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!

The Tudors didn’t destroy Richard’s reputation – he did that himself!

People have been asking me recently what I think about historical fiction.  I assume what they mean by that is ‘how much does it matter whether fiction based on history actually follows the facts.’

And my answer?  Not much.  Personally, I much prefer fiction that sticks as closely to the available facts as possible while adding some snap, crackle and pop where it’s needed. Philippa Gregory and last year’s ‘Victoria’ series just about got it right for me.  But ultimately if something is labelled fiction than that’s exactly how it should be treated.   Readers and watchers should not assume they are getting the factual truth and if they do, that is not the fault of novelists or TV producers.

But there is a genre of history that worries me much more.  The 1 hour documentary.  I understand – and accept – that things need to be simplified for TV.  I recognise that there has to be different entry points for varying levels of knowledge and interest and many of my curiosities were sparked through this very medium.  However, I am getting a little fed up with the huge oversimplifications that have been transmitted through our TV screens in the last year or so which make a big impact on popular understandings of the historic debate.

Lucy Worsley’s ‘History’s Biggest Fibs’ got me a bit riled on Thursday night.  While I did really enjoy much of it, the assertion that the ‘Wars of the Roses’ was a Tudor myth and that Richard III’s name was blackened by his successors, drove me crazy.

I’ve blogged previously about the Wars of the Roses, but can I please just but in a plea for sanity when it comes to the accusation that the Tudors led some kind of deliberate propaganda campaign to tarnish the previously saintly reputation of the last Plantagenet King.

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Of course Tudor writers would have been mindful of the need to please the new dynasty and this would have been reflected in their writing.  As Worsley notes, John Rouse’s work is a perfect example of this – he was complimentary about Richard in his life time but negative about him once Henry Tudor came to power.

However we now know that things once believed to be a Tudor invention have turned out to be true.  Richard’s curved spine, so often dismissed as Tudor spin has been established as fact.

The account of Dominic Mancini – dated 1483, two years before the Tudors took over – makes it clear that people strongly suspected Richard in his own lifetime of usurping the throne and doing away with the Princes.

Of course Richard’s reputation suffered under his successors.  Things rooted in truth were exaggerated and he was not treated with a sense of balance and objectivity.  But the beginnings of his huge unpopularity and the link to the crimes many hold him responsible for, can clearly be found in his own reign and lifetime.

How the ‘White Queen’ got Margaret Beaufort so, so wrong…

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As I trawled through my Google analytics the other day, I noticed that my post on the ‘Three things the White Queen Got Wrong’ was one of the highest read so far.  In fact, with the exception of anything about Prince Harry, the Wars of the Roses is easily the most popular topic.  Clearly the hit BBC series had something to do with that.

And for the most part, I’m a fan.  I’m relatively relaxed about the fact that historical fiction needs to take twists and turns that cause it to differ from the facts.  Obviously I wish that people would channel their new found interest into checking out an actual history book, but the fact that they don’t isn’t the fault of fiction writers or TV producers.

But it’s the Margaret Beaufort stuff that still bothers me.  I know, I know – I’ve blogged about this before.  However, the more I get into engaging with the historical community on Twitter (which I love by the way) the more I realise that some stuff still needs to be said.

For me, it isn’t the fact that the White Queen series has got facts about Margaret’s life wrong.  These things happen and actually the Philippa Gregory book of ‘The Red Queen’ is chronologically very accurate (and btw, an excellent read).  It’s the fact that her portrayal on the series – and how she is presented in other formats – has totally skewed perceptions of her.  This has now reached such an extent that back in 2013, the BBC history website (which many might understandably view as a respectable source) actually listed Margaret as a potential killer of the Princes in the Tower – almost as if the case against her was as strong of that against Richard III.

Anyway, I’m getting toward the end of my rant.  What I want to do quickly, is just list three things I believe about Margaret which the White Queen TV series entirely failed to capture:

  • She had a sense of humour – Okay, so she didn’t exactly leave behind a collection of published jokes in her (for the time) quite extensive collection of books, but that doesn’t mean she was all work and no fun.  There is evidence of her sharing jokes with servants and making humorous remarks in correspondence.  Her household was remembered as a happy place to be.
  • She was a pragmatist – I really did not like the Lancastrian fanatic that was presented in the White Queen.  Yes, she knew where her deep loyalties lay but she was as happy as most people of the era to play the game.  When she needed to be loyal to the Yorkist Edward IV (who she was actually genetically more closely related to than she was Lancaster’s Henry VI) then loyal she was.
  • She was quite a good wife – Margaret’s second husband, Sir Henry Stafford, was presented in the series as a loyal and long suffering spouse to the cold and aggressive Margaret.  Despite being only fifteen when she married the thirty-something year old, there is much evidence that their wedding was warm and happy.  Its childlessness is probably better explained by the damage caused by the birth of Henry VII (when Margaret was just 13) rather than any sexual frigidity on her part.

Rant over for now.  But one day, I would love to see a novel and TV series that present the warmer, practical and realistic Margaret that I have been privileged to get to know through study.

Was Edward IV a usurper?

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I stumbled across something interesting the other day.  For some reason, I was checking out the Wikipedia entry on ‘usurpers of the English throne’ (we’ve all done it) and discovered that it features a list of those who had seized the crown.  As you can imagine, it was an exciting moment!

But it was also a moment that triggered a surge of indignation in my usually placid personality.  For while Henry IV, the first Lancastrian King had made his way onto the list, Edward IV of the House of York was strangely absent.

Before this spirals into a whole Lancaster vs York partisan thing, let me be clear: I fully accept that Henry IV deserves his place on the list.  Even though his bid to seize the throne was initially fairly popular and despite propagandist claims that his cousin Richard II ‘agreed’ to the new arrangement, there can be no doubt that Henry of Bolingbroke was a usurper.  Richard II was clearly forced off the throne and even if he had died or surrendered it willingly, there was arguably another with a better claim.

But excluding Edward IV, who seized the throne from the Lancastrians in 1461, really got my goat.

Although the authors of the page do not present a reason for their spurious (yes, I said it – spurious) decision, it’s not hard to guess where they’re coming from.  While Henry Bolingbroke – as the eldest son of Edward III’s third son – was the heir male of his grandfather (or at least, he was after Richard II had actually died), the house of York descended in the female line from Lionel of Antwerp (Edward’s second son), making Edward IV the heir general of his namesake.  Most historians now believe this gave York a superior claim to the throne.  No doubt the Wikipedia entry does therefore not list the first York King as a usurper because they view it as a restoration of the true blood line.

But this doesn’t stack up.

To start with, back in 1399, when Henry IV was crowned, there was genuine confusion as to whether someone could base their claim to the throne through descent in the female line.  Obviously this had become fairly meaningless by the end of the War of the Roses when even the best Lancastrian claimant (Henry Tudor) was basing his right to the crown on his mother’s lineage.  But for as long as the male-line Lancastrian wing existed, they had a right which could well have been viewed as superior.

The real reason actually goes much deeper.  Regardless of the ‘who had the better claim’ debate, the truth was that by 1461, the house of Lancaster was an established dynasty.  The crown had passed seamlessly from the first Lancastrian King to his son who reigned so successfully that his infant boy inherited without challenge.  Not only had Henry VI inherited the crown smoothly enough, he had held it for the first 40 years of his reign without anyone questioning it.  When Edward IV managed to get his hands on power, Parliament had only recently re-asserted Henry’s right to it, albeit at the cost of disinheriting his son.

To take the throne, Edward IV had to seize it by force.  Both law and the establishment were initially against him.  In my book, this is the very definition of usurption and, to be frank, it should be in anybody’s.  Perhaps the Wikipedia community could take a little look at this post and snap into edit mode.

(Editor’s note: What really makes my blood boil is that Richard III is also excluded from the list of usurpers.  I’m too angry about this to even put pen to paper.)

Well geeks over to you…am I misjudging what it means to usurp?  Are you a crazed Yorkist who believes that house can do no wrong?  Do you have a crush on Max Hastings and are letting that cloud your view?  I want to know what YOU think!

Margaret Beaufort’s claim to the throne part 3: The better arguments

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As we have shown in the previous post, most of the arguments that suggest Margaret was looked upon as a potential heir to the throne are not satisfactory.  Now it is time to examine the two stronger theories.

In part 2, I examined three of the most common reasons given for Margaret having a claim to England’s throne; but I also showed why they sadly don’t amount to much.

But there are two stronger – although I think ultimately unsatisfactory – reasons that are also given.

Parliament had acknowledged her claim in 1450

Maybe.  When she was the ward of the unpopular Duke of Suffolk, Parliament had accused him of trying to marry her to his son ‘pretending and believing her to be the heir to the throne.’

Essentially they had major beef with Suffolk, the King’s unpopular adviser and wanted him out.  They needed an excuse.  Margaret had been his ward for years and he had either married her or planned to marry her to his son.  Those that had it in for Suffolk concocted a story that he had ganged up with the French to try and do away with the King, and get his son to claim the throne by right of marriage to Margaret.

It does add weight to the claim that she was considered next in line, but…but, but, but: we have to remember that neither was Suffolk saying he thought she actually was (and indeed, he denied he thought she was) and nor did Parliament suggest that she actually was.  They were accusing Suffolk of pretending she was.

Nonetheless in order to Parliament’s framing of Suffolk to have been in any way credible, there must have been a certain sense that Margaret was not an outlandish candidate for succession.  It’s also very possible that anyone who was not keen on the idea of the Duke of York being next in line, may have considered Margaret a more viable option.

Her son had to flee to exile in 1470 – surely that means he was considered a rival to the Yorks?

This is a strong argument.  Why on earth did the future Henry VII have to flee the country when the Yorks were restored in 1470 if he was no threat?  Some must have thought him a claimant and that claim was transmitted from his mother.

However at this point, Lancaster had little choice.  In the 1450s, York was generally considered Henry VI’s heir: but this was hardly an option now.  And, after the battle of Tewksbury the house of Lancaster (including the Beauforts) had been eliminated in the male line.  Henry Richmond was ‘the closest Lancaster had to Royalty.’  Therefore at this point it does seem that opinions had shifted and Margaret’s Beaufort claim now had validity.  But we must be clear.  This was placed firmly on her son.  Nobody envisaged her making a bid for power herself.

So where does all this leave us?  Let’s hop on over to the conclusion to find out.

Introducing Margaret Beaufort week

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There are a few things on TV really worth watching.  Dan Jones’ ‘Britain’s Bloody Crown’ (which should probably be called ‘England’s Bloody Crown’) is one of them.

Not only is it a well-researched yet entertaining docu-drama (which can be something of a rarity), last week he even managed to achieve the near-impossible and present a moderate, reasoned and non-partisan picture of Richard III which still made it clear that he almost certainly killed his nephews, the Princes in the Tower.

But it was the trail for this week’s episode that really got my ears pricked.  This Thursday, Jones is to devote an entire episode to the legendary Margaret Beaufort, mother of the Tudors and one of my historic heroines.

In excited anticipation of this, I have decided to declare this week MARGARET BEAUFORT week on Royalhistorygeeks.org.  During the week I will flood the site with content of Henry VII’s illustrious mother, inviting comment, dialogue and discussion as I do so.

First, I will kick off with a mini-series on whether the young Margaret really had a valid claim to the throne as many historians and writers have suggested.  Then I will devote a post to explaining why, despite the bizarre suggestions of some Ricardians, she, the Countess of Richmond could not possibly have killed the Princes in the Tower.  After that I will tackle another myth, that Margaret and her daughter-in-law Elizabeth of York did not get along.  I also intend to post a review of Elizabeth Norton’s excellent biography of ‘The Mother of the Tudor Dynasty’.

Finally, I will eagerly watch the episode on Thursday night and post my critique following it.  This week’s gonna be a blast guys.  Join me for the ride!

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

The top 10 questions I would love to ask historical figures

Most of the blog so far has been pretty heavy.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s kind of the point.  I need an outlet for my intense musings on the big questions and love discussing such epic matters with others.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun as well.  To that effect, I’ve compiled a list of 10 questions I would love to put to our Royal forebears but, sadly will never be able to.

Here we go:

Elizabeth I – “You were the virgin Queen – I get that.  But what does that actually mean…?”

Richard III – “Come on now…own up.  How close to the truth was Thomas More?”

Queen Anne – “If you knew you were going to be the last monarch to veto an act of Parliament, would you have vetoed a few more?”

Katherine Parr – “Was Seymour worth the wait?”

Mary I – “In hindsight, might it have been worth taking a chill pill?”

Henry VIII – “Catherine Howard.  Adultery.  How did you not see that one coming?”

Margaret Beaufort – “Did you really have a vision telling you to marry Edmund Tudor?”

Princess Beatrice – “What was the juiciest  thing you cut out of Queen Victoria’s diary?”

Henry VI – “Do you think Edward was your boy?”

Richard II – “Seriously.  Dude.  What happened there?”

Okay geeks over to you…what questions would YOU like to put to the Royals of Britain’s past.

Book review: Elizabeth of York, the first Tudor Queen – by Alison Weir

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When Alison Weir’s biography of Elizabeth of York was published in late 2013, it was hailed as helping to rescue the memory of a ‘forgotten Queen.’

I never thought that was entirely fair.  I had certainly been taught about Henry VIII’s mother before I reached secondary education and I struggle to imagine that my school had a particularly outlandish curriculum.  But, it’s true to say that the image that comes down to us is deeply unsatisfying.

The almost dowdy mother.  The unthinkingly loyal consort.  The saintly persona.  The woman devoid of sexuality and of sensuality.  Could such a person have really produced the rumbustious Henry VIII, the chaotic Queen Margaret of Scotland and the daring Mary Tudor?

This is perhaps why some recent historians and fiction writers have gone too far in readdressing the balance.  Here the picture doesn’t fit either.  The White Princess.  The fearsome loyalist to the House of York.  The woman who dreams of lost brothers returning from across the sea.  The courageous Queen who fights against the power of her miserly husband and authoritarian mother-in-law.  Surely there’s a balance to be struck?

As ever, that is exactly what Weir achieves.  By revisiting the contemporary sources, she presents a reconstruction of the Queen which is well-researched, realistic and entirely human.  We start to get a glimpse – because perhaps it can only ever be a glimpse – as to what it might have actually been like to be in the presence of this fifteenth century matriarch.

To an extent, the book is counter-revisionist.  It reasserts Elizabeth’s genuine closeness to Henry VII (which many have questioned) and good relationship with his mother Margaret Beaufort.  It is clear that she was one of the key players that threw herself into making project Tudor a success.  She may not, as some have suggested, have explosively fallen out with her own mother – but she knew that her focus was the future.

No reader will be left with the impression that Elizabeth of York was a silent figure in the background.  The book is full of examples of where she used her influence, particularly for the good of others, and explores the impact she had on her own children to whom she was perhaps untypically close.

Weir also lets us have a bit of fun.  We explore intriguing theories that suggest the young Princess may have cosied up to  uncle Richard III more than we might think decent.  But she also reminds us exactly which theories we do and do not have evidence to support.  While I’m not entirely sure I believe in the genuineness of Elizabeth’s lost letter to the Duke of Norfolk – where she pleads for marriage to her uncle Richard – my huge respect for Weir, who does think it worthy of consideration, means I am going to have to think again.

Perhaps most striking is the author’s discovery that Elizabeth was present at the Tower of London at the time Sir James Tyrell – the man who had supposedly confessed to the murder of her brothers, the Princes in the Tower – was executed.  Could it be that she was brought there to hear his confession?

“Elizabeth of York: The first Tudor Queen” is not my favourite Alison Weir offering – I prefer the less one-person focused books such as ‘York Vs Lancaster’ – but it is toward the top of the list.  Quite simply, it is a must read for any fan or the era, or indeed anyone who enjoys getting up close and personal to a remarkable figure of history who might otherwise be forever misunderstood.

Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen, by Alison Weir was published  by Vintage in 2013.  At the time this post was published the book was available on Amazon for £4.99 (Kindle), £15.99 (hardback) and £9.48 (paperback).

Richard III part 7: Conclusion

In the past six posts I have attempted to demonstrate why I believe the circumstantial evidence and other reliable sources point firmly to the blame of Richard III who usurped his throne and killed his nephews.  Now I will sum up my conclusions and look forward to the conversation that will follow. Continue reading