Book Review: Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen by Samantha Wilcoxson

Plantagenet Princess Tudor Queen collage with real ones

Looking for a good historical fiction to read that is true to Elizabeth of York and the tumultuous era she lived in? Look no further, the Plantagenet Princess is all this and more!

It is very hard to find a good historical fiction that is appreciate of Elizabeth of York, without downplaying on her strengths or ignoring her weaknesses.

Many novelists think it’s better to alter their female subjects, the ones who aren’t deemed “interesting” or “strong” in order to sell more books, by marketing them as progressive or ahead of their times.

This wouldn’t be a problem if novelists were honest with their audience but as it happens, they are not. So you can imagine my sigh of relief when I read this book and found an author who honored Elizabeth by staying as true as possible to her silent -yet strong- demeanor.

There is strength in silence and that is something that Samantha Wilcoxson emphasized on every chapter where Elizabeth comes out as an observant, proud, and pragmatic young woman who is aware of her importance, and is determined to be treated with the respect she rightly deserves.

As the firstborn of Elizabeth Woodville and Edwar  IV, Elizabeth was well aware of her value. To quote from Susan Higginbotham in her biography on Elizabeth’s maternal family: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an unattached young king must be in search of a wife.”
And a man like Henry who’s claim to the throne was more tenuous than Elizabeth’s father, he needed a good marriage to keep himself in power.

Elizabeth is a caring young woman who is witty and at times outspoken, someone who has learned from her relatives’ mistake, has had to endure loss, but never feels sorry about herself. Her strength lies in knowing who to trust, her religious devotion and faith in herself. Sounds trite, but this is as close as you will get to time travel and meeting the real Elizabeth in historical fiction. The book is beautifully written, highly descriptive and character driven, with Elizabeth being not the only character that shines from this tale, but those are there with her at the end of her journey.

If you are a history buff who’s read plenty on the wars of the roses, and is fascinated by Elizabeth of York’s story, this is the book for you. If you are new to this era but wish to know more about the story behind the White Princess, this is the book for you too. Well researched, masterfully written, highly descriptive, Plantagenet Princess: Tudor Queen brings back the wars of the roses and the early Tudor era back to life, and gives justice to a figure who’s been easily discredited, altered, and her queenship dismissed.

They say that the good you do won’t do you any good. Sometimes this is true, but for a woman who had seen many kings deposed, murdered and killed in battle, and queens’ reputations dragged through the mud, sweetness and piety became her greatest strengths and her fertility a shield against anyone who’d think twice about her harming the new Tudor Dynasty.
Experiences shape us, and they certainly shaped Elizabeth but as I’ve previously pointed out, it is often our willingness to get back up despite how many times we’ve been brought down that makes all the difference. And Elizabeth never gave up. Although her weapons were invisible they were no less effective and as it happened, they guaranteed her success. She went down in history as one of the most successful English consorts, and gained a cult-like status.

Henry VI’s Mysterious Death: Where One War Ends, Another Begins

King Henry VI.
King Henry VI.

On the twenty first of May 1471, Henry VI died, probably by the hand of the Yorks. There are many versions of this. In some it is Richard who kills him while Henry VI bemoans his death and the destruction of his house, in others it is an unknown assailant sent by Richard.  The official story is something so outrageous and taken out of a fairy tale story that nobody believed it at the time. According to the Yorkists, Henry VI had taken the news of his son’s death “to so great despite, ire and indignation that of pure displeasure and melancholy he died”. Few believed this cock and bull story. Towards the end of his life, Henry VI had become paranoid. He railed about seeing a woman drowning a child and many other visions that his confessor and biographer, John Blacman, later recorded. Despite his delusions however, it is very hard to believe that he would just drop dead upon receiving the news of his dead son.
Everyone suspected of foul play. But regardless of the identity of his killer, whoever sent him would have been acting under the strict orders of Edward IV. It is illogical to think that someone would have just gone rogue and done away with the old King. Edward IV wanted Henry VI. Period. He didn’t spare his son in his battle and dragged Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset and the others hiding at Tewkesbury Abbey for beheading two days later on May the sixth. His death marked the end of an era and the end of a threat. Or at least that is how it seemed.

Edward IV was too smart to know that killing Henry VI was the end of the Lancastrian threat. If history had taught him anything was that once one person was eradicated, another one could come to take his place. Especially if that someone came from the same House as he did. Henry Tudor was the descendant of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster’s eldest son by his third wife, Kathryn Swynford. Although King Richard II had legitimized their children, his successor, Henry IV had excluded them from the line of succession. But that was a minor concern for Edward IV. After all, he better than anyone, knew laws could be made or unmade. It was only a matter of power and money. So after Henry VI was murdered that morning between 11 and 12 0’clock, he began his next project: to capture Henry Tudor, the fourteen year old Earl of Richmond and his uncle Jasper Tudor who were hiding in Wales, at all costs.

Some historians view the destruction of the legitimate line of the House of Lancaster as the end of the wars of the roses; but the wars as we know now, was far more complex and far from over at this point. Where one war ended, another began.

Sources:

  • Tudor. Passion. Manipulation. Murder by Leanda de Lisle
  • Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen by Amy Licence
  • Edward IV by Ross
  • Rise of the Tudors by Chris Skidmore
  • The Prince who did not become King: Edward of Westminster (1453-1471) by Susan Higginbotham
  • The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Jones
  • The Wars of the Roses by Alison Weir

May the 4th: The Twilight of the House of Lancaster

Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, only son of King Henry VI of House Lancaster and his Queen, Marguerite of Anjou.
Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, only son of King Henry VI of House Lancaster and his Queen, Marguerite of Anjou.

On May the 4th 1471, Edward Prince of Wales, otherwise known as Edward of Westminster for his place of birth, lost his life at the Battle of Tewkesbury. The prince was only seventeen years old, months short of being eighteen. He was the last hope of the Lancastrians. After the Earl of Warwick Richard Neville had been slain at the battle of Barnet the previous month, the Prince and his mother decided not to make any more haste and keep with the plan, and attack the Yorkists. Some historians like Skidmore believe that the death of Richard Neville might have been a blessing in disguise since it eliminated a potential rival, if they ever came to a complete win. However, others are not so sure of this. Jones, Higginbotham, Lisle, among many others view that Warwick’s death was truly the end-game for the Lancasters. The battle of Barnet destroyed whatever chance they had left. Marguerite of Anjou was never one to give up and continued to march forward unto the battlefield. With her, besides her son, was her daughter-in-law, Anne Neville. Anne Neville was the youngest daughter of Richard Neville, and the news of her father’s death when she touched English shore, must have been devastating. Yet, true to her position of Princess Consort of Wales, she kept moving and joined her husband and her mother-in-law in their fight, to completely restore the Lancastrian dynasty to its rightful place. Henry VI had already been captured and sent back to the Tower. London was back in Yorkist control but Marguerite remained optimistic. Weeks after they landed, they made their way to Exeter then to Bristol and the Severn Valley where Edward IV “prepared for a second round of battle, sending out orders to fifteen counties”. He wanted to stop them at all costs from crossing the river Severn but come the end of April he realized they were journeying to Bristol where they were joined by a larger army and supplied with more weapons.

Although Edward had the upper hand, one mistake (he knew) could’ve cost him everything. So it became a race against time, for the Yorkist King to encounter them when he was still strong before they reunited with others (such as Jasper Tudors who was far off and was looking forward to joining with them).

Edward of Westminster in the "White Queen" (2013)
Edward of Westminster in the “White Queen” (2013)

The Lancastrian army then reached Tewkesbury on 3 May. The next day they faced the Yorkist troops. The Prince of Wales along with the Duke of Somerset, Edmund Beaufort were the principal commanders. Marguerite and Anne Neville were likely hiding as Licence points out in her biography on Anne Neville; probably in Coventry with other Lancastrian wives waiting for news of the outcome.

The following day on Saturday May the 4th, Edward IV “donned his armor and divided his army into three divisions under the same leadership that had prevailed at Barnet -himself, Hastings and the brilliant young Gloucester, who was not given command of the vanguard.” Jones writes. The Lancastrias “were arrayed under Prince Edward” who was assisted by Lord Wenlock, Sir John Lagstrother (the prior of St. John) and of course his second in command Edmund Duke of Somerset, followed by John Courtenay the Earl of Devon. Edward IV began his assault with “a hail of arrows and gunshot” which was returned by the enemy. The Lancastrias had chosen a “strong defensive position” Skidmore notes “encamped on high ground to the south of Tewkesbury.” The battle raged on, “Somerset had chosen to command the right flank, placing the elderly veteran Lord Wenlock in charge of the center of the army.” Edward did not waste any time and told his brother leading the left flank to advance, the Lancastrians did their best to repel the wave of arrows flown at them, but they were soon overwhelmed.

“Outnumbered, Somerset’s forces force was slowly being driven back up the slope. It was at this point that Edward performed a masterstroke, ordering his 200 men-at-arms waiting hidden in the woods to launch a surprise attack into the side of Somerset’s beleaguered troops. The Duke’s men scattered, ‘dismayed and abashed’; some fled along the lanes, some into the park and down to the meadow by the river running alongside the abbey, but most would suffer the same fate of being cut down and killed as they ran. Somerset, however, refused to give up, making his way back to the Lancastrian center whose troops had stood motionless at Lord Wenlock’s order. Riding up to the aged nobleman, Somerset was in no mood for excuses; according to a latter account, in a fury, he raged at Wenlock, and before he had a chance to respond, Somerset seized his battle axe and beat his brains out, though a more contemporary chronicle suggests that this dramatic confrontation never took place, with Wenlock being captured and executed after the battle.” (Skidmore)

As everyone scrambled and ran to safety, Somerset took refuge in the Abbey with a few. The Prince was not so lucky.

“Exactly how Anne’s husband met his death is unclear. Literary and dramatic sources have presented a range of possibilities, implicating various Yorkists in differing degrees. Of the contemporary chroniclers recording the scene without being present, Commynes agrees with the Croyland and Benet chronicles, which clearly state that he fell on the field of battle, while the Arrival observes, ‘And there was slain in the field Prince Edward, which cried for succor to his brother-in-law, the Duke of Clarence.’ Even having sworn allegiance to him less than a year before, Clarenece clearly did not feel sufficiently moved to show the prince pity, stating in a letter to Henry Vernon that the Prince was ‘slain in plain battle’, differentiating his death from the ‘execution’ of Somerset also described in the correspondence. Warkworth agrees that the prince ‘was taken fleeing townwards, and slain in the field’, perhaps heading back for the safety of the abbey, or ‘poor religious place’ where his wife and mother waited. Tudor Historian Andre Bernanrd writing in 1501, also stated that the prince was slain in combat, even though, at the time, it would have been in his interests to slur the reputation of the Yorkist brothers. The alternative story of Edward’s murder began to gain credence soon after his death. Weeks after the battle, Bettini wrote to the Duke of Milan that the Yorkists had ‘not only routed the prince but taken and slain him, together with all the leading men with him’.” (Licence)

According to various accounts, he was executed before Edward IV, others say that he was killed by Richard III himself. Not surprisingly during the Tudor period the blame was lain on Richard’s feet. Even if this is true, as Licence argues in her biography of both of these men’s only wife, Anne Neville; he would not have risked doing something of that magnitude without his eldest brother and King, Edward IV’s approval. Edward IV wanted the entire Lancastrian line wiped, therefore he was not going to shrink away from executing him or giving the order to someone else if he was indeed brought before him.

Anne Neville played by Faye Marsay in the "White Queen" (2013).
Anne Neville played by Faye Marsay in the “White Queen” (2013).

The battle was a huge and decisive win, Jones notes for Edward because he had “at last gained a glorious victory” and two days after he had slain Edward Prince of Wales, he dragged Edmund Duke of Somerset, Sir John Langstrother, Sir Hugh Courtenay and other Lancastrians who had sought sanctuary inside the Abbey, to behead them. The following day on the 8th, he left Tewkesbury to track the Queen and her daughter-in-law, Anne Neville who was now a widow and like the Queen, at the mercy of the Yorkist King. Not long after, Henry VI also died under mysterious circumstances. No one believed the official story that he had died of melancholy.

Sources:

  • The Rise of the Tudors: The Family that Changes English History by Chris Skidmore
  • The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
  • Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen by Amy Licence
  • The Prince who did not become King: Edward of Lancaster (1453-1471) by Susan Higginbotham