When Richard III seized the throne in July 1483, he held one of the grandest coronations England had seen. At his side was his wife, Anne Neville, bringing with her the love and loyalty of the north of England; one step behind her was her dearest friend, Margaret Beaufort, already conspiring against the new reign. And in hiding, only metres away from the usurping king, hidden in sanctuary with her five daughters, was Elizabeth Woodville, the widowed former Queen of England.
The ambition and determination of these women emerged during the long years of warfare through the so-called Wars of the Roses (1455–1485). There were many myths about the wars: they were not started in a garden with York plucking a white rose and Lancaster plucking a red. They were not principally the work of men. They were not even called the Wars of the Roses.
At the time, they were known as “the Cousins’ Wars”, acknowledging that it was a family affair: cousin against cousin, sisters divided, mothers against their children. The garden scene is an invention, and – perhaps most interestingly of all – some of the greatest plotters, fighters, spies and rebels were the women of the ruling families.
Two of them, Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville, managed to take the crown of England and become queen; one of them, Margaret Beaufort, would claim the queen’s place and a royal title.
Elizabeth Woodville was born in 1437 into a house of solid supporters of Lancaster. Her first husband lost his life fighting for his king, Henry VI, at the second battle of St Albans and left his 23-year-old wife a widow with two young sons, aged six and five.
Disastrously for Elizabeth, her mother-in-law refused to pay her dower from the family estate at Groby, in Leicestershire, leaving the widow penniless. Only the king himself would be able to enforce her rights, and he was the handsome Edward IV of York, the enemy of her house.
Elizabeth managed to meet Edward as he was recruiting forces in the neighbourhood. In an account that sounds like a fairy story, but was current at the time, she waited for him under an oak tree, and they immediately fell in love. They were married within weeks, and the young handsome king of the House of York was creeping nightly into a staunchly Lancastrian family house to be with his bride.
When Edward announced the marriage to his court, it caused uproar. Elizabeth was a commoner, the first to take the giant leap upwards to marry royalty; she was a Lancastrian; and she had a dozen brothers and sisters who would have to be found wealthy partners and titles. But worse than all of this: within days there were rumours of seduction and even witchcraft to explain the king’s behaviour.
Her greatest enemy was the king’s mentor, the man who had put him on the throne. Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, could not tolerate Elizabeth’s influence over his young cousin, and within five years had chosen a new protege – Edward’s own brother, George, Duke of Clarence.
Catching the king by surprise, Warwick captured Edward and then pursued his hated rivals. He beheaded Elizabeth’s father and brother, and put her mother, Jacquetta, on trial for witchcraft. Elizabeth held her nerve, and her young husband held his. Warwick could not force Edward to agree to anything and finally set him free. Her mother was released unhurt but she and her daughter were left with a shadow over their reputation that not even a public acquittal could remove.
The uneasy peace between the kingmaker and the king that he had made could not last. Warwick masterminded another rebellion with the exiled queen, Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou. Edward had to escape into exile, leaving Elizabeth unprotected and pregnant with their fourth child.
Bravely, Elizabeth went into sanctuary and gave birth in the crypt of a church near to Westminster Abbey while, almost over her head, the Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was crowned again. Her baby was a boy, and Edward, with a dynasty to establish, marched home, reunited with his brother George, and recaptured the throne.
It should have been a time of peace, but George hated Elizabeth and started rumours that she was a witch, even printing pamphlets accusing her of bewitching his brother. He claimed that she was a poisoner, and took his pregnant wife, Isabel Neville, away from court. When Isabel died, George claimed that she had been poisoned by the witch-queen.
Edward arrested George and his fellow-conspirators and had them put to death, but the shadow of witchcraft would damage Elizabeth’s reputation again, when, on the death of her husband, his surviving brother, eventually Richard III, seized the throne, accusing her of having bewitched Edward into a bigamous marriage. Elizabeth’s marriage was declared invalid, and her two sons were taken into the Tower of London by their uncle and disappeared.
Elizabeth went into sanctuary with her daughters and, from there, found the courage and energy to mastermind plots against the new, usurping king. She conspired with her former lady-in-waiting, Margaret Beaufort, and launched an attack on the Tower to free her sons. When that failed, and the rumours started that the boys had disappeared, she betrothed her daughter, Elizabeth, to Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor, and when Henry Tudor won the Battle of Bosworth, she saw her daughter take the throne beside the Tudor king.
But she never stopped conspiring. Even in old age, with her daughter on the throne and her grandson as Prince of Wales, Elizabeth was plotting against Henry Tudor, and he confined her to Bermondsey Abbey with only occasional visits to court because he feared her influence with restless Yorkists. She died there, having spent her fortune and her royal pension on rebellions, but with the satisfaction of having fought and won her throne, and having founded a dynasty.
Anne Neville was born into the wealthiest and most politically powerful family in the kingdom. The youngest daughter of the Earl of Warwick, Anne watched her father make a king out of Edward of the House of York, and then change his alliance to the House of Lancaster.
Her father made a treasonous alliance with the exiled queen of Lancaster, Margaret of Anjou, and ordered Anne to be married to Margaret’s son, Prince Edward. When Warwick defeated the House of York and returned King Henry of Lancaster to the throne of England in 1470, Anne became Princess of Wales, and the next queen of England. But she would have to fight for her place. The race was on for Margaret of Anjou to get her troops, her son and daughter-in-law Anne, from France to England before Edward IV returned from Burgundy for his revenge.
Bad weather held the queen and the young princess in port as Edward’s fleet sailed. The York pretender defeated his former mentor, Anne’s father, and killed him at the Battle of Barnet. When the Lancastrians finally got to England, they found that they had suffered a crushing defeat.
Anne’s mother dived into sanctuary at Beaulieu Abbey but Anne, not yet 15, chose instead to stay with the army, and marched with them for more than a hundred miles, from Weymouth to Tewkesbury, where Edward’s pursuing army caught them, killing Prince Edward and capturing Margaret of Anjou.
Anne was a widow of 15, far too wealthy and powerful to be left to chance. Her sister, Isabel, now a loyal supporter of the House of York with her husband, George, scooped up the girl and took her into their keeping. It was probably a form of house arrest.
Some people like to think that Richard of Gloucester added to his many apocryphal crimes by kidnapping the young widow and forcing her to marry him. Some like to think that their childhood friendship blossomed into love. I think it most likely that Anne judged, rightly, that nobody could protect her from the greed and jealousy of the House of York but a brother of the House of York, and wisely and bravely ran away from her sister’s house to marry Richard.
The girl who had been a Lancaster Princess of Wales was now a royal duchess in the House of York. But she, too, mistrusted Elizabeth, the queen. She saw her sister, Isabel, withdraw from court for fear of the queen’s malign powers, and then she heard of Isabel’s death. Anne would have seen Elizabeth advise her husband against George, and then George was taken into the Tower and executed.
She took his two orphan children into her keeping and raised them as far from court as she could possibly go: to the beautiful northern castle of Middleham, where she and her husband, Richard, made their home.
There they received the shocking news that Edward the king was dead, and saw at once that Elizabeth the queen would dominate her son, the new young king, Edward V. As Richard rode out to capture the boy, Anne knew there was no need to hurry south for Prince Edward’s coronation.
When she went to London it was for her own crowning in July 1483. For the first time in England the queen was crowned alongside the king, an honour which acknowledged that Anne was regarded by her husband as a true partner. She ruled for just two years. Heartbroken from the death of her only child, a boy, she herself died in 1485 at the age of only 28 years old, perhaps from TB.
Margaret Beaufort, a descendant and passionately loyal supporter of the House of Lancaster, was married in 1455, while still a child of 12, to the king’s half-brother, Edmund Tudor, as a way of endowing him with her enormous fortune and lands.
Her husband died of plague, leaving her a 13-year-old widow with a baby son, Henry Tudor, and she was speedily remarried by her family; but the triumph of York meant that the new king, Edward, ordered her little boy into the guardianship of one his favourites. Margaret must have thought that she would never live with her son, or see her true king again. All she could do was to hope that the House of York would destroy itself.
It looked as if she was right to hope. The York court was riven with faction, and in 1470 their adviser and mentor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, turned against them and restored King Henry of Lancaster to the throne.
This was a good moment for Margaret Beaufort. Acknowledged as a great heiress of the House of Lancaster, she summoned her son, Henry Tudor, and took him to be presented to his half-uncle, the king of England. She would
weave a legend around this meeting, saying that the king had greeted his half-nephew saying that the boy would be greater than any of them.
The Lancastrian triumph did not last for long. Edward, the exiled York king, recaptured the throne, killing the Lancaster heir in battle and murdering the king. Henry Tudor had to flee into exile with his uncle, Jasper, and Margaret was widowed for the second time and alone.
With brilliant political skills, Margaret selected the most powerful and trusted supporter of York to be her husband number three, Thomas, Lord Stanley. She wanted a man who was clever enough to see that her son might have a chance at the throne one day, and duplicitous enough to serve two sides at once.
When, unexpectedly, Edward IV died, and the throne was seized by his brother, Margaret befriended the new queen, Anne, and was first lady of her court, carrying Anne’s train at the glamorous coronation.
As Richard and Anne celebrated their accession, their apparently dear friend Margaret Beaufort played a double game, weaving the Duke of Buckingham into an alliance with her and with the former Queen Elizabeth. She betrothed her son, Henry Tudor, to Elizabeth’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth; and when the Duke of Buckingham raised his men for a rebellion against Richard III, he was counting on the arrival of Henry Tudor and his troops. But bad weather kept them in port and the Beaufort rebellion was washed out in a deluge of rain. The two princes in the Tower had disappeared.
Whether Margaret had a hand in their disappearance or not, we still cannot know. She certainly had a motive: if the York boys were dead, then her son would be the next heir. Placed in London with a superb spy network and men loyal to her, she was probably able to do so.
King Richard knew Margaret had been plotting against him but he trusted her husband to keep her under house arrest. She never stopped plotting for her son, and when he finally invaded and rode onto Bosworth Field, it was Margaret who provided the ally, the husband she had married for this very moment.
Henry Tudor won the battle saved by his step-father’s cavalry; he received his crown on the battlefield from his step-uncle’s hands. His first act after marching into London was to retreat with her for two long weeks, to celebrate their triumph and to plan their future.
She was a co-ruler of England, housed in every royal palace in the best rooms, often with interconnecting doors to her son. She wrote the Book of the Royal Household, determining how state and private occasions should be performed. She was a keen landlord of her vast lands, and took an active part in the government of the kingdom. She outlived her son but survived long enough to see her grandson inherit the throne.
Perhaps best of all, she invented her own title – she called herself “My Lady, the King’s Mother” – and she signed her name just like a royal: Margaret R – Margaret Regina.
The White Queen starts on Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC1
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