The Wars of the Roses or the Cousins’ War as it’s becoming known is one of those fascinating yet potentially confusing periods of history. The struggles between the Houses of Lancaster & York for the English crown began with the usurpation of Richard II in 1399, erupted into civil war in the 1450s & didn’t really end until the Tudor dynasty exiled or executed the last remaining Yorkist pretenders in the 16th century. It’s handy to have a detailed family tree by your side when reading about this period, especially as the genealogical intricacies of the descendents of Edward III are crucial. The fact that there are several Elizabeths, Margarets, Edwards & Richards among the cast only add to the potential confusion.
Sarah Gristwood’s new book examines the tumultuous 15th century from a different angle, through the lives of seven women who were intimately involved in the struggle. Focusing on the women of the period is a fascinating way to look at the events from a different but no less political angle. The sources for women’s lives in this period are scanty but these women – the wives, mothers & daughters of kings, had more chance of entering the historical record than any other women of the time.
Margaret of Anjou (called Marguerite here to differentiate her from two other Margarets) arrived in England from France as a 15 year old girl to marry King Henry VI, an unworldly young man whose disastrous reign was the catalyst for the civil war. Marguerite found herself in the position of leader of her husband’s cause when Henry fell into a catatonic state & left her in the position of safeguarding the throne for him & their son, Edward. Margaret Beaufort was a cousin of Henry’s descended from the illegitimate union of John of Gaunt & Katherine Swynford. The Beauforts had been legitimized by Henry IV with the proviso that they had no claim to the throne. Margaret was married at 12 to Edmund Tudor from another illegitimate branch of the royal family. At 13, she was a widow with a son, Henry Tudor, who would one day claim the throne.
Cecily Neville was married to Richard, Duke of York, an ambitious man who would begin by offering himself as Protector of the kingdom during Henry’s mental illness & end by claiming the crown himself before being killed in battle. Cecily was the mother of two kings, Edward IV & Richard III. Her daughter, Margaret, would marry the Duke of Burgundy & play a vital role in helping her brothers during their reversals of fortune as well as supporting the claims of several pretenders to the throne after the Battle of Bosworth & the victory of Henry Tudor in 1485.
Elizabeth Woodville was a widow with two young sons when she caught the eye of the handsome new king, Edward IV. She refused to become his mistress and, not used to refusal, Edward married her & made her queen. Her spectacular rise to power wasn’t approved by everyone. The nobility were appalled at Edward’s lack of propriety in an age when the king’s marriage was a matter of diplomacy not romance. Elizabeth’s large family were also a disadvantage. they all wanted rich marriages & estates & many noses were put out of joint by this sudden influx of new blood. However, Elizabeth gave Edward a large family, including two sons & her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, who would eventually marry Henry VII.
The most shadowy of the women in the book is Anne Neville. Daughter of the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick, Anne had less power & was more of a pawn than any of the others. Married first to Marguerite’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales when her Yorkist father fell out with Edward IV, she was widowed soon after when Edward was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Her second marriage, to Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III), may have been a love match or may have been a marriage of convenience because Richard wanted to acquire her considerable inheritance. We know virtually nothing of Anne’s feelings or thoughts. The chroniclers tell of her grief when her only son died but there’s nothing to tell us how she felt about becoming queen or if she believed the rumours that Richard wanted her dead so that he could marry his niece, Elizabeth of York. We know nothing about her relationship with that niece, or her relationship with her mother-in-law Cecily Neville or sisters-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville or Margaret of Burgundy.
Gristwood uses the image of Fortune’s Wheel several times & it’s an apt description of the lives of all these women. They all knew great good fortune as well as horrible reverses. The personal connections between the women are so interesting. Anne Neville was daughter-in-law to both Marguerite of Anjou & Cecily Neville. Marguerite & Margaret Beaufort knew each other & exchanged presents. Cecily Neville left Margaret Beaufort a legacy in her will. Elizabeth Woodville & Margaret Beaufort conspired against Richard III after he took possession of the throne & planned the marriage of their children to unite the warring factions of Lancaster & York.
The relationship between Margaret Beaufort & her daughter-in-law Elizabeth of York has always been a cause of speculation. Margaret Beaufort was a forceful woman who had dedicated her whole life to putting her son, Henry, on the throne. After Bosworth, she was known as the King’s Mother & signed documents with Margaret R which could have meant Margaret Richmond (one of her titles) or could have been her way of reminding everyone that Henry’s claim came through her. There are indications that Henry & Elizabeth’s marriage was companionable & happy but Elizabeth played no part in politics & has been overshadowed completely by her mother-in-law.
I’ve read many books about this period & I have many more books on the tbr shelves. I’ve been fascinated with the story of Richard III since I was a teenager & I’ve read biographies of all the main characters. I enjoyed Blood Sisters because Sarah Gristwood told me the familiar story in a fresh, new way. Gristwood tells the story well with admirable clarity considering the difficulties of differentiating between several people of the same name. Her interpretation of the familiar sources was always interesting & well-argued & she discovered connections between the women that I hadn’t been aware of. If you’re interested in the period or in women’s history, I think you’d enjoy Blood Sisters as much as I did.