“ . . . . The role of consort can make or break a monarchy. Some have seen their reign saved by the energies of their spouse while others have seen their power waver because of their consort’s actions. Here, we look at the consorts of the House of York . . . .”
Thus begins this article The queens in question are Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville. Well, of course, we know them both, and have opinions about them. Mine do not quite coincide with those of the author. To put it in a nutshell, I think Elizabeth Woodville’s ambitions destroyed her husband’s reputation and reign. (And yes, he did do a lot of the damage himself, with indolence and unwise decisions!) On the other hand, if Anne Neville had ambitions, they didn’t interfere with her husband reign in any way.
During the reign of Edward IV, thanks to his queen’s endeavours on her relatives’ behalf, their rise to prominence led to unrest and jealousy. She wanted hers to be the greatest family in the realm after the king himself, and Edward IV was foolish enough to indulge her. Or to encourage her because he saw the rise of the Woodvilles as a satisfying antidote to the strength of the great barons. Whatever his reasoning, or lack of it, his marriage to Elizabeth led to rebellion by his foremost magnate, the brief return of the House of Lancaster, Elizabeth and her children fleeing into sanctuary twice, and the treachery of his own brother, George, Duke of Clarence, whom he eventually executed for treason. Fratricide.
The above portrait shows that Elizabeth was indeed beautiful, even by today’s standards, but that didn’t win her friends! The nobility didn’t like seeing all the plum jobs going to her kin simply because they were related to her, not because they had merit. The Woodvilles were like a swarm of locusts, devouring everything, marrying into all the top families and arousing deep, deep resentment and anger. And Elizabeth herself, from all accounts, was a very haughty piece. Airs and graces second to none. Well, she was queenie, and boy did she enjoy it. That’s fair enough, but she’d have been wiser making fewer enemies along the way. And Edward IV would have been wiser to keep a steadier hand on the tiller, so to speak.
I don’t deny there seems to have been a romance with Edward, although whether she waylaid him as a pathetic widow with two boys to look after and no money with which to do it, is another matter. I just don’t know. It’s a good story, as they say. But she certainly seems to have refused to give in to him unless he married her. Maybe he also married her simply to bring the great Earl of Warwick down a peg or three. Edward was quite capable of both things, that’s for sure. He was 22 at the time, the king, and bursting with hormones! But he didn’t always make wise moves, and if by marrying Elizabeth he simply wanted to stick his immature tongue out at Warwick, he ended up with more trouble than he bargained for.
I doubt very much if all the furore that followed would have happened if it hadn’t been for Elizabeth. But the deed was done, and Edward blundered on. Yes, blundered. If he’d thought with his head instead of a lower portion of his anatomy, and curbed her family and not been so foolish with her, maybe there’d never have been a break in his reign. Maybe his brother George of Clarence and the Earl of Warwick would never have rebelled . . . although, to be sure, there is a strong suspicion that George found out the marriage to Elizabeth wasn’t legal after all.
There was a rumour that Edward had first (secretly) contracted to marry a lady called Eleanor Talbot. She, like Elizabeth, was a widow, and (also like Elizabeth) she wouldn’t give in to Edward’s advances unless he married her. The difference between them was that Eleanor seemed prepared to step back and say nothing. But the fact is that she lived on for four years after Edward had his second clandestine marriage, this time with Elizabeth Woodville. Perhaps he made a habit of this. Eleanor mightn’t have been the first of his “queens” either! Hellfire, he’d found a sure way of getting women into his bed, so what the heck! He was young and didn’t give a fig about the consequences of his sexual exploits.
Yes, there was a break in Edward IV’s rule, when he fled to the Continent, as did his little brothers George and Richard. The Lancastrian Henry VI resumed the throne. But then Edward returned and took it back again. Things didn’t get any better regarding the Woodvilles, and George and Warwick got together to bring the House of Lancaster back to England again, hoping to end Edward IV’s rule once and for all. And Elizabeth’s too, of course. George married the elder of Warwick’s two daughters, Isabel, and the younger one, Anne Neville, was married to yet another Edward, only son of the ineffectual Henry VI and heir of the House of Lancaster.
They came back to England with an army, queen Margaret of Anjou and her husband, Henry VI. Warwick was killed at the ensuing Battle of Barnet, and the remaining Lancastrian army was thrashed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, where Anne’s new husband was killed. Queen Margaret was captured, a broken woman after the death of her son, and not long afterward Henry VI died in captivity. Maybe he was helped on his way on Edward’s orders. We don’t know that either. But we can suspect. Edward must have been tired of attempts to put the weak man back on the throne that Edward regarded as his own property.
To go back in time a little, Anne and her sister Isabel had been brought up in the north in their father Warwick’s castles. As boys, King Edward’s two brothers, George and Richard, had been brought up there too, so all four knew each other from childhood. Whether George and Isabel became a love match isn’t known, but they certainly became Duke and Duchess of Clarence, and when Isabel died George was distraught. To use a modern phrase, he fell apart. It destroyed him.
As for Anne and Richard, well, thereby hangs a another little love mystery. Maybe they did indeed love each other. Most supporters of Richard would like to think so. After Tewkesbury he certainly went to great lengths to marry her . . . lengths forced upon him because George and Isabel tried to hide her away. Why? Because with Warwick dead, the two girls were sole heiresses to his immense fortune and inheritance, and if Anne could be persuaded to take the veil, George would get his hands on the lot. So, did Richard come after Anne solely because he wanted the other half of the Warwick inheritance? Or was his heart truly engaged? I hope it was the latter, but we’ll never know for certain.
When Richard had become king, and his only child by Anne (yes, another Edward) died suddenly, Richard and Anne were absolutely beyond comfort. They were inconsolable and had only each other. There were no other children to offer solace, and by then Anne’s health was no longer robust. Maybe she couldn’t have any more children. That too we’ll never know. She died a year later, and Richard was completely alone, a grieving as a widower and a father. Yes, he made plans to marry again, an arranged foreign match, but he had no option. He was king, and kings needed heirs. It may have been the very last thing he, as a man not a king, wanted to do.
Anyway, back to Edward IV. When he passed away unexpectedly in 1483, Elizabeth and the Woodvilles strove to gain custody of her eldest son, now to be Edward V, who was being brought up by his Woodville uncle in Ludlow, on the Welsh border. They meant to get the boy to London, crown him and have full control before anyone else of importance knew that was going on. The main person of importance was Edward’s only remaining brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
Richard was in the north, where for years Edward had virtually left him to rule the dangerous counties closer to the Scots. Richard always seemed glad enough to be left to get on with that. He certainly didn’t show much sign of enjoying the atmosphere and skulduggery of the court in the south. So he lived there with Anne and their boy, Edward of Middleham. Richard was well respected and liked, and his rule was regarded as good and fair. I don’t think there’s any argument about that. He can hardly have been plotting to seize the throne from up there. To plot for the throne, he needed to be south, close to that throne. No, Richard had no ambition to be king.
Elizabeth and her family knew they might succeed in their plan to seize complete control, and strove to prevent word of Edward’s death being sent to Richard. They needed time to get Edward V to London and have him crowned a.s.a.p. But reach Richard the news did, together with the fact that on his deathbed Edward IV had named him, Richard, as Lord Protector. So Richard rode south with gentlemen in mourning, not an army, and encountered the party bringing Edward V to London. Richard’s suspicions were aroused, and he soon discovered their plan. So he arrested those taking the boy to London and took possession of the young king, which was, after all, what Edward IV had wanted him to do. Had Edward IV finally seen the light on his deathbed? Who knows, but he did indeed name Richard to take over the realm in his son’s minority, and that would entail having care of the boy.
Mind you, at the same time Edward IV knew full well that his children by Elizabeth were all illegitimate. Whether he gave a single thought to the danger in which his death left his only remaining brother, we’ll never know. Surely he must have realised that his queen and her over-powerful family would turn upon Richard? Perhaps he just hoped that Richard could overcome it all? But by then it was too late, because the Grim Reaper came along rather more swiftly and stealthily than Edward IV anticipated. Edward IV probably had only himself to blame for his early demise. The dazzling, vital young warrior king had become lazy and soft from rich living and not a small amount of debauchery. For him it was definitely a case of wine, women and song! And while the legless royal cat lolled around, the Woodville mice were out having a whale of a time.
Richard went on to London and entered the capital with his nephew riding beside him. There was nothing sinister. What else was Richard expected to do? He didn’t know about Eleanor Talbot, and thought he really was escorting and protecting the rightful king. Richard had spent his life being faithful to Edward IV, and so would honour his late brother’s wish by ruling for Edward V during the boy’s minority. I don’t believe any other thought entered his head. Unlike George, Duke of Clarence, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, had never, for a single moment, shown anything but complete loyalty. Yet, if we are to believe Shakespeare, Tudor historians and tradition, we’re supposed to think he suddenly had a head transplant, and quick as a wink became the Wickedest Uncle There Ever Was. Even that he’d been planning for years to seize the throne!
The rest, as they say, is history. We have Richard planning his nephew’s coronation, the truth about Edward IV’s pre-contract with Eleanor Talbot coming out, the realisation that Elizabeth’s children by Edward were illegitimate, and Richard himself then becoming the true heir to the throne. Which he was! Let there be no mistake about that. Then comes the mystery of the boys in the Tower, the rebellion and defeat of the Duke of Buckingham, the invasion of Henry Tudor, Richard’s betrayal and death at Bosworth, etc. etc.
It’s all quite a story. Better than fiction. And we’ve seen how Elizabeth Woodville was right at the heart of it all. She never stopped scheming and plotting against Richard, but he treated her with remarkable forbearance. He’d have been better off wrapping her in chains with a ton weight, and throwing her in the Thames. Along with Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor’s super-scheming mother. Elizabeth Woodville wasn’t to have the same easy ride when Henry came to the throne.
So that’s Elizabeth’s part, but what of Anne Neville? The author of the above article sees her as “the ambitious daughter of an ambitious man”. But was she ambitious for herself? As Warwick’s daughter she was bound to make a great marriage, and always knew that. The Lancastrian marriage was her father’s doing and she had no choice. There was no way out of this fate, as she found when made to marry the Lancastrian heir. Yes, I do think she was forced into it. But after his death, if she thought she’d have the freedom of a widow, she was much mistaken. George of Clarence and her sister did their utmost to force her into the Church. She clearly didn’t want that or she’d have given in. But she had an escape route . . . Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
Was he simply a way out for her? Or did he also offer love? Oh, we’ll never know, but Anne married him, and I don’t think she was bullied into it. But her view of it all isn’t known. In many ways, Anne is anonymous. Her thoughts and feelings are only really revealed at the time of her son’s death, when her grief (and Richard’s) is recorded.
So, unlike Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville is a mystery in many ways. And perhaps always will be.
Strangely, there is an almost exact parallel of the Neville sisters’ story from the previous century. Another heiress, in the exact same circumstance as Anne was Mary de Bohun. She and her elder sister Eleanor were joint heiresses of Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford, a fabulously wealthy magnate 9n the same mould as Warwick. Eleanor was married off to King Edward III’s youngest brother, the ambitious Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, who (like George of Clarence) set about doing all he could to shove Mary into the church so she couldn’t marry and take half the de Bohun inheritance to her husband. As it happened, Thomas’s elder brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, connived to abduct Mary and marry her off to his son and heir, Henry of Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. She died before her husband stole the throne from Richard II.
Neither of the Queens of York—Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville—lived happily ever after. But unlike Mary de Bohun, Anne did at least make it to wear the crown. But after that came tragedy when there should have been happiness. Anne’s health collapsed and her only son died, but she had never plotted or schemed, and never interfered in her husband’s reign. I wonder how many times she and Richard wished themselves safely back in the north, leading their former happy lives in Yorkshire?
Elizabeth Woodville’s scheming got out of hand, and even when her daughter, Elizabeth of York, eventually became Henry Tudor’s queen, the older Elizabeth fell foul of her new son-in-law (granted that wasn’t hard to do if you were even remotely of the House of York), who purloined all her property and banished her to some rooms in Bermondsey Abbey (see above), where she died in very modest circumstances.
Henry really was a nasty piece of work. Sorry, but how else can you describe him? Anyway, Elizabeth had been treated far better by Richard III, against whom she’d plotted so relentlessly, but in the end she must have wished he’d won at Bosworth. At least she’d still have had a good life of comfort.
So there you have my feelings about the two queens of York. Two very different women, one very ambitious, the other not. In my opinion. No doubt you’ll let me know if you disagree.