Discussion Questions – ‘Three Sisters Three Queens’ by Philippa Gregory


Philippa Gregory 'Three Sisters Three Queens'

  1. Three Sisters, Three Queens opens on the eleven-year-old Princess Margaret, who, while spoiled and materialistic, is a product of her environment. What did you think of the choice to open the novel at this stage of Margaret’s life? What did you think of Margaret? Does it matter if we, the reader, like her?
  • I think it was a conscious choice to show her development through the most traumatic events of her life – the loss of her brother, mother, marriage to the Scots king, and the death of her father and husband.
  • I don’t really like Margaret in this novel – I knew the bare bones of her story but no more, and this doesn’t make me want to read more.
  • Margaret is spoiled all the way through and I don’t think her losses really change her as she continues to just go after what she wants.
  • I don’t think it particularly matters whether we like Margaret or not, as it is about her story and not so much about the character.
  1. Discuss the title of the novel in relation to the characters. Margaret, Katherine, and Mary must navigate their political relationships in addition to their familial relationships. Do you think they would have had stronger bonds with one another without their political responsibility? In what ways did it bring them closer together?
  • Margaret and Mary are sisters by blood and Katherine by marriage so in a sense Katherine is put on the back foot from the beginning.
  • Margaret is isolated from the other two in Scotland while Katherine and Mary are in London.
  • I think they would have had stronger bonds without the politics because Margaret wouldn’t have been sent to Scotland if there wasn’t a need for a political alliance, or Katherine to England, and Flodden wouldn’t have soured relations.
  • Politics brought them together because Katherine and Margaret both lost their husbands, though in different ways.
  • All three enjoyed happy marriages – Margaret to James IV, Katherine to Henry VIII (until it turned sour), and Mary to Charles Brandon.

  1. Throughout the novel, money—and the lack of it—is a significant consideration and the impetus for many turns of events, including Katherine’s inability to return to Spain after Arthur’s death. Were you surprised by this?
  • I was surprised by how much money was a motivating factor – you wouldn’t have thought it possible with three queens.
  • I knew Katherine didn’t have it easy after Prince Arthur’s death and when Henry VIII abandoned her when their marriage was in doubt.
  • I didn’t realise Scotland had such problems – other than the controversy over Margaret’s remarriage I thought Scotland was relatively stable, but this gives a different view.
  • I also knew that Mary and Charles Brandon were fined for their secret marriage, but I didn’t realise it was so much money.
Margaret Tudor by Daniel Mytens.
Margaret Tudor by Daniel Mytens.
  1. Margaret is thirteen when she marries thirty-year-old King James IV of Scotland. While this was common at the time, how do you reconcile her marriage and her relative immaturity with our modern notions of adulthood and matrimony?
  • You have to treat fiction and history without 21st century tinted glasses – marriages at age 13 for girls were usual in Tudor times.
  • Girls were considered mature earlier than they are now, and earlier in fact than boys were – girls at age 13 and boys at age 15.
  • Men, especially royals and nobles, needed a male heir to carry on their name, titles and wealth, and a young woman was considered the best way to do so as they were seen to be more fertile.
  • If women were married that young their husbands had the chance to shape them, probably a bonus to them to ensure the woman was what he wanted.
  1. “I know that everyone always knows everything about me and constantly compares me to other princesses. I am never judged for myself” (page 54), Margaret says on her wedding night. Do you think she is being self-centered or observant? Can you apply her sentiments to Katherine and Mary as well?
  • She is very observant – it is similar to today’s celebrity culture. People think they know celebs or royals because they’re in the spotlight, but they could be completely different in reality.
  • I think it can also be applied to Katherine and Mary, as they are pretty much in the same position as Margaret as women and queens.
  • However, I do think that Margaret is quite self-centred, especially in the early part of the story, and begrudged the attention that Henry and Mary got.
  • Margaret seems to resent being compared to Katherine and Mary as they tend to come off favourably in comparison to her – she becomes quite jealous of the two of them.
  1. Was James a good husband by the standards of that time? What about our standards today? Do you agree with Margaret that his illegitimate children should not live with them?
  • James was portrayed by Gregory as a relatively good husband by the times, as he didn’t seem to have affairs once married, listened to Margaret, was attentive to her and her needs, and placed his trust in her, believing she could govern Scotland in his absence.
  • James truly seemed to care for Margaret and want her to be happy – he cut off his beard for her and sent his illegitimate children away.
  • I can understand Margaret not wanting James’s illegitimate children around them, especially if she was worried she wouldn’t conceive and birth a healthy child – she wouldn’t want the reminder that her husband definitely could.
  • On the other hand, the children are just children, basically separated from their mothers so I think it is admirable that James not only provided for them but was also a real father to them.
Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte
Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Hornebolte
  1. “This is love, and I am fascinated by it” (page 179), Margaret muses at the beginning of her relationship with Archibald, Earl of Angus. Do you think Margaret is really in love with Archibald? Consider her reference points for what constitutes love.
  • From Gregory’s telling of the story I don’t think Margaret was in love with Archibald Earl of Angus because they never seemed to have a real deep connection between them.
  • Margaret was missing her husband and wanted the company of a man and Archibald just happened to be there for her.
  • Margaret was lusting after Archibald, not loving him – I don’t think she got to know the real him until it was too late, hence the sticky divorce proceedings.
  • Archibald wanted access to Margaret’s power as queen regent.
  • I think, from Gregory’s portrayal, that Margaret only truly loved James IV of Scotland, as he also respected her.
  1. At her wedding to Archibald, Margaret notices that he does not have a ring to give her. “I laugh when I find that Ard has no ring, and I take one of my own off my right hand and he gives it back to me, putting it on my wedding finger” (page 180). Though Margaret brushes it off, it’s a strong symbol to the reader that there may be trouble. Did you see the dissolution of their love match coming? What other warning signs did you notice?
  • Archibald forgetting the ring at the wedding was a bad omen suggesting he saw it as a game rather than a serious commitment – he wanted to share Margaret’s power.
  • Because I know the history I knew that the marriage wouldn’t last and that Margaret would divorce him and remarry.
  • However, I didn’t realise that the relationship was so tumultuous and full of quite so many little incidents, assuming they all really happened as Gregory does take some artistic license.
  • I think Archibald’s past with another woman is clear evidence that his and Margaret’s relationship is doomed, especially when he doesn’t confess to it.
  • During the dissolution of the marriage I think Archibald showed his true colours in taking Margaret’s properties and rents for his own use.
  1. Margaret firmly believes that “the appearance of royalty matters more than the reality” (page 302). From where (or from whom) do you think she has learned this? Does this help us reconcile her fixation with regaining the jewellery inheritance from her grandmother and obsession with new gowns? How is this belief upended at the end of the book with Henry VIII’s rejection of the Roman Catholic Church and marriage to a relative commoner, Anne Boleyn?
  • I think she has learned it from her mother and father – the Tudor dynasty is a new one and her parents demonstrate that, as long as one acts like a royal, people believe you are one.
  • Margaret is determined to remain an English princess as well as a Scottish queen so believes her grandmother’s jewels and new gowns will promote the connection and emphasise her royalty.
  • Margaret believes royalty is made and not born – there are inherent qualities that make a royal and Anne Boleyn doesn’t have them.
  • Henry VIII’s break with Rome and marriage to Anne Boleyn demonstrated that royal women could be overthrown and replaced with commoners.
  • Anne Boleyn attempted to legitimise her royalty by acting royal as she saw it and pushing the bastardy of Princess Mary.
Mary Tudor in the National Portrait Gallery.
Mary Tudor in the National Portrait Gallery.
  1. Look at Margaret’s development from a young princess who only cared for material possessions to a self-actualized queen who declares “never again will I think that morality is different for men” (page 503). What do you think was Margaret’s turning point? Was she simply maturing, or were there specific moments in her life that opened her eyes to the world at large?
  • Margaret didn’t really have a single turning point – what changed her was her experience of governing Scotland and her tumultuous relationship with Archibald Douglas, which meant she lost the regency.
  • I don’t think Margaret matured per ce – I think losing her first husband and struggling for the regency on her son’s behalf changed the way she saw the world and people in it.
  • Margaret spent her whole life according to this novel obsessed with material things like wealth and property.
  • There is a different in the morality of men and women as men have much more freedom in their doings than women do – women are more accountable.
  • Women are more constrained having to be under a man’s thumb, whether husband, father, or brother.
  1. The plight of women during the Tudor era is a major focus of the novel. “This is how women are treated: when they act on their own account they are named as sinners, when they enjoy success they are named as whores” (page 391). How much do you think has changed in the past five hundred years? What has stayed the same?
  • In the 16th century women were supposed to be under a man’s rule – husband, father, brother, uncle, etc.
  • It was thought that a woman alone was a danger and could make others follow her lead, upending the natural order of things with men at the top.
  • Women have more freedom in the 21st century and can live and work independently from men without too much censure.
  • Women also have a chance at an education nowadays to equal that of men, which they didn’t really have in the 16th century, when they were expected to know sewing and music and nothing academic.
  • “Whore” is still a common insult for a woman today, but doesn’t always have precisely the same sexual connotation as it does today, although the insinuation is the same – a woman who acts outside what is expected of her.
  1. What do you think of Katherine’s statement that “to be a good wife is to forgive” (page 442)? How does this sentiment determine her character’s arc? How might it have changed without it?
  • Katherine is the one of the three who finds it easiest to forgive – Mary doesn’t seem to have a lot to forgive and Margaret doesn’t seem to find it easy to forgive – she can hold grudges.
  • Katherine is determined that she is Henry’s true wife and so will be obedient to all his wishes save the ones which pertain to her conscience or religion.
  • If Katherine hadn’t been a meek and submissive wife, always forgiving Henry, she could have ended up like Anne Boleyn, but she bore it all stoically.
  • However, maybe if Katherine hadn’t been so submissive and forgiving for so many years Henry VIII might not have fallen in love with Anne Boleyn – what endeared Anne to Henry in the first place was her fire and outspokenness.
Philippa Gregory
Philippa Gregory
  1. The end of Three Sisters, Three Queens shows the beginnings of social change and mobility in England with the rise of a non-royal, Anne Boleyn. Yet Mary and Margaret are staunch defenders of the old social order, and hate Anne Boleyn partly because of her humble beginnings. Did you agree or disagree with their attitudes toward Henry VIII’s second wife?
  • I think Mary and Margaret’s hatred of Anne Boleyn stems partly from her own humble roots and partly because she replaced a princess of the blood from Spain.
  • I don’t see Anne Boleyn’s rise as a beginning to social change and mobility as she just took advantage of a situation, and King Edward IV had previously married for love to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464.
  • It wasn’t a conscious thought of “better than this” but more like “I want that and I will have it”.
  • I think Mary and Margaret’s attitudes to Anne Boleyn are understandable as she is replacing their sister of many years standing.
  • I think because the Tudor dynasty is so new Margaret and Mary are very aware of their royal status and the threats that faced their father, Henry VII.

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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