Monday 1 October 2012

Blood Sisters - a review by Mary Hoffman

The Plantagenets are the new Tudors, to paraphrase a press release for the book reviewed here and I couldn't be more pleased to hear it.

Last month in my 1st September slot, I reviewed She-wolves by Helen Castor. I admitted to being a bit slow off the mark with reading it but this month, I want to tell you about a book that was published just over two weeks ago.

Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood (Harper Press) begins properly where Helen Castor's book left off, with the time of Margaret (Marguerite) of Anjou. But like Castor, Gristwood begins with a later death in a Prologue - this time that of Elizabeth of York, the princess that Richard the Third wanted to marry and Henry Tudor succeeded in marrying, thus strengthening his distinctly dodgy claim to the English throne.

The Wikipedia entry for this Queen suggests that she is the model for the Queen court card in sets of playing cards and you can see from this image in the National Portrait Gallery why that idea might have sprung up. However, no-one seems to have found any evidence other than anecdotal for the identification.

Back to Marguerite of Anjou, Shakespeare's original "She-wolf." I recently saw the all-male production of Richard the Third at the Globe) with the marvellous Mark Rylance as Richard, and could not believe that the old queen had been cut from the play. Her scenes with Elizabeth Woodville (Elizabeth of York's mother) and the Duchess of York (Richard's mother) are among the most haunting in the tragedy.

Still, at the beginning of Blood Sisters, Marguerite is just the 15-year-old sent from France to marry the sickly young man of twenty-three who had become Henry the Sixth while still a child. The French princess wasn't in good shape herself, having suffered terribly from sea-sickness crossing the channel and had no clothes grand enough for meeting her future husband - a touching personal detail effectively presented by Gristwood.

Indeed the whole book is full of them. It is subtitled "The Hidden Lives of the Women behind the Wars of the Roses." It really lives up to this, sharing facts gleaned from obscure historical documents about Marguerite, Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward lV,  Cicely Neville, his indomitable mother, Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor and Anne Neville, the luckless wife of Richard the Third. But Gristwood adds a woman scarcely known today: Margaret of Burgundy, who was sister to Edward lV, George, Duke of Clarence and Richard lll and married off to Charles, Duke of Burgundy, a man ten years older than her.

I hadn't realised what a player this Margaret was and Gristwood brings her so far into the foreground that it is her portrait on the front cover of Blood Sisters. She had no children of her own but was a brilliant stepmother and politician, fighting for her rights at a time when widowed aristocrats were fair game for kings. She it was who sponsored Perkin Warbeck in his claim to the English throne, "recognising" him as her nephew Richard of York (the younger of the two "Princes in the Tower" who disappeared in 1483). Warbeck was executed in 1499 and Margaret of Burgundy did not outlive her protegé for long, dying herself in 1503, the same year as Elizabeth of York her niece.

Margaret Beaufort, mother of the first Tudor King, had four husbands but only that one child, when she was thirteen, at Elizabeth Woodville's Coronation three courses each of fifteen to twenty dishes were served,  At Margaret of Burgundy's presentation at the French court, there were monkeys, a camel and a gilded lion, Cecily Neville was the mother-in-law from hell, Anne Neville wore furs in July at her Coronation ... the details proliferate and melt the centuries away between us and these women, some of whom were used as dynastic pawns while others became forces to reckon with in their own right.

There is a distinct dearth of forenames in the Plantagenet dynasty, which makes for some confusion in the reader among all the Elizabeths, Margarets and Annes, Richards, Edwards and Henrys but Gristwood does an admirable job of both entwining the stories and distinguishing the players.

The family tree at the front is some help but as with She-wolves not nearly full enough. I'd like to see a link to a website that makes it clear that Lionel, Duke of Clarence, from whom the York claim derived, was the second surviving son of Edward the Third not the last, as it would appear here. Just putting in the dates would have helped.

But I am pleased to say we are getting a visit from Sarah Gristwood here on The History Girls later in the year and will have copies of her book to give away.

Effigies of Henry Vll and his Queen, Elizabeth of York
(Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey)


Sue Bursztynski said...

Sounds like a great book, if Ican get a copy. And by the way, tomorrow, October 2,is Rochard III 's birthday! Since we're talking Wars of the Roses here.:-) must find my Richard badge to wear and start rereading Daughter of Time.

mairemd said...

Daughter of Time - great, clever book. It bears frequent re-reading. It's really about research as much as anything, as well as being a very unusual police procedural - it should be inspirational to aspiring historians, and of course to Richard III supporters. It also gives an intriguing snapshot of its own era - the 1950s - with casual talk about 'young thugs' being hanged, stars' reputations being made in the theatre, transatlantic relationships & no television!

Derek Birks said...

I've always loved the Plantagenets - they've got everything! You couldn't invent a dynasty like them if you tried. The Tudors by contrast have always been a real anticlimax. We should not though be surprised by the strength of some of the women. There seem to be quite a few of them around in late medieval and early modern europe.

Katherine Langrish said...

This sounds a marvellous book - on the Xmas list!