The Roses among the Thorns: Queenship during the Wars of the Roses

A war…of roses?!

While a war between roses may sound pleasant, or like a scene from Alice in Wonderland, the Wars of the Roses in fifteenth century England were far from enjoyable. This period of civil war was fought between two noble houses with claims for the English crown: the house of Lancaster, who’s emblem was a red rose, and the house of York, who’s emblem was a white rose. After roughly thirty years of unrest, victory ultimately went to the Lancastrians who established the Tudor dynasty.

Recipe for a successful queen

Traditionally the answer to what was desired of a queen in the medieval period would’ve been a meek, physically beautiful, silent, baby-machine. However with the developments in women’s history it is clear queens played a vital social and political role. While they were still expected to be respectful to their king and husband, beautiful and baby-making-machines (producing mainly boys with a few girls thrown in); a desirable queen was expected to be so much more.

  1. A queen should be foreign: this minimises the political influence of her family while also creating essential alliances with other nations. However they mustn’t be too foreign, lest they appear alien to their new subjects.
  2. A queen should validate the reign of her king: a queen added perceived stability to the king’s reign, through her charity and production of heirs, whilst also completing the Medieval conception of the king as Jesus on earth: the queen represented Mary. This aspect to queenship was essential during a time of civil war.
  3. Politically aware and involved: a queen should emulate the role of the Virgin as a heavenly intercessor and so should act on the behalf of her subjects, being the soft feminine voice contrasted to the harsh masculinity of the king.
  4. Of noble blood: to match the illustriousness of her king and produce pure, noble offspring.
  5. Physically beautiful: appearance in the medieval mindset reflected moral character. As such ugly people were bad, beautiful people good.

Through comparing these ideals to the medieval queens Elizabeth Woodville (crowned 1465) and Elizabeth of York (crowned 1487), the effect of a queen failing or meeting these expectations can be evaluated.

Elizabeth Woodville: the deflowered English witch

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Elizabeth Woodville

Elizabeth Woodville was not a hugely popular queen. As the widow of the Lancastrian knight Sir John Grey and mother of two sons, Elizabeth failed to meet the golden rule of queenship: virginity. The offspring of the king must remain above suspicion, especially during civil war. At least the world knew she was fertile, especially in producing males. Woodville famously stood by the side of the road to petition the Yorkist claimant to the throne Edward IV when some three days later they were married. The secrecy, speed and illogical choice in bride baffled the King’s advisors and court when Edward was forced, roughly five months after the elopement, to admit he had married an older, widowed Englishwoman.  Most contemporary sources agree it was a love match; such marriages were extraordinarily rare (though not unheard-of) in medieval England. Due to the rarity of a king marrying for love rumours Woodville and her mother ensorcelled the King developed. While claims of witchcraft never stuck to Woodville, after Edward’s death in an attempt to illegitimatise Woodville and Edward’s offspring, Richard III revived and promoted such rumours.

Furthermore Woodville was not foreign or even higher nobility; her countess mother married socially inferior and thus Woodville ranked amongst the lesser nobility. Despite these shortcomings Woodville was extremely beautiful with her blonde hair and big hips but moreover she was politically savvy and an asset to Edward’s reign. Letters penned by Woodville exist demonstrating her support of individuals in legal battles, settling courtly disputes and her charitable patronage of several guilds and religious institutions. Such attributes defended her virtue and worthiness to be queen.

After the death of Edward in 1483, Woodville endured the suspicious ‘disappearance’ of her young sons at the hands of Richard III and for a while maintained a presence at the royal court. After helping to orchestrate the marriage between her daughter Elizabeth of York to Henry VII, Woodville retired from public life to live out her days in relative obscurity.

Elizabeth of York: the sap that united the warring roses

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Elizabeth of York

Unlike the unconventional reign of her mother Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York was generally elevated to embodying the ideal queen. While York was an Englishwoman and also a legal heir to the throne in her own right, her sacrifice of her birth right in favour of marriage played to her advantage. York was essential in stabilising the Lancastrian king Henry VII’s reign as well was legitimising his usurpation of power from the York family. Elizabeth was a famous beauty and amazing baby-maker like her mother, producing seven children including the infamous Henry VIII. York died giving birth to her seventh child having unified the warring houses through marriage and securing peace in England.

The roses gain some thorns

Woodville challenged nearly all established notions of what it meant to be a queen and through this rejection of convention Woodville aroused suspicion and remains a contentious figure today. While her daughter did present similar challenges to the accept norms, York has remained a favourable figure due to her more conventional reign.

Read more:

  • Leland, J. Antiquarii De Rebus britannicis Collectanea, Vol. IV London: 1774, republished (Farnborough: Gregg International, 1970). Pp. 179-249

While I wouldn’t wish medieval English on my worst enemy, John Leland’s Antiquarii De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea vol. IV contains a collection of invaluable contemporary sources on this topic.

  • Laynesmith, J. A. The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445-1503. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

J. A. Laynesmith’s The Last Medieval Queens was my proverbial bible for this essay and essential reading for this subject.

  • Gristwood, Sarah. Blood Sisters. London: HarperPress, 2012

For a light introductory read Sarah Gristwood’s Blood Sisters provides a gentle, consumable narrative of both these Queens and other significant women of the era.

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5 comments on “The Roses among the Thorns: Queenship during the Wars of the Roses

  1. persephx says:

    Hi! I find your piece really interesting, and what makes it particularly so is your hilarious take on the period!

    I particularly like your outlining of what it meant to be a queen during the period, and the qualities she must possess!

    Thanks so much for an interesting read!

  2. elstearne says:

    I also found your piece really interesting, humorous and easy to read! It’s a very fascinating period of English history, what with so much internecine warfare and royal intrigue. I’d never really considered Elizabeth Woodville’s popularity compared to that of her daughter, so this provided me with a great insight into the role of royal women and popular opinion in the late medieval period 🙂
    I was wondering about the unpopularity of Elizabeth Woodville – do you think that the royal court/the nobility played a more significant role in deciding a queen’s popularity? As in was their opinion more influential than other conventional requirements? It may be too hard to judge haha, but thank you for a great read!

    • melstephens says:

      Thanks for your review, I am so glad you enjoyed it 🙂
      Regarding Woodville I would assume, but hard to know for sure, that the nobility did play a more significant role in her negative image, largely due to them being the literate class and had closer dealings with the royal couple. So they were probably more expectant of these ideals to be met and also had greater influence upon the opinions of the lower classes. Also I feel that the common people may have been less interested in (literally) who the queen was in the sense that if she was seen to be a successful ruler (though charity etc) they would be content with her. In many respects she was a successful queen and really only after Edward’s death (and then her death) did the criticism become stronger against her.
      Obviously that is mostly conjecture on my part: most of the sources remain from the literate nobility and so their voice is extremely strong. There does exist sources such as picture captions from guilds which were very positive of Woodville due to her patronage, so this provides somewhat of an insight into her relationship with the lower orders.
      Hopefully you can find something useful in that ramble 😛

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