The power behind the throne: women in the Wars of the Roses

They masterminded coups, brokered peace deals and may even have led troops into battle. Sarah Gristwood unlocks the stories of the women who shaped one of the bloodiest dynastic clashes in English history

Pragmatist or heartless? A portrait of the young Elizabeth Woodville (1437-1492). The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The events of the middle and late 15th century were, we have always been told, driven by men. It was a story of the battlefields on which kings, dukes and earls fought for control of the country during the Wars of the Roses; a great dynastic confrontation that saw the houses of York and Lancaster battle for control of the English crown from 1455–85.

This assumption of male dominance is as automatic as the one that saw Margaret Beaufort ignore her own claim to the throne in favour of her son, Henry Tudor, or as the heiress Anne Neville being passed between Lancaster and York as though she were as insentient as any other piece of property.

Yet the actions of the women forged during the Wars of the Roses would, ultimately, prove to matter as much as the battlefields. Referred to as that “great and strong-laboured woman” by Sir John Bocking in 1456, Margaret of Anjou, with her determination to hold onto the reins of power, played a vital part in pushing England into civil war. It was two other women, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville, who brokered the marriage that sealed the peace deal. From Henry VI’s wife to Henry VII’s mother, it was women who acted as midwives to the Tudor dynasty.

The women behind the so-called Wars of the Roses were playing a game of thrones.

The business of their lives was power; their sons and husbands the currency. The passion and pain of the lives echo through Shakespeare’s history plays – and yet, those plays apart, most of us know very little about their extraordinary stories.

This is due, in part, to the patchy nature of the source material. The sources for this particular period are “notoriously intractable”, as JR Lander, an expert on the Wars of the Roses, put it – and more so for women who fought on no battlefields and passed no laws. The detailed records – and the aristocratic letters you find even from the days of Henry VIII less than 50 years later – are largely absent.

What’s more, the years that saw the disappearance of the princes in the Tower of London hold more than their fair share of insoluble mysteries and popular history has traditionally preferred to deal in certainties. But it is worth persevering and trying to unlock these women’s stories. The more you look at their actions, their alliances and at the connections between them, the more you start to see an alternative engine of history.

The she-wolf: Margaret of Anjou (1430-83)

Wife of Henry VI 

When Margaret of Anjou was brought to England in 1445, to wed the Lancastrian king Henry VI, she was widely regarded as little more than a pawn in a marriage contract designed to cement a truce in the long war with France. Within a matter of years, her single-mindedness would prove a major catalyst in sparking the Wars of the Roses. In fact, such was Margaret’s impact upon her adopted nation that, a century or so after her death, Shakespeare immortalised her as a “she-wolf”, with a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide”.

Despite Shakespeare’s verdict, it’s possible that Margaret would never have figured so prominently in the political arena if events had not forced her hand. In 1454 the queen (who was, to contemporaries, “a manly woman, using to rule and not be ruled”) made a bill of five articles – “whereof the first is that she desires to have the whole rule of the land”, or so one correspondent said.

By then, just as she gave birth to Edward, their only son, her husband fell into a catatonic stupor. Margaret was desperate to prevent power falling entirely into the hands of Henry’s cousin the Duke of York and his party, who she saw as dangerous rivals to royal authority.

As rivalry turned to armed conflict, the queen, as a woman, could only act through deputies. (Though 30 years before, legend had it, her grandmother Yolande of Aragon, a powerful protector to Joan of Arc, had donned silver armour and led her own troops against the English.) But time and again, reports would speak of Margaret’s Lancastrian forces – rather than of her husband’s – and at the second battle of St Albans in 1461 one reporter, the Milanese Prospero di Camulio, seems to suggest that she was in the fray. “The Earl of Warwick decided to quit the field, and… pushed through right into Albano [St Albans], where the queen was with 30,000 men.”

The chronicler Gregory wrote that in the midst of the battle, “King Harry went to his queen and forsook all his lords, and trust better to her party than to his own…” An anecdotal report of a speech once credited to Margaret is as heroic in its own way as Elizabeth I’s at Tilbury. “I have often broken [the English] battle line,” she told her men. “I have mowed down ranks far more stubborn than theirs are now. You who once followed a peasant girl [Joan of Arc] now follow a queen… I will either conquer or be conquered with you.”

After Richard of York’s heir, Edward IV, captured Henry VI’s crown in 1460, Margaret by no means ceased campaigning. The next decade saw her tirelessly touting for support around the continent and in Scotland, where she won help from another prominent woman, Mary of Guelders, ruling as regent for her infant son James. Indeed, it would be Margaret’s unlikely alliance with a former Yorkist, the powerful Earl of Warwick, the ‘Kingmaker’, (cemented by a marriage between her son and his daughter Anne Neville) that led to Henry VI’s brief reinstatement in 1470. But the following spring, the deaths of her husband and son at Yorkist hands left Margaret no pieces to play on the political stage and she died in France impoverished and embittered.

The epitome of strength and determination: Queen Margaret, wife of Henry VI, was a prominent figure in the political arena during the 1450s. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
The epitome of strength and determination: Queen Margaret, wife of Henry VI, was a prominent figure in the political arena during the 1450s. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The Rose of Raby: Cecily Neville (1415–95)

Mother of Edward IV and Richard III

Born the beautiful ‘Rose of Raby’, daughter of the powerful Earl of Westmorland, Cecily Neville was 15 years older than Margaret of Anjou, and already long married to Richard, Duke of York when Margaret, her sometime friend and rival, became queen.

Ironically, it was the death of Cecily’s husband (and her second son) at the battle of Wakefield, a decisive Lancastrian victory fought in 1460, that gave her a political role. Only three months later, her eldest son took the throne as Edward IV and, in the early days of his reign, it was said of her that she, “holds the king at her pleasure”, to rule as she wished. Perhaps that perception did not last long; certainly it did not survive Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville – but it is Cecily’s subsequent role that has been a matter of most debate among historians.

Where, firstly, did she stand over the dissent between Edward IV and his younger brother Clarence? The dispute led ultimately to Clarence’s execution – allegedly drowned in a butt of malmsey – in 1478. Even more importantly, what was her view of her son Richard’s seizure of the throne and dispossession of her grandsons after King Edward’s death in 1483?

How did she react to suspicions that Richard had murdered them in the Tower?

One theory – that of historian Michael K Jones – suggests that Cecily supported Clarence’s claim that his elder brother (Edward IV) was illegitimate, and that he himself was the rightful heir. She may even have been the guiding spirit behind Richard III’s coup. It would be at her house that the meetings that prepared his takeover were planned.

Evidence is, however, somewhat scanty. It is possible that Cecily took a large step away from the spotlight in the years following Clarence’s death. She was, after all, already in her sixties, which was old, by the standards of the day.

It would have been quite understandable if she were simply as punch drunk as any other old fighter, keeping herself out of the fray.

Cecily is perhaps the best example of the comparatively poor biographical legacy of the last Plantagenet women. Though her long life was beset by conflicts as shocking as can ever have rent any family, we cannot, rather frustratingly, be sure where her own strongest allegiance lay.

A line engraving of Cecily Neville, who lived to the then-grand old age of 80. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A line engraving of Cecily Neville, who lived to the then-grand old age of 80. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The tragic lady: Anne Neville (1456–85)

Wife of Richard III

Born the daughter of the powerful Earl of Warwick, Anne Neville was first married off by her father, the ‘Kingmaker’, to the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, to cement an alliance with Margaret of Anjou, hitherto Warwick’s bitter enemy.

After both the prince and Warwick himself were killed in a crushing Yorkist defeat of the Lancastrians at the 1471 battle of Barnet, Anne (the great niece of Cecily Neville) passed into the hands of the Duke of Clarence. He, according to one contemporary chronicler, tried to keep her hidden, disguised as a kitchen maid, for fear her fortune should fall into his brother Richard’s clutches. Clarence failed and in 1483, after a decade of largely obscure married life, Anne was crowned as Richard III’s queen.

Within two years she was dead amid rumours Richard had caused her demise either through poison or psychological warfare; a figure as tragic, if less scandalous, as Shakespeare imagined her in his Lady Anne (Richard III).

Anne Neville in 1473: rumours surrounded the cause of her death just two years into her marriage to Richard III. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Anne Neville in 1473: rumours surrounded the cause of her death just two years into her marriage to Richard III. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The commoner queen: Elizabeth Woodville (c1437–92)

Wife of Edward IV, mother of the princes in the Tower

When Elizabeth Woodville was wed in secret to the young Yorkist king, Edward IV, in 1464, she became the first English woman to be crowned queen consort since the Norman Conquest. She is said to have demanded marriage as the price of her virtue, just as Anne Boleyn would do to Elizabeth’s grandson, Henry VIII.

The daughter of a minor peer (though her mother came from a royal European house), Elizabeth was the widow of a Lancastrian knight, with two children already to her name. The idea of a king making a love match with a commoner was itself controversial, and no less anger was aroused by the sudden rise to prominence of the whole Woodville family. Elizabeth Woodville has often been dismissed as a woman of almost unparalleled shallowness, yet the plots of her later years may tell a more complicated story.

After her husband died in 1483, news that Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Richard III) had taken possession of her young son, Edward V, sent Elizabeth flying into sanctuary. Her behaviour in the following months has been extensively canvassed. Her decision to allow her younger son to join his brother in the Tower, where the boys disappeared from public view, and the fact that she allowed her daughters to leave sanctuary and go to dance at their uncle’s court – the court of the man who may have murdered their brothers – has been scrutinised.

Probably she felt she had no other options, but generations of historians have struggled to explain a pragmatism that seems to verge on sheer insensibility. One theory goes so far as to suggest that at least the younger of the princes in the Tower may have been alive and secretly released into her care.

There was something else going on here. The 16th-century Italian historian Polydore Vergil relates how, only weeks into Richard III’s reign, Elizabeth gave her consent to a joint conspiracy suggested by the Lancastrian heiress Margaret Beaufort and relayed to the dowager queen in sanctuary by Margaret’s physician, the Welshman Lewis Caerleon. Vergil reports that Elizabeth promised Margaret that she would recruit all of Edward IV’s friends if Henry Tudor would be sworn to take Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth of York in marriage as soon as he had the crown. Although the 1483 rebellions failed to topple Richard from his throne, this was the deal that would ultimately produce the Tudor dynasty.

Elizabeth Woodville (1437-1492), 1463.
Pragmatist or heartless? A portrait of the young Elizabeth Woodville. (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The fiery plotter: Margaret ‘of Burgundy’ (1446–1503)

Sister of Edward IV and Richard III

Youngest daughter of Cecily Neville, sister to Edward IV and Richard III, Margaret’s childless marriage to Charles, Duke of Burgundy never deterred her from intervening in the affairs of her native country.

Once a mediator between her warring brothers Edward and Clarence, it was after Henry VII assumed the throne that Margaret plotted most actively as chief promoter of the pretender to Henry VII’s throne Perkin Warbeck, as well as of his predecessor Lambert Simnel.

With more than a touch of the misogyny displayed by most contemporary commentators, Vergil claimed Margaret, driven by “insatiable hatred and fiery wrath”, continually sought Henry’s destruction – “so ungovernable is a woman’s nature especially when she is under the influence of envy”.

Margaret 'of Burgundy': an adroit plotter reportedly driven by "insatiable hatred and fiery wrath" . (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Margaret ‘of Burgundy’: an adroit plotter reportedly driven by “insatiable hatred and fiery wrath” . (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The unifier: Elizabeth of York (1466–1503)

Daughter of Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Henry VII, mother of Henry VIII

As the new Henry VII strove to confirm his rule after victory at Bosworth and bring unity to the country, his own fragile claim to the throne from his mother’s Lancastrian blood was immeasurably strengthened by marriage to the Yorkist heiress.

There seems to have been no thought, in the world of practical politics, that Elizabeth of York might actually take the throne herself. A century on, Francis Bacon would nonetheless report that Henry feared he might be seen as ruling only though Elizabeth’s right, and being “but a king at courtesy”. Perhaps that is why she seems to have been sidelined by her cannier husband into anonymous domesticity and a string of pregnancies, the last of which caused her death in 1503. “The queen is beloved because she is powerless”, one ambassador reported, damningly.

But once again there is a question mark – a hint of something stranger and stronger behind the placid facade. The 17th-century antiquary George Buck claimed to have seen a letter written by Elizabeth herself early in 1485, expressing her burning desire to marry her uncle Richard III, and her fear that his queen – that same Anne Neville who had once been married to a Lancastrian prince – “would never die”. There are many question marks over Buck’s alleged discovery of the letter, but there were indeed rumours that Richard wanted to marry his niece. He was forced to go into London and deny them publicly.

Whatever doubts may have remained, Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry VII seems to have been broadly happy. The union certainly fulfilled the main, dynastic imperative, producing the prince who would become Henry VIII.

Looking back to the sometimes turbulent lives of medieval queens it might almost be argued that a quieter and more predominantly domestic model for the consort’s role was on the way. Except, of course, that Elizabeth of York was grandmother to two queens (Mary and Elizabeth) who did assume the throne in their own right; and that, too, is her legacy.

A c1500 portrait of Elizabeth of York who, with the birth of her son Henry VIII, ensured that the Tudor dynasty thrived. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
A c1500 portrait of Elizabeth of York who, with the birth of her son Henry VIII, ensured that the Tudor dynasty thrived. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The ambitious Tudor: Margaret Beaufort (1443–1509)

Mother of Henry VII

Margaret Beaufort was England’s wealthiest heiress when, at the age of 12, she was married to Edmund Tudor, who was a comparatively humble Welshman.

Margaret was something of a dark horse throughout the years of Yorkist power yet, crucially, she was – through her descent from John of Gaunt – a vital carrier of the Lancastrian bloodline.

She was still only 13 and already a widow when she gave birth to her son Henry, Edmund having died of the plague. The experience possibly damaged her slight physique, since her two subsequent marriages produced no more children and, later in life, she would take a vow of celibacy.  This meant that all her ambitions centred on Henry.

Yet in 1471 she felt compelled, for safety, to send him into exile in Brittany. She would see her son again only 14 years later and in the most dramatic of circumstances.

In the summer of 1485, Henry Tudor landed with a small invasion force on the Welsh coast. He launched a campaign to take King Richard III’s throne, urged on by a flow of money and messengers from his mother. The fact that Margaret was able to offer her son any support at all was, in itself, quite an impressive achievement. She was then being kept under genteel house arrest on the Lancashire estates of her third husband, Lord Stanley – the penalty for her part in plotting with Elizabeth Woodville to launch that earlier rising against Richard.

But just how much influence was Margaret able to exercise on Stanley? It’s a question that historians have been pondering over for years. The Stanleys’ last-minute decision to send their forces to support Henry helped win the day for the Lancastrians and secure Richard III’s demise.

Margaret would be quick to claim the power and position she felt was owed to her once Henry had assumed the throne. ‘My Lady the King’s Mother’, as she came to be known, in some ways overshadowed her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth of York, maintaining Henry’s authority in the Midlands, laying down the rules for the ceremonies of court and exercising to the full her own powers of patronage.

Outliving her own son by a few months, she survived to play an active role in shepherding her grandson into power – a final coup for the woman who, above all others, did the most to usher in the Tudor century.

A portrait of Margaret Beaufort, who wielded an impressive influence over her son, Henry VII. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
A portrait of Margaret Beaufort, who wielded an impressive influence over her son, Henry VII. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The key male players in the Wars of the Roses

Henry VI (1421–71)

Henry was a weak king who presided over defeats in France and then suffered a mental breakdown in 1453, whereby his cousin Richard, Duke of York took charge in his place.

Despite recovering a couple of years later, Henry was unable to prevent the outbreak of hostilities between the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions that would drag on for three decades. He was deposed by the Yorkists in 1461 after losing the battle of Towton and later imprisoned by Edward IV.

Briefly reinstated by Warwick the Kingmaker in 1470, Henry was then ousted once again by Edward IV the following year and he was probably murdered shortly afterwards.

Warwick the Kingmaker (1428–71)

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick was a hugely powerful noble whose support was crucial for prospective monarchs. Neville sided with the Yorkists in 1453 and he was later instrumental in ousting Henry VI in 1461. Warwick grew dissatisfied with aspects of Edward IV’s reign, ultimately leading him to abandon his former ally and rebel against him alongside the Duke of Clarence.

Fighting with the Lancastrian cause, Warwick helped restore Henry VI in 1470, but he was defeated and killed by Yorkists at Barnet in 1471.

Edward IV (1442–83)

Edward was the son of Richard, Duke of York, who spearheaded the Yorkist faction in the 1450s. After his father was killed at Wakefield in 1460, Edward took on this mantle and seized the throne from Henry VI in 1461. Edward’s reign was interrupted by the rebellion of Warwick the Kingmaker in 1470 and he was forced to flee. Returning the following year, he ousted Henry VI a second time then reigned relatively peacefully until his (natural) death.

The Duke of Clarence (1449–78)

The younger son of Richard, Duke of York, Clarence was persuaded by Warwick to revolt against his brother Edward IV in the late 1460s. He helped topple Edward in 1470 but he then fell out with Warwick and was reconciled with his brother before he returned to the throne the year after.

However, this friendship proved to be brief. Later in the decade Clarence began scheming against Edward once again and was sentenced to death in 1478.

Richard III (1452–85)

Brother to both Edward IV and the Duke of Clarence, Richard was named protector to Edward’s young son Edward V in 1483. He swiftly asserted his own claim and shortly afterwards Edward V and his brother disappeared, probably murdered by their uncle. Amid growing dissatisfaction with Richard’s rule, Henry Tudor landed in Wales in 1485. The resultant battle of Bosworth dealt a body blow to Yorkist aspirations as well as to Richard himself.

Henry VII (1457–1509)

Henry Tudor was the leading Lancastrian claimant by 1483 and two years later he killed Richard III at Bosworth, becoming king in his place. By marrying Elizabeth of York, he helped unite the warring factions, establishing a royal dynasty that would survive until the early 17th century.

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Sarah Gristwood is the author of Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses (Harper Press, September 2012)