We are always being told that medieval aristocratic marriages (and indeed most medieval marriages) were arranged and did not feature love. The object was to increase property and lands, enhance a family’s reputation and produce as many heirs as was humanly possible. I pity those women who had a child a year throughout their married life. No modern medicine should anything go wrong, just a sad demise and a husband immediately seeking a replacement.
Was it like that? Looking at records you’d certainly think so, yet there are some very famous examples of kings and magnates who fell apart when they lost their queens. I have chosen three such men, Richard II, George of Clarence and Henry VII . Their marriages were dynastic, or at least arranged for profit, yet the brides seemed to have won these men’s hearts and dependence.
Anne of Bohemia wasn’t much of a catch as far as Richard II was concerned, but he chose her over a much wealthier Visconti bride who would have brought a huge dowry and a lot of influence in Italy. Anne, on the other hand, had to be purchased from her brother! She was not a popular choice in England, but by choosing her, it’s almost as if Richard sensed she was the one for him. Yes, a fanciful notion on my part, but the pair were happy together, seemingly from the outset, and when she died he tore down the palace where she had breathed her last. It’s said he would not go anywhere he had been with her, although I think that is probably a myth. He could hardly refuse to go into Westminster Abbey, for instance.
Richard’s interests were in the arts, not warfare, and throughout his life, from being a boy king, he was surrounded my warlike barons and grasping uncles. He was, as the old song goes, “a lonely little petunia in an onion patch”. And those onions were big and generally hostile.
English history would have been very different if Anne had given him heirs. He certainly crumbled when she died suddenly, descending into a state that is always referred to as a tyranny. The petunia grew gigantic and poisonous, developed thorns and began to weed out the onions, spreading itself swiftly into their vacated places. But Richard went too far. His word was never to be trusted and he made some unbelievably bad decisions, so that he eventually lost his kingdom to his cousin, who became the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV. Had Anne’s gentle influence kept Richard in check? I would guess so. Without her, he went haywire.
I would also guess that Isabel Neville had the same soothing effect on George of Clarence, whose notoriously unpredictable and rash temperament eventually led to his death in the Tower, branded a traitor by his brother, Edward IV. The legend of George being drowned in a butt of malmsey may be just a legend, or it might be founded in truth. Did George have a drink problem?
He was certainly a very unhappy man, the middle brother, angry and resentful…and maybe possessed of the knowledge that his elder brother’s marriage was bigamous. That would make George the next trueborn heir to the throne. But the truth never came out, and although he’d misbehaved considerably before Isabel’s death in childbed, he certainly imploded when she was no longer there.
He had married her to get at the enormous inheritance of her father, the Earl of Warwick (whom he also hoped would help him to the throne) but Isabel proved to be good for him. Maybe you will not agree with my assessment of George, but the fact remains that he was never the same again after losing her.
Finally there is Henry VII. He was obliged to marry Elizabeth of York. He’d made a vow before invading England that he would unite the warring houses of York and Lancaster through marriage, and once treachery had made him king, he resented the thought of having a Yorkist bride forced upon him. He delayed as long as he could, until he was told to get on with it. So they were married. What that wedding night was like we will never know, because he was a resentful groom, and she was probably an equally resentful bride. But a son and heir was born eight months later, so they didn’t lie back to back until the morning.
Like Richard II and George of Clarence before him, Henry came to rely on Elizabeth’s gentle influence, and their marriage was certainly successful. She wasn’t the first lady of his realm, his mother had that honour, but Elizabeth was the one who shared his bed…and perhaps his confidences. The one with whom he could relax and enjoy a little welcome privacy.
When she died, he went to pieces. He shut himself away for weeks on end, broken with grief. He was never an easy man, but she had won his heart and his trust, and now he had lost her. The Henry who emerged from hiding was not the same man. All the worst aspects of his character, seemingly held in check when Elizabeth was there for him, now came to the fore with a vengeance. He was cruel, rapacious, spiteful, grasping and hated, and the populace believed he had nothing more on his mind than planning how to screw more money out of them. The royal coffers bulged. The illustration below is probably not far from the truth. He and his notorious henchmen, Empson and Dudley, putting their heads together in some new royal skulduggery or other.
Very few mourned Henry when he finally passed away, leaving England in the tender clutches of his son and heir, Henry VIII, from whom all women should have been immunised!
Now, I do not deny that there were love matches in the medieval period—of course there were—but I do not think they were the majority. Most marriages were a case of gradual respect, affection, and if they were lucky, of love itself. I believe Richard II, George of Clarence and Henry VII loved their wives, and once those ladies had gone, the inner demons took over.