The Women of the Cousins' War:
The Duchess, the Queen, and the King's Mother

by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin, & Michael Jones

Touchstone, 2011. ISBN 978-1-451-62954-5.
Reviewed by Susan Schoch
Posted on 11/16/2011

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Philippa Gregory's best-selling novels about women in English history have been founded in this historian's determination to reclaim women's real and significant impact. It's important to know that we can play big parts in a big story. In this nonfiction work, The Women of the Cousins' War: The Duchess, the Queen, and the King's Mother, Gregory and her co-authors tell us about extraordinary women in leading roles, women nearly forgotten.

Let me first mention that Gregory's introduction is a valuable discussion of the differences between writing history and writing historical fiction. She offers insight into specifics, such as point of view and tense, and she distinguishes the tasks of historian and novelist, suggesting where speculation fits in both forms. Her comments about writing the history of women, tangled as it is with cultural and sexual myths and realities, illuminate the untangling process.

For the body of this book, Gregory teams up with historians David Baldwin and Michael Jones to give us three short biographies of women she has written about in her novels, "The Cousins' War" series. (The third in the series, The Lady of the Rivers, was released shortly after this volume.)

I'm not a scholar of English history, and I was glad for the maps and genealogies provided to help me follow the cousins—the Somersets, Lancasters and Yorks, four generations of offspring from Edward III—as they made bloody war for medieval wealth and power. Even Gregory's lucid prose has difficulty clarifying for an American all the unfamiliar relationships and events of the time period, and it must be said that though Baldwin and Jones are able authors, I found their parts a bit more academic than elegant. Of course, they are all working from a very small historical record.

A lot of ground and many years are covered, nonetheless, and the women profiled are connected to terrible royal wars and plots. They survive very real danger. They also have daily lives and children. There is plenty of drama behind the available facts.

Jacquetta of Luxembourg was nobly born around 1415, and was connected to both the Lancasters and the Yorks. She managed to marry for love and had at least fourteen children, while serving as lady-in-waiting to the queen and as dowager duchess of great estates, through a long lifetime of international political maneuvering and close calls.

Jacquetta's daughter by a simple knight, Elizabeth Woodville was the first commoner to marry a reigning monarch, Edward IV of the York line. She was queen, but often under threat, and lost many of those closest to her to terrible violence. Yet Elizabeth, like her mother, accomplished more than simple survival.

Margaret Beaufort, daughter of the Duke of Somerset, was a rich young heiress of twelve when she was married to Edmund Tudor, who was twice her age. Her family was contending for the throne, and Margaret was ambitious, devoutly religious, and a force behind armies. Her son became king, Henry VII, and married Elizabeth Woodville's daughter.

Jacquetta, Elizabeth and Margaret are grandmothers to Henry VIII, matriarchs of his line. Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones chose well to write about them for they are powerful characters, who had lasting influence beyond their biological links to a famous king. They had big parts in a big story. For me, The Women of the Cousins' War served its purpose admirably, introducing me to these remarkable women, preventing them from slipping into the shadows of female invisibility, and making me want to read more.

Read an excerpt from this book (pdf).

Philippa Gregory is a recognized authority on women's history, and the author of many books. This volume offers historical underpinnings to a series of novels, "The Cousins' War." Her website has much more information. Her co-authors are David Baldwin and Michael Jones, both learned professors and authors, who have written extensively about this period and the women who figured so powerfully in it.

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