Amy Licence is a well-known journalist and the author of a new biography, Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen, as well as Royal Babies and In Bed With The Tudors. She is currently working on a biography of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III. She lives with her husband and two small sons in the medieval city of Canterbury, UK. This post is a part of the guest blog series, “The Women Behind the Fictions.”
Before the arrival of The White Queen on our screens this summer, even enthusiasts of the fifteenth century may have been left wondering exactly who Anne Neville was. Even given all the excitement surrounding the discovery of Richard III’s bones, his wife remains something of a shadowy figure. Outside the realms of historical fiction and popular drama, she has received little attention until recently. A chapter here, a reference there, an essay, the odd footnote or two: she has languished in the margins of Ricardian study in a way that until recently, was typical of the under representation of medieval women. For most people, she is still the bitter widow of Shakespeare’s play, who is charmed by her enemy into turning her bitterest hate into a marriage she lives to regret.
Clearly the Bard’s “history” was a work of fiction, adapting events from the past, re-animating well-known figures and putting words into their mouths to entertain Elizabethan audiences. However, Shakespeare’s dramatization of the incident has become so famous that it has almost entirely eclipsed historical fact in the popular imagination: the powerful scene develops along familiar lines as Anne’s grief is interrupted by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the alleged killer of her relatives. He is portrayed as the pantomimic “bunch-backed toad”, adding to chronicler John Rous’s hostile description of 1491, which puts Richard’s gestation period at two years and presents him arriving with a full set of teeth and head of hair. Anne is represented by Shakespeare as a full grown woman, bitter and resentful, uttering the curse that brings her own unhappiness full circle once she has been easily manipulated into bed by the Machiavellian villain. Yet, in fact, Anne was only fourteen at the time and Richard was her childhood friend. The fictional Anne Neville has had a more enduring legacy than her real life counterpart.
In a way, this is unsurprising because Anne didn’t leave much of a paper trail. Yet this woman was England’s Queen for almost two years. When we consider the mass of information available on someone like Anne Boleyn, whose tenure of the throne was also brief, around a thousand days, according to the popular 1969 film, the real discrepancy appears. The subsequent dramatic events of English history, the Battle of Bosworth and advent of the Tudors, swept away much of the surviving evidence about Anne Neville and began rewriting the past to fit a new regime. Even taking this into account, the facts of Anne’s life renders her ghost-like. It almost seems strange to think of Richard having a wife at all, hardly compatible with popular culture’s representation of this controversial King. His presentation in the Bard’s famous play is hardly uxorious. You can almost imagine Anne as a poem by Carol Anne Duffy, rather like her one about Shakespeare’s own enigmatic wife, written to celebrate female love and loss. But in spite of the dearth of real evidence, Anne Neville was not a wife of the second-best-bed variety, she was King Richard III’s partner and his Queen.
The usual portrayal of Anne is that of a passive pawn, manipulated and married off as a teenager, subject to the whims of her menfolk. She was just 14 at the time, which seems shocking to modern sensibilities, but given that this was the age of consent and a fairly average age for women of the nobility to be wed, (Margaret Beaufort had already borne Henry VII by this time), we must be wary about applying anachronistic modern values. With a figure like Anne, the surviving facts are so scarce that she seems more vacuum than substance. I was prompted to investigate her life by the narrow way that that vacuum has been filled. She has the potential to be cast as a great heroine or a Lady Macbeth-style villain or any of the many, more realistic combinations in between. It is quite understandable that she has been appropriated by novelists who have used their fertile imaginations to recreate an accessible, sympathetic character. Yet that is what she often remains, a character, a literary foil, a fictional construct. The lack of evidence about her life does not mean that she should be ignored or relegated to the sidelines, instead, it demands that the facts are used to construct various possible readings, considering the key events of her life from her own perspective.
The Anne-shaped void has been interpreted flatly, dully and disappointingly. Why should she not be portrayed with a little life in her? She was young and her choices were limited but she was the Kingmaker’s daughter and her gender should not preclude her also being ambitious, driven and strong. The other women of the wars of the roses- Elizabeth Wydeville and her mother Jacquetta, Margaret of Anjou, Margaret Beaufort and Anne’s own mother, the Countess of Warwick- are allowed to be fighters but Anne and her sister Isabel have been infantilised by the processes of history and cast as the bloodless foils of their menfolk. Anne did not choose to marry Edward of Lancaster, there is no doubt it was one of her father’s schemes but that does not mean she didn’t go with it. It was in her interests as much as his. Her duty was to marry as well as she could and who better, than the heir to the throne, whose family her father was about to rehabilitate?
It is Anne’s second marriage to Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester, that really makes her a historically significant figure. Following her father’s failed coup and death, Anne and Richard were married in secret circumstances, quite possibly at her own instigation, at the very least as a mutually beneficial arrangement. She needed someone to help her regain her inheritance, which was then entirely in the hands of her brother-in-law, George, Duke of Clarence. As her husband, Richard took control of her lands and helped weaken George’s power and his ability to pose a further threat to their brother, Edward IV. Richard could then also assume the mantle of his late mentor Warwick in the north. As newly-weds, still both in their teens, they went to live at Anne’s childhood home of Middleham Castle. She bore one son, Edward, some time between 1473 and 1477 and there they remained for the next eleven years. If the King had not died prematurely at the age of forty, they may have lived out their lives there in quiet obscurity.
Then came the dramatic events of 1483: the death of Edward IV and accession of his twelve-year-old son, the boy’s planned coronation that never happened, the deaths of those who opposed Richard (Hastings, Rivers, Grey, Vaughn), his acceptance of the crown and the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. For centuries, historians have speculated about Richard’s motives during these months and the details of what actually happened. Explanations tend to be polarised, depicting Richard as a ruthless, ambitious killer or as a conscientious king who discovered his nephews’ illegitimacy and took the only course available to him as the Yorkist heir. This denies the complexity of human nature and subtleties of the political situation: as with Anne’s interpretation, the truth about Richard’s character and motives lies somewhere between them.
If anyone knew what Richard was thinking in 1483, it is likely to have been his wife of eleven years. How far did she understand the events that placed a crown on her own head? What did she know about the fates of the Princes in the Tower, the nephews of her own little boy? It all rather depends upon the nature of their marriage; how close they were and whether they were in the habit of confiding in each other. Even given the gender dynamic of the day, we have to take into account the fact that they had a long standing personal relationship. Then, as now, marriages do not all conform to one pattern and we only need to look to medieval literature to provide us with examples of how clever women were able to outsmart their menfolk and challenge conventions.
In 1483, Anne may simply have done what she was told. Equally she might have encouraged Richard, as she had much to lose in the current situation and personal scores to settle. After all, the new King was surrounded by his Wydeville relatives, the very family her own father had loathed and fought against. Perhaps she encouraged Richard to strike against them in order to pre-empt reprisals or the loss of their lands. Maybe she coveted the throne. Maybe she tried to talk him out of it. We don’t know. What we do know though, is that Anne was crowned alongside Richard in July 1483. Willingly or not, that makes her complicit in his actions.
Richard and Anne were not king and queen for long. The reign was troubled by discontent within months and there was always the threat of Henry Tudor in exile. Soon, tragedy struck. They lost their young son, which apart from being an appalling personal blow, had huge implications for the stability of Richard’s hold on the throne. Some would have seen is as an act of divine judgement, rather than whatever juvenile illness finally claimed the child’s life. Eight months later, Anne’s own health was failing. Often characterised as sickly and weak, there is actually no evidence that she experienced any ill-health before this point. Sometimes the couple’s lack of other surviving children, linked with her sister’s early death, is cited as evidence of her general frailty but there are many possible explanations of the couple’s low productive rate. Anne’s mother only bore two girls and Anne herself may have suffered miscarriages that went unrecorded. Modern science can provide us with a far greater understanding of the issues affecting fertility that the medieval mind could encompass.
Anne’s final months were not happy ones. Rumours persisted at court of a relationship between Richard and his niece, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of the White Queen; they gained such hold that Richard was later forced to make a public declaration to the effect that he had no intention of marrying her and sent her north to his castle of Sheriff Hutton. Today we can speculate over the account of the chronicler Croyland, but the fact is, that only one person knew Richard’s real intentions towards Elizabeth. The Westminster court cannot have been an easy place for Anne as she grew weaker. Much has been made of one account that Richard spurned her bed but this would have been common practise if her symptoms were considered contagious at the time. Anne died on March 16, 1485, amid an eclipse of the sun, highly symbolic for a dynasty that used the sun prominently in its personal iconography. In her death, the legend of her life began. The chroniclers, playwrights and poets moved in to shape her to their will. It is vital to remember that the Anne we see on the stage and screen is their construction, their puppet and interpretation. It is not the only one.