Friends, rivals, enemies? The relationship between Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville

 

With the ‘White Princess’ currently broadcasting in America it’s important to take a more balanced look at the relationship between the so called ‘Red Queen’ and ‘White Queen.’

Being UK based I haven’t actually seen the ‘White Princess’ so I’m basing any comments on the book and what American friends have reported.

Sorry about the length and quality.  Am working on my skills!

Could Edward IV have been illegitimate?

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The great Tudor rose.  Red for Lancaster and white for York.  A symbol that good King Henry had united the waring houses and brought stability to England.

And of course it wasn’t just a piece of empty imagery; it was a symbol of success.  He had infused his Lancastrian blood with the rival genepool of Elizabeth of York, thanks to an alliance between their respective mothers, giving birth in turn to a host of young Yorkcastrians, better known to us as the Tudors.

But what if there was a break somewhere in the chain?  What if instead of uniting his line with the descendants of Richard, Duke of York, Henry had inadvertently hooked up with the heir to a little-known French archer?  According to rumours, he had done just that.

The story goes that when they were both in France, Cecily, Duchess of York and her husband the Duke were temporarily estranged due to his military commitments.  During this separation, she succumbed to the advances of an archer named Blaybourne and fell pregnant with the child that would one day become Edward IV, hero of the house of York and father to the first Tudor Queen.

Most damagingly, it is claimed the story originates with Cecily herself.  As even the most casual observer of this era will be aware, Edward’s marriage to the low-born Elizabeth Woodville (whose family were both known as Lancastrian sympathisers and fierce social climbers) was immensely controversial.  Apparently, so enraged was she with her son, that she threatened to confess that he was illegitimate and deprive him of the throne.

It’s a serious accusation but one we should be cautious about taking at face value.  There is no record of the rumour before 1483 when it emerged in the pages of Dominic Mancini, an Italian scholar dispatched to England to serve as the eyes and ears of a continental Bishop.  It must be remembered that at this point, Richard III and his cronies were putting it about that Edward IV was a bastard, in order to bolster his younger brother’s claim for the throne.  It is likely therefore that this rumour crops up for the first time in 1483 and probably didn’t spring from Cecily’s lips.

Without being able to depend on this fundamental plank of evidence, the rest of the arguments fall down somewhat.  Let’s explore them.

  • The absence of the Duke of York at the time of conception – When you look at Edward’s birthdate (in late April 1442) and work backwards, it appears as if the Duke of York was away from home at the time of conception, but the truth is, we just don’t have enough evidence to read too much into it.  The couple resided in France at the time and while the Duke was away, he wasn’t so far that the Duchess couldn’t have joined him for some of this time.  Of course, the future King could also have been slightly premature or even a little late – there isn’t much time in it.  All of these seem more likely than the Duchess secretly ‘liaised’ with a man of such lower rank, that tongues would surely have been set wagging.  We should remember that no rumours of Edward’s paternity are recorded before a time when they were politically advantageous to someone.
  • A low-key baptism – It has been suggested that Edward’s low-key baptism (in the corner of the church), which contrasted a year later with a more lavish christening for his younger brother, indicate that the Duke of York was not going to splash out for a baby that he didn’t think was his.  However, this is counter-intuitive; if the Duke of York had decided to raise this child as his heir, even if he was suspicious of paternity, surely he would have gone out of his way to maintain a pretence of legitimacy rather give the world a sign that his wife had so embarrassingly betrayed him.  Besides, the Duke and Duchess had previously had a son who died very soon after birth; their decision to go for a low-key baptism was probably a sign that they had concerns for his health and wanted to make sure he was dedicated to God before anything went wrong.  Incidentally, this somewhat backs up the suggestion that he was premature.
  • A lack of physical resemblance between father and son – This is a bit of a non-starter.  Yes, Edward was tall and strapping (which his father was not) but there are plenty of obvious people in his blood line (on both mother and father’s side) where he could have got this from.  Family resemblance is tricky and for those of us analysing today, we don’t have an awful lot to go on.
  • Both his brothers accused him of being a bastard – Yes they did.  Both had a political motive for doing so.  Others made such accusations as well, but not until long after he was born and crowned.  Besides, when a noble was born in another country, away from the glare of the commentators of the day, rumours often surrounded the circumstances of their birth.  John of Gaunt is an example of this.

Aside from all the above there are other points worth mentioning.  Cecily was outraged by such rumours (suggesting, again, that she didn’t start them) and it seems hugely out of character for her to have committed adultery, especially with someone of low-birth.  I think it is also reasonable to assume that Richard, Duke of York believed that Edward was his; he is unlikely to have claimed the throne for his descendants and willingly passed it on to another man’s son.

All this said, I have only had chance to #digalittledeeper into this topic.  One day I would love to research it more thoroughly and am certainly open to changing my mind.

Three things the ‘White Queen’ got wrong

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Fierce debate rages amongst super-cool Royal history geeks as to the merits of high-profile historical fiction.  On the one hand, it sparks interest within the general population; on the flip side, it encourages severe inaccuracies to flow through the popular consciousness.

Generally, I’m in the ‘pro’ camp.  If interest is sparked, there is a greater opportunity for misconceptions to be corrected.  Besides, I really like reading and watching it all.

So when I heard that the ‘White Queen’ would enjoy a sequel in America – although not in Britain – I thought this was good news.  The BBC series in 2013 sparked interest in the Wars of the Roses and the matriarchs of the Tudor dynasty more than anything I’ve ever known.

But…but, but, but, but, but…the inaccuracies were of epic proportions, to a much greater extent than the Philippa Gregory books on which they were based.  It’s so important that this is realised.

Let me start by trying to tidy up a few bits.  Primarily I want to say what I think was wrong with the portrayals of the three main heroines, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Anne Neville:

Elizabeth Woodville – Beautiful, heroic and tragic.  All of these were true, but unlike in the book, her negative qualities just did not come across.  True, she was vengeful toward those who hurt her family (though later, unconvincingly, forgave brother-in-law George), but where was the ambition, the vindictiveness, the ruthlessness and the spite?  The entire court loathed Elizabeth and her kin.  They must have had some kind of reason and their savagely ambitious personalities were a part of this.  In one sense Elizabeth is no hero at all, but very much a medieval woman on the make.  This was just not clear enough.

Margaret Beaufort – I’m sorry, but no.  Yes, Margaret had blood and marital connections to Lancaster (and no doubt preferred Henry VI to Edward IV), but she was no blind fanatic to the cause of the Red Rose.  Yes, she had dramatic loyalty to her son, but never in his tender years did she expect him to be King.  It is well documented that she was a pious woman, but she was no crazed fundamentalist and let’s be clear – nor was she a sinister child killer.  The Margaret that I have researched was a cautious pragmatist that would one day take a huge gamble that ultimately paid off.  I’m also not sure why they decided to ruin her marriage to Henry Stafford, the relationship which was probably the happiest of her life.

If people are interested in a more balanced picture of Margaret Beaufort’s life and character, check out our content from Margaret Beaufort week.

Anne Neville – It wasn’t so much that they got Anne Neville’s character wrong; the problem was that they actually gave her one.  Anne Neville, through the manipulations of her father and two fateful marriages to key players in the political scene, would have seen a lot.  However, there is very little evidence to suggest that she herself ever inputted much.  I really don’t think she helped to mastermind Lancaster’s military strategy in 1470; neither do I think she pressured her husband to do away with her nephews.

If the book is anything to go by, the new series of ‘The White Princess’ is also going to require some correcting.  Never fear though geeks…that is a post for another time!

Book review: Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

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In the summer of 2013 I, like the rest of the UK, was absorbed by the BBC’s White Queen.  Like the rest of the UK, I fell in love with the brilliant acting, the dramatic story telling and the fact that for a precious few weeks, the things I loved were becoming main stream; people actually wanted to talk to me about the subjects I was usually told to shut up about!  I even recall a fair few people at work gathering round as I drew a Plantagenet family tree on the white board!

Of course, those that made it to the end of the series (which presumably wasn’t quite so many given the BBC’s decision to axe it) were talking about one thing: who was responsible for the death of the White Queen’s sons, the legendary Princes in the Tower?

It was never something I had looked into but, based on the odd David Starkey documentary here and there, I had always thought that Richard III was the most likely candidate.  But, after this documentary I realised there could be so many others; Margaret Beaufort, portrayed as such a fanatic throughout the series was most in the frame and even Anne Neville may have had blood on her hands.  This was something I needed to research.

A friend recommended that I read Alison Weir’s ‘Richard III and the Princes in the Tower.’  I was so grateful he did.  Because she set me straight immediately.

Not only is the book well researched, thoroughly readable and insightful, I would actually go as far to say that anyone reading it with an open mind, cannot walk away with the conclusion that anyone other than their infamous uncle, Richard III, was responsible for the death of the innocent Princes.  I appreciate that’s a bold claim but, I challenge anyone (who has read it) to defy me!

The brilliance of Weir’s work is not in the unveiling of any new or profound revelation, but in its sheer simplicity.  Many have said that too little is known of the late 1400s and that answers can never truly be reached.  She disagrees.  Instead of focusing on the absence of source material, she relentlessly peruses what is available to us today, orders it with logic and common sense and shows that the pattern of events and other contemporary comments point in one clear direction.

The book also provides a great window into the latter stages of the War of the Roses and brings to life a host of characters who each played their part in the dramatic events.  Although this was actually written before the book ‘York vs Lancaster,’ I recommend reading the aforementioned first, in order to ensure you have the context front of mind.

In the opening of the book (first written in 1992), Weir remarks that when it comes to Richard III we are never likely to have more evidence at hand then we have today.  Interestingly, we have of course since then made an epic discovery in the form of Richard’s remains.  Every further nugget of information that has come to light since then, only backs up the author’s analysis.

No book is perfect.  Every historian, however hard they try, brings some subconscious biases to the table.  But having now read this book three times, and aspects of it far more, I can’t quite believe that there is even a single Ricardian left standing.

Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir was first published in 1992 with a revised edition published by Vintage in 2014.  It is available for purchase from Amazon in ebook, paperpack and hardcover format

Richard III part 6: Two issues that made me think twice…

Early in my research, I started to form the view that Richard III was responsible for the death of his nephews.  However, during my journey I stumbled across a couple of road blocks that gave me more than a little pause for thought. Continue reading