It says something about the House of York that one of its highest-ranking women could go through a divorce in the 15th century and end up forgotten by history. After all, between Elizabeth Woodville, Richard III and two disappearing princes, there are enough colorful figures much closer to the throne that the ups and downs of Anne of York, Duchess of Exeter are easy enough to forget. Nevertheless, two of Anne’s brothers were kings of England, while her first marriage put her in the unique position of having a husband on one side of a civil war and blood family on the other. Her first marriage is tinged with hints violence, while her subsequent divorce and remarriage show a woman with as much fortitude and willfulness as her more famous brothers.
Of the many offspring of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, Anne was the eldest. She was born in London or the family’s residence of Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire on August 10, 1439, an undetermined number of years after her parents’ wedding and cohabitation since we don’t know when either took place exactly. Nor do we know very much about Anne’s early years, save that her birth ushered her into two of the most distinguished families in England and she boasted a plethora of aunts, uncles and cousins that connected her to nearly every other noble family. Through both her parents she was a descendant of Edward III and Philippa of Hainaut. Two years after her birth, her mother gave birth to a son, Henry, who died shortly afterwards.
Just a few months later, York and Cecily left England for Rouen as Anne’s father took his position as the Lieutenant of Normandy. What we don’t know is whether the couple took Anne with them. It was normal for young children to be left behind in the care of family – and certainly there was enough Neville kin to go around – but at the same time, the Yorks’ residency was meant to be long-term and since Anne was their only child, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they decided to take her with them.
If Anne did go with her parents to Rouen then she spent the next three years growing up in the middle of the English outpost for its French territory. She would have also been on hand for the births of three younger siblings: Edward (b. 1442), Edmund (b. 1443) and Elizabeth (b. 1444). In February 1445, her parents hosted the new queen, Marguerite of Anjou, as she traveled from the court of Charles VII to England to marry Henry VI, but just a few months later, York was recalled home.
If Anne had remained in England, then this was the moment that would have marked her reunion with her family, who she likely wouldn’t have remembered. She may have moved with them to Fotheringhay, for it was there in the spring of 1446 that the family was joined by another daughter, Margaret, and then by a son, William, who died young. Still a child, Anne would have been protected from the outside world, but these marked the years that her father began to publicly break from Henry VI and express his dissatisfaction with the machinations of his government. York’s political enemies worked with Queen Marguerite to send York to Dublin as the Lieutenant of Ireland, which the family did for a brief stint.
But before the Yorks left, eight-year-old Anne was married in 1447 to 17-year-old Henry Holland who succeeded his father as Duke of Exeter on August 5 of that year. The marriage was a solid one for Anne, and one which made her a duchess in a time when the number of landed dukes was small. Unfortunately, due to her age, we still don’t know where exactly she was in this period, save that the marriage wouldn’t have been consummated for a number of years. In the interim, it’s unclear whether she remained with her family or was established in one of Exeter’s homes to continue her education.
If she remained with her parents, then she would have traveled with them for the year they spent in Dublin, during which time her brother, George, was born in October 1449. The following year the family returned to England, and York fully entered into a feud with the Beauforts, led by the Duke of Somerset. He championed the fall of the King and Queen’s favorite, the Duke of Suffolk, in 1450, and published a list of demands in 1451 that pushed for the further removal of figures York and his allies considered problematic.
In 1452, Somerset returned from England and York’s insistence that he be arrested for his failure in Normandy – coming on the heels of York’s own tenure as Lieutenant – led to the first rise of military activity before full-blown war. All out of violence was avoided, Somerset and York kept at a simmering distance and York’s ability to grasp power remained elusive thanks to the distrust with which Queen Margaret and her friends viewed him. Key to this, of course, was the fact that because the King and Queen remained childless after seven years of marriage, York was viewed by many as the likeliest heir to the throne despite being 10 years older than the King. It was a situation that made Anne and her siblings all the more politically significant, and her marriage to Exeter, yet another descendant of Edward III, a potent combination in producing other potential heirs.
Anne would have turned 12 in the summer of 1451, which would make that a plausible time for her to have joined her husband under his roof and consummated their marriage. Even so, given the delay in Anne conceiving a child and the fact that 12 was still notably young even in the Middle Ages, it’s unlikely that she did so. Much more likely was that she joined Exeter’s household in 1453 or 1454 when she was 14 or 15 years old. The years paralleled with the birth of Queen Margaret’s only son, Prince Edward, as well as King Henry’s first bout of mental illness. The situation brought York out of political exile and into the all-powerful position of Lord Protector. Under him, Somerset and his political allies were ousted and his own friends and family were given key leadership roles. It all evaporated by Christmas 1454, though, when Henry recovered his senses, returned to Westminster triumphant with Queen Margaret and dismissed York and his cronies.
Up until this point the line in the sand between York and Lancaster was not finely drawn. A number of political leaders remained neutral in the dispute between the two growing factions, many of whom were kin to York. By the middle of the decade, however, sides had to be chosen. Cecily’s brother, the Earl of Salisbury, and nephew, the Earl of Warwick, chose York over the King. Exeter, on the other hand, stayed true to the King and Queen, with whom he was close. By the time the civil war’s first battle was fought in May 1455, Anne’s husband fought on one side while her father and other male relations fought on the other.
Indeed, when York briefly held power in the immediate aftermath of the First Battle of St. Albans, Exeter was imprisoned in Wallingford Castle on his father-in-law’s orders. The second half of the decade only solidified the political opposition and on more than one occasion Exeter took the field against his wife’s family. How that worked out for Anne logistically remains a bit of a mystery. She and Exeter had one child, a daughter named Anne, born at some point before 1461, but the exact year is unknown. Based on the birth year of her future husband, it stands to reason the earliest the younger Anne could have been born was the mid-1450s, but beyond that it’s impossible to get more specific. That Exeter and Anne only produced one child in light of the relative fertility of Anne’s side of the family is notable and lends credence to the belief that the two didn’t get along. Certainly it’s remarkable that a man who would have otherwise desired a son and heir never produced one in a time without reliable contraception or any other record of stillbirths or infant deaths. And not for nothing, but once York came out against the King, Anne’s usefulness as her father’s daughter made her a political liability for her husband.
Anne was certainly not the only noble woman put in this unique position during the Wars of the Roses, but she is one of the few who seems to have unabashedly chosen her blood family over her husband. Based on what we can tell, she and her husband unofficially lived apart and neither seemed at all concerned about the other once the realities of the war set in. Exeter, too, had a reputation for cruelty, even in the midst of a violent period of time. Horribly unpopular with his peers, he at one point served as the Constable of the Tower and the torture device known as “the rack” was nicknamed the “Duke of Exeter’s daughter.” As such, Anne may have had more than one reason for wanting her and her daughter to remain as far away from him as possible.
In December 1460, Anne’s father and brother, Edmund, were killed in battle. By then York had formally claimed the throne and his cause was picked up by that of his eldest son, Edward. In the early months of 1461, King Henry and Queen Marguerite were finally deposed and Edward was named King Edward IV, ushering in a new reign. Anne’s whereabouts at the time are unknown, but she quickly joined her family in London and made it clear that she supported her brother.
Queen Marguerite, to whom Exeter was devoted, spent a year moving through Scotland and the continent in exile before settling in France on the charity of her father and brother. Exter, like many loyal Lancastrian lords, eventually followed her there. Though he and Anne remained legally married, there is no evidence of either communicating with the other or Anne making any entreaties to her brother on his behalf. Quite the contrary – Edward awarded his sister the entirety of Exeter’s estate, ensuring Anne’s financial comfort and positioning his young niece as one of the most desirable heiresses in England.
For the next several years, Anne would have lived comfortably between her estates and Edward’s court, likely spending considerable time with her mother and younger sisters, Elizabeth (married to John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk) and Margaret. Unfortunately there is no record of what Anne made of her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, when Edward announced his clandestine marriage in the autumn of 1464, but at the very least she was a pragmatist for in October 1466 she married her daughter to Elizabeth’s eldest son from her first marriage, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset. As such, given the children’s ages, it’s likely that the younger Anne spent considerable time in London within the Queen’s household and her other Yorkist relatives. Anne herself maintained a London residence called Coldharbour.
In 1468, Anne was likely on hand for the celebrations when her sister, Margaret, left England to marry Charles, Duke of Burgundy. It was one of the last happy moments in the first half of Edward’s reign, but the tricky years that followed give us considerably more insight into who Anne was and what her relationship with her family was made of. In 1469, and then again in 1470, Europe was scandalized when the Earl of Warwick and Anne’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence, aligned themselves against Edward. Still further were people horrified when they opted to join Queen Marguerite in France and offer their support for Lancaster.
Edward and his other brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, made for Burgundy to plead their case before Margaret’s husband, while their female relations remained in England. Anne was on hand when George and Warwick returned home from France to reinstate Henry VI. It was Anne, working alongside Cecily, who applied pressure on the prodigal son to return to the House of York, managing to successfully bring about a switch of loyalty just in time for Edward to arrive in England. Reunited, the York brothers defeated Warwick and the Lancastrians at the Battle of Barnet, and then two months later, wiped out the rest of the opposing forces at the Battle of Tewkesbury.
But while these months of Henry VI’s brief second reign were awkward for any number of Yorkists, for Anne they also signified the return of her estranged husband. Empowered by the return of Lancaster, Exeter was able to regain control of his estates, title and political position. There’s no indication that he and Anne reunited, though he did return to Coldharbour. Quite likely, Anne removed herself to one of her country estates or stayed with family.
Exeter was badly wounded during the Battle of Barnet in March 1471 and left for dead on the field. Miraculously, he managed to survive, but he was absent from Tewkesbury and in no condition to flee for exile again once Lancaster was defeated. Indeed, Prince Edward was dead, Henry VI was quickly put to death and Queen Marguerite was imprisoned first at the Tower of London and then at Wallingford Castle. Perhaps terrified at the thought that she would lose her financial independence, Anne formally petitioned Edward to divorce her husband once the dust settled and permission was swiftly granted. The divorce was confirmed in November 1472, and despite Cecily’s notable piety during her widowhood and the rarity of women successfully divorcing, the event passed with little note at home or abroad.
Tragically, the adolescent Anne Holland, Marchioness of Dorset died in 1474. She left her husband a childless widower and her mother financially unstable given her lifetime interest in the Holland estates. That same year, Anne remarried to a man named Thomas St. Leger, who had long been in Edward IV’s employ. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have been considered far below his wife’s station, but once again the match moved forward with little comment from Anne’s family. Indeed, it seems to have been condoned by the King himself. Given that Anne was divorced and approaching her 40th birthday, there was little chance of her being used as a diplomatic pawn, and indeed there was little need to given that Edward had a plethora of daughters.
And while there is no concrete evidence of this, it’s likely that Anne and Thomas were lovers for years before their marriage, and perhaps even before her divorce to Exeter was finalized. The exact timing of their wedding is unknown, but the following year Thomas accompanied Edward on a military campaign into France. Also with them was none other than Exeter himself, who had spent the last four years languishing in the Tower of London, but was let out to put his military experience to good use. Or at least, that was the original idea. Somewhere on the Channel crossing to France, Exeter “fell” overboard and drowned. Rumors of murder abounded, with fingers pointing most frequently to Edward, but there is no substantial evidence either way.
The French campaign petered out into a financial settlement and the English returned, Anne’s husband and kin among them. By now she would have been pregnant and on January 14, 1476 she died shortly after giving birth to a second daughter, once again named Anne. Her body is interred in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.
Anne was the first of her famous siblings to die since the death of Edmund back in 1460, but it may well have been merciful timing. She missed the execution of George two years later on Edward’s orders, or the actions of Richard in 1483 when he deposed his nephews in his own favor after Edward’s death. Still further, she was spared the fate of her mother and sisters, who lived well into the reign of Henry VII and had to come to terms with a Tudor regime.
After Anne’s death, Thomas remained loyal to Edward, lending further credence to the idea that her family condoned their relationship, even if quietly. He served his brother-in-law as the Comptroller of the Mint, and based on the fact that he never remarried and established chantries for his wife’s soul as late as 1481, by all indications theirs was a love match. In 1483, before Edward’s death, the Exeter estate was divided between Anne St. Leger (who had no blood claim to the estates of her mother’s first husband) and Elizabeth Woodville’s second son, Richard Grey.
When Richard III came to the throne in 1483, Thomas half-heartedly supported him, even playing a part in his coronation, but it didn’t last long. There was little relationship between the two men and that autumn, when Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, rose in rebellion against him, Thomas joined their cause. He was captured and executed that November.
Anne St. Leger would have been around seven at the time. An orphan, albeit a wealthy one, she would have been dependent on her mother’s family for protection, and while the details of her upbringing are unknown she made it through the bumpy first years of Henry VII’s reign and was married around 1490 to George Manners, who eventually became the 11th Baron de Ros. The couple had 11 children and Anne lived well into the reign of Henry VIII, passing away in 1526. Her body was laid to rest near her mother’s in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.