Category Archives: The Women Behind the Fictions

The Maligned Margaret

An illustration from a manuscript presented to Margaret by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury

An illustration from a manuscript presented to Margaret by John
Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury

Susan Higginbotham is the author of five historical novels set in medieval and Tudor England, including “The Queen of Last Hopes,” a novel about Margaret of Anjou. Her first nonfiction book, “The Woodvilles,” about Edward IV’s queen and her family, was published this month. You can read more about her work at her website and her blog. This post is a part of “The Women Behind the Fictions” blog series.

In the recent series The White Queen, based on the novels of Philippa Gregory, Margaret of Anjou, queen to the unfortunate Henry VI, makes only a brief appearance. It’s an odd omission in a series that focuses on the women of this period, chiefly Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, and Anne Neville. If the scriptwriters were looking for a formidable woman, surely Margaret, who struggled ceaselessly over the years to uphold her husband’s and her son’s right to the throne, deserved top billing.

But perhaps it’s just as well that Margaret didn’t have more of a prominent role in the series, for Margaret has fared rather badly in historical fiction. She’s regularly shown as an adulteress and a vengeful harpy—and that reflects the more balanced portrayals of her. One historical novel has her repeatedly trying to murder her daughter-in-law, Anne Neville, while another has her committing incest with her son.

A set piece in many a Wars of the Roses novel involves cruel Margaret ordering immediately after the Battle of Wakefield that the severed heads of the Duke of York and his teenage son, the Earl of Rutland, be displayed and the Duke’s head be garnished with a paper crown. In fact, Margaret was not at the Battle of Wakefield; she was in Scotland at the time. There’s even been considerable doubt cast as to the extent of the atrocities supposedly committed by her troops.

Of England’s queens, Margaret is by far one of the most unlucky. Criticized at first for her failure to conceive a child, when she finally did become pregnant, her enemies accused her of adultery. (There’s simply no proof that she had sexual relations with any man but her husband.) During her pregnancy, her husband lost his reason; eventually, the loss of his crown followed. Believing that the throne of England was her son’s birthright, she fought for it until his death at the Battle of Tewkesbury. She was brought to London as a prisoner, only to have her husband murdered the night of her arrival. No longer regarded as a threat by the Yorkists, only as a financial burden, she was finally sent back to France, where she died in obscurity. Had she survived just three more years, she would have seen her husband’s nephew, Henry Tudor come to the throne as the representative of the Lancastrian cause for which Margaret had struggled for so long.

A medallion of Margaret done by Pietro da Milano

A medallion of Margaret done by Pietro da Milano

Margaret is frequently compared to an earlier French-born Queen of England, Isabella of France, and the traditionally negative portrayal of each of them has often been ascribed to misogyny and xenophobia. Both women, indeed, have recently benefited from recent interest in medieval women and medieval queens and as a result have received more balanced appraisals from historians, female and male alike. Yet popular culture has lagged behind, for while Isabella has been portrayed sympathetically by a number of novelists, especially female ones, Margaret of Anjou has met a quite different fate at their hands. She’s frequently little more than a cardboard villain, and even when she’s given some semblance of depth, the myths such as her presence at the Battle of Wakefield are trotted out. (Ironically, this portrayal of Margaret, which owes so much to Shakespeare, is often perpetuated by the very same novelists who decry the Bard’s portrayal of Richard III.)

Strangely, Isabella, who was disloyal to her husband (Edward II) and even to her own son, and who was possibly an adulteress, has attracted defenders because of those very facts. They treat her alleged adultery as the natural reaction of a wronged wife and her deposition of her husband as being a commendable reaction against royal tyranny. Yet the loyalty of Margaret to her husband and to her son is depicted as the power-mad reaction of a vengeful woman.

So why not spare Margaret of Anjou a little kindness for a change? When she arrived in England as a seasick fifteen-year-old in 1445, she might well have hoped to have been a traditional queen, smiling at her husband’s side, doing good works, and procuring favors for her subjects. Instead, with an incapacitated husband and competing claims to the throne, she found herself thrust into a situation that had no easy solutions, either for the men involved or for Margaret. Novelists have recognized the complexity of the situation these men faced; it’s time they did the same for Margaret.

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The Almost Mythical Early Life of Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots

The Queen of Scots was a French girl and her name was not Mary: it was Marie!

By Linda Root

Marie Stuart is not the same persona as Mary Tudor (Mary I of England) who historians sometimes call Bloody Mary: Nor is she the same person as Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s favorite sister who was briefly queen consort of France but never a queen in her own right.  The confusion would not have occurred but for the insistence of contemporary historians that the Queen of Scots be given the English name of Mary, a politically motivated misnomer. Her father James V of Scotland died when she was six days old and the Scottish influence on her childhood died with him. Her mother Marie of Guise had been in Scotland for four years when he died. The House of Guise had a mixed Franco-Germanic heritage which they traced to Charlemagne.  Following French assumption of suzerainty over Lorraine, Guise scions were French princes. They were as powerful as they were arrogant and looked upon Scotland as a Provence with bad weather.

Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots

Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots

Mary Tudor (Mary I)

Mary Tudor (Mary I)

The Queen of Scots was at least as French as her mother, who had been educated in Joinville under the tutelage of her devoutly religious mother Antoinette de Bourbon, who dressed as a nun and wore a cilice. The Queen of Scots was schooled in the royal nursery at Saint Germain-en-Laye, her curriculum dictated by queen consort Catherine de Medici and the king’s mistress Diane de Poitiers. Her education was identical to the one received by Catherine’s daughters, princesses Elisabeth and Claud. Their tutors were renaissance scholars. Diane was a patroness of the arts and a fashion icon, an ideal role model for a future queen.

Assertions of historians that Marie Stuart spoke no French when she arrived in France at age five seem implausible.  Traditionally, young Scottish monarchs lived at Stirling, but Marie Stuart remained in her mother’s French-speaking household until she was five.  The Dowager’s advisers were the Frenchmen de Thermes and d’Oysel, and her household staff and ladies-in-waiting were predominantly French.  It is disingenuous to believe that she spoke Scots to her infant daughter when she barely knew it herself. 

MarieLetter

When the queen was five she was sent to France to evade an English army scouring Scotland in hopes of hauling her to a forced betrothal to Edward VI. Before she sailed, she was affianced by proxy to the four-year-old dauphin. Hers was not a flight into an unfamiliar world.  Scottish aristocrats were often educated at the Sorbonne. France granted dual citizenship to Scots.  Fashion at the Scottish court was French. Marie of Guise consulted Diane de Poitiers on her wardrobe. Three of the four Scottish girls selected to accompany Marie to France—the Four Maries– had French mothers. Even they were hustled to a convent school in Poissy and the other Scots were sent packing.  Any trace of Scottishness that Marie retained was systematically eradicated. Below is a note she wrote to her mother when she was seven.  Voila! It is a note written by a French girl.

The assertion that Marie Stuart was an unhappy child who was abused by Queen Catherine and corrupted by Diane de Poitiers is a construct of historians who wish to cast Marie Stuart as a perennial victim. Henri II doted on the charming child slated to become his daughter-in-law, and neither of the two women competing for his affections would have dared abuse or malign her. It is more likely that she played them off against each other. She learned poetry from Ronsard and history from Brantome, but her ability to manipulate those around her came from her uncle Charles. In addition to being Christendom’s second most powerful prelate, he was the richest man in France. His position as his niece’s mentor insulated her from exploitation by all but her uncle’s.

It benefited the king’s dynastic plan for his son to have a perfect wife. Francois stuttered and his nose ran constantly. Having Marie at his side was a necessary accouterment. The wedding  went forward in 1558, in hopes that Francois’s testicles  would eventually descend into his scrotum and the dynasty would be saved. Meanwhile, illusion  was enough. Unfortunately, in the autumn the new dauphiness misstepped, and it was her uncles and Henri  who tripped her. 

dePoitiers

Diane de Poitiers

HenriII

Henri II

Caterina Maria de Romula de’Medici

Caterina Maria de Romula de’Medici

  To understand the interplay between the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, forget what you remember of The Tudors and Cate Blanchett’s portrayals of Elizabeth. The acting and sets are better than the history. In spite of myriad novels and movies, Marie Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor never met.  Do not waste time puzzling over how Great Harry’s sister Margaret who wed and smothered the wizened King of Portugal fits into this: No such person existed. The real Margaret Tudor was Henry VIII’s impetuous older sister whom he shunted to Scotland to marry James IV before she did something outrageous.  Her firstborn, prophetically named James, became James V a year later when his father died at Flodden.  In 1542 he became Marie Stuart’s father. Having suffered a military rout at Solway Moss and the unwanted gift of a daughter when he needed a son, he muttered something cryptic about ‘it started with a lass and is ending with a lass’, turned to face the wall and died.

The real Margaret Tudor was Marie Stuart’s grandmother. She was also the grandmother of Marie Stuart’s second husband Darnley, son of Lady Margaret Douglas, child of Margaret‘s tempestuous second marriage to Archibald Douglas. Sixteenth century royals made a habit of marrying their cousins, which kept the Pope busy signing dispensations but did little to enhance the bloodlines.  As a closet Catholic, Margaret Douglas was Mary Tudor’s favorite cousin, the Catholic choice to become her heir. But Mary declined to override her father’s Will. The crown passed to Protestant Elizabeth.

Next, Marie Stuart ventured onto the political stage and tripped. Her uncles and Henri insisted that since Elizabeth was both bastard and heretic, the Queen of Scots was England’s rightful queen. Seduced by the idea, Marie began quartering the English arms alongside those of France and Scotland. She was either deplorably  naïve or as overreaching as her uncles. The pope ruled for Elizabeth.  Marie Stuart had taken her first stumble on the path to Fotheringhay.

Marie ElizabethICoronation

The Queen of Scots Became Queen of France Literally By Accident

HenriJoustIn  the summer of 1559, after years of war Europe was at peace. The court was celebrating the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in a series of tournaments at La Tournelles.  Late in the final day of jousting,  Henri neglected to lower his visor and Gabriel Montgomerie’s lance entered his forehead near his eye. Before nightfall , Catherine sent  Diane packing. A few days later, Henri  died. Marie Stuart was the French queen consort  and immature Francois was king. Catherine allied herself with the Guises and rode to the Louvres in the same coach as the new queen while Francois II paraded beside the Duke of Guise. Marie Stuart had attained the status she had dreamed of since childhood, and the  Guises ruled France.

Marie Stuart’s time as a French Queen Consort did not last long:

Under the Salic law that prevailed in France, women could not ascend the throne. Marie Stuart never reigned there. Assertions that she  controlled her husband and thus ruled France are misguided. Her uncles controlled them both.  They governed while the young royals amused themselves by hunting the white stag. Enemies  of the ultra-Catholic Guises plastered Paris with posters asking “Ou est le roi?”

In the spring of 1560  the anti-Guise faction launched  a plot to free Francois  from his wife’s relatives. But too many conspirators were involved and the plan was leaked to Catherine. The assault  against the vacationing  royals at Amboise ended in a rout. A grisly purge of anyone with a link to the rebels followed. The Loire ran red with the blood of peasants whose only sin was giving water to a soldier. Marie watched the executions from a gallery window. Each day’s slaughter was followed by fireworks and water sports until the court was forced  to move to Chenonceau to avoid the stench of rotting corpses  hanging from the battlement.

There was brief rejoicing when Marie missed a menses and began wearing a smock, but is was as illusory as Mary Tudor’s false pregnancies.  Apparently the queen was still a virgin. The smock was discarded and the dynastic aspirations of the Guises soon followed. After hunting  in a mild  snowstorm,  Francois developed an ear infection that migrated to his brain. He died in December of what doctors called ’brain fever.’ His mother left his deathbed long enough to convene the Estates General. The king died that night and on the following day the second son of the woman Marie Stuart scornfully called ‘the Italian shopkeeper’s daughter’ became Charles IX and the shopkeeper’s daugher was named his Regent. The Guises retired to Joinville.

The Queen’s return to Scotland was a last resort:

She spent the next five years trying to regain the status she lost when Francois died. Her quest began in Europe as she shopped for a husband of similar rank.  Her first choice was Don Carlos of Austria,  the Spanish Infante, Philip’s son to his first wife and double cousin Maria of Portugal. Carlos was not only physically deformed: he was mentally ill. His homicidal outbursts were aimed at  Philip who had no desire to let him breed. Besides, Philip had promised Catherine to nix any marriage that might weaken the position of Marie’s old friend, his consort Elisabeth Valois, who was pregnant.

Charles IX

Charles IX

Don Carlos

Don Carlos

Charles IX was another possibility.  The nine-year-old was infatuated with his pretty sister-in-law.  Catherine made short shrift of that.  She had no desire to reinstate her condescending daughter in law just when she was rid of her. Disconsolate Marie visited her grandmother, and her uncles snubbed her.  After her half brother Lord James Stewart arrived to entice her to Scotland to assume personal rule, they thawed. Having Scotland in their clutches was better than nothing.

When the queen’s flagship  entered Leith harbor  ahead of schedule, there was  no one to greet it.. The convoy carrying her livery, horses and household goods had been confiscated by Elizabeth. The queen requisitioned a burgess’s house to rest and wash, and then set out for  Edinburgh on a borrowed horse. The exceptionally tall  female rider with porcelain skin and  auburn hair attracted a crowd that followed her to Holyrood. That night they serenaded her from the courtyard.  Her apartments at Holyrood were not ready for her arrival, and neither were the Scots.

 …On that note, her reign began

Linda Root is a former homicide prosecutor and the author of four historical novels set in Marie Stuart’s Scotland.  Root lives in Yucca Valley, California with husband Chris and two mixed giant Alaskan Malamutes Maxx and Maya.  Her fifth book of the series, 1603: The Queen’s Revenge, is scheduled for release in early 2014. Check out the first four in the series by clicking on the following links: The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots The Midwife’s Secret: The Mystery of the Hidden Princess, and The Other Daughter: the Midwife’s Secret II.

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The Deconstruction of Anne Neville

Anne Neville coverAmy 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.

Anne_Neville_portraitIn 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.

anne nThe 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.

CN3 ANNEIf 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.

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