Hostile Historians and Uppity Authors: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

You would have had to have been locked a dark dungeon in the Tower not to have noticed that there is a new TV series out based on a Philippa Gregory bestseller. THE WHITE PRINCESS has hit the screens in the US (no dates for the UK this time; the BBC bailed after The White Queen.) In both book and series, the ravishing Elizabeth of York, here called Lizzie for short (an anachronism right there–girls called Elizabeth were normally called Bess or Bessy, with Lizzie not appearing for several hundred years) fights for the honour of the fallen House of York against the husband she loathes but has been forced to marry, the new King Henry Tudor (here anachronistically bearded and impossibly attractive) and his sinister, lurking mother, Margaret Beaufort (Catelyn Stark in a late medieval version of a Mickey Mouse hat.) The first episode has a brief flash back to Lizzie’s pre-Bosworth on-the-battlefield fling with Uncle Richard, and then much time is spent bemoaning the untimely death of her lost lover and fighting against the dastardly machinations of Henry and his mummy. And then, eventually, Lizzie and Henry fall in lurrrrve.

Now much of this scenario is fantasy, pleasing to neither the Tudorites, who frequently moan that ‘Philippa Gregory is anti-Tudor!’ because, amongst other things, she didn’t make the Henry-Elizabeth alliance an immediate Mills and Boon romance, and equally TWP is not admired by the Ricardians because of Gregory’s overblown use of the discredited idea of an affair between Elizabeth and Richard III, when it is known from existing state documents in Portugal that he planned to marry Joanna of Portugal and at the same time have Elizabeth wed Duke Manuel of Beja.  Certainly it is true that Richard had to deny in public that he wished to marry Elizabeth, but it genuinely appears that this so-called proposed marriage was nothing more than gossip, much of it deliberately malicious, and the other possibly arising from pure misunderstanding. Why should anyone be surprised that courts were full of rumours about sex?- Look at how the modern press pairs celebrities up when they hardly even know each other!

Of course, Philippa Gregory is a fiction author so she is entitled to write whatever floats her boat. The public decides what it enjoys, and with her very hefty bank balance and millions of sales under her belt, people obviously enjoy her writing, accurate in historical content or not. Witchy Woodvilles, whistling down stormwinds isn’t exactly my thing, nor is the repetition of words/phrases and names that seem to be her trademark style, but clearly  the easy to read, first person, female format appeals to many readers.

However, the problem seem to be of late that Ms Gregory has assumed the designation of ‘historian’ in interviews and documentaries, and this self-appointment  has irked a few familiar faces, including the eminently irkable David Starkey and highly successful historical fiction author Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall. Doctor Gregory, as many of her fans call her, indeed has a doctorate …but it is not in history, medieval, Tudor or otherwise. Rather, it is in literature. Certainly many laymen have great knowledge of history and have come up with new discoveries and theories missed totally by accredited historians, but the problem seems to be when the lines of fiction/non-fiction blur due to the author’s own self-promotion and self-accreditation.  This is clear from the comments on the webpages dedicated to the new White Princess series; many viewers/readers are convinced that every word of the novel and the prequels  (and their tv versions) is true because the author ‘researches everything SO thoroughly and is a historian.’

No, she is a fiction writer with a long-term interest in history, using a reasonable amount of historical facts alongside some intriguing historical fictions (and of course history itself is full of myth, rumour and outright lies!) in order to make a rousing story. If Gregory is as well-versed  in history as she claims, she should be honest enough to at least admit that the affair between Richard and Elizabeth, as an example,  most likely never happened. Instead, she points selectively to anything that might ‘back up’ her book and completely ignores any evidence to the contrary. That is just self-promo and is indeed a far cry from what she herself said when TWP was still a work in progress–that of all her books it contained ‘the most fantasy.’

(That said, I don’t 100% agree with Hilary Mantel, either, who said she thought historical fiction writers should not add bibliographies into their novels as it implied they were non-fiction and the contents therefore  ‘true’. I believe a brief list should be included, in order to have the readers (hopefully) study more of the time periods involved and make up their own minds. )

So, dear viewers,  please take the White Princess with a pinch of salt – the Bosworth night fling, the rather aged and silent Francis Lovell, who now appears mysteriously in the story after being completely invisible in The White Queen, a letter of Buckingham (who is long dead) and other gaffs, along with Ms Gregory’s amazing claim in the article linked below that Richard III was ‘terrified’ of Elizabeth Woodville (Awk, say what? Why, did her weird whistling magic bother him that much?) Enjoy it, if it’s your thing, but  forget the ‘history’ part.

Fiction brings the past alive for many of us, me included, but let’s remember that’s what  it is. Fiction. However, I fear this plea will be in vain. After all, look how many people still think Shakespeare was  a historian and not a playwright!



  1. I could not agree more that the line between fact and fiction should always be made clear. Readers should never be led along garden paths that deviate from the actual truth in order to wander through forests of invention. As a writer of historical fiction, I add an Author Note at the end of my books, in which I own up to my storytelling sins and even apologise to the characters I have fibbed about. There is an admission that the phrase “What if” has inspired me.

    Author Notes can’t really be put at the beginning, because they necessarily give away chunks of the plot, but they should be present at the end. Not a few brief lines, but a detailed account of where the author has wandered off into that forest of invention. Fictional characters should be identified too.

    If my readers eventually close the book in the belief that it all happened as I relate in the main text, then I really do not know what else I can do. Except not write it at all. Some people might cheer that I have even thought this, but then, why should their views impinge in such a way? And spoil things for all the many readers who enjoy a good yarn? That’s the whole point of this sort of fiction. To entertain.

    If Philippa Gregory calls herself a historian when she is not, she is in the wrong. Thumbs down. But she does write fiction, and if a fully explanatory Author Note is missing, it shouldn’t be. Everyone who picks up one of her books should be made aware that it contains a romanticised, fictionalised tale that is based around some actual historical events and people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The real problem is what people understand by the term ‘historian’ – for some it means an academic, for others it is someone interested in history. I suspect for the majority of the population who bother to think about it, the second description is the one they go with. In that case, PG is for them a historian.


  2. I think (not 100% sure) that PG has a degree in history, but that doesn’t mean she is an historian. My granddaughter has an Art degree, but she is not an artist, she is an accountant (her minor).
    Also from what I’ve heard, the tv show has changed Gregory’s story somewhat. From the trailers, I agree with you about Jacob Hypehnated-Levy. He might sort of resemble Henry at 18 or so, but he is much too young for the part, and never ages. The beard is just silly.
    My main gripe about PG is that she isn’t even consistent on her own premise. She had Henry and Elizabeth falling in luvvve for the first time several different times. I still read her books (from the library), and I might even watch the show, strictly from a sense of duty, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: