Sarah Gristwood’s Blood Sisters

The Wars of the Roses has it all; passion, murder, political plotting, treason, romance and betrayal.  Most people are familiar with the Wars of the Roses.  They are aware of the warring factions: Lancaster and York.  They will have heard about the inept monarch Henry VI and his more forceful and maligned wife Margaret of Anjou.  They will have heard of the handsome shining light of the York faction Edward IV and his love affair and consequential marriage to Elizabeth Woodville.  They will have almost certainly heard of the villainous Richard Duke of Gloucester, most famously known as Richard III.  And not forgetting the man that put an end to the Plantagenet rule and started perhaps the most famous dynasty of them all; Henry Tudor. But what of the women during these tumultuous decades?  History has a way of being very male dominated, silencing the voices, stories and experiences of females.   The activities of men eclipses that of women.  We are familiar with the exploits of  male kings but not so much of their female counterparts.  Refreshingly, a wave of brilliant female authors and historians have sought to address this problem: Helen Caster, Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory to name a few.  Personally, I am fascinated about the women of this era.  To me they were the political strategists of the day, they were the stability behind the kingdom and they knew how to survive much longer than their glorified male counterparts.  Well some of them.  They were not just passive victims of patriarchal rule, they were active and some, ultimately more successful than the kings they lived under. The women behind the Wars of the Roses all tell individual stories of strength, courage, love and survival in brutal times. And yes, some stories are more tragic than others.

Currently I am reading Sarah Gristwood’s Blood Sisters: The Women Behind The Wars of The Roses.  Gristwood’s book is utterly captivating, telling the stories of Anne Neville (perhaps the most tragic of them all), Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth of York and the formidable Margaret Beaufort; the Tudor matriarch.  By concentrating on the female factions, she is able to refreshingly re-tell the familiar tale in a new and exciting way.  I understand that writing about the females of the time can present challenges.  Anne Neville for instance, is overshadowed by her more famous husband and there is very little literature that survives.  Gristwood does acknowledge this in her writing and delves into the known historical facts of Anne.  While she can’t create a more complete picture of Anne to other well known female figures of the time, she is still able to capture the essence of Anne Neville and elicit emotion.

There is much to enjoy about Blood Sisters.  While the women of the Wars of the Roses could not display their courage, glory and honour on the battle field (aside from the head strong Margaret of Anjou that is), their lives are no less interesting.  Margaret Beaufort’s unwavering love and devotion to her son Henry Tudor saw him crowned King of England.  Beaufort really does ride fortune’s wheel; the shame of her fathers suicide as a young girl, her traumatic birth of Henry at the tender age of thirteen, her stedfast belief of Henry’s right to the throne, her political marriages and plots to overthrow the Yorkist rule.  She is smart, devout and a successful strategist.

I have not finished this book yet, I am reading it slowly to savour it.  I hate finishing books because after devoting so much time, getting myself immersed in stories and characters, when it ends I do feel a certain loss.  Luckily, I have several books lined up.  And yes, they are most exclusively to do with female medieval rule.  Gristwood’s Blood Sisters remind us that females in history are not simply passive; their actions can influence and create history just as exciting and just as glorious as their male counterparts.  That is inspiring and needs to be heard.


Anne Boleyn: The plight of a ‘Difficult’ Woman

On the 19th of May 1536, a truly shocking and unprecedented event in English history was about to reach its tragic climax.  Anne Boleyn, the controversial second wife of Henry VIII, tentatively climbed the steps of the scaffold on Tower Green.  After a dignified speech, praising the King and asking for the crowd to pray for her, she was executed with swift precision by a French swordsman.  It has been said that after her head was severed, her lips still moved in prayer.

What made this so shocking? She was the first English queen to be publically executed.  Rewind back to June 1533 when Anne was at her most powerful; crowned Queen of England and already pregnant with Henry’s baby, she was at the top of fortune’s wheel.  Henry’s love was assured or so it seemed. He broke with the catholic church and passed the Act of Supremacy to make himself head of the Church of England.  But fortune’s wheel is fickle; what must go up can also come crashing down.  A love affair of seven years that led to the transformation of England forever ended in tragedy.  It is the stuff of legend and yet its cataclysmic end is all too familiar.  Anne Boleyn was another victim.  A victim because she transgressed boundaries of her sex.

I entitled this blog post, ‘The Plight of a ‘Difficult’ Woman because I think Anne was seen, and in some respects to this day, still seen as a ‘difficult’ woman.  In a world driven by patriarchy and misogyny, Anne Boleyn had to die.

The exact birth of Anne Boleyn is still largely debated but historians agree that she was most likely born between 1501 and 1507.  Before being appointed lady-in-waiting to Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon in 1522, Anne Boleyn  spent her childhood in the courts of Europe, first as lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Margaret in the Netherlands and later at the glamorous French court.  Daughter to the ambitious Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn and sister to Mary, Anne captivated the King, whom by this stage was increasingly tiring of his first wife.  Obsessed with begetting a male heir, Henry turned his attentions to Anne.

Was Anne trust into court life by her ambitious and ruthless family? The timing was convenient.  Her sister Mary was one of the kings mistresses and while she was in favour, so was her family.  When Mary was cast aside, Anne’s opportunity to take centre stage arrived.  Throughout the intense seven year courtship of Henry and Anne, her family accumulated an impressive array of titles and influence.  Thomas Boleyn was now Earl of Wiltshire.  Anne’s brother George, was appointed to the Royal Privy Chamber and created a Lord.  Women were useful until their usefulness grows out and then they become collateral damage.  Not only was Anne a victim of a tyrannical king, like so many before and after her, but she was a victim of family ambition.  It is telling that the secret commission set up to investigate the charges bought against Anne later when she was queen, included her uncle the Duke of Norfolk.

In life Anne was hated.  She was hated by ambitious courtiers and the public.  She was hated because she was just as ambitious as her family, just as ruthless to succeed where her sister Mary and Catherine of Aragon failed.  In a world where women flocked to become Henry’s mistress, she famously refused, retaining her honour.  She would not be cast aside like all the other mistresses before her.  She was educated, intelligent and pious.  She was not afraid to challenge Henry (allegedly flying into a rage when she found out that Catherine of Aragon was still mending his shirts) and she was committed feverishly to the protestant cause, famously butting heads with Thomas Cromwell.  Both united by political and religious cause, Boleyn and Cromwell fell out when she disapproved of how Cromwell was diverting the wealth of the dissolved monasteries to the crown.  Boleyn was adamant that the wealth should be distributed to charitable causes.

What ultimately destroyed Anne was her inability to give Henry what he most desperately desired, a male heir.  The fault was always the woman’s. A queen is duty bound to create heirs, it is their most important function. Anne had several miscarriages during their short marriage, including miscarrying a fourteen week foetus that had the appearance of a male.  Recent research indicates that perhaps the fault did lie with the King after all, citing a disorder in his blood was to blame.  If this new research is to be believed, Henry’s blood carried a rare Kell antigen, triggering immune responses in the body.  A Kell-positive man and a Kell-negative woman are able to have a healthy baby.  However, this only works during first pregnancies, all subsequent pregnancies are likely to end in miscarriages and stillbirth due to the antibodies the mother produces attacking a Kell-positive foetus.  We have no way of knowing for sure what caused Anne’s miscarriages.  But by 1536 Anne was becoming a very difficult problem for the king and for Cromwell.  She could not be just set aside, she had to be destroyed and annihilated.

Henry claimed that Anne had ‘bewitched’ him.  While men and children were accused of witchcraft, it was women that were predominately persecuted for it.  The general image of a witch is either the youthful enchantress tempting men into sin or the old, lonely hag casting spells and misfortune wherever she went.  In short, women and witchcraft are bound synonymously with one another. This ideology of a woman using witchcraft to tempt a man exposes deep religious, political and social anxieties of female sexuality.  It is still does to this day.

Anne’s charges of adultery (along with witchcraft) with five men, including her brother George was shocking.  Despite no evidence surrounding the charges, Anne’s fate was sealed.  The charges of incest is interesting; alongside witchcraft it hints at Anne’s ‘unnatural and immoral’ (and exclusively female?) nature.  Anne’s character was completely dismembered.

Boleyn was indeed a victim. A victim of court politics, a victim of patriarchy, a victim of an ever increasing tyrannical king but she was to have the last laugh.  Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth I became Queen of England in 1558 and reined for fourty four years.  Her rein is often depicted as the golden age in English history.



A historic introduction…

Hello to anyone who is reading this! If you stumbled across this accidently or if I’ve told you about my plans to unleash a history blog you are very welcome to read on.  As some of you know, I am a living, breathing history geek. Seriously geeky.  In fact, I recently told my partner that I wish to visit every castle in Britain.  That prospect didn’t exactly thrill him.  The enthusiasm and excitement was purely my own.  I’ve repeatedly watched many documentaries on The Plantagenet and Tudor era, as well as dabbling with the Stuarts on the odd occasion.  And my book collection is vast.  I would say that 90% of my book collection are historical non-fiction concentrating mainly on the Plantagenet era.

You will laugh at me and probably shake your head in shame when I say it was the Showtime drama The Tudors that first enticed me into the past. Yes, I know it was plagued by historically inaccuracy to put it generously, the costumes echoed more the Elizabethan style of dress than the Tudor era and the script was dreadful.  Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII was captivating as young Henry at first, but unwittingly comical and ludicrous as the seasons went on.  What was that accent about??  What it did however, for me at least, was ignite my intrigue about the past.  I was reading more. I was watching every medieval documentary I could get my hands on. In short, I was hooked. And it was a love affair that has stayed with me.

I admit, I’m not an academic of history, my academic background lies elsewhere, so if you are expecting an academically sound blog you might want to look elsewhere. It has been over 10 years since I’ve written anything remotely academic.  However, my reason for starting this blog is more personal.  Following the years since I first watched the show that captivated my love of history, life has not always been kind. History however has always been my one constant. So, I have decided to create this blog. In honour of my love of medieval history. I will share knowledge, theories, feelings of interest. Hopefully you will find it insightful and a jolly good read.

Bye for now!