Friday, August 23, 2013

Book Review: Blood Sisters: The Hidden Lives Of The Women Behind The Wars Of The Roses by Sarah Gristwood

Thanks to the television drama The White Queen there is a lot of interest in the women who were at the center of the conflict that has become popularly known as The Wars of the Roses. The series is based on three of novelist Philippa Gregory's Cousins' Wars" books, The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker's Daughter. While Ms. Gregory writes very entertaining historical fiction, if those who come to The White Queen want to understand the history behind the fiction you can do no better than to read Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters.

Blood Sisters examines the lives of seven prominent women of the middle to late 15th century in England. They are Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, the mother of King Edward IV, King Richard III and George, Duke of Clarence, Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, the sister of King Edward IV, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby,  the mother of King Henry VII, Queen Anne Neville, wife of King Richard III and Queen Elizabeth of York, wife of King Henry VII.  It is a wide ranging subject that is deftly written in a manner that makes the struggles for the throne clear and concise.

Ms. Gristwood examines each of the women fairly. She strives not to create the villains and heroines that drive the plots of fictional portrayals. Examining primary source documentation, which is scarce for the women of the 15th century, Ms. Gristwood looks for the bias in the source material, whether it is the considered by the time unnatural warmongering of Queen Margaret of Anjou or the scandalous gossip that maligned the marriages of both Cecily, Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth Woodville and helped King Richard III make his case for usurping the throne. Using as a unifying device fortune's wheel, ever turning for glory or despair, Ms. Gristwood weaves the lives of these women into an enthralling narrative of the Wars of the Roses as it affected these royal and aristocratic families.

It is refreshing to see these women lauded for the strong positions that they had to assume.  Beginning with Margaret of Anjou she is portrayed as the driving force behind protecting the interests of her husband Henry VI and son Edward of Lancaster, Prince of Wales. Margaret is frequently portrayed as a "she-wolf", a label given to another queen consort of England also of French origin, King Edward II's Queen Isabella. Ms. Gristwood makes it clear that this young woman who married at 14 was unpopular with the English aristocracy from the beginning. As the niece of the King of France her marriage lead to the loss of the English territories of Maine and Anjou and did not bring any sort of monetary dowry.  Her husband, Henry VI was known for his piety and devotion to the founding of Educational institutions including Eton College and King's College at Cambridge. Margaret of Anjou founded Queen's College at Cambridge. Bearing only one child, Margaret had to deal with her husband's strange illness which struck during her pregnancy. She also had to navigate the politics of the court that saw Richard, Duke of York named protector and then heir to the throne over her young son.

Intertwined with Margaret of Anjou's story is the life of perhaps the most intriguing of the seven women, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York. She had the chance to become Queen of England. As wife of Richard, Duke of York, protector during Henry VI's illness and the named successor to the throne, Cecily, with her large brood of children was poised to become the most powerful women in England. In 1560 this changed with the Battle of Wakefield, during which both her husband and her second son, Edmund were killed, their heads placed on the gates of the City of York.  A few months later, her eldest son, the 19-year-old Edward, Earl of March defeated Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou's armies, first at the second battle of St. Alban's and then decisively at the intensely bloody battle of Towton. Edward would take the throne as King Edward IV and Henry VI and his wife and son would flee.

The lives of two more of the women weave into the tale.  First is Lady Margaret Beaufort, the rich heiress of the Beaufort line descended from Edward III's son John of Gaunt and his mistress and third wife, Katherine Swynford.  Orphaned as a baby, she would become a royal ward, first given to be raised by William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and betrothed or married to his son and heir, John at the age of 6. However, Suffolk was deposed from favor and executed and the child marriage dissolved in favor of Margaret being married at the age of 12 to Henry VI's half brother, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. From a 21st century perspective the marriage of a 12-year-old girl seems abhorrent, but the age of consent was 12 for girls, 14 for boys. The marriage was consummated and Margaret became pregnant. Her husband was captured during the early skirmishes of the war and died in prison of the plague. Margaret gave birth in 1457 to her only child, the future Henry VII.  Margaret would marry twice more, as a young widow with a son to support she needed to do so to secure her position. Margaret would remain a prominent member of the court of Edward IV.  Her son would have his wardship granted to the Herbert family at Raglan Castle in Wales and then, following the brief restoration of Henry VI to the throne and his overthrow would flee England with his uncle, Jasper Tudor and spend 14 years in exile in Brittany and France.

The other woman who steps forward is the unlikely Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Several years older than Edward IV, Queen Elizabeth would secretly marry the King causing scandal at the court and upsetting the careful diplomacy planned by Edward IV's adviser, Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. Elizabeth Woodville is the heroine of The White Queen series, but her controversial marriage would drive a wedge into the large York family. The Yorks are filled with ambition and a good deal of the reason that Richard III was able to usurp the throne from his nephew the child king Edward V stems from Elizabeth Woodville's secret marriage and the advancement of her large family.

Richard Neville is better known to history as Warwick the Kingmaker. He was the power behind Edward IV coming to the throne and when he did not favor Edward's policies he was able to take his own discontent and marry it, in a fashion, with that of Edward IV's ambitious brother, George, Duke of Clarence.  Warwick would use his two daughters Isabel and Anne to make strategic alliances. Anne is the focus of the story as she would become the queen consort of Richard III. What is very frustrating is that there just isn't a lot of primary source documentation about Anne Neville's life. As she and her sister Isabel were her father's heirs, she was a very rich potential bride. Isabel was married to George in 1469 and George and Warwick would defect to the cause of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. Anne would be married to Edward, Prince of Wales, but there is no evidence that the marriage between these young teenagers was ever consummated.  Nor is there any reason to believe that she was unwilling to marry Richard III a few years later, no matter the beautiful seduction scene in Shakespeare's Richard III.  As  a matter of fact, Anne and Richard knew each other as children with Richard being raised in Warwick's household. George, Richard's brother did not want Anne to marry Richard as it was in George's best interest to keep the Warwick inheritance solely in the hands of his wife, Isabel. It would be wonderful to find documentation about exactly when Richard and Anne's son, another Edward was born and how Anne felt about taking the throne from Edward IV's son, but we will never know.

The final two women really intersect during the reign of Henry VII. Queen Elizabeth of York is the eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. As with most princesses she is a marriage pawn being offered in alliance on the continent and also several times to the exiled Henry Tudor. Most likely Edward IV was using the offer of marriage to get Henry Tudor to return to England so that this unlikely heir to the Lancastrian lineage could be captured and neutralized.  Following Richard III's coup, which from Richard's perspective was necessary if you note that the death of Edward IV caused another power struggle between the named protector Richard and the relatives of Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Henry Tudor became the unlikely rallying figure for the opposition to Richard III once the rumors began that Edward V and his brother were dead. Elizabeth of York would be the cement in an alliance between Queen Elizabeth Woodville and Henry's mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort.  Her marriage would create an uneasy end to the Wars of the Roses, but her husband's crown was never completely secure.

Margaret of Burgundy was a large factor in that insecurity. Married off by her brother to the Duke of Burgundy, Margaret would not have children of her own, but would be a powerful regent for her stepchildren. Margaret became the person who strongly supported the cause of Perkin Warbeck, who claimed to be the younger of the missing princes. Despite having never met her brother's children and not caring that her actions were endangering her niece as Queen of England, Margaret of Burgundy is another fascinating powerful woman that deserves a more in depth biography.

Sarah Gristwood has written a compelling and insightful look into the lives of the real life women of the Wars of the Roses. If The White Queen and the novels of Philippa Gregory have peaked your interest into learning about the history of theses women, Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters is the perfect place to learn their compelling history.