Thursday 29 November 2012

"The Women who won the Wars of the Roses" by Sarah Gristwood

Our guest for this month is Sarah Gristwood, whose latest book, Blood Sisters we reviewed here on 1st October.

Sarah Gristwood is the author of a number of books including the Sunday Times best-seller Arbella: England’s Lost Queen, Elizabeth and Leicester and the novel The Girl in the Mirror. She was born in Kent and read English at St Anne’s College, Oxford University. She is married to film critic Derek Malcolm and lives in London and Kent.

Over to Sarah:

Who’d have guessed it? – same as buses, really. You wait for a news story on the women behind the Wars of the Roses, and then two come along at once. First was the news that the BBC, with its eyes firmly fixed on the market that gobbled up The Tudors, are filming Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Cousins’ War. Then there is the ongoing saga of the bones unearthed in the Leicester car park, hoped to be those of Richard III. If the hope turns out to be a certainty, then it will be thanks to the distaff side of fifteenth century history - through a descendent who shares with Richard his mother’s DNA.

The mitochondrial DNA which may make the identification is passed only through the female line; from Richard’s mother Cecily Neville to her eldest daughter Anne, and on through seventeen generations to descendents living today. I wrote about seven women in my book Blood Sisters, but Cecily is the one who most fascinated me – the one who best illustrates both the pleasures and the pains of writing about the late fifteenth century.

Image in public domain

We know Cecily Neville lavished a fortune on clothes, and ordered a specially padded loo seat. We know that in youth, stories said she had an affair with a common archer, and that in old age she lived a life of extraordinary piety. But the questions that remain are extraordinary. Where did she stand when her son Richard took over the country, amid rumours he had murdered his nephews, her grandsons, the ‘Princes in the Tower’? Or when her eldest son Edward ordered the death of his next brother Clarence (in the famous butt of Malmsey according to Shakespeare)?

When Richard III died on Bosworth Field Cecily had lost all the sons she’d seen into adulthood; and, out of the four, only one had died naturally. As lives go, this is the stuff of writer’s fantasy. Yet all most us know of her, as of the other women behind the Wars of the Roses, are the stories Shakespeare set down, and that was four centuries ago – never mind any questions of historical accuracy. Perhaps The White Queen will help to change that, but it has been a long wait from William Shakespeare to Philippa Gregory.

Anne Neville - image in public domain
The era is rich in dramatic female stories. Take Richard III’s wife Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’; queen to a Yorkist king and Cecily’s great-niece as well as her daughter in law. But before Richard married Anne (snatching her from Clarence, who was said to have kept her disguised as a kitchen maid for fear her huge fortune might escape his hands), she had been married off by her father to the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, to cement an unlikely alliance with Henry VI’s queen Margaret of Anjou. Even if there is no truth in suggestions Richard caused Anne’s early death, either by poison or a campaign of psychological warfare, she had been passed from one side to another in the wars as though she were as insentient as any other piece of property. Shakespeare telescoped events to make her his ‘Lady Anne’, but the truth is even more poignant.

Cecily bore daughters as well as sons – three girls who survived into maturity. The eldest died early, though it is her descendents who have given the Leicester archaeologists their DNA. The second, Elizabeth, had to see her de la Pole sons fall foul of the new Tudor dynasty. The youngest, Margaret, became Duchess of Burgundy. In a sense, she was the Plantagenet who had got away (got away to Bruges, where they are filming The White Queen today). But that didn’t stop her sending the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck to plague the Tudor who had taken her brothers’ throne. Tudor chroniclers used a gendered language to lambast Margaret of Burgundy as having ‘the spirit of a man and the malice of a woman’ but I rather warmed to the doughty duchess who refused to be sequestered into ladylike domesticity.

Charles the Bold, Margaret of Burgundy's husband 1460 by Roger van der Weyden. Image in public domain. For Margaret's portrait, see book jacket below.
The question of a royal woman’s role – the exercise of power vs. the constraints of femininity – is the subtext to this story. The nature of the ways in which a woman can most influence history . . . Cecily Neville was the matriarch of the Yorkist dynasty. In the early days of her son Edward’s reign, it was said she could rule him as she pleased, and when that influence began to wane, she did not surrender it happily. But in that age one of the main imperatives was dynastic – genetic, if you like – and Cecily might have been consoled to know that her bloodline runs through every monarch from Henry VIII to the present royal family. If these women were playing a game of thrones, their descendents were the most popular currency. It was the marriage deal brokered by Elizabeth of York’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor which cemented the peace which followed Bosworth, and give birth to the Tudor dynasty.

But I like also to trace another, a spiritual, line of descent. It starts with women like Cecily’s daughter Margaret of Burgundy; like that formidable schemer Margaret Beaufort; and like Margaret of Anjou, the ‘great and strong-laboured woman’ who dared to break all the rules by seeking power openly. It runs through the Tudor queens, Elizabeth and Mary, who ruled in their own right, and it can still be seen in where we are today.

My book was almost subtitled ‘The Women Who Won the Wars of the Roses’. We thought better of that, of course - on the one hand, it hardly seemed to fit those of the women whose children predeceased them and whose lives ended in misery; and on the other, too many men were taking it for military history. But maybe we shouldn’t have thrown the idea away so readily. Maybe, just maybe -whether or not their lives were easy, or they left children to carry on their bloodline - all these women were winners in a way.

Sarah Gristwood is the author of Blood Sisters: the Hidden Lives of the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, published by Harper Press

Thank you, Sarah!

Watch out for the November competition tomorrow, when we'll have five copies of Blood Sisters to give away.


Derek Birks said...

On the face of it one might think that in the "man's world" of the Wars of the Roses women might find it hard to exert much influence, but history shows us that in almost any age a strong minded woman can wield significant power either directly or indirectly through the various men in her life. However, the Wars of the Roses are something of a golden age in this respect. Earlier historians tended to focus only on Margaret of Anjou, as if she was the only one, but in recent decades more light has been shed on the influence of other prominent women of the period, Your work, Sarah, has helped to draw more attention to some of them. As you say, if only we knew more about their attitudes to some of the major events. If only...

Katherine Langrish said...

Fascinating post - 'Blood Sisters' looks terrific, and I've often wished we could know more about the true thoughts of the women in Richard's life.

Mark Burgess said...

Great post and looks like a wonderful book (in my 'to read' pile). I do hope that there is a lot more interest in the Plantagenets through books, TV and so on. About time, in my opinion.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I've bought Blood Sisters on ebook and am enjoying it, together with Helen Castor's She-Wolves. Great books, both of them!

Anyone who forgets Cecily Neville in this era has really missed an important woman. Likewise Margaret Beaufort and Margaret of Burgundy...