Joanna Czechowska talked to bestselling historical author Philippa Gregory about her new book The King’s Curse, now out in paperback.
Tell us about the protagonist of your latest novel?
This book is about Margaret Pole, niece of Richard III, and her rise and fall under the Tudor dynasty. She married an aristocrat and was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.
Why did you want to write about her?
She was a strong woman who survived in a dangerous time until the ripe old age of 68 but she eventually fell out of favour and was executed in 1541. Her son Geoffrey had been in the tower but escaped with his life after betraying on his family. While he was there, like so many prisoners, he’d carved his name and date on his cell wall. This is reproduced in the inside front cover of the book.
Why is your book called The King’s Curse?
It has two meanings. First is the idea that Henry’s mother Elizabeth of York and her mother put a curse on the Tudor dynasty in revenge for the death of the princes in the tower (which I don’t think was the work of Richard III). The curse claimed that the Tudors would not have sons and the line would die out. The second meaning is that modern research suggests the ‘curse’ was actually a genetic disorder called Kell positive blood type, which can cause miscarriages and stillbirths if the mother has the more common Kell negative blood type. The king’s later paranoia may have been caused by McLeod syndrome, a disease found only in Kell positive individuals.
When you wrote about Henry VIII’s England, did it remind of a modern police state?
Yes, living in those days was like living under Stalin in the Soviet Union of the 1930s or in Hitler’s Germany. You had to be so careful what you said and what you wrote. Many of the letters of that time were destroyed for reasons of safety so I had to imagine what they said.
Do you feel many of these strong women have been airbrushed out of history?
Yes, many men could not believe they played an important or useful role. But it is obvious there have been so many powerful and intelligent female characters – especially a woman such as Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV.
Elizabeth Woodville was the topic last year’s TV adaptation of your novel The White Queen. Did you enjoy working on that?
Yes, I loved doing it just as much as my other TV projects. When I first saw Rebecca Ferguson, the actress who plays the queen, I was immediately struck with how much she resembled the few portraits we have of Elizabeth.
Who is your favourite English queen?
Mary Tudor (Mary I or Bloody Mary as she is often known). She had a terrible childhood with her illnesses and fragility, her separation from her mother and fears that own father would disown her or even kill her. She did not execute any more people than her famous half-sister Elizabeth but because she was Catholic, she is called ‘bloody’.
What is your next book about?
It will be about Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII. She was also a very intelligent woman – the first woman to write and publish a book in English under her own name.
The King’s Curse is out to buy now!