This is a book every history buff needs to read if they are interested in finding out about the roots of one of the most infamous dynasties in world history, who will continue to fascinate us in decades to come.
I absolutely loved how descriptive this book was. From start to finish, I was hooked. And this is one of those books that I just had to re-read again because being a huge history buff, I wanted to see what important things I hadn’t highlighted. Turns out that with a book like this, everything is a highlight so you might as well be stuck taking notes and going back to the original source when you want to check something you might have missed.
Writing a biography is not easy, especially one that takes on the challenge of chronicling the life of a family that has been largely obscured by their most infamous and famous contemporaries. Nathen Amin begins with Henry Tudor’s ascension to the throne of England following Richard III’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth. It is a tale that takes you back through time, to an era of deceit, love, loss, shifting loyalties and above all, survival.
When Margaret Beaufort watched her son being crowned, her confessor, later Bishop Fisher, said that they weren’t tears of joy but of fear. She was the only surviving member of the eldest son of John of Gaunt and his mistress (later wife) Kathryn Swynford. The fact that she had seen her family nearly fade into oblivion and lived through many reigns, was more than enough to worry about her son’s future.
But through it all, she like most of the first Beauforts persevered.
This is a tale of one’s family unlikely rise to power and whose descendants still sit on the throne of England. Those who are new to this era will learn a great deal about it from this book, and those who are already familiar with it won’t be disappointed either because unlike pop historians, the author was fairly objective, drawing his conclusions from reliable sources and forensic evidence.
I’m proud to say, this is a great addition to my collection of favorite books and I am guessing you will feel the same way after you finish it. This is a reminder that the impossible often became possible and that there were no shortages of twists and turns, often due to kings and aristocrats’ excesses and their miscalculation and plain sheer luck, that led to these least likely outcomes.
The story of the Beauforts is also the story of a family being torn apart by dynastic warfare which was initiated by one of their own’s spouses when his enmity to the queen forced him to take a route that would change the course of English history, and propel one of their own’s unlikely candidate to become King of England. Through it all, this family produced some of the most notable members who worked alongside their Lancastrian half-brother and cousins, and most of them remained loyal but others, such as the women, were forced to make difficult choices in order to survive.
Kathryn Swynford and John of Gaunt’s only daughter, Joan was the mother of the formidable Duchess of York, Cecily Neville aka “Proud Cis”. Never fully able to shake the stain of bastardry despite Richard II legitmizing in 1399 but his successor, Henry IV, instating a clause that took them from the line of succession, became a pious woman and that piety was passed on to her daughter who in turn pass it on to her daughters and granddaughters (most notably, Princesses Elizabeth and Bridget of York). Then there is also the story of another Joan Beaufort, who had to go through unimaginable tribulations to protect her son’s throne and her ambitions. Another married into the up and coming Neville clan, producing one of the most formidable women of the age, Cecily Neville, aka ‘Proud Cis’, who married Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, a man who’d become the founder of a separate branch of the Plantagenet dynasty and whose ambitions and enmity with the queen, led to the dynastic civil war that lasted over three decades.
Through it all, a family whose last name died when its last male heir was beheaded after the battle of Tewkesbury, their legacy survived through one of its last descendants, Henry Tudor who besides creating a new device that embodied his dynasty, also included reminders of the House that passed his claim unto him.
On this day in Plantagenet history Cecily Neville was born in Raby Castle, Durham. Nicknamed the “Rose of Raby”, “Proud Cis”, “Queen by Rights”. The real Cecily Neville has been lost to us thanks to the proliferation of negative portrayals of her.
The Neville family could trace its roots back to William the Conqueror with whom they were related. Cecily’s eleventh century ancestor Richard de Novavilla’s mother was the Conqueror’s cousin. As the years went by the Nevilles climbed up the social ladder by marrying into prestigious families.
Cecily’s father was the First Earl of Westmorland and had already been married, by the time Cecily was born she had sisters who already had children of their own. Her mother was none other than Joan Beaufort, only daughter of John, Duke of Lancaster and his third wife Katherine Swynford. By an act of parliament during Richard II’s reign, John and Katherine’s children were legitimized however this act was severely altered when John’s eldest son, Henry IV, came to the throne. The new act parliament passed maintained they were legitimate but barred them from the line of succession. As a result Joan Beaufort developed a strong religious identity she passed on to her daughter.
When she married Richard Plantagenet in 1429 she became Duchess of York and one of the leading women in England. After a series of conflicts that pit her husband against Henry VI, he made a bid for the crown of England. Before his triumphant entrance to London in 1460, he had visited Cecily so both could share his triumph. However parliament refused to replace their anointed sovereign with Richard and instead an agreement was brought up that he would be King’s official heir. He was granted the titles of Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester, and Duke of Cornwall. As a result Cecily’s status was elevated as the second highest ranking woman in England. It would be by a cruel stroke of fate that she would never wear the crown of England. Her son and second son were killed later that same year by Lancastrian forces.
While Cecily never became Queen of England, she started using the moniker “Queen by Rights” around the time her eldest son married Elizabeth Wydeville to emphasize her high rank. It is unclear what role she played -if she played any- during her son George’s rebellion or during her youngest son, Richard’s reign.
After the Yorkist regime fell, she retired from the public scene, leading a highly ascetic life. She died in May 31st, 1495. She is buried next to her husband in Fotheringhay Castle.
Today historians still debate Edward IV’s parentage but a poem done in his honor, shortly after he was sworn in as King, leaves it very clear he was Richard, Duke of York’s son:
“Y is for York that is manly and mighty
That be grace of God and great revelation
Reining with rules reasonable and right-full
That which for our sakes hath suffered vexation.
E is for Edward whose fame the earth shall spread
Because of his wisdom named prudence
shall save all England by his manly deeds
Wherefore we owe to do him reverence
M is for March, through every trial
Drawn by discretion that worthy and wise is
conceived in wedlock and coming of blood royal
Joining unto virtue, excluding all vices.”
There was a scene in the White Queen, both in the book and the mini-series where Cecily Neville, Duchess of York and “Queen by Rights” is completely humiliated by her daughter-in-law and her mother, Lady Rivers. She threatens to disown her son Edward in favor of George because she is mad he married a Lancastrian impoverished widow. Elizabeth Grey nee Woodville’s father was a knight, albeit he had been made a Baron thanks to his service to the Crown –and Jacquetta’s friendship with the Lancastrian Queen. Her mother was Jacquetta of Luxemborg whose lineage was quite impressive. However in the middle ages, if your father was a nobody, it didn’t matter if your mother was a somebody, to their standards, you were technically a nobody unless you married above your station. Edward was the first King of the York dynasty –another branch of the Plantagenet Dynasty. His position was very unstable as Henry VI was still alive somewhere and his warring wife and son were seeking the support of Scotland and France to invade England and restore her husband to the throne. Everything he did or said could be used against him; he couldn’t afford to be his own man until he was safely installed. Yet, Edward disregarded this –as he did many things- and went ahead and married Elizabeth Woodville.
There are many possible reasons as to why he did this. Susan Higginbotham in her biography on the Woodville posits that he could have done it as another plot to convince Elizabeth to sleep with him, or for the simplest reason that he genuinely fell in love with her. Dan Jones in his latest book on the wars of the roses and the Tudors, give another approach that combines all reasons: That Edward was uncertain regarding his cousin Warwick’s proposal to marry the King of France’s relative, Bona of Savoy. If he agreed to marry this girl then he would be seen as Warwick’s tool. People were already saying that Warwick ruled. Edward didn’t want to give them any more reason to think this way. It was a great risk he was running but he did it anyway. Marrying Elizabeth was a public statement of his independence and furthermore that he was not going to show favoritism to any nobles regardless of their previous affiliations. The Woodvilles like so many former Lancastrians, had been pardoned in 1461 but there was still a lot resentment between noble families. People expected Edward IV to be like his counterpart and his wife and take retaliation against the people that supported his enemies.
He clearly didn’t.
His marriage with Elizabeth could have been handled better, and publicized more as his daughter’s to Henry VII was. Perhaps Edward believed that marrying her was enough for people to get the message of a reconciliation between both parties. It failed drastically. As we all know, Warwick and the rest were appalled at his decision. These were no simple dissatisfied nobles after all. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick had lost his father and younger brother when they helped Edward’s father, Richard Duke of York and his second eldest son Edmund Earl of Rutland fight the Queen’s army at Sandal Castle. His father as the rest, were beheaded, their heads stuck on a pole and exhibited on top of the gates as traitors. Warwick had to flee many times and muster whatever men he could, with what money he had left for his cousin. To have his cousin all the sudden say ‘sorry dude but I don’t like you anymore. Get the hell out’ was a huge slap in the face.
Warwick also had other motives for hating this union. Edward IV had always felt close to Burgundy. His mother had ties to that royal family, but Warwick wanted an alliance with France for obvious reasons (the Lancastrian Queen, Margaret of Anjou was there, begging the King to send troops to invade England and restore her husband. If she succeeded, then it was the end of everything and everyone they loved. Plain and simple. The best way to avoid that was by marrying Edward to the King’s relative so Margaret of Anjou would be completely cut off from allies. Now thanks to Edward’s latest marriage, that wasn’t going to happen).
Cecily had more reasons to hate that marriage though. She loved her son fiercely. Having lost her husband and her second son in such a brutal way, she became increasingly protecting of her remaining children. The year before her husband and son lost their heads (when they had to go abroad to escape the royal army) what do you think Cecily Neville did? She had to beg (I repeat, beg) for mercy and throw herself at the feet of her enemies so her youngest children would be spared. She counted on her friendship with Queen Margaret, to help her in these difficult times. It paid off. Margaret of Anjou never lifted a finger against her and let her be (under the condition that she stayed with her sister, Anne, Duchess of Buckingham whose husband was a die-hard Lancastrian and who happened to be Margaret Beaufort’s mother-in-law). This time though, Cecily knew it wasn’t going to be so simple. Even *if* -and that was a big *if*- the Queen forgave her as before, she would see her youngest offspring (Richard, George and Margaret) as potential claimants who would one day rise to avenge their fallen brothers if Edward died too. Cecily had no choice but to send her two boys abroad to Burgundy where they were well taken care of. Imagine yourself as a forty five year old woman who had been married since she was twelve, who had lived through so much carnage and humiliation, and you suddenly found out that your sons could be seen as potential dangers to your best friend? What could you do? They say there is nothing a mother won’t do for her children, and that is what Cecily did. She let go of her children, and took refuge in God, praying that the next news she would receive would be a good one.
Edward’s choice therefore angered her. The White Queen made her look as if she hated Elizabeth because of her condition of ‘commoner’. But as much as I did enjoy some parts of the White Queen, we must look at it for what it is, fiction and acknowledge the facts. Cecily did not want to acknowledge Edward’s marriage to this Lancastrian widow because it was dangerous. She had seen the worse of humanity. She had lost nephews, uncles, husband, son, and a brother! Edward wasn’t even in his fifth year when he married Elizabeth. He had so many enemies, this marriage left him without alliances and completely naked to them. Not only that, but his failure meant the destruction of her family.
Cecily was not about to act all happy and ignorant and pretend this was okay. Her husband was gone but she was still there. Before Edward married Elizabeth, she was the most powerful woman in the land and many ambassadors met with her before they met with her nephew Warwick and her son, Edward IV. Elizabeth might become a good Queen, but her common status put them all in danger.
When Jaquetta and her daughter enter the Duchess’ chambers, smirking at her as if she is too far beneath them, the former threatens her to expose her as a “common whore”. Jacquetta says in the TV show that she vouched for her when the rumors began circulating that she had cheated on her husband with a Welsh archer. “Blaybourne, wasn’t it? Ah yes, I said that a great lady like you would not so demean herself as to lie with a common archer and let his bastard slip into a nobleman’s cradle like she was a common whore.”
Fiction sensationalizes these things to make them more interesting, I take it as an alternate universe where people are obviously very different from what they really were. A woman as conscientious of her lineage, her status, would never let herself be humiliated by a woman who was lower in rank than her. Even her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville, was lower in rank to her since she had been the daughter of a knight and although her mother had great lineage, that didn’t matter. Queen she might be, but to Cecily she was lower than her. And furthermore, she and Richard were very close in age, the two got to know each other since they were children –when his custody as passed to her father Ralph Neville, the Earl of Westmorland and then her mother. Her mother was Joan Beaufort and she was the only daughter of John, 1st Duke of Lancaster and his mistress, Katherine Swynford. He had been married two times before he married her. When he did, Richard II agreed to legitimize their children for all the good services his uncle had done in government. John’s cruel nature was a small price to pay to protect his third wife and their children whom he obviously felt closer to. Their half-brother and the first Lancastrian King, Henry IV, added a new clause to their legitimate status where it excluded them from the line of succession. Because of this, many of them became very religious because they felt deeply ashamed of having been born a bastard and their birth being an impediment to being in the line of succession. The fact that they didn’t carry the last name Plantagenet, was awful enough. Joan spent her entire life praying and making huge donations to churches, and her piety was passed on to her youngest offspring, Cecily.
Many medieval women took comfort in religion. Contrary to what it shown in movies and TV, many women saw religion as a means to an end. It gave some of them power and comfort from their everyday hardships. A year before her third son’s George Duke of Clarence’s death, Cecily began to take on a rigorous religious routine and wake up at certain hours of the day for religious devotion.
With this in mind, it is impossible that a woman such as Cecily whose other nickname was “proud Cis” would have gone behind her husband’s back and cheat with the first bloke she saw. Status was everything and as I’ve stated, Cecily was very aware of her place in society. Of course some historians will then state the matter of Edward’s low key baptism. This can be explained simply. The belief of something in between heaven and hell: Purgatory. People believed that premature children would die quickly and if they died quickly without being baptized then that meant that their souls would never reach heaven and they would be stuck in a perpetual limbo.
Not something nice, isn’t it?
“Cecily fell pregnant soon after her arrival in Rouen. The exact timing of the conception has been the subject of much debate among historians and would later prove a significant bone of political contention. Edward would arrive on 28 April 1442. This would place his conception sometime at the end of July 1441 or in the early days of August, assuming that it was a nine-month pregnancy. Records discovered in Rouen recently detail that Richard, Duke of York was absent from Rouen on campaign at Pontoise for several weeks, returning to the city on 20 August. From this detail, several historians have inferred that Edward was not Richard’s son. They believe this proves that Cecily must have had an adulterous liaison during his absence, which would render Edward illegitimate.
There are a number of problems with using this timing as evidence. If Cecily conceived on the night of Richard’s return to Rouen, 20 August, this still allows for a pregnancy of thirty-six weeks … To be premature, a baby must be born before thirty seven weeks and there is a fair chance that Edward might have arrived early.” -Licence
Richard and Cecily were very young when they were married and they didn’t consummate their marriage right away. When Cecily’s first recorded pregnancy became known, it probably wasn’t an easy pregnancy as her baby died in less than a year. He was named Henry for the King and the loss devastated them both. They had a daughter later who thankfully was born healthy, but like any couple they would have been hoping for a son. If Edward was premature and conceived during Richard’s comings and goings from his camp to Rouen Castle, then it makes perfect sense why they wanted to baptize him right away. If they didn’t then he would likely die (being so frail) and his soul would be wandering off in purgatory. There were some extreme cases where –if a priest wasn’t found- the midwife could take on the role of the priest and baptize the baby instead. The other reason for his quick baptism could be that although he wasn’t premature, they were both worried that he would die like his brother or Richard could be killed any day. The two weren’t exactly living in a peaceful area. England was still at war with France and he had been sent there to defend Normandy from Charles VII’s forces.
The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
Cecily Neville: The Mother of Kings by Amy Licence
On Saturday 21st of April 1509, Henry VII died at Richmond Palace. He was the first monarch of the Tudor dynasty and while he has been eclipsed by his larger than life son, Henry remains one of the most fascinating figures of the modern era.
“The reality of Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne –his narrow escapes from death, his failures and anxieties, complete with constant uncertainty of his situation … was a far less welcome tale. It remains nonetheless just as remarkable; against all the odds, at Bosworth Henry achieved victory that he should not have won.” (Skidmore)
He created a new symbol called the Tudor Rose which was nothing more than a device, an alternate tale to explain the roots of the conflict known today as the “wars of the roses”. The wars was a more complex conflict than what we are told and involved as many players as we can imagine. The warring Houses known as Lancaster and York, had many sigils. The white and the red rose where the emblems chosen by Henry Tudor to represent both Houses to give a new narrative of this conflict. It was an effective device that would become to represent not just the union of both Houses that came about with Henry VII’s marriage with Elizabeth of York, but of his descendants. On January 1559, fifty years after his death, his granddaughter, Elizabeth I rode from the Tower of London to Westminster on the eve of her coronation, and on her way she encountered five pageants, one of which showed “two personages representing King Henry the Seventh and Elizabeth his wife, daughter of King Edward the Fourth” seated together, above each head was the red rose and white rose respectively “out of which [these] two roses sprang two branches gathered into one, which were directed upward to a second stage wherein was placed one representing the valiant and noble prince King Henry [VIII]”.
Clearly, the Tudor rose was seen not just as a validation to his descendants’ right to the throne, but as something preordained by God, something that told the people that with them, the wars of the roses had come to a close, and peace had finally reigned in England. Whether this was true or not, and nobles believed it or not, is up to dispute. But nobody can deny that it was an effective piece of propaganda that convinced the people that war had come to an end, and that this new dynasty would bring them peace and prosperity. Tudor and Elizabethan literature helped a great deal when they continued to use this device to explain the reasons behind the conflict, reducing it to a dynastic conflict between two warring houses.
“The frontispiece was such a popular motif that it was repeated and reused on other, unconnected works: the same family tree appeared unmodified in John Stow’s 1550 and 1561 editions of Chaucer’s works, introducing the section on the Canterbury Tales. Just as John, Duke of Bedford, had plastered occupied France with genealogies advertising the legitimacy of the joint monarchy during the 1520s; just as Edward IV had obsessively compiled genealogies tracing his rightful royal descent from centuries long gone; so too did the Tudors drive home the message both of their right to rule and of their version of history. By Elizabeth’s reign the mere sight of red and white roses entwined was enough to evoke instantly the whole story of the fifteenth century: the Crown had been thrown into dispute and disarray by the Lancastrian deposition of Richard II in 1399; this had prompted nearly a century of warfare between two rival clans, which was a form of divine punishment for the overthrow of a rightful King; finally in 1485, the Tudors had reunited the families and saved the realm. It was that simple.” (Jones)
And yet all of Henry’s hard work, to maintain stability in his new realm, his marriage and his family, suffered a huge setback when his eldest son and beloved heir, Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales and Lord of Snowdonia died as a result of the plague in early April 1502. He and his wife were utterly devastated. “The shadow cast by Arthur’s death” writes Dan Jones “was long and dark” but not as dark as historians Amy Licence and Alison Weir add, that of Elizabeth of York’s death a year later. Their deaths were too much for the aging King, who began to isolate himself from the public, coming out only for state occasions. When Henry’s condition worsened, his mother (Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond) who was sick herself, ordered that her son be moved to Richmond that March.
“Her hands, now cramped with arthritis, were so painful that she would sometimes cry out ‘Oh Blessed Jesus help me!’ But to watch her son suffer was so much worse. The dying King sobbed as he reflected on the lives he had ruined. His last agonies began at about 10 pm Friday 20 April.” (de Lisle)
Margaret brought her confessor, John Fisher, to hear his confession and give him his last rites. And then on the morning of April 21st, Henry died.
Margaret immediately began to make preparations for her grandson’s coronation and kept the King’s death a secret for three days. She organized a meeting with his councilors and co-executors at his will at Greenwich to discuss, among many things, her son’s burial and the upcoming regency during her son’s short minority. Henry VIII was not yet eighteen and Margaret wanted to make sure that he was safely installed in his throne, before he took on the reins of government. Margaret had great experience in this since she had been a child of nine attending the court of her cousin, Henry VI, to repudiate her betrothal to de la Pole. The meeting took place on the celebration of the Order of the Garter –an Order she was a member of. Her grandson was present and while he was anxious to start his new reign, he recognized his grandmother’s experience, and respected her authority. Later that night, Henry’s death was announced and sadly (at least to Margaret, it must have been) nobody mourned his death and according to contemporary chroniclers, they greeted his death with celebration. To many historians, Thomas Penn included, Henry VII is a miserly figure who was consumed by darkness of his own making and who will forever be remember as a somber and cold figure. But this, as Linda Porter in her recent biography of the Tudors and Stewarts points out, is “an unfair assessment”.
“He was comely personage, a little above just stature, well and straight-limbed, but slender. His countenance was revered, and a little like a churchman, and as it was not strange or dark so neither was it winning or pleasing, but as the face of one well disposed. But it was to the disadvantage of the painter, for it was best when he spoke.” (Bacon)
Although written over a century after his death, Francis Bacon’s description of the first Tudor King, is right on the spot. Linda Porter adds:
“[He was] A considered person, not given to great public displays of emotion, somewhat ascetic in appearance, not exactly handsome but with an interesting and by no means unattractive face, the whole man only at his most appealing when he was animated. His portraits show that he did, indeed, have something of the churchman about him: a calm and also inscrutability, a sense that you would never entirely know that he was thinking. It gave him an air of authority.” (Porter)
Henry VII was an energetic young man at the time of his exile, yet he was also controlled and cautious as the descriptions above, provide. He loved to laugh, joke and gamble but whereas some kings and leaders were known for their vices, Henry was not known to have any. Some of those who met him during his exile, were surprised how someone who had lived and survived through so much, could be so controlled and yet not bitter. When he became King, he kept some of the measures that King Edward IV had introduced, he kept the Star Chamber on a tight leash, terminated private liveries which meant that nobles could no longer have private armies, and defeated the pretender forces of Lambert Simnel who posed as Edward, Earl of Warwick (George, Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville’s son) and Perkin Warbeck who posed as Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York.
Henry never forgot those who had helped him get to where he was and in his last will he names those “lords as well of our blood as other, and also knights, squires and divers our true loving subjects and servants’ who had ‘faithfully assisted us, and divers of them put themselves in extreme jeopardy of their lives, and losses of their lands and goods, in serving and assisting us, as well about the recovery of our Right and Realm of England.’ And in one final tribute to his victory in battle twenty four years before, the dying King requested that a wooden image, wrought with plate of fine gold, should be made, ‘representing our own person … in the manner of an armed man’, to be equipped with an enameled coat of the arms of England and France, together with a sword and spurs. The statue was to be placed kneeling on a silver table, ‘holding betwixt his hands the crown which it pleased God to give us, with the victory over our enemy at our first field.’ The statue was to be dedicated to St. Edward the Confessor, and set in the middle of his shrine, with detailed instructions as to the exact measurements of the statue, so that it would seem as if Henry was almost offering up his crown to St. Edward in thanks.” (Skidmore)
Henry’s body remained in Richmond for two weeks until it was finally laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, inside the Lady Chapel that Henry had ordered constructed for him, his wife and his descendants. He was buried right beside her. Above them, standing a massive golden effigy, representing both of them.
Henry VII by SB Chrimes
The Winter King by Thomas Penn
Tudors vs Stewarts: The Fatal Inheritance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Linda Porter
The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
The Rise of the Tudors by Chris Skidmore
Tudor. Passion. Manipulation and Murder: The Story of England’s Most Notorious Family by Leanda de Lisle