The three sisters of the title are Margaret and Mary Tudor, sisters of Henry VIII, and Katherine of Aragon who became his first wife. They will become the queens of Scotland, France and England respectively.
In sixteenth century Europe princesses were frequently used as political pawns, with marriages arranged on the basis of alliances, beneficial land holdings and dowry money in the marriage contract. When Katherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess, comes to marry the eldest Tudor son Arthur, Prince of Wales, Margaret is envious of her higher status and calls her Katherine of Arrogant. Margaret particularly relishes Katherine’s difficulties following Arthur’s sudden death and the protracted negotiations for a subsequent marriage to Henry, who is now Prince of Wales.
The story is told from the perspective of Margaret, who is often petty and spiteful. Katherine, as seen through Margaret’s eyes, despite all her difficulties, is not a character I warmed to but she exercises a powerful influence on Margaret’s life. Mary is more lightly drawn by author Phillipa Gregory. As the youngest of the three, Mary is portrayed as spoilt and wayward, particularly in her ill-conceived second marriage for love to the Duke of Suffolk.
The Perpetual Peace between England and Scotland that Margaret’s marriage to James IV was to cement quickly collapses when Henry VIII invades France, putting Margaret and Katherine on opposite sides. Each must support their husband’s cause and Scotland’s Auld Alliance with France commits James to invade the border regions with disastrous results. At Flodden Field, James and many nobles are killed, with his bloody coat being sent by Katherine as a trophy to Henry in France. Margaret says she will never forgive Katherine when James’ body is taken back to England, rather than being returned as was customary.
Being a widow with a two young sons, one of whom is now king, puts Margaret in a precarious position as the constantly warring factions of Scots nobles jostle for control and influence at the court. Margaret is named Regent but she makes the same strategic error as her sister Mary and marries a charming but self-centred earl, Archibald. Margaret seems fated to make one bad choice after another and changes alliances with the wind, which only serves to further divide the fractious Scots lairds and she loses control of her sons.
This fictional account is full of intrigue, passion and tragedy but none of the women are seen in a particularly flattering light. Even remembering how circumscribed all women’s lives were at this time and royal women even more so, it is disappointing that there is such a one dimensional view of each of the main characters. Margaret of Scotland is petty and selfish; Katherine of Aragon is pious and tedious; and Mary is flighty and irresponsible. I had hoped that Margaret’s character would develop more depth as the novel progressed but her jealousy of Katherine is tediously repetitive, especially since we do not see Margaret mature beyond the jealousies exhibited at twelve years old when she first met Katherine.
Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 6
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: 10 August 2016
RRP: $45 hardcover, $32.99 paperback, $16.99 eBook