Book Review: “The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family” by Susan Higginbotham

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Research into the life of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of England as the wife of King Edward IV led me to this interesting little book. After reading a couple of biographies of her, it was clear she came from a large and diverse family. Her mother Jacquetta was a noblewoman from Luxembourg and had been married to the Duke of Bedford, brother of King Henry V. Bedford died not long after the wedding and Jacquetta was left a young widow with a lucrative inheritance. Permission for another marriage was required of King Henry VI. Jacquetta married Sir Richard Woodville without permission. After confessing, the couple paid an enormous fine to the king. Sir Richard was beneath Jacquetta in social standing but the marriage was successful.

The couple would have at least fourteen children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood. Once King Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, many of her siblings had a meteorite rise in social standing through marriages and through appointments to offices in the king’s government. This book is the story of these many siblings and what we know from the historical records. Higginbotham goes through each person and tells us what is known of their story. She covers who they married, what positions they were appointed to, how effective they were in office, how loyal they were to the king and what battles they fought in.

It is interesting to note that none of the men had surviving male children. There were a few daughters and some of Elizabeth’s sisters had children. At first, the family supported the House of Lancaster but after Elizabeth’s marriage, they became loyal to the House of York. Higginbotham addresses all the arguments that have been made for and against this family. She makes some very valid points in all cases. I found this book to be fair and even-handed in addressing issues with the family and would recommend it for anyone interested in the Wars of the Roses era.

Book Review: “Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen” by Arlene Okerlund

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One of the latest trends in history is to examine the lives of medieval women to shed light on and reassess the records with an open mind. In 2005, Tempus Publishing began a series of books called England’s Forgotten Queens with Alison Weir as the series editor. This book was the first to be published and a biography of Anne Neville was published in the fall of 2007. That same year, Tempus Publishing was absorbed into The History Press. It appears there were no more biographies in the series which is a shame.

Okerlund is a professor of English at San Jose State University in California. It says on the book jacket she first learned of Elizabeth Wydeville, the mother of the two princes murdered in the Tower from Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”. She discovered her bad name arose from slander spread by enemies and became determined to reveal the lies in an effort to restore Elizabeth’s reputation. It is very clear from this book Okerlund has succeeded.

Okerlund has examined the numerous sources related to this queen and considered all the possibilities and probabilities. Elizabeth had a reputation for being very beautiful. Her mother was from the nobility of Luxembourg. Her father had a long and chivalrous career serving the Lancastrian kings. She came from a pious, cultured and loving family. Yet she was slandered as being low-born and grasping. Her brother, cousin, and three sons died in the turmoil and violence that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses. She ended up dying in poverty. She left an enormous legacy as the ancestor of King Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and every other English monarch down to the present day.

Elizabeth’s life is an incredible story. With her meticulous research, Okerlund covers all the propaganda and incidences of Elizabeth’s life giving all the possible explanations. Many of the slanders against her just don’t hold up under great scrutiny. Marrying King Edward IV brought many privileges and advantages but it also brought great heartache. Many members of her family were promoted during Edward’s reign. Although Elizabeth was accused of being grasping and greedy, none of these promotions could have happened without Edward’s sanction and authority. Elizabeth was forced into the proverbial rock and a hard place many times. She was compelled to turn over her second son and to release her daughters from sanctuary to Richard III, the man who had declared her marriage to his brother as null and void and pronounced her children as illegitimate.

When it comes down to it, Elizabeth just had no choice. Once Edward died, her position was difficult if not dire. Okerlund covers all this in great detail and makes very forceful arguments. She maintains that Elizabeth was not the arrogant, grasping woman her enemies portrayed. This book includes an impressive collection of photos, genealogical tables and a thorough bibliography. She also includes a nice collection of charts. There is a timeline of Edward IV and the Wydevilles, a listing of the Wydeville family and who they married, a list of Elizabeth’s children and a timeline of events and battles of the Wars of the Roses. If you are interested in getting a different perspective on Elizabeth Wydeville’s life, I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: “The Wars of the Roses” by Alison Weir

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This is a ripping read! It was very hard to put this book down. Weir, in her inimitable way, can really write a good story. As she states in the introduction, Weir is not just recounting the history of the Wars of the Roses. Her intention is to give us her insight into the personalities involved. Indeed, what drove the Wars ever forward was the temperaments and egos of the principal characters.

Weir takes us back in time to the reign of King Richard II and his deposition by his Lancastrian cousin Henry of Bolingbroke who became King Henry IV. Many historians count this as the origin of the Wars of the Roses. Bolingbroke was the son of John of Gaunt, the third son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainaut. Technically, the heirs of the second son, Lionel of Antwerp would come first according to primogeniture. When King Henry VI’s reign degenerated into corruption and upheaval, Richard Duke of York came to believe he had a stronger claim to the throne as a descendant of Lionel, initiating warfare to assert what he thought was his rightful place. Thus began the series of battles in what came to be known as the Wars of the Roses, the name given to the conflict by the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott in the eighteenth century. What exactly the conflict was called by contemporaries is a matter of debate to this day.

When York dies in battle, the war is continued by his eldest son Edward, the future King Edward IV. Weir is masterful in explaining all the intricacies that led to the various battles. She gives excellent descriptions of the battles, citing primary sources. I especially like how she tells us the status of the battlefields to this day. As always, she writes in chronological order.

Each personality is described with her own personal insight. Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, who came to be known as the Kingmaker, was very adept at using propaganda for his own ends. King Edward IV was ruthless. Queen Margaret of Anjou was intensely relentless in protecting the rights of her husband and son. William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk came to a very bad end. Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville and her family suffered greatly during the conflicts. The reader should be warned that the narrative concludes with the end of the readeption of Henry VI and the restoration of Edward IV. There are only a few short pages on what happened next.

The only critique I would give this book is that it was written in 1995 and some of the history has gone through revisions since then. For example, Queen Isabeau of France was not a notorious, pleasure-seeking adulteress. Elizabeth Woodville wasn’t greedy and arrogant. But these are just minor points in a magnificent narrative of this complicated and unsavory time in English history. I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: “Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower” by David Baldwin

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This is a very concise, no nonsense, sympathetic and non-biased biography of Elizabeth Woodville. She was the wife of King Edward IV of England and mother of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower of London during the Wars of the Roses and also the mother of Elizabeth of York who became Queen of England when she married the victor of the Battle of Bosworth, Henry Tudor. This made her a matriarch of the Tudor dynasty of Kings of England.

I like the way Baldwin breaks down Elizabeth’s life into its various phases. There is little information on her early life but it was interesting to see how Elizabeth was sent to the Grey family to be educated and how she married a son of the family. Elizabeth was widowed after giving birth to two sons and then she met the king. The way Baldwin tells the story, Elizabeth and King Edward barely knew each other and their secret marriage happened very quickly. This really stands out from reading this biography. The marriage appears to have been a spur of the moment decision on Edward’s part and could possibly have been a great surprise to Elizabeth.

The early marriage was going very well but then King Edward was deposed for a short time. Because Elizabeth was English, she had no outside assistance and was forced to take sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her children while her husband was overseas. While there she gave birth to her first surviving son by the King. This must have been a very anxious time for her.

Edward did regain his throne and there was a period of peace in the kingdom until the King’s unexpected death. Elizabeth had a hard time under the reign of Richard III. It was during this time that her sons disappeared. Eventually, her eldest daughter married Henry Tudor and a new dynasty was founded. Elizabeth was forced into retirement at Bermondsey Abbey and lived in poverty the last five years of her life.

This book explains it all. Baldwin addresses all the historical mysteries of Elizabeth’s life, giving all the theories and angles. There are genealogical tables, a section of pictures, excellent notes to the text and a select bibliography. I would recommend this book for those who don’t know Elizabeth’s life and for scholars.

Book Review: “Richard the Third” by Paul Murray Kendall

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So it was with great trepidation that I started to read Paul Murray Kendall’s biography of Richard the Third. I absolutely loved his Louis XI, the Universal Spider book. But I had a sneaking suspicion Kendall was an apologist for old Richard III. Well, my suspicions were confirmed in the first chapter! About Richard III’s father, Richard Duke of York, Kendall says his “abilities were moderate” and “Excessive greed and ambition…seem to have been largely absent from his character”. Kendall goes on to say “It would require the unrelenting enmity of a queen (Margaret of Anjou) to remind him that he owned a better title to the throne than Henry the Sixth”. I thought, this is going to be good. But I decided to give Kendall a pass because the book was written in 1955 and a lot has changed since then.

Despite my reservations and all of its flaws, this is a fabulous book. Kendall resorts to purple prose but for the most part he relies on primary sources to tell Richard’s story. There are a few places where his bias is obvious. If the reader takes this in stride, Kendall reveals a lot of insight, not only into Richard himself but into life in fifteenth century England. He breaks down the intricate relationships between king and nobles during the conflict that came to be known as the Wars of the Roses.

He covers Richard’s life from birth until his death at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. He doesn’t mince any words about some of Richard’s actions as king. He says Richard did consider marrying his niece Elizabeth of York. He also asserts that the evidence supports the theory that the princes in The Tower died on his watch and that he was responsible even though it could not be proven in court. He devotes an entire appendix to examining the evidence about the princes. There is also another appendix where he gives his thoughts on Richard’s character. He feels Richard felt guilty about taking the throne and this colored his actions.

His comments on Richard’s condition of being a hunchback are way off base as we now know. He says the reason one shoulder was higher than the other was due his military training and using a heavy sword. He also states that Richard’s bones were thrown in a river as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII. We now know this is not true. Kendall is particularly harsh in his comments about Henry VII.

Despite all this, this book is a real page turner. It was hard for me to put it down and I was disappointed when I was finished. The chapter describing the Battle of Bosworth is masterful. I would recommend the reader read all the notes to the text in the back of the book as they are packed full of historical information. This book definitely clarifies the life of Richard III.

Book Review: “Margaret of Anjou: Queen of England” by Philippe Erlanger

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In my research into the queens of England, I’ve been looking for a conventional biography of Margaret of Anjou. A contemporary biography of her doesn’t exist. This one was first published in 1961 in French under the title of “Marguerite D’Anjou et La Guerre Des Deux Roses” (Margaret of Anjou and the War of the Two Roses). This English version was published in 1970 and translated by Edward Hyams. Erlanger was a well-known French biographer who wrote many historical books before passing away in 1987. Just as an aside, he was the originator of the idea of the Cannes Film Festival which began in 1939.

Erlanger says in his introduction: “Nearly five centuries after her death an impartial Frenchman, brought up in his country’s traditions, but who is a friend and admirer of England, has tried, using modern methods, to review the indictment whereby posterity tried Henry VI’s fascinating queen, and ultimately condemned her.” I have to say I enjoyed reading a French writer’s view of English history!

At times this book reads like a novel and at other times like true history. Because this book was written in the 1960’s, he pretty much condemns Margaret as having taken many lovers. This has largely been disproven by now as propaganda from her political enemies. If you can get past this, the narrative is enjoyable. The first part of the book covers Europe in 1430 and then describes Margaret’s upbringing by her grandmother Yolande of Aragon at the court of Anjou. This pretty much sets the stage for Margaret’s extraordinary knowledge of statecraft that should have served her well in England during the chaos of her husband’s reign. However, she was a woman and she was French so her tactics didn’t have too much influence over the warring nobles of her husband’s court.

The author goes into great detail about Margaret’s life and the politics of England. There are some photos in the book and some genealogical tables, a limited bibliography but no index. As mentioned, if you can get past some of the historical flaws and drawbacks in the book, I highly recommend it. It will give the reader a better understanding of the Wars of the Roses and the uncommon life of this queen.

Book Review: “The Medieval and Post-Medieval Image of Eleanor of Aquitaine” by Michael R. Evans

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Everybody loves Eleanor of Aquitaine. But did you know there are a lot of myths and legends that surround her story? Michael Evans has studied all the evidence from primary sources forward in an effort to find the real story of this popular Queen.

Evans begins by saying the actual evidence of Eleanor’s life is scarce and a lot of it is written by chroniclers hostile to her politically. He also argues that she is not any more extraordinary than any other medieval woman of her time based on the historical evidence. He then recounts the two categories of stories about her: the Black Legend and the Golden Myth.

The Black Legend myths include how she killed the fair Rosamund Clifford, mistress of King Henry II and the stories of her alleged incest with her uncle Raymond of Toulouse. He tells how the legend of the murder of Rosamund first appeared and then grew hugely out of proportion. The evidence of the incest is negligible but it was common practice to blacken a powerful woman’s name with tales of sexual misconduct.

The Golden Myth includes the stories of Eleanor dressing as an Amazon to go on Crusade and how she and her daughter Marie presided over scenes of courtly love in Poitou. Both of these myths were debunked a long time ago but he shows how they got started and continued to have life in books and literature. (For more on the legends surrounding Eleanor’s life, click here.)

There is quite a bit in the book about how Eleanor has appeared in literature, fiction and non-fiction, on stage, in the movies and on television. Katherine Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter” is especially commended in her portrayal of Eleanor. Anyone who is interested in Eleanor will not be disappointed in this book. It sheds an eye-opening light on her story. It is my opinion that Eleanor’s life was remarkable even without the legends.