The Medieval Book Reviews 7: Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood

The Wars of the Roses or “The Cousins Wars” as they were known in the fifteenth century are a difficult period for any historian. The Latin monastic chronicles that described the main events of the Middle Ages were going out of style at this time and England did not yet have a strong tradition of secular historical writing. The surviving primary sources often contradict one another, resulting in wildly different interpretations of the same historical figures.

The current controversy about whether King Richard III was an honorable Prince who assumed the throne in 1483 for the good of England or a power hungry usurper who ordered the murder of his nephews may never be resolved because of the absence of key sources. The lives of the mothers, wives and daughters of the Princes who fought in the Wars of the Roses are even more difficult to reconstruct. In Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, Sarah Gristwood, a journalist and author of Elizabeth & Leicester and Arbella: England’s Lost Queen pieces together both the political role of the women of the Wars of the Roses and the social history of women at court in fifteenth century England.

Gristwood looks at seven pivotal figures from Henry VI’s coming of age in 1437 to the ascension of Henry VIII in 1509. Henry VI’s wife Marguerite of Anjou came from a family of powerful Queens and noblewomen. Marguerite’s grandmother Yolande of Aragon, was a patron of Joan of Arc who influenced King Charles VII of France’s rise to power during the Hundred Years War. When Henry VI developed what would now be diagnosed as catatonic schizophrenia, Marguerite assumed a leadership role at his court but discovered that the English were hostile to foreign queens assuming power.

Cecily Neville was the matriarch of the House of York, wife of Richard, Duke of York and mother of King Edward IV and King Richard III. Despite her influence over her husband and sons and connections to other powerful figures of the period, she has never been the subject of a full biography. Cecily’s youngest daughter, Margaret of York, supported the her family’s ambitions from Burgundy. Her support for Yorkist claimants to the English throne threatened the legitimacy of Margaret Beaufort’s son, Henry VII. Margaret Beaufort was a senior member of the House of Lancaster in England. Following the birth of her son, Henry Tudor, at the age of thirteen, she was unable to have more children and became fiercely ambitious for her only child.

Elizabeth Woodville was an unlikely Queen of England, a Lancastrian widow with two sons who caught the eye of Edward IV. Gristwood reminds her readers that Elizabeth Woodville was not simply a commoner who had married above her station but a descendant of the ruling House of Luxembourg through her mother. The favour shown to her numerous relatives at court alienated Edward IV’s supporters including Anne Neville’s father, the Earl of Warwick. Despite first marrying Marguerite of Anjou’s only son Edward then becoming the consort of Richard III, Anne is the most under-documented figure in Gristwood’s book. Gristwood speculates that she was politically marginalized by Richard III, who assumed control over her extensive lands in the North of England.

Following the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485, the Houses of Lancaster and York were united through the wedding of Henry VII to Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York. The first Tudor queen is often assumed to have been a passive figure but Gristwood analyzes evidence that Elizabeth had been raised to become a queen and attempted to shape her own destiny at the court of Richard III. Elizabeth of York appears to have exerted a profound a influence on her daughters, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Queen Mary of France and her younger son, King Henry VIII.

Through her comparative study of the seven most prominent women of the Wars of the Roses, Gristwood reveals the abrupt changes in the fortune that were typical for royal and aristocratic families of the period. Cecily Neville narrowly missed her opportunity to become queen when her husband Richard of York was killed in battle. Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest son was born in sanctuary but she regained her throne when Edward IV triumphed over Marguerite of Anjou. Margaret Beaufort was accused of treason during the reign of Richard III then became a respected councillor to her son, Henry VII.

Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses is a fascinating joint biography of seven of the most prominent women in fifteenth century England. Gristwood makes excellent use of the limited source material about the women behind the conflict that defined the last decades of Plantagenet rule in England. The leadership roles assumed by the wives, mother and daughters of England’s last Plantagenet Kings set precedents for the famous reigning queens of the Tudor dynasty, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

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