Friday, November 07, 2014

Wars of the Roses, History and Fiction

I noticed a recent spike in views of my post on Dan Jones' book, "The Plantagenets," and realized that his new book, "The Wars of the Roses," has just come out. I rushed right over to Amazon and downloaded a sample chapter. It's bumped everything else on my to-read list, but I do want to finish my current reads before starting it. I'm really looking forward to Dan Jones' take on the period, particularly what he has to say about Richard III, as well as Elizabeth Woodville (the "commoner" who became Edward IV's queen).

York and Lancaster family tree
Follow the roses: Lancaster, York, and Tudor family tree. Photo of display at Hampton Court Palace.
Last year while traveling in France and England, I motored my way through Phillipa Gregory's series of novels on the era, each featuring an important woman from one of the noble families. Although Phillipa Gregory is a historian, these are novels, and not the greatest of historical novels either, in my opinion. Still, I appreciated her focus on the female members of the great families of the time; all of these women were active in shaping historical events, even as history has tended to downplay their importance and record comparatively little of their lives.

Of the entire series (I've read five, but not the sixth), my least favorite was "The Red Queen," which tells the story of Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother. Margaret was a fascinating person of strong will and unlimited ambition -- for her son. It was the story-telling, not the underlying historical reality, that didn't work for me.

On the other hand, fanciful as they are, I did enjoy "The White Queen" and "The Lady of the Rivers." The "White Queen" was Elizabeth Woodville, who captured the heart of young Edward IV -- the first York king of the white rose badge. In history books such as Thomas B. Costain's series about the Plantagenets, she comes across as grasping and selfish -- using her position to enrich her large family. While there may be much truth in that, we should also remember that exploiting royal favor to acquire properties, titles, and advantageous marriages was what the entrenched nobility had planned for themselves. No wonder they resented this upstart Queen.

Phillipa Gregory reminds us that Queen Elizabeth had many enemies who wanted her set aside so Edward could make a more valuable match. Promoting her family helped to build a protective wall of powerful allies around herself and her children, as well as her extended family.

"The Lady of the Rivers" was Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville's mother -- another romantic yet politically astute lady. Jacquetta's family ruled Luxembourg as Counts, and she had numerous relations among the royal families of England and the Continent. Her first marriage was to King Henry V's brother, John, Duke of Bedford. When Duke John left Jacquetta a young widow, she took matters into her own hands, and eloped with the Duke's former Captain of Guards, Sir Richard Woodville. Their union was both long and happy (as well as shocking to their peers at the time), with Elizabeth born as the first of 14 children.

Even better is the non-fiction "The Women of the Cousin's Wars," written by Phillipa Gregory in conjunction with other historians, David Baldwin and Michael Jones. The three sections of this book discuss what is known and may be surmised about Jacquetta, Elizabeth Woodville, and Margaret Beaufort. Each of the sections has a few pages of "Notes and Sources" as well as a bibliography for further reading.


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