Women in History: Anne Neville

Anne Neville has to be one of the women in history most maligned by Shakespeare.

While it is true that he does portrays her as one of the many victims of Richard III, and doesn’t really say anything terribly nasty about her, it is also undeniable that her reputation is maligned by the way she is portrayed as being quite fickle and very, very gullible.

As I always remind my students, there is a vast difference between actual history and Shakespeare’s play. In fact, Shakespeare entirely misrepresents both the course of events and the relationship between Anne and Richard. 

Not only were their families well known to one another, they were quite closely related. 

Anne grew up at Middleham Castle, the daughter of the 13th Earl of Warwick and his wife, Anne Beauchamp. Anne’s great aunt was Cecily Neville, wife of the mother of Richard, Duke of York, and mother of Richard and his brothers. 

When the Duke Of York died, his youngest sons George and  Richard went to live at Middleham with Warwick’s family. Anne’s sister Isabel would later marry George, Duke of Clarence.

Warwick, known as The Kingmaker, played a crucial role in helping his cousin take and hold the throne as the King Edward IV of the House of York during the troubled times of conflict commonly referred to as either The Cousins’ War or the Wars of the Roses. For the first few years of Edward’s reign, Warwick held enormous influence over the young King. 

However, when Warwick tried to negotiate a marriage arrangement for Edward to secure an alliance with France, he discovered that Edward had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of Sir John Grey who had been loyal to the Lancastrians. Warwick was not alone in distrusting her and her family, and was profoundly annoyed by Edward’s secret marriage to a woman whom Warwick considered entirely unsuitable. 

At the same time, and quite likely in direct response to Warwick’s contempt for his queen, Edward refused to give his blessing to a proposed union between his brother George, Duke of Clarence, and Warwick’s daughter Isabel, but the pair married anyway with Warwick’s blessing. 

This pitched Warwick and Edward against Edward, and their forces met in battle at Edgecote Moor in 1469. Edward was defeated and taken captive, although released before long, Warwick had sufficient time to reconcile his differences with Margaret of Anjou, the queen of the former Lancastrian King Henry VI. The significance of this is enormous: Warwick and Margaret absolutely hated one another.  

Even so, Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville was betrothed to Margaret’s son Edward of Westminster, the Lancastrian Prince Of Wales,  as a seal of the alliance, and Henry VI was restored to the throne of England two months before Anne and Edward were married in November of 1470. Thus,  Anne became the Princess of Wales and part of the Lancaster dynasty. 

Edward of York, however, was not so easily deposed. He defeated and killed Henry VI in the Battle of Barnet in April 1471, just as Margaret, Edward and Anne were returning to England. Margaret led an army to Tewksbury in May, where her son Edward was killed either during or just after the battle. Edward IV of York then reclaimed the throne as king of England.

Anne, a young widow, took up residence with her sister Isabel and her husband. When Richard asked for and was given consent to marry Anne, the only opposition came from his own brother, who wanted to inherit the entirety of Warwick’s wealth for himself. 

Anne was very willing to marry Richard, and harbored no resentment toward Richard for any of his deeds, perceived or real. They married in 1472 and theirr only son, Edward of Middleham, was born in 1473.

Her relationship with Richard’s mother Cecily was good and her marriage to Richard was happy, although stricken by grief when their son died at the age of ten. Anne and Richard then adopted the young orphaned son of her sister and Clarence, who was also named Edward — of course he was! and of a similar age to their own son. In yet another striking contrast to Shakespeare’s play, the newly adopted boy was named Richard’s heir. 

Anne Neville died at Westminster on 16th March 1485, from an illness that was most likely tuberculosis. She was only in her late twenties, but she had witnessed a very great deal of conflict, grief and turmoil in the kingdom in the course of her life. She was buried in Westminster Abbey, near the High Altar, although the location of her grave was never marked. 

Anne’s story is very different than that told by Shakespeare. Instead, Anne appears to have been a woman who possessed both integrity and backbone, and to have dealt with her trials with considerable resilience. As much as I love the works of the Bard, I do prefer the real story of Anne Neville, and feel sorry that for so many years, she was neither admired nor respected as she deserved to be. 

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Women in History: Eleanor of Aquitaine

One of the most powerful and influential women of her time, Eleanor of Aquitaine was born in the early 1120s and lived until 1204. 

By birth, she became Duchess of Aquitaine, a province in the southwest of France, when her father died in 1137. Independently wealthy and renowned for her beauty, she was the most sought-after bride in Europe.

Eleanor married King Louis VII of France in 1137, but the marriage was not happy. She sought an annulment of her marriage— one wonders how many women were in a position to do that for themselves back then— but it was rejected by the Pope.

It was not until 1152 and Louis’ agreement because she had not produced a son that Eleanor was able to obtain an annulment on the grounds of their family relationship. Louis kept their daughters, but Eleanor’s lands were restored to her and Eleanor was free to move on, which she did almost immediately.

Two months later, despite the efforts of two other lords to abduct and marry her, Eleanor married the Duke of Normandy, who would become King Henry II of England in 1154.

Five sons— three of whom became kings—and three daughters secured the line of inheritance to the English throne before Eleanor and Henry grew apart and became estranged, their marriage complicated by Henry’s frequent affairs and numerous illegitimate children.

While the idea of courtly love was not new, Eleanor and her daughters brought the concept to life at Poitiers, where they and their courtiers discussed matters of love and chivalry and adjudicated both theoretical questions and disputes between lovers. This gave rise to the great popularity of courtly love literature in Europe.

Suspicion that Eleanor was encouraging one or more of their younger sons to rebel and possibly ultimately challenge him for the throne led Henry to summon Eleanor to meet him at Rouen in 1173, from whence he took her captive and kept her as his prisoner at either Winchester Castle or Sarum Castle, and then at various other locations, for the next sixteen years. 

Eleanor was released from her albeit comfortable imprisonment by her son Richard, who became king on Henry’s death in 1189. She returned to Westminster and was welcomed with oaths of loyalty from the lords and, although not officially given any position or title, went on to rule for several years on behalf of her son Richard the Lionheart during his extended absences from England, both while on Crusade and while being held hostage by the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI. She was instrumental in raising the money needed and negotiating to secure Richard’s release. 

After John’s accession to the throne on the death of his brother, he sent Eleanor to Castile to bring back one of her granddaughters for an arranged marriage to secure a truce and alliance with Philip II of France. On her way there, Eleanor was kidnapped by Hugh IX of Lusignan who held her hostage, demanding land that his family had owned before selling it to Henry II be returned to him. An old hand at dealing with men who couldn’t think of a better way to solve their problems than to take someone captive and make demands before letting them go, and more than likely quite weary of men telling her what to do, she gave him what he wanted regardless of whether or not it was hers to give, negotiated her own release and went on her way.

That wasn’t the last of the trouble on her errand. On the way back, Eleanor and her granddaughter Blanche spent Easter at Bordeaux where they met a renowned soldier, Mercadier, who agreed to escort them back to Normandy. However, he was killed by the man-at-arms of one of his  rivals.  Shocked by his death, Eleanor retreated to Fontrevaud Abbey, committing her granddaughter to the care and escort of the Archbishop of Bordeaux. 

Despite ill health, Eleanor left Fontrevaud when hostilities once again broke out between England and France. She returned to Bordeaux to support John against the claims of her grandson Arthur, Duke of Brittany.

Not easily dissuaded, Arthur besieged her in the castle of Mirabeau until John arrived and captured Arthur, who was still only fifteen years old. One could be forgiven for suspecting he inherited some of his nerve from his grandmother.

Eleanor returned to Fontrevaud Abbey, where she died and was entombed beside her husband Henry and her son Richard in 1204. Her effigy has her reading a book, presumably a Bible. 

By the end of her life, she had been queen of both France and England, and become the mother of not only two kings of England and one of France, but also of several queens of European nations and provinces. Eleanor had led armies into battle on more than one occasion, and had been a leader of the Second Crusade.  

She was clearly a woman of great temerity and independence of spirit. Even though she very obviously lived in a man’s world, she would never settle for not having just a bit of it for herself and leaving her mark on it when she left. 

Women in History: Boudicca

Boudicca, also known as Boadicea, was queen of the Iceni tribe in the first century AD. 

The Iceni people lived in south-eastern England at the time when the Romans were invading and taking possession of the land. When the Roman forces gained control of southern England in 43AD, they allowed the Iceni king Prasutagus and his queen, Boudicca, to continue to rule.  

This changed when Prasutagus died: the Romans assumed direct control and confiscated the property of all the Iceni families that were considered important. Boudicca was stripped and flogged  and her daughters were raped. Not surprisingly, the resentment against the Romans grew in intensity and became more widespread.

In 60 or 61 AD, Boudicca and the  Iceni seized the opportunity to rebel while the Romans were distracted by a military campaign in North Wales. Other nearby tribes, also resentful of the Romans, joined the uprising.

As the Romans soon discovered, his was not just some local skirmish or a it of grumbly discontent.

Boudicca and her warriors not only defeated the Roman Ninth Legion, they destroyed the city of Camulodunum (Colchester), at that time the capital of Roman Britain, then killed thousands of people as they sacked the cities of Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans). 

The scale and decisive nature of the rebellion caused Nero to consider withdrawing from Britain altogether. 

Finally, Boudicca’s forces were  defeated by a regrouped Roman force led by the Governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus himself. It was a crushing defeat in which many Britons were killed.  

While some claim she died of an illness, Boudicca is widely believed to have poisoned herself tather than being captured by the Romans. It does seem a fitting final act of defiance for that strong, brave and very angry woman to die in her own terms and not at the hands of the overlords she hated.


Women in History: Æthelflæd

Meet one of my favourite women in history: Æthelflæd, Lady Of The Mercians.

In today’s Women’s History Month post, I want to introduce you to another favourite feisty English princess: Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians.

Born in 870  as the first daughter of King Alfred the Great and his wife Ealswith,  she grew up in a kingdom plagued by Viking invasions and increasing Danish domination of lands the had until recently been other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

In 878, the tide began to turn when Alfred defeated the Danes at the Battle of Edington, and  Æthelred  became leader of the the half of Mercia that was still under English control. As Lord of the Mercians, he acknowledged Alfred as King over all the English people who lived in areas not controlled by the Vikings. This alliance was sealed by the marriage of Æthelflæd to Æthelred. 

Not content to be a political pawn, Æthelflæd established herself in Mercia as a very capable co-ruler with Æthelred, and when his health began to fail, she took on the responsibilities of rule. When he died in 911, she assumed sole leadership of the kingdom and ruled in her own right as the Lady of the Mercians. 

This was the first time a woman had ruled an English kingdom, and she did a brilliant job of it. She fought against the Danes alongside her father and then he brother Edward, who became King on the death of Alfred in 899, enjoying victories that led to the Viking rulers of York offering her their loyalty in 918. However, Æthelflæd died before she was able to accept their offer and Edward absorbed Mercia into his own kingdom. 

RClearly, Æthelflæd was a woman who was not content to take a passive role in either history or her own life. She recognised no glass ceilings, and showed most of the men around her— including her own brother— how leadership should be done. 

To learn more about this fascinating woman, I recommend Annie Whitehead’s fabulous work of historical fiction, To Be A Queen.

Women in History: Matilda

Matilda, also known as Maud, has long beem one of my favourite feisty women of history. Long before it was acceptable, let alone fashionable, she knew what she was entitled to, did everything in her power to get it, and refused to let any man tell her what she could or could not do. 

The daughter of Henry I of England, Matilda was born in London in 1102.
Her brother, William the Aetheling, was heir to both the English and Norman thrones. Matilda was married twice, both times in the interest of Political alliances that would help to protect strengthening Normandy against the French. In 1114 she was married to the German Prince Henry, who would later become the Holy Roman Emeror Henry V, but she was left childless and a widow when he died in 1125. In 1128 she married Geoffrey of Anjou, who gave the Plantagenet dynasty its name.

Her brother diedin 1120, making Matilda Henry I’s sole legitimate heir, and although a woman had not  ruled either England or Normandy on her own before, Henry forced his baronsto accept her as his successor. However, her marriage to Geoffrey was unpopular because the barons had insisted that Matilda should not be married out of England without their consent. In 1133, Matilda gave birth to her first son, giving the barons hope of a different heir, but he was only two when Henry I died.

In a swift and powerful coup, the English throne was taken by Stephen of Blois, grandson of son of William the Conqueror by his daughter, Adela. The church and most of the baronage supported Stephen, but Matilda’s claims were powerfully upheld in England by her half brother Robert of Gloucester and her uncle, King David I of Scotland.

A series of battles, captures and exiles ensued in a civil war between Matilda and Stephen and those loyal to each of them, a period referred to as The Anarchy. Never one to give up, Matilda kept on fighting despite the gradual attrition of her supporters, and managed to take Stephen as her prisoner at Lincoln in 1141.

A clerical council at Winchester acclaimed her ‘The Lady of the English” and she made a victorious entry into London, but the people thought her haughty and greedy, and rejected her before her coronation. She fled to the west of England, after which her support base continued to be depleted.

Matilda retreated to Normandy in 1148, and instead of fighting to regain her throne, sought instead to secure the position of her eldest son, Henry, who became duke of Normandy in 1150 and King Henry II of England in 1154. While Henry was active in ruling England, it was Matilda who oversaw and maintained the European elements of his kingdom.