From Court to Cloister
After nine years of research there is one moment that stands out to me, among all the remarkable events of the Wars of the Roses.
The event I am talking about took place in October 1459, at the Battle of Ludlow, which is also known as the Battle of Ludford Bridge. It involves Cecily Neville, Duchess of York.
Cecily’s husband, Richard, Duke of York, was the main contender for the throne that was held by Henry VI. Cecily supported this claim until Richard’s death in 1460.
In October 1459, Richard’s forces were grouped on the opposite side of the River Teme from Ludlow, near the bridge that gives the battle its name. Despite a recent victory, morale was low, partly because Richard’s troops knew that King Henry himself was present in the opposing army. Also, the Yorkists were outnumbered. During the night, some of their forces defected to the Lancastrian side. After consultation, the Yorkist leaders abandoned their armies and fled. At dawn on 13 October, the leaderless Yorkist troops knelt in submission before King Henry and were pardoned.
Richard of York fled to Ireland, leaving Cecily in Ludlow Castle with their three youngest children, Margaret, George and Richard, (aged 7).
The chronicler Gregory wrote that the king’s troops ran through Ludlow ‘wetshod with wine’ and robbed the town ‘to the bare bones’. Looting and pillaging, the vast army swept through the town towards the castle.
It is interesting to consider what your options might be, if you were inside the castle; what you might do.
What Cecily did is recorded. Holding her two sons by the hand, she walked out to meet the mob, waiting for them at the market cross.
It’s a dramatic moment that speaks volumes for her courage and presence of mind; her famous pride. As a strategy it was successful; after the battle she was permitted to submit to the king.
Also, it’s one of those moments on which history turns. If she had tried to run, for instance, the mob might have caught her and who knows what would have happened next? A frenzied mob is hardly predictable, hardly rational. If she and her children had been killed there would have been no Richard III, since her youngest son, Richard, later became king. The course of the Wars of the Roses, and by extension, the rest of history, would have been very different. Yet the battle is not very well known, and neither is Cecily herself.
While writing my trilogy about the Wars of the Roses I was struck by the fact that some of the most powerful women of this era are not better known, even though contemporary scholarship has reassessed their role. In a recent study, for instance, Sarah Gristwood has suggested that ‘the women of the Cousins’ Wars should be legends’.
One reason for their relative obscurity is a bias in the written records of that time; in the medieval chronicles, for instance. England has a rich tradition of chronicle writing. Partisan, contradictory, unreliable, the chronicles remain a major source for the historian today. They tend to focus however, on the actions of men. Women are marginalised in them, mentioned dismissively if at all.
From other documents: state papers, letters, household accounts, wills and legacies, it is clear that women played a key role in shaping the nation at this time. Three of these women, however, disappear from the narrative well before the end of their lives. We can see the role that Margaret of Anjou, Cecily Neville and Elizabeth Woodville played at court, but not what happened to them once they left. A considerable portion of their lives is unrecorded, and this seems to me to tell us both about the way in which history has been written, and the way in which we read that history now.
Cecily, mother of two kings, is a case in point. She seems to have exercised considerable power for much of her life, but becomes almost invisible at the end.
Fourteen months after the Battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s husband, the Duke of York, was killed at the battle of Wakefield. Her son Edmund was killed with him, as well as her brother, the Earl of Salisbury. A few weeks after this disastrous conflict, however, the Wheel of fortune rotated in her favour once more. Cecily’s oldest son, Edward, claimed the throne and won an outstanding victory at the battle of Towton.
Cecily was now in the powerful position of mother of the king. The papal legate, Coppini, said ‘she can rule the king as she pleases’. However, she did not prevail over his choice of a bride. In 1464, Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian knight, who already had two sons. In a single stroke, Edward alienated his mother, his brothers and his cousin, the Earl of Warwick, and his court.
In the turbulent years that followed, Cecily seems to have tried to mediate between her sons as George, Duke of Clarence, staged a coup against Edward. However, the hostility between the two brothers ultimately culminated in George’s execution. One source suggests that Cecily intervened to commute the sentence from hanging, drawing and quartering to a more merciful death – it has always been said that George was drowned in a butt of malmsey wine.
After these devastating events there are few records of Cecily at court. She based herself mainly at Berkhamsted Castle where she lived a devout life, hearing several masses a day, spending much of her time in prayer and retiring to bed at eight. There is no mention of her at the coronation of her youngest son, Richard III, though there are letters from Richard to his mother indicating that he sometimes visited and consulted her. Cecily outlived Richard by ten years, dying at Berkhamsted in 1495, but there are few mentions of her during the reign of Henry VII. The rest, as they say, is silence.
The end of her daughter-in-law’s life is similarly shrouded in mystery.
The story of how Elizabeth Woodville intercepted Edward after the Battle of Towton in order to plead for her rights and the rights of her Lancastrian family, has passed into legend. Edward became enamoured with her, but she refused to sleep with him, even when (according to Dominic Mancini) he threatened rape. Ultimately, of course, they married, and she became Queen Elizabeth.
Intriguing as the story of their courtship is, only the marriage is verifiable. We know that this was an unpopular marriage, and the queen became even more unpopular as she assiduously sought promotion for her extensive family. Five of her brothers and five of her sisters were married into the nobility.
In the coup of 1470, when Edward was forced to flee, Elizabeth, heavily pregnant, took refuge in the Sanctuary of Westminster. Here she gave birth to Edward’s first son, the future Edward V.
She was praised at this time for being a model of courage, patience and loyalty. It is also clear from various records that she managed her household well, and that the king esteemed her enough to assign considerable power to her in his will, over their children and estates. Just before the king’s death, in 1483 however, he seems to have made some crucial changes to his will. He ‘bequeathed the kingdom’ to his oldest son, Edward, and awarded custody of both young princes to his brother Richard, who was named Protector of the Realm.
In the ensuing weeks, the queen retreated into Sanctuary once more, as her marriage was declared invalid and her children illegitimate; the two princes were taken into custody, and her brother and son from her first marriage were executed. On 6 July, Richard of Gloucester was crowned King Richard III.
In one dramatic year, therefore, Elizabeth lost her husband, her brother and three sons. We still do not know what happened to the ‘princes in the Tower’, or what their mother knew, or suspected, about their fate.
We do know, however, that from sanctuary she began to conspire with Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor. She agreed that her oldest daughter would marry Henry once he had claimed the throne. The rest is history. But from that point on, we hear very little about Elizabeth Woodville.
It seems that she chose to retire from court. At any rate, it is the king’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who is ubiquitously present at state occasions, not the queen’s mother. In the new king’s first Parliament, Elizabeth was restored to the rank of Queen Dowager (after being deprived of that status by Richard III) given a grant of six manors and an income of £102.00 a year.
Then in 1487 she was deprived of all her possessions and property, receiving a reduced income of 400 marks a year. This was after Lambert Simnel had made his claim to the throne. There is speculation that Elizabeth was suspected of involvement in his cause, though this was never cited as a reason for the reduction of her state.
Elizabeth moved into a convent at Bermondsey, and died there in June 1492. Her burial was modest and private, without any ringing of bells or official dirge. Three of her daughters and an illegitimate daughter of Edward IV were present, but not her oldest daughter, the queen, who had entered her fourth confinement.
We know very little of Elizabeth Woodville’s life in the convent, or how involved she managed to be in the life of her daughter, the upbringing of her grandchildren or the various conspiracies against Henry VII, while she was there. Again, effectively she has been deleted from the record.
Margaret of Anjou has probably been the most maligned of the key female figures of the fifteenth century. She is Shakespeare’s ‘she-wolf of France’, or, as one of Shakespeare’s sources put it, ‘a manly woman, used rather to rule than to be ruled.’
During the battles between the Houses of Lancaster and York, Margaret led armies, endured kidnapping, shipwreck and destitution, while all the time protecting her son, the prince. But she suffered a cataclysmic defeat at Tewkesbury, in 1471. The young prince was killed here, in his first battle. Margaret’s husband, King Henry, was killed immediately afterwards in the Tower, where she herself was imprisoned.
Ultimately Margaret was ransomed by the French king, Louis XI. For the rest of her life she lived in comparative isolation and poverty in France. She died in August 1482, and was interred next to her father in the Cathedral in Angers.
For the last eleven years of her life, from the time of her capture at Tewkesbury, we hear practically nothing about her. There is no record of her imprisonment in the Tower, the period she spent in the custody of her former friend, Alice Chaucer, or her final years in France. The most important woman in England at that time was effectively written out of history.
It is possible to argue, of course, that these women have disappeared because they were on the losing side. The historical record simply loses interest in them, which is true of any vanquished people. Certainly it has more to say about Lady Margaret Beaufort, who, as mother of the Tudor dynasty, was ultimately on the winning side, though not for the first forty-two years of her life. Again, the medieval chronicles barely mention her, but we have state papers, household accounts, letters, Parliamentary Rolls, borough records, the account of Bishop Fisher, and of her servant Henry Parker.
Margaret Beaufort was born in 1443 in Bedfordshire. Her father was the Duke of Somerset. She was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, and the great-great-granddaughter of Edward III.
The Beauforts came from the relationship between John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine Swynford. When John of Gaunt married his mistress after twenty-five years, Richard II issued a statute legitimising their children. Henry IV endorsed this statute, but added a coda excepta dignitate regali, debarring them from succession to the throne.
Margaret’s father, John Beaufort, had a long and disastrous history of service in France. He served the longest term of imprisonment there of any nobleman in the Hundred Years’ War. On his return, impoverished by the fine he’d had to pay, he married a widow, Margaret Beauchamp, who already had five children. When Henry VI sent him back to France he prevaricated for as long as possible, negotiating a dukedom as part of the deal. After another disastrous term of service, he returned to face charges of fraud and treason. The Crowland Chronicle records that he took his own life, four days before Margaret’s first birthday.
After her father’s suicide, Henry VI awarded custody of Margaret to the Duke of Suffolk.
The Duke of Suffolk arranged a marriage between Margaret Beaufort and his young son, John de la Pole; Margaret was not quite seven at this time. This marriage was dissolved when the Duke of Suffolk, also facing charges of treason, was exiled, then summarily executed by an unknown crew on board ship.
Margaret’s second marriage was to the king’s half-brother, Edmund Tudor, when she was twelve. She became pregnant by him shortly before her thirteenth birthday. Later that year Edmund was captured by the Duke of York’s forces, led by William Herbert. He died of plague in Carmarthen Castle in November 1456, when Margaret was six months pregnant.
Edmund’s brother, Jasper Tudor, took Margaret into his protection. She gave birth to her only son in his castle of Pembroke on January 28, 1457. Immediately afterwards, Jasper arranged a third marriage for her, to the second son of the Duke of Buckingham, Henry Stafford. This third marriage took place on January 3rd 1458, a few months before her fifteenth birthday.
After the Battle of Towton in 1461, the victorious Edward IV rewarded his general, William Herbert with custody of Henry Tudor. This marked the beginning of 24 years of Henry’s separation from his mother.
For Margaret these were years of negotiation/conciliation with the Yorkist regime and attempts to reclaim custody of her son. After her third husband was killed at the Battle of Barnet, she arranged her own fourth marriage. This was to Thomas Stanley, King of Mann, a wealthy widower with some influence over the king, as part of her campaign to have Henry restored to her.
Only after Richard III came to the throne, however, did Margaret begin to actively conspire against the crown. She was the motivating force behind Buckingham’s rebellion in the autumn of 1483. She had persuaded Elizabeth Woodville to agree to a marriage between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York if the rebellion proved successful. When this conspiracy failed, Margaret and her son were attainted. Her husband was entrusted with her imprisonment, and endowed with all her lands and possessions.
At some point Thomas Stanley seems to have allowed Margaret access to her priest. This was Christopher Urswick, Rector of Puttenham, Hertfordshire, and also one of the Fellows of Manchester Collegiate Church (now Cathedral). He became her agent, undertaking secret missions to Brittany in order to communicate messages from Margaret to her son, so that a second conspiracy could begin.
In 1485, this conspiracy was successful. Henry Tudor became King Henry VII of England. At his coronation it was said that Margaret ‘wept mervaylously’ throughout. She was now the king’s mother, and remained his closest advisor throughout his reign. She was present at all state occasions, was accorded the same precedence when dining and frequently wore the same royal clothes as her daughter in law, the queen. She laid down the rules for Elizabeth of York’s confinement, and for the upbringing of her grandchildren. After her son’s death, she briefly ruled the country as Regent, until the coronation of her grandson nine weeks later.
At the coronation feast, Margaret Beaufort, famed for her ascetic diet, is said to have eaten a cygnet, and died a few days later from terrible pains in her stomach. This death has never been recorded as suicide, but it suggests to me that after the death of her son she knew her own role was over and there was no reason to go on.
It is hard not to speculate about the lives of these women, when so much is left unsaid. What is said about them suggests the scope and limitations of their power. It indicates a bias in the writing of history at that time, which emphasises the active, frequently military involvement of men rather than the more covert mediation or conspiracy of women. And our reading of the recorded facts also suggests the limitations of our own perspective on history.
Since the second half of the twentieth century there has been an ideological interest in the people who have been silenced, or excluded from history because of race, class, gender or sexual orientation. That silencing is seen as a negative consequence of the operation of power. As Hilary Mantel put it in a recent interview, what we know of history depends on ‘who tells the story, who holds the pen.’
Each age has its own bias, however, and ours is perhaps in part, a bias against silence, equating voicelessness with deprivation. Some of the classic writers offer a different perspective: ‘silence is wisdom’s best reply’ – Euripides, or ‘silence at the proper season is better than any speech,’ – Plutarch. The late medieval era was one in which the great religious writings such as the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ or the works of Thomas á Kempis (translated by Margaret Beaufort) flourished, and many of them contained injunctions towards silence. It is possible that these women saw their retreat away from the intrigues and corruption of court, and from history itself, as a positive step rather than a simple defeat.
There is a further possibility. We know that Margaret Beaufort was actively engaged in conspiracy while confined in Stanley’s castle. Elizabeth Woodville engaged in conspiracy from Sanctuary and was suspected of it during Henry VII’s reign while living away from court. In her will, Cecily Neville left some money to certain people who had actively been involved in conspiracies against Henry VII. We do not know the extent of the unrecorded acts of these women or their consequences over time. The historical record is incomplete when it comes to the hidden power of women, which is like the negative imprint of a photograph, or the effect of dark matter on the visible universe. The 21st century reader, therefore, has to bear in mind the limitations of their own perceptions when interpreting the past.