King’s Curse

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The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory is about Henry VIII. It was published in 2014. Despite knowing this, I kept checking the publication date because of passages like this:

Dear God, I’d never tell the truth to this king… He has become a man quite out of control of his teachers, of the priests, perhaps of himself. There is no point giving the king an honest opinion, he wants nothing but praise of himself. He cannot bear one word of criticism. He is merciless against those who speak against him. (p. 495)

In 2019, two years into US President Donald Trump’s reign, The King’s Curse reads like subversive allegory. That is unintentional of course. It was written pre-Trump. Also Philippa Gregory is a historian, and keeps her imagination true to historical likelihoods.

A passage in her author’s note, about “how easily a ruler can slide into tyranny,” is chilling, though. And it applies equally to those born to the position or elected.

Because no one effectively defended

As Henry moved from one advisor to another, as his moods deteriorated and his use of the gallows became an act of terror against his people, one sees in this well-known, well-loved Tudor world the rising of a despot. He could hang the faithful men and women of the North because nobody rose up to defend Thomas More, John Fisher, or even the Duke of Buckingham. He learned that he could execute two wives, divorce another, and threaten his last because no one effectively defended his first. (p. 603)

Henry VIII just wanted people to like him. He was a breath of fresh air at the beginning. Accomplished in everything he did, young and handsome, in love with his Queen Katherine. But then it went wrong. His moral compass, it seems, centred on himself. The belief system and welfare of the country took second place to what he needed. And he needed a son. So began his complete upheaval of everything sacred and secular in Britain. For Henry, the political was extremely personal.

Lady Margaret Pole

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possibly Margaret Pole, National Portrait Gallery

The King’s Curse tells Henry VIII’s story from boyhood, when he was the “spare”, to midway through his six wives. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, tells the story. She is a York from the Plantagenet line of British monarchs. The Yorks wore the white rose in the War of the Roses, opposed to their cousins, the Lancasters, whose emblem was the red rose.

Henry VIII’s father was the first Tudor king. Henry VII took the throne after defeating Richard III, the last Yorkist king, in battle. So Henry VIII was desperate for a son to ensure the continuation of the still new House of Tudor. But it lasted only to the next generation. First the brief reign of his young son Edward VI, then his daughter Mary, and finally Elizabeth I. She fulfilled her father’s dreams of empire but, having no children, the Tudor dynasty died with her.

Family_of_Henry_VIII_Allegory_of-Tudor_Succession wikicommons
Tudor Succession: Mary, Henry VIII, Edward, Elizabeth (detail) National Museum Cardiff

The King’s Curse is the last in The Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory. It also fits in with her Tudor Court novels (philippagregory.com). Despite it being late in the story, you could easily start her books with this one. It stands alone and touches on much of what is in the other novels. For more on those, see my Reading History.

pagination from Touchstone paperback ed. 2014

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