Today marks the 534th anniversary of Richard III’s coronation, an event that stands out from his reign as a moment of near-optimism. It was also an unusual ceremony in that it was a double crowning – Richard and his wife, Anne Neville, were anointed side-by-side in Westminster Abbey. The 12th century had seen the same with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, while the 13th century had seen Edward I and Eleanor of Castile and the 14th their son, Edward II, and his wife, Isabelle of France. That last coronation had taken place in 1308, 175 years before.
Speaking of the Tudor Myth, a fun little twist to exanining Richard III is seeing two wildly divergent schools of thought on him. While there are presumably some objective histories of his life and reign, most fall into two camps: those that revile him and those that apologize for him.
This is particularly evident in the question as to whether or not Richard III made plans to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, in 1485. What exactly the nature of their relationship was has been eroded by time, but there is far too much smoke around the issue for there not to have been at least a reasonably-sized fire. In this case, the theory is borne out by the fact that there was contemporary speculation on the subject, as well as the fact that Richard took the pains to publicly deny it.
Let’s start at the beginning: What is the “Tudor Myth”? Essentially, it’s a school of thought that the study of the Tudors and their immediate predecessors has been warped by Tudor propaganda. At its root, it’s a more specific way of saying, “History is written by winners.” The two Tudors considered most guilty of this whitewashing, if you will, are Elizabeth I and her grandfather, Henry VII, albeit for slightly different reasons.
I’ve been waiting to do a post on Richard III for a few reasons. For one, he’s a controversial figure, as most recently evidenced by the furor over where his long-lost body would be buried. For another, he is one of the figures for whom you must do justice – there is little about him that can be referenced without context or further explanation and the Wars of the Roses was a complicated period, particularly for the uninitiated. And so, it’s taken time to get to him, but summer is as good a time as any to do so – it’s the season during which he assumed the throne and the season in which in he lost it.
We’ll return to him a few more times over the next few months, but today I want to discuss his accession – its legality and logistics, and the motivation behind it.
One of my favorite figures from the Wars of the Roses is Cecily Neville, Duchess of York who came very close to becoming England’s queen through her husband and ended up mother to two, Edward IV and Richard III. She was grandmother to the Princes in the Tower, mother-in-law to Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville, mother to a Duchess of Burgundy and rival to Marguerite of Anjou. In short, she was something to almost everyone and while we know where she was and what she did more often than most women of her time, we know remarkably little about who she actually was.
If you’re familiar with her, it’s actually a bit astonishing given the wealth of information we have to parse through and the level of fame that her family achieved. We have flashes of activity over the course of several decades, but only two real moments of humanity shine through, both of which relate to her children. We know that she was beautiful, though it’s unclear to what extent that was exaggerated given her rank. We believe that she was religious based on her increasingly public piety and retirement to a convent. We assume she mourned the loss of her husband and children.
Well, traditionally the answer is today in 1464. According to some versions of the story Edward IV happened upon Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville) under an oak tree near her family home in Northamptonshire where she played the damsel in distress card and petitioned the king for help in reclaiming her son’s inheritance. Taken by her beauty, Edward tried to make her his mistress and when she refused, he married her, kept it to himself for five months and then dramatically announced it at court when his cousin and first councilor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was pressuring him to marry King Louis XI of France’s sister-in-law.
But there are some problems with this narrative. First, the whole oak tree imagery is a bit over the top. Second, the date of May 1 or “May Day” is very romantic, but the very fact that it is romantic should raise some eyebrows. Third, there is clear indication from events in the summer of 1464 that there was no plan to present Elizabeth as queen. And four, it is unlikely that Edward and Elizabeth only met for the first time that year.
Lately I have been reading John Ashdown-Hill’s “The Private Life of Edward IV.” I’m not too far into it yet, but so far it’s been enjoyable and it’s certainly a fresh look at the King’s reign, which is usually examined through the lens of the civil war of which he reigned in the middle. Broadly, it argues that perhaps Edward IV was not quite the ladies’ man for which his reputation has given him credit.
Ashdown-Hill has gained some notoriety of late for his theory that Edward IV did, in fact, marry before his queen consort, Elizabeth Woodville, and that their children’s legitimacy was undermined. It’s an interesting argument, one that would add some nuance to Richard III’s usurpation of the throne from his nephew, Edward V. However, this post is not about the veracity of that argument or even, really, about Edward’s relationship with Elizabeth.
Let’s talk about George, Duke of Clarence. And why wouldn’t we? Talking about him gives us the first and second parts of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III, the Neville family, the Woodville family, the Princes in the Tower, a dramatic (if not suspicious) execution and the fate of his York children well into the reigns of the Tudors. Today, of course, marks the anniversary of George’s execution in 1478, a death ordered by his older brother, King Edward, when he was only 29 years old. Did he deserve it? Yes, absolutely. To be honest, it’s shocking that George lived as long as he did given his propensity for treason.
On February 11, 1466, Elizabeth of York was born to King Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, at the Palace of Westminster. Thirty-seven years later, Elizabeth would die in the residence of the Tower of London as the consort of King Henry VII. Within that time span, she would be the daughter, sister, niece and wife of four English kings, while six years after her death, she would become the mother of one when Henry VIII ascended the throne.
Of all the characters that made up Henry VIII’s court, perhaps none are as famous as his second wife, Anne Boleyn, except the King himself. Equally as notorious was the family behind her – the Boleyns, yes, but also the immensely powerful Howards. At their head was Anne’s uncle, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (her mother, Elizabeth, was his sister).
By the time Thomas ascended the dukedom in 1524, he was already a central figure in Tudor politics. Ten years later, when his niece was on the throne, he seemed unstoppable. Indeed, he was a force to be reckoned with, even up against the skills of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. Like a cat with nine lives, he managed to survive Anne’s downfall in 1536. He saw life again when another of his nieces, this one via his brother, Edmund, married Henry as his fifth wife – the ill-fated Katherine Howard. Once again, he made it through her divorce and execution in 1542.
It wouldn’t be until his eldest son and heir, Thomas, Earl of Surrey, began to eye the throne in preparation of Henry VIII’s death that father and son would be arrested in December 1546. Surrey would be executed on January 19, 1547, while Norfolk would be granted a reprieve by Henry VIII dying before his execution was carried out. His life spared, he spent Edward VI’s reign in the Tower of London, only to be released when Mary I ascended the throne in 1553 and he was duly restored to his offices and titles for the remainder of his life.