I start a round, an English country song. We are very tuneful and the court takes up the chorus and it goes round and round until people start to giggle and lose their places. But Katherine does not laugh. She looks as if she is never silly and merry like Harry and me. She is overly formal, of course, being Spanish. But I note how she sits—very still, and with her hands folded in her lap as if she were sitting for a portrait—and I think: actually, that looks rather queenly. I think I will learn to sit like that.
My sister Mary is brought in to make her curtsey, and Katherine makes herself ridiculous by going down on her knees so their faces are level and she can hear her childish whisper. Of course Mary cannot understand a word of either Latin or Spanish, but she puts her arms around Katherine’s neck and kisses her and calls her “thithter.”
“I am your sister,” I correct her, giving her little hand a firm tug. “This lady is your sister-in-law. Can you say sister-in-law?”
Of course, she can’t. She lisps, and everyone laughs again and says how charming, and I say: “Lady Mother, shouldn’t Mary be in bed?” Then everyone realizes how late it is and we all go out with bobbing torches to see Katherine leave, as if she were a queen crowned and not merely the youngest daughter of the King and Queen of Spain, and very lucky to marry into our family: the Tudors.
She kisses everyone good night and when it is my turn, she puts her warm cheek to mine and says: “Good night, Sister” in that stupid accent, in her patronizing way. She draws back and sees my cross face and she gives a little ripple of laughter. “Oho!” she says, and pats my cheek as if my bad temper does not trouble her. This is a real princess, as naturally royal as my mother; this is the girl who will be Queen of England; and so I don’t resent the pat, more like a caress. I find that I like her and dislike her, all together, all at once.
“I hope you will be kind to Katherine,” my mother says to me as we come out of her private chapel after Prime the next morning.
“Not if she thinks she’s going to come here and lord it over all of us,” I say briskly. “Not if she thinks she is going to act as if she is doing us a favor. Did you see her shoelaces?”
My mother laughs with genuine amusement. “No, Margaret. I did not see her shoelaces, nor did I ask you for your opinion of her. I told you of my hope: that you will be kind to her.”
“Of course,” I say, looking down at my missal with the jeweled cover. “I hope that I am gracious to everyone.”
“She is far from her home and accustomed to a big family,” my mother says. “She will certainly need a friend, and you might enjoy the company of an older girl. I had lots of sisters at home when I was growing up, and I value them, more and more every year. You too might find that your women friends are your truest friends, your sisters are the keepers of your memories and hopes for the future.”
“She and Arthur will stay here?” I ask. “They will live with us?”
My mother rests her hand on my shoulder. “I wish they could stay; but your father thinks they should go to Arthur’s principality and live at Ludlow.”
“What does my lady grandmother think?”
My mother gives a little shrug. That means it has been decided. “She says the Prince of Wales must govern Wales.”
“You’ll still have me at home.” I put my hand over hers to keep her beside me. “I’ll still be here.”
“I count on you,” she says reassuringly.
I have only one moment alone with my brother Arthur before the wedding. He walks with me in the long gallery. Below, we can hear the musicians striking up another dance, and the buzz of people drinking and chattering and laughing. “You don’t have to bow so low to her,” I say abruptly. “Her father and mother are new-come to their thrones just like our father. She has nothing to be so very proud of. They’re no better than us. They’re not an ancient line.”
He flushes. “You think her proud?”
“Without reason.” I heard my grandmother say exactly this to my lady mother so I know it is right.
But Arthur argues. “Her parents conquered Spain and took it back from the Moors. They are the greatest crusaders in the world. Her mother is a queen militant. They have extraordinary wealth and own half of the unmapped world. Some grounds for pride there, surely?”
“There’s that, I suppose,” I say begrudgingly. “But we are Tudors.”
“We are,” he agrees with a little laugh. “But that doesn’t impress everyone.”
“Of course it does,” I say. “Especially now . . .”
Neither of us says any more; we are both aware that there are many heirs to the English throne, dozens of Plantagenet boys, our mother’s kinsmen, still living at our court, or run away to exile. Father has killed my mother’s cousins in battles, and destroyed more than one pretender: he executed our cousin Edward two years ago.
“Do you think her proud?” he challenges me. “Has she been rude to you?”
I spread my hands in the gesture of surrender that my mother makes when she is told that my lady grandmother has overruled her. “Oh, she doesn’t bother to talk to me, she has no interest in a mere sister. She is too busy being charming, especially to Father. Anyway, she can hardly speak English.”
“Isn’t she just shy? I know that I am.”
“Why would she be shy? She’s going to be married, isn’t she? She’s going to be Queen of England, isn’t she? She’s going to be your wife. Why would she be anything but completely delighted with herself?”
Arthur laughs and hugs me. “D’you think that there is nothing better in the world but to be Queen of England?”
“Nothing,” I say simply. “She should realize it and be grateful.”
“But you will be Queen of Scotland,” he points out. “That’s grand too. You have that to look forward to.”
“I do, and I certainly won’t ever be anxious and homesick or lonely.”
“King James will be a lucky man to have such a contented bride.”
That is the closest I get to warning him that Katherine of Aragon is looking down her long Spanish nose at us. But I nickname her Katherine of Arrogant and Mary hears me say it, since she is everywhere, always eavesdropping on her elders and betters. She catches it up, and it makes me laugh every time I hear her and see my mother’s quick frown and quiet correction.
The wedding passes off very brilliantly, arranged by my lady grandmother, of course, to show the world just how wealthy and grand we are now. Father has spent a fortune on a week of jousting and celebration and feasting, the fountains flow with wine, they roast oxen in Smithfield Market, and the people tear up the wedding carpet so that they can all have a little piece of Tudor glory on their sideboards. This is my first chance to see a royal wedding and I inspect the bride from the top of her beautiful white lace headdress, which they call a mantilla, to the heels of her embroidered shoes.
She looks pretty, I cannot deny that, but there is no cause for everyone to behave as if she is a miracle of beauty. Her long hair is the color of gold and brass, and falls around her shoulders nearly to her waist. She is as dainty as a little picture, which makes me feel awkward, as if my feet and hands are too big. It would be petty and a sin to think badly of her because of this, but I admit to myself that it will be better for everyone when she conceives a son and a Tudor heir, disappears into confinement for months, and comes out fat.
As soon as the feast is over, the double doors at the end of the hall open and a great float comes in, pulled by dancers in Tudor green. It is a huge castle, beautifully decorated with eight ladies inside, the principal dancer dressed as a Spanish princess, and on each turret there is a boy from the chapel choir singing her praises. It is followed by a float dressed as a sailing ship with billowing sails of peach silk, manned by eight knights. The ship docks at the castle but the ladies refuse to dance, so the knights attack the castle with pretend jousting until the ladies throw them paper flowers and then step down. The castle and the ship are hauled away and they all dance together. Katherine of Arrogant claps her hands and bows her thanks to my father the king for the elaborate compliment. I am so furious that I wasn’t given a part in this that I cannot bring myself to smile. I catch her looking at me, and I feel certain she is taunting me with the honor that my father is doing her. She is the center of everything, it’s quite sickening in the middle of dinner.
Then it is Arthur’s turn. He dances with one of my mother’s ladies, and then Harry and I take to the floor for our galliard. It is a fast, bright dance with music as tempting as a village jig. The musicians take it at a quick pace and Harry and I are excellent partners, well matched and well trained. Neither of us misses a step, nobody could do it better. But in one part when I am circling, arms outstretched, dancing a little step on the spot, my feet and ankles shown by my swirling gown, and all eyes are on me—at that exact moment—Harry chooses to step to one side and throw off his bulky jacket and then spring back to my side in his billowing linen shirt. Father and Mother applaud and he looks flushed and so boyishly handsome that everyone cheers him. I keep smiling, but I am completely furious, and when we hold hands in the dance, I pinch his palm as hard as I can.
Of course, I am not at all surprised by this scene stealing; I half expected him to do something to draw all eyes to him. It’s been killing him all day to have to play second son to Arthur. He escorted Katherine up the aisle of the abbey, but had to hand her over at the top and step back and be quite forgotten. Now, following Arthur’s restrained dance, he gets his chance to shine. If I could stamp on his toe I would, but I catch Arthur’s eye and he gives me a broad wink. We are both thinking the same thing: Harry is always indulged and everyone but Mother and Father can see what we see: a boy spoiled beyond enduring.
The dance comes to an end and Harry and I bow together, hand in hand, making a pretty picture as we always do. I glance across at the Scots lords, who are watching me intently. They, at least, have no interest in Harry. One of them, James Hamilton, is the King of Scotland’s own kinsman. He will be glad to see that I will be a merry queen; his cousin, King James, likes dancing and feasting and will meet his match in me. I see the lords exchange a few quick words and I feel certain that they will agree the next wedding, my wedding, will be soon. And Harry will not be dancing at that and stealing the show, for I will not allow it, and Katherine will have to wear her hair hidden under her hood and it will be me who stands and welcomes the ship with peach silk sails and all the dancers.
Neither Harry nor I are allowed to stay to the end of the feast, the escorting of the princess to bed, and the prayers over the wedding bed. I think it is very wrong and bad mannered to treat us like children. My grandmother sends us to our rooms and though I glance over to my mother, expecting her to say that Harry must go but I can stay up longer, she is blandly looking aside. Always, it is my grandmother’s word that is law: she is the hanging judge, my mother only grants the occasional rare royal pardon. So we make our bows and curtseys to the king and to my mother and to my lady grandmother, and to darling Arthur and Katherine of Arrogant, and then we have to go, dawdling as slowly as we dare, from the bright rooms where the white wax candles are burning down as if they cost no more than tallow, and the musicians are playing as if they are going to go on all night.
“I am going to have a wedding just like this,” Harry says as we go up the stairs.
“Not for years yet,” I say to irritate him. “But I shall be married very soon.”
When I get to my room I kneel at my prie-dieu and, though I had intended to pray for Arthur’s long life and happiness, and remind God of His special debt to the Tudors, I find I can only pray that the Scottish ambassadors tell the king to send for me at once, for I want a marriage feast as grand as this one, and a wardrobe of clothes as good as Katherine of Arrogant’s, and shoes—I will have hundreds and hundreds of pairs of shoes, I swear it, and every one of them will have embroidered toes and gold laces.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Three Sisters, Three Queens 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.
Born into a life of privilege as a Tudor princess, Margaret has always known God has predestined her and her family for greatness. Yet the arrival of Katherine of Aragon to marry Margaret’s brother sends her, along with her younger sister, Mary, into a unique sisterhood of rivalry, affection, betrayal, and understanding, which will last a lifetime for the three future queens.
When Margaret is sent to marry King James IV of Scotland, she believes her marriage will herald peace between her homeland of England and her adopted kingdom of Scotland. Yet in the years to follow, there will be little quiet among the kingdoms or among the royal families. And through it all, it will be her sister queens who are both her chief foes, and her chief allies.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Three Sisters, Three Queens opens on the eleven-year-old Princess Margaret, who, while spoiled and materialistic, is a product of her environment. What did you think of the choice to open the novel at this stage of Margaret’s life? What did you think of Margaret? Does it matter if we, the reader, like her?
2. Discuss the title of the novel in relation to the characters. Margaret, Katherine, and Mary must navigate their political relationships in addition to their familial relationships. Do you think they would have had stronger bonds with one another without their political responsibility? In what ways did it bring them closer together?
3. Throughout the novel, money—and the lack of it—is a significant consideration and the impetus for many turns of events, including Katherine’s inability to return to Spain after Arthur’s death. Were you surprised by this?
4. Margaret is thirteen when she marries thirty-year-old King James IV of Scotland. While this was common at the time, how do you reconcile her marriage and her relative immaturity with our modern notions of adulthood and matrimony?
5. “I know that everyone always knows everything about me and constantly compares me to other princesses. I am never judged for myself” (page 54), Margaret says on her wedding night. Do you think she is being self-centered or observant? Can you apply her sentiments to Katherine and Mary as well?
6. Was James a good husband by the standards of that time? What about our standards today? Do you agree with Margaret that his illegitimate children should not live with them?
7. “This is love, and I am fascinated by it” (page 179), Margaret muses at the beginning of her relationship with Archibald, Earl of Angus. Do you think Margaret is really in love with Archibald? Consider her reference points for what constitutes love.
8. At her wedding to Archibald, Margaret notices that he does not have a ring to give her. “I laugh when I find that Ard has no ring, and I take one of my own off my right hand and he gives it back to me, putting it on my wedding finger” (page 180). Though Margaret brushes it off, it’s a strong symbol to the reader that there may be trouble. Did you see the dissolution of their love match coming? What other warning signs did you notice?
9. Margaret firmly believes that “the appearance of royalty matters more than the reality” (page 302). From where (or from whom) do you think she has learned this? Does this help us reconcile her fixation with regaining the jewelry inheritance from her grandmother and obsession with new gowns? How is this belief upended at the end of the book with Henry VIII’s rejection of the Roman Catholic Church and marriage to a relative commoner, Anne Boleyn?
10. Look at Margaret’s development from a young princess who only cared for material possessions to a self-actualized queen who declares “never again will I think that morality is different for men” (page 503). What do you think was Margaret’s turning point? Was she simply maturing, or were there specific moments in her life that opened her eyes to the world at large?
11. The plight of women during the Tudor era is a major focus of the novel. “This is how women are treated: when they act on their own account they are named as sinners, when they enjoy success they are named as whores” (page 391). How much do you think has changed in the past five hundred years? What has stayed the same?
12. What do you think of Katherine’s statement that “to be a good wife is to forgive” (page 442)? How does this sentiment determine her character’s arc? How might it have changed without it?
13. The end of Three Sisters, Three Queens shows the beginnings of social change and mobility in England with the rise of a non-royal, Anne Boleyn. Yet Mary and Margaret are staunch defenders of the old social order, and hate Anne Boleyn partly because of her humble beginnings. Did you agree or disagree with their attitudes toward Henry VIII’s second wife?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Late in Three Sisters, Three Queens, Margaret realizes, “I want to be happy. I want to see my son grow to be a man. I want to be wife to a good man. I won’t give up on these ambitions for the good of my country or the good of the Church, and I certainly won’t give them up only because my sister-in-law the queen would prefer it” (page 377). Make a list of the goals you consider most important in your life that are nonnegotiable. Do they differ greatly from Margaret’s desires?
2. Margaret’s son James lives a relatively short life, but his daughter is a familiar figure in English history—Mary, Queen of Scots. As a group, research what happens to Margaret’s descendants and who pops up again in the fight for the English throne.
3. Philippa Gregory has written numerous novels set at the Tudor court, including The Constant Princess, which is Katherine of Aragon’s story. Have each member of your group take on another of the Tudor novels and reflect on how a different point of view affected their reading of Three Sisters, Three Queens.
4. To learn more about the Tudors, English history, and Philippa Gregory’s other novels, visit PhilippaGregory.com or follow her on www.facebook.com/PhilippaGregoryOfficialFanPage or Twitter @PhilippaGBooks.
A Conversation with Philippa Gregory
A trademark of your work is presenting a piece of history from a different point of view than we’re used to—that is, a woman’s point of view. What drew you to the story of Margaret, Katherine, and Mary, and what is something you hope readers will take away that they might not get from a history book?
A history of the period cannot show the internal lives of the characters; there are no diaries or journals for these women and very few letters—if we want to imagine them as rounded personalities, we will have to turn to fiction. Women’s lives especially have been ignored by historians, and these women, as Tudor princesses, have been viewed by historians at the time and later as pawns in the dynastic battles of Europe. If we are interested in women as individuals, if we are interested in their inner lives (and I am!), then we are going to have to look through the events to the women behind them, and to their motivation and probable characters.
You’ve written extensively about the Tudor family. How did you decide to tell this story from Margaret’s point of view, instead of Katherine’s or Mary’s?
Oddly, I started this novel wanting to write a story exclusively focused on Margaret, but as I wrote it, the importance of the other two women, her sister and sister-in-law, emerged for me. It seemed to me that their lives and hopes rose and fell in contrast to each other, that they were bound to be rivalrous; and at the same time, nobody else in the world knew what it was like to be a sister or wife dependent on Henry VIII, whose relationship with women was so very troubled. I have written extensively about Katherine of Aragon in The Constant Princess, in The King’s Curse, and in The Other Boleyn Girl; it was interesting to see her now through the eyes of her sister-in-law, who—when she was widowed—probably blamed and hated the Queen of England.
Early in the book, Margaret’s mother remarks, “[Y]our sisters are the keepers of your memories and hopes for the future” (page 6). Do you have sisters or siblings? What relationships did you draw on when charting the relationships of the three women?
When I write a novel about real-life sisters, I draw on everything I can find out about their lives, and what I imagine it was like for them. I don’t draw much on my own life, which as a relatively liberated woman of the twenty-first century is so extraordinarily different. But I do have a sister and I do think there is a sense of belonging and difference, of love and loyalty and clear-sightedness.
You wrote The Constant Princess, which centers on Katherine of Aragon, more than ten years ago. How did it feel to revisit Katherine’s story from a new perspective? Has your view of her changed in the intervening decade?
Katherine of Aragon will always be a big favorite for me because of her courage and constancy both to her husbands and to her beliefs, but this novel sees her at her least attractive—as a brutal and determined commander of an army, very much the daughter of her mother the queen, militant Isabella of Castile. The very qualities that she brings to her role as Regent of England are those that make her formidable in war and peace. I admire her tremendously, but it was interesting in this novel to see how she looked from the other side—if you were her enemy.
Katherine announces, “I am always on the side of the woman. Even if the woman is my rival” (page 314). Three Sisters, Three Queens explores the complicated bonds of sisterhood in a patriarchal world; despite their differences, do you think the women ultimately empowered one another?
No, honestly, I don’t. I think they were tremendously ambiguous in their impact on each other’s lives. Sometimes they worked together—as in the scene when they appeal for the apprentices, which I was determined to include (though technically I thought I should perhaps have cut it out). I kept it in because it showed the three women in powerful stereotypical mode as three queens humbling themselves to beg for mercy. They really act as one in that scene, although Margaret is very knowing and quite cynical about the royal theatre aspect. But when their interests differ, I think they are powerfully for themselves. Mary objects very strongly to the rise of Anne Boleyn, but she does not risk a breach with her all-powerful brother; she urges her sister Margaret against individual happiness and a marriage for love, though she herself took that choice. Katherine is a powerful enemy of Margaret’s on several occasions, and Margaret is jealous of the two of them and ambitious to push them from the place of mother of the next King of England. I really enjoyed not writing a novel that was sentimental about sisterhood but trying to show the deep contradictions at the heart of a relationship between three women who are loving sisters and also rivalrous queens.
Margaret observes, “There is something about talking with Harry that always tempts me to speak as if in a masque. He is always rather staged. He never speaks without an eye to his effect. He never walks without an eye to his appearance. His natural pomposity is choreographed” (page 307). How much of your characterization is based on historical documentation and how much is dramatized? Having written so extensively about Henry VIII, do you enjoy leaving these Easter eggs for longtime readers?
I am so glad you spotted this passage—I loved it at the time of writing! This is, of course, a fictional observation by a fictional representation of a real character, about another fictional representation of a real character, so we have two layers of creation on top of the history here. But I think the history underneath really justifies this thought—there’s a whole book about Tudor propaganda, Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in Sixteenth-Century England by Kevin Sharpe, which examines the Tudors projecting themselves as kingly. Henry VIII did this wonderfully, and I believe that even as a boy (when we have accounts of him showing off before the court) he had a sense of his own self-importance.
The letters between the three sisters play a large role in your narrative. Were they based closely on historical documents? What other texts bolstered your research?
There are quite a lot of contemporary reports of Margaret because she was spied on by English spies who reported to Henry and was a character of interest to contemporaries. There is very little about her personally, but some of her letters survive. I have seen no letters between her and her sisters—those had to be imagined. I think it possible that they wrote intimately and personally, and destroyed the letters after reading. There are hundreds of histories of Henry and many of Margaret’s husband and son, so sometimes I was able to study her through reading the biographies of the men in her life. But as a Tudor woman—even as a queen—she has not been widely researched. There are a couple of very good modern biographies that I cite at the end of the novel for anyone who wants to read more.
In the course of your research, did you learn anything surprising that you incorporated into Three Sisters, Three Queens?
I was absolutely amazed that a Tudor princess should divorce her husband, years before Henry wanted to leave Katherine of Aragon. I was amazed by Margaret’s ambition, by her determination, and by her ability to leave a man for emotional reasons when the conventions of her world and the pressure of strategy indicated that she should endure him. Henry’s explosive rage at her breach of convention and the laws of God was a pleasure to read, bearing in mind his rapid change of heart when it suited him. It’s an extraordinary little story at the heart of the greater one.
What are you working on next? Any plans to give Mary a book of her own?
I do like Mary Tudor very much indeed, but my next novel is going to be about Jane Grey.