The Murder of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk

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The Wars of the Roses is traditionally recorded as beginning in 1455 with the First Battle of St Albans and ending in 1485 with the victory of Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth. But as with most civil wars, there are grey areas on either side that show the rise and fall of violence and political tension. With this particular war, the domino effect of events can take you back decades – Joan of Arc, the Treaty of Arras in 1435, the death of John, Duke of Bedford or the arrival of Marguerite of Anjou. None of these, in a vacuum, caused a civil war, but they were pivotal moments that drew the lines between our main opponents more firmly.

Today we’re going to look at once such moment: the assassination of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk.

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When Marguerite of Anjou Arrived in England

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Marguerite of Anjou is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting queen consorts in England’s history. Her marriage, however, started as a glorified insurance policy for her uncle, Charles VII, and resulted in one of the most controversial and dramatic public careers a woman in 15th century Europe ever held. We’ve covered Marguerite on this site a few times, from rumors of her infidelity to her political maneuvers when her husband “went mad” to her mysterious childhood prior to joining French court as a teenager, to name but a few. Today we’re going to get into how it was that she became Henry VI’s wife and the very direct way in which that led to the later civil war that toppled them from their thrones.

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The Dynastic Dispute

Payne, Henry Arthur, 1868-1940; Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens

Two days ago, we covered the usurpation of 1399 and the events leading up to it. Today, we’re going to examine the issue raised at its end, which dealt with the supposed dynastic crime against nature that the accession of Henry IV rendered. This, of course, links the beginning of the royal House of Lancaster with its end, when Henry IV’s grandson, Henry VI, was deposed in favor of his cousin, Edward IV.

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The Divorce of Anne of York, Duchess of Exeter

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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.

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The Fidelity of Marguerite of Anjou

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Henry VI’s wife, Marguerite of Anjou’s legacy has been tinged with the question mark of infidelity since her own time. Assessing “why” or attempting to suss out the veracity of those accusations is more complicated than simply picking apart her relationships with the various men put forth as contenders, because the charges – whether true or not – are politically motivated. But dismissing them as scurrilous claims by her enemies is also not so easy given the nature of her marriage – or rather, the nature of her husband. Today, most of us look back at the hand of cards Marguerite was dealt and think something along the lines of, “Well, if she did, I don’t blame her.”

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The Matriarch: Cecily Neville, Duchess of York

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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.

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When Did Edward IV Marry Elizabeth Woodville?

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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.

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The Madness of Henry VI & His Son

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In the long list of things that made Marguerite of Anjou’s life tragic is the fact that after waiting eight years for any sign of a much-needed heir, her husband, Henry VI, would go “mad” when she was seven months pregnant, turning what should have been a time of genuine celebration into a period of incredible stress and political uncertainty.

By 1453 Henry desperately needed a son. He was a weak king, controlled by a coterie of unpopular men with varying degrees of skill, and married to a Frenchwoman who many saw as a tangible symbol of England giving up its right in France. That the marriage was fruitless certainly didn’t help matters, particularly when Henry’s closest heirs were his half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, born from his mother’s second marriage to a Welshman in her household, or his cousin, Richard, Duke of York, who was older than him by a decade and politically opposed to nearly all of his government’s policies.

But Marguerite was no traditional queen consort and it would be this period of time which mobilized her into a woman who made no pretense about actively politicking on behalf of her family’s interests.

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Set up for Failure: Henry VI, the Reverse Conquest & the Wars of the Roses

 

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I almost started this post with “Poor Henry VI,” but that’s debatable, isn’t it? Even today, historians question whether Henry was hapless, pious, unlucky or all three. In any event, he wasn’t a very good king, which is remarkable only because he never knew another existence. He would ascend the English throne on August 31, 1422 when his father, one of England’s most famous and beloved kings, Henry V, died in France at the age of 36. Henry was eight months old, having been born the previous winter at Windsor Castle to his mother, Katherine of Valois.

But fate wasn’t done with the infant king yet: Two months later, on October 22, 1422, his maternal grandfather, King Charles VI of France, died as well. Under the Treaty of Troyes, which had been signed by England, France and Burgundy in June 1420 – and contracted his parents into marriage – Henry also inherited the French throne, now ruling over a dual empire constructed by a father not around to execute it.

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