Sarah Gristwood, a leading British journalist, is also the author of several history books that focus on prominent women in the history of England. Her latest book, Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, examines seven women leaders including Cecily Neville, Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort. All of these women played important roles during the fifteenth-century and in the Wars of the Roses.
We interviewed Sarah Gristwood about her book:
You’ve mentioned in another interview that while these women had to play passive roles in the politics of 15th century England, they were not passive themselves. Where do you think they were able to use their positions as queens, mother and wives to effect change during the Wars of the Roses?
It was really Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s wife, with her ambition and determination – her refusal to let the Duke of York assume control, after her husband had fallen into a catatonic stupor – that kickstarted the civil war. Some thirty years later it was the deal brokered by two other women that brought it to a final end – the bargain struck between Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort that Elizabeth’s daughter would marry Margaret’s son Henry. But right through the saga of these years you can see women not only rallying support for, or mitigating the misdeeds of, their more prominent menfolk, but co-operating and conspiring on their own accounts.
What kind of sources did you make use of to uncover the stories of these women – 15th century England is not the best-served period when it comes to chronicles, accounts, etc, which would have made it more challenging?
You’re absolutely right about the ‘challenging’ part. As you say, the second half of the 15th century is notoriously tricky, even for history in general – and trickier than ever for women, who fought on no battlefields (well, almost none . . . ) and passed no laws in Parliament. Then you have the problem that a lot of reportage connected with the Wars was written from one side or another of the dispute – propaganda, effectively – and the difficult decision of how to treat the Tudor historians, who were not only writing with hindsight, but in an effort to prove the dynasty’s legitimacy. But that kind of material apart, it’s amazing the more personal details that are out there, in something like the Privy Purse expenses of Elizabeth of York. And it’s amazing how much you can deduce from the records of repairs to gowns, and presents to men who bought pies or peasecods, and the bills paid for members of her family.
How much can you tell about the personality of these women, and do you have a favourite – someone you would like to know more about or spend time with?
How much you can tell varies from character to character, but in six out of the seven about whom I write, I’d say you can tell quite a lot – Anne Neville being the exception, maybe! Of the seven, the one to whom I most warmed was Margaret ‘of Burgundy’ (born Margaret of York; sister to Edward IV and Richard III), for all that some contempory – Tudor – chroniclers wrote of her spitefully. If I had to be stuck on a desert island with one, I’d pick Margaret of Burgundy any day.
That said, the one who intrigued me most was Margaret’s mother (and Anne Neville’s great-aunt, as well as mother-in-law) Cecily Neville. We know she was a beauty, a forceful and tempestuous personality, a woman who turned from a life of luxury to one of extraordinary piety. But it’s much harder to be sure of where she stood over the traumatic events of her life – the decision of one of her sons, Edward IV, to execute another son, Clarence; and the decision of her youngest son Richard III to take the throne from his nephews, her grandsons. Cecily is really the mother of modern England – her blood still runs in Britain’s royal family, and if the bones in the Leicester car park are identified as those of Richard III, it will be due to her DNA. But in a sense, because of those intriguing questions, she’ll always be the one who got away.