England’s royal consorts during the Wars of the Roses are shadowy, controversial figures. The literary sources describing the activities of Henry VI’s consort, Margaret of Anjou, Edward IV’s and Richard III’s mother, Cecily Neville, Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, Richard III’s wife, Anne Neville and the first Tudor queen, Elizabeth of York, are often contradictory, leaving the true significance of these royal ladies open to interpretation.
The shifting fortunes of these royal women during the political turbulence have inspired centuries of literary interpretation from Shakespeare’s history plays to present day Philippa Gregory novels. In The Last Plantagenet Consorts: Gender, Genre, and Historiography, 1440-1627, Kavita Mudan Finn looks at the mythology around these figures that emerged from the literary sources, showing how Tudor and Jacobean authors viewed Plantagenet queens.
Recent trends in historical analysis of the last Plantagenet queens include separating fact from fiction in the often contradictory source material, rehabilitating those royal women who appear to be victims of Tudor propaganda, and extrapolating instances of female political agency to demonstrate the historical significance of Lancastrian and Yorkist royal ladies. The most recent scholarly biographies of queens actives during the Wars of the Roses, Arlene Okerlund’s Elizabeth of York and Michael Hicks’s Anne Neville: Queen to Richard III both incorporate these approaches into their works. Mudan Finn, takes a different approach in The Last Plantagenet Consorts, looking at the texts themselves instead of the women discussed within them.
The actual events of the last Plantagenet queens’ lives are only one element of the fifteenth and sixteenth century texts that shape modern understanding of royal women during the Wars of the Roses. Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historica, Thomas More’s History of King Richard III and Shakespeare’s history plays all employ the literary techniques of the period and existing precedents for discussing queens consort. In successive chronicles and literary interpretations, the widowed Elizabeth Woodville appears to be the heroine of a romance, catching the eye of King Edward IV as she stands beside the road, waiting the ask the King for assistance for herself and her two sons. Both Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret of Anjou also appear as tragic queens in certain chronicles, appearing to achieve their political ambitions before losing everything, including their beloved sons and heirs.
Tudor anxieties about women, royal favourites and court factions also influenced the development of popular attitudes toward the last Plantagenet queens. The Wars of the Roses were a period when Kings appeared to rise and fall according to the political agendas of prominent members of the nobility, including royal women. One of the reasons why chronicles pertaining to Henry VII’s consort, Elizabeth of York, emphasize her feminine virtues instead of her superior claim to the throne was the Tudor anxiety about powerful royal women causing political instability and undermining the authority of the monarch. In common with the Shakespearean portrayal of Richard III, the most well known portrayals of queenship during the Wars of the Roses reflect the Tudor consolidation of royal authority.
Mudan Finn’s study ends in 1627, during the first years of the reign of Charles I, with analysis of Michael Drayton’s poem, “The Miseries of Queen Marguerite.” With Charles I’s marriage to King Louis XIII’s sister, Henrietta Maria of France, there was once again a French queen consort in England and the precedents set by Margaret of Anjou were relevant to the Stuart court. I would have been interested to read Kavita Finn’s insights on depictions of the last Plantagenet queens during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s. As Henrietta Maria became actively involved in the royalist cause, her activities were compared to those of Margaret of Anjou during the Wars of the Roses.
In The Last Plantagenet Consorts, Kavita Mudan Finn combines historical scholarship, literary analysis and gender study to look at the construction of narratives about royal ladies during the Wars of the Roses. The established medieval literary genres of romance and tragedy as well as Tudor anxieties about royal favourites shaped the chronicles that continue to influence modern views of England’s last medieval queens.