Saturday, 17 August 2013

The White Queen and a very unsuitable marriage

Was Elizabeth Woodville so desperate to hold onto power that she considered letting one of her eldest daughters marry their uncle, Richard III?  That's the question being tackled in the last episode of The White Queen which airs on BBC One on Sunday night.  King Richard, in the months before his defeat and death at Bosworth, was forced to issue a denial that he wanted to marry Elizabeth of York - his older brother's eldest daughter.  But was he the victim of vicious rumours, the object of a teenage crush or willing party to one of the strangest alliances ever suggested to make a woman queen of England?

Uncle Richard looks far too interested in Elizabeth's music lesson - but was he really planning to marry his niece as his reign came to an end?
There's no doubt there was plenty of chatter about a wedding between the by now unpopular King Richard III and Princess Elizabeth of York as 1485 got under way.  Anne Neville, queen of England, was ill and her only child had died.  The loss of Edward of Middleham was a huge blow to both Richard and Anne and it's arguable that neither ever recovered from it.  The king knew that his wife was unlikely to give him another legitimate heir - she was in her late twenties and as far as is known, had only been pregnant once in the thirteen years they had been married.  And as her health weakened, it was normal for court gossip to turn to who might replace her, especially as there was a lack of male heirs in the York camp after the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.  But when the name on everyone's lips was her that of her niece by marriage, things got tricky.

Queen Anne Neville with Elizabeth and Cecily of York - they came to court in 1485 as her ladies in waiting but were they waiting for a lot more than the chance to dress the queen and win her favour?

At this point it's probably worth considering how many people, at this time, married someone to whom they were related. A lot did - the population of England was small and not that mobile.  The chances of your husband or wife being a cousin of some description were pretty high.  In recent years, the male population had been hit hard, especially in noble circles, by the Wars of the Roses.  And the richer people were, the more important it was to keep their cash in the family and that meant an alliance with someone nearby.  While kings and princes could marry foreign princesses, the average earl or duke around medieval town looked to cousins as he had little other choice.  Anne was related to Richard several times over, both being descended from John of Gaunt.  In fact Richard's mother, Cecily, was aunt of Anne's father, the Kingmaker.  One of the issues over their marriage was the lack of the papal dispensation needed for anyone to marry someone within specified degrees of familial relationship.

Anne and Richard were meant to ask the Pope permission for their marriage but didn't

Even so, marrying a niece was a step further than most were prepared to go.  So how did the rumours come about and how true were they?  Richard was the subject of a lot of rumours in his short reign.  Gloves were off all round as the Wars of the Roses came to a bloody end and given that he'd been accused of killing his own nephews the year before, claims that he wanted to wed and bed their sister were nothing like the worst thing he'd ever been said to have done.  He'd started off as a popular king in some parts of England but the chatter over the fate of Edward V and his brother, Richard, had damaged his popular standing.  Another set of rumours could only damage his reputation further - the big question is, who benefitted most from them?  Some argue it was part of a Woodville power grab - people already thought this man had killed two young boys to get a crown so by saying he wanted to marry the teenage daughter of his brother, he was shown to be out to utterly destroy the family and this would win them public sympathy.  Other argue that the Tudors benefitted as the Woodville clan could be portrayed as almost acquiescing in the romance to gain back the crown they believed was theirs.

Victims of rumours or willing accomplices?  Elizabeth and Cecily of York were power players at the court of Richard III in 1485

What if the princess started the rumours herself?  The younger Elizabeth was twenty when she arrived at court but her teenage years are a mystery to us.  We know that a marriage was negotiated for her with the French heir and for several years, Elizabeth believed she would be queen consort of France.  But the dauphin dumped her, or rather his dad did, and in 1482 Elizabeth of York was a princess and an heiress without any hope of a husband.  Her father had talked her sisters into marriage agreements with just about every other important kingdom in Europe leaving little for Lizzie to choose from.  We don't know whether she spent the years of her betrothal preparing to be queen or indulging in court fun and games.  Her youthful years are as much of an enigma to us as her time as queen.  So we don't know whether she was forward and flirtatious or naïve and needy.  But she when she arrived at court, out of sanctuary, in early 1485 she had been shut away for almost two years and keen to enjoy the riches that had been hers just a short time before.

Princess Elizabeth of York hardly had the smoothest ride into early adulthood
Maybe the idea of a richer, older man with power who could make her queen was irresistible to her.  And that doesn't mean to say that Richard had to return her feelings.  A few kind words or a little light flirtation might have gone a long way for a lonely girl who had spent her most recent past with only her mother and sisters for company.  How well she knew Richard before going into sanctuary in 1483 is another Elizabeth enigma - he had been in the north of England and without knowing more than we do about her upbringing, it's impossible to guess at how much time they'd ever spent together before 1485.
Richard and Elizabeth seem to be enjoying each other's company in this preview photo from the final part of The White Queen

Perhaps it was the king who made all the running and Elizabeth was her mother's daughter.  Elizabeth Woodville had shocked society by marrying the monarch and the first princess of York might well have liked the idea of following in her mother's footsteps.  Or perhaps letting Henry Tudor think she was about to marry his rival for the throne was a way of spurring him into agreeing to a marriage.  The possibilities for speculation are endless.

Henry Tudor finally gets his throne but doesn't look overly happy about it
There is another important fact to work in.  There had always been question marks over Edward IV's paternity, not helped by his own mother at one point claiming that he was illegitimate.  If Richard and Elizabeth believed that Cecily Neville's eldest surviving son was her child by Richard, Duke of York but rather by the archer of gossip then the blood relationship between them wasn't as strong.  They shared the DNA of Cecily but no one else if Edward was a cuckoo in the nest and if they believed that then suddenly the idea of a relationship wasn't as scandalous. 

Did Elizabeth of York believe her grandmother's claims that her father had been fathered by someone other than granddad?
And what was The White Queen's role in all this?  The idea that she might encourage her daughter to marry her uncle seems ludicrous but if we believe that by then Elizabeth knew her two sons by Edward were dead then it was the only way, at the time, that she could get a crown.  If Henry Tudor managed to unseat Richard III and keep his promise to marry Elizabeth of York then a throne would be hers again but she'd have to fight Margaret Beaufort for influence over the royal couple.  The Woodvilles were depleted by 1485 but still keen to rule the court and the country that had been theirs for almost twenty years.  And Richard III had proved easy enough to handle so far.  With her daughter as his wife, did Elizabeth think she could influence England once more?
Jacqetta helped make Elizabeth a queen - did she want to do the same for her own daughter?
Whatever the reasons for the rumours, they came to nought.  Richard was negotiating a marriage with Portugal when he lost his crown and life at Bosworth.  And Elizabeth got her crown but thanks to the Tudors.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

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