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.