Discussion Questions – ‘The Lady of the Rivers’ by Philippa Gregory


Janet McTeer as Jacquetta of Luxembourg in 'The White Queen' (2013)
Janet McTeer as Jacquetta of Luxembourg in ‘The White Queen’ (2013)
  1. Jacquetta’s first main influence is her great-aunt, Jehanne of Luxembourg, who tells her: ‘A woman who seeks great power and wealth has to pay a great price.’ Why do you think she says this to her niece? Was she right, and what sorts of power would she have been referring to? Do we see the women in the story exercising other kinds of power?
  • Women could have power in several ways – they could have sexual power over men if they chose to use it, they could have political power like Margaret of Anjou, or they could have the power evidenced by respect and love, which is the kind of power Jacquetta has.
  • Margaret of Anjou notably tries to harness political power when her husband, Henry VI, is unable to due to sickness or madness (depending how you want to describe it), but she is called a she-wolf because of it.
  • Women should only have power in the 15th century when it is allowed to them by men who have control of their own country and their wits, and supported by a council of men i.e. Katherine of Aragon and Katherine Parr given the regency under Henry VIII when he’s at war.
  • Women exercise power over men through their sexual wiles and their looks – it is one of the only ways women could influence men in the 15th century without seeming out of place or being called a witch. It has long been suggested that Margaret of Anjou used “pillow talk” to persuade Henry VI.
  1. Joan of Arc is absolutely certain that her voices come from God. Jacquetta is much less sure where hers are from, saying, ‘I never think of it as a gift coming from God or the Devil.’ What sort of voices do you think they are hearing, and do their different beliefs affect the future of either character?
  • I think Jacquetta just accepts it as part of her life, and part of her legacy from the water goddess Melusina, whereas Joan of Arc sees it as a religious calling to spread the word of god.
  • From what I understand of the Woodville family from reading this book, ‘The White Queen’ and ‘The White Princess’ it seems like Jacquetta and her daughter and granddaughter get a sense when members of their family die or are in danger, and seem to be able to call up the weather or a curse to punish their enemies.
  • Joan of Arc is one of those famous figures from history who claims to have a direct line to god and she is able to influence those around her because they believe in the fact that she has a direct line to god – it is these “visions” that bring about her downfall.
  • Jacquetta is accused of witchcraft by the Earl of Warwick, but cites the protection of Margaret of Anjou in order to protect herself. I think there would have been an uprising had Warwick had Jacquetta executed because she was such a beloved figure on both sides of the divide.
  1. As the story opens, England is ruled by the boy king, Henry VI, as his father has died following his famous conquests in France. Was Henry V an impossible act to follow? What kinds of pressure were there on the young Henry VI? And how might things have been different if his father had not died when he did?
  • I think Henry V was a hard act to follow, even for a man let alone a baby, and Henry VI was influenced by those around him as he grew up, and quite often pushed to one side.
  • The advisors and protectors were pushing Henry VI to be like his father, so I think it provoked an opposite reaction from him, and he determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a different path.
  • Things could have been different if Henry VI hadn’t died when he did, because it would have given a chance for Henry VI to come into his majority without the rigours of kingship on his small shoulders.
  • England would have been ruled by a strong king who could lead England, rather than by a regency council without strong leadership. Perhaps the Wars of the Roses would never have erupted if Henry V hadn’t died when he did, as they broke out due to the weakness of Henry VI.

  1. ‘The whole of France is ours by right,’ says the Duke of Bedford. Would most people have thought that at the time and how does that idea seem to us nowadays? Why did England want lands in France? Jacquetta has a strong vision that ‘it won’t be him [Henry VI] who loses Calais’; what is the significance of this? Is this the author giving a nod to the actual (but far later) historical event of the loss of Calais?
  • In the 15th century the Kings of England were also known as the Kings of France, and they did have landholdings in France, many of which were lost by Henry VI.
  • Most people would have believed France was theirs but I also think that a lot of the common people wouldn’t really have been that bothered by the politics of it, especially when the Wars of the Roses burst into the open.
  • I think the idea that Jacquetta is sure it won’t be Henry VI that loses Calais is a way for Gregory to hint that Jacquetta can scry in a way and see the future, as we know now that it was Mary I in 1558 who lost Calais, England’s last possession in France.
  • To us nowadays it seems silly to claim overlordship of a foreign country, but I think that is because we are so used to France being an independent country, whereas it would have seemed normal to people in the 15th century.
'The Lady of the Rivers' by Philippa Gregory (2011)
‘The Lady of the Rivers’ by Philippa Gregory (2011)
  1. The Duke of Bedford surrounds himself with alchemists and astrologers, in his search for the philosopher’s stone. Do you think this makes him a man of science or superstition, and is Jacquetta just another scientific instrument?
  • I don’t think that the search for knowledge is ever wrong, no matter how you go about it – superstitions explored can lead to facts established, and superstition in its own way is science.
  • I think he does see Jacquetta as another scientific instrument and it is left to Richard Woodville and others of the household during her marriage to Bedford to see that she is looked after as a person.
  • I think Bedford is willing to turn to anything to save France for England and ensure that Henry VI is safe on his thrones (England and France), but even superstition and witchcraft have a basis in fact, so I see Bedford as a scientist in his quest for knowledge.
  • As Bedford gets to know Jacquetta I think that he begins to see her more as a person with her own wants and feelings, and he begins to respect this a little more, rather than focusing on his scientific examinations exclusively.
  1. How does this search for knowledge compare to the women’s practice of witchcraft, for example Margery Jourdemayne and her planting by the stars? Jacquetta later says, ‘Every woman is a mad ugly bad old witch somewhere in her heart’. What does she mean by this and do you agree?
  • Scientific discovery, superstition and witchcraft are all linked in my mind as all are essentially the basis for scientific investigation but are assigned differently to the sexes.
  • Scientific discovery is a male purview where witchcraft is predominantly female, at least in England – men are allowed to study science and become academics, where educated women in the 15th century were considered unnatural and so called witches.
  • I think what Jacquetta means is that every woman somewhere inside wants to be able to do the things that men can do – study freely, wear trousers, fight with swords – all things that women couldn’t do as they were seen as unwomanly.
  • I do agree because men and women today are still treated differently in some countries, like women are an inferior species, whereas the human race would die out without either men or women so both are equally as important and should have equal rights.
  1. Both Jacquetta and Margaret d’Anjou leave their native country as very young women, never to see their mothers again. Compare the way they cope with this and in what ways it affects their later lives. What sort of mothers do they themselves turn out to be?
  • I think in a way both women take after their mothers, possibly because they miss them so much that they subconsciously turn into them – or blame it on the genes and parentage.
  • Jacquetta turns out to be a very caring and involved mother of a large family, where Margaret is a more ambitious and obsessed mother over her single son – the size of their families probably also played a role.
  • Because Jacquetta knew from the outset that the best she could hope for was good marriages for her children I think she was more determined that they be healthy and happy, whereas Margaret was determined that her son would inherit his father’s throne.
  • Both manage to integrate into English life fairly well, despite missing their mothers, but Jacquetta gets more involved with the people when she marries Richard Woodville, where Margaret becomes more distant from them when the Wars of the Roses begin and she retreats into queenship.
  1. Henry V’s judgements are often inconsistent, for example on his summer progress when nobody can be sure if they will be punished or pardoned. He and Margaret are also known for the lavish rewards heaped on their favourites. So was Jack Cade right to rebel? Should a subject always be loyal to the monarch?
  • I can understand why Jack Cade rebelled, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do at the time – violence rarely wins rewards.
  • A subject owes obedience to the monarch, especially in the Medieval period where the monarch was the ruler and not largely a figurehead as today; but subjects should also be able to raise any issues without fear of reprisals as long as it is conducted in a polite and non-threatening way.
  • I understand that monarchs were seen as total rulers and weren’t used to being challenged in any way, but I think if parliament in an early form had been introduced earlier and adhered to, then the democracy we know today would have come about much sooner, and perhaps things like the English Civil War would never have happened.
  • Monarchs did have a right to reward those who did them some service, but from the records it seems that Margaret in particular, and Henry probably advised by her, were overlavish to those they loved, like Somerset, and ignored those they didn’t, like York.
Elizabeth Woodville c.1471.
Elizabeth Woodville c.1471.
  1. When Jacquetta and Richard Woodville finally get together, she says, ‘I have become a woman of earth and fire, and I am no longer a girl of water and air.’ How has the author used imagery of the elements throughout the book?
  • Jacquetta’s descended from the Burgundian royal house, linked to the water goddess Melusina, and I think water is supposed to represent purity, virginity and a lack of substance, rather like air.
  • I think what Jacquetta means when she and Richard Woodville get together is that she finally feels what she was hoping to feel in her marriage, which she didn’t get with Bedford – she is on fire for him.
  • I also think that, with Bedford, Jacquetta was up in the air, removed from the realities of life in England and with Richard Woodville she has been dropped back down to earth among the people and can see their plight in a way she couldn’t before.
  • The elements were thought to be important in the Medieval period – hot and wet (men) was supposed to marry with cold and dry (women) and so even each other out; the elements worked similarly to keep balance.
  1. Even though Jacquetta realises Elizabeth has the Sight, she is reluctant to pass on the knowledge of how to use it to her daughter. Yet, she does so. Given the danger if they were discovered, should she have done this? And was she right to lie to Elizabeth on her wedding, when she felt there would be no real future for the marriage?
  • Jacquetta married Bedford because he wanted to use her Sight, and perhaps she fears that the same could happen to Elizabeth if it became common knowledge.
  • I think Jacquetta passed on the knowledge to Elizabeth because it is easier for Elizabeth to defend herself against any accusations if she understands the force that she uses, either wittingly or unwittingly.
  • It is easier for Elizabeth to control the force if she understands it, and she might do less damage knowing how to control it rather than acting on her emotions and doing things she didn’t mean to.
  • I think that Jacquetta was right not to tell Elizabeth about the future of her marriage because you have to live life without acting on what might happen in the future – if you act on what you knew you might never do anything at all.
  • Jacquetta must have realised that something would come from the marriage which would enable Elizabeth to live up to her destiny in some way, though without knowing what that destiny was.
  1. Jacquetta and Richard are drawn together by their passionate love and dare to marry against the odds. But what keeps them together, through their many separations, the birth of so many children and the frequent turns in their fortunes and status? Do you think their relationship changes?
  • It is love that keeps Jacquetta and Richard together through all the twists and turns of the Wars of the Roses, and the changes of fortune.
  • Their relationship is more like a partnership because it wasn’t really a marriage of equals – Jacquetta was much higher in status than Richard, who had been her squire when she was a duchess.
  • They are determined to protect their family at all costs and this unites them through the difficulties and dangers that they face, and they love each other which can save a marriage otherwise falling apart, or strengthen one already strong.
  • Their relationship does change as they suffer and survive the dangers – the relationship and partnership strengths as each realises what the other is capable of facing and how they are stronger together than individually.
  • The unity of the partnership increases as the size of their family increases because there is more at stake and so more worth saving.
  1. After the battle of Blore Heath, Jacquetta takes shelter with a blacksmith and his family, and realises ‘these are the people that we should be fighting for’. What does this night on the flea-ridden mattress teach her? What do you make of the blacksmith’s comment, ‘It’s a good day already, the best we’ve ever had’?
  • Jacquetta comes to realise that, although the court is at the centre of the country, and the king and queen at the centre of the court surrounded by the nobles, there are far more people in England that exist outside the court.
  • There are strong patriotic feelings in England, and I think that Jacquetta comes to realise that the people want a stable country with a good economy, and they don’t really care one way or the other who is king as long as the country is well-run.
  • The blacksmith’s comments “It’s a good day already, the best we’ve ever had” possibly alludes to the fact that Blore Heath was a Yorkist victory, and one of the first major battles of the Wars of the Roses.
  • Her night with the blacksmith and his family teaches Jacquetta what is really important, and I think this marks a turning point in what she thinks and feels about the war, and might mark her later alliance with the Yorks, who seem to be able to keep the peace.
Margaret of Anjou from an illuminated manuscript c. 1445 by Talbot Master
Margaret of Anjou from an illuminated manuscript c. 1445 by Talbot Master
  1. Jacquetta fears that she has almost come full circle, and that she’ll find herself in ‘a country which was like that of my childhood, with one king in the north and one in the south, and everyone forced to choose which they thought was the true one and everyone knowing their enemy and waiting for revenge’. Do you think this comes true? And how did those early days prepare her to survive and even thrive with her family?
  • I think in a way it does come true when Edward IV takes the throne, until Henry VI is captured and finally killed after the Battle of Tewkesbury.
  • Even when Henry VI is captured his son is still free with his mother gaining affinity and armies and foreign support, so this isn’t really over until the death of Edward of Lancaster at Tewkesbury and then the murder of Henry VI – there was no point killing the king while his son was still out there.
  • The early days of war teach Jacquetta how to survive and protect those she loves. She applies this later on to protect her family as far as she can and make sure that they have their lives and can live them how they want to.
  • I think that the 15th century was very dangerous as, if you proclaimed the wrong king at the time, you could be executed for treason, but people still weren’t always sure which was the right king as the throne kept changing hands and by the time news reached the north or Wales from London it might have been out of date.
  1. When Margaret abandons Jacquetta to potential danger, she tells her, ‘They won’t hurt you, Jacquetta. Everyone likes you.’ Do you feel she’s right?
  • I think the people respected Jacquetta, because she had been the wife of the Duke of Bedford, who was a fairly popular, trustworthy and fair leader of France, as well as being an uncle to Henry VI.
  • Jacquetta seems to have been a popular figure, and after her marriage to Richard Woodville I don’t think she was seen as much of a threat because she married far beneath her own station.
  • Margaret of Anjou seems to have been an unpopular figure in England generally because she rules over her husband and ignores some of the most important nobles in the realm like York, Salisbury and Warwick which alienates part of the population.
  • In comparison to Margaret Jacquetta seems willing to forgive and include others more readily which obviously endears her more to the people – Margaret is also hindered by the fact that she allows her army to plunder and destroy on their way south, meaning that London doesn’t want to open its gates.
  1. The Lord Mayor of London sends for Jacquetta to act as an intermediary between the aldermen of the city and the queen. This is a recorded historical event, one of the rare times that Jacquetta is acting as a principal in a major event. How different is this to anything she’s attempted before? And is Richard right when he says ‘No other woman could have done it’?
  • I think Jacquetta is so important at this point because she is a calming influence and, as the former wife of the Duke of Bedford, she carries certain political clout, while also known as a friend of Margaret of Anjou.
  • It’s different to anything she’s attempted before as she has previously always been acting on the authority of the queen, Margaret of Anjou, and not as an intermediary between the two – it requires more skill than previously.
  • I don’t think there are many other women who could have managed the negotiations, as Margaret of Anjou was said to be formidable, and not a woman to be crossed, and I think it had to be a skilled negotiator and politician who could please her and the common people.
  • Jacquetta, from all accounts, seems to have been quite calm and assured which no doubt helped the discussions and negotiations, and she will have proved herself in smaller negotiations before with issues within Margaret’s household, having been at the centre of the Lancastrian court.

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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