Monday 28 January 2013

Anne and Isobel Neville – Pawns in the War of the Roses

Do you have a glamorous view of history? Do you think that the Anne and Isobel Neville lived exciting, dazzling lives or were controlled as pawns in a high risk political game? Much of how we perceive our past has been shaped by films, TV and historical novels where handsome knights romance beautiful ladies in gorgeous frocks. The reality, however, was somewhat different.  For most ordinary people, life consisted of hard work, little education, poor healthcare and hygiene and very few chances to get ahead in life. For women it was even harder, as they were viewed as possessions of their families and were married off as advantageously as possible.  Love was not considered to be a factor; even liking your future spouse was not taken into consideration in many cases.  The life of a poor woman consisted of hard work, marriage, bearing children and struggling to bring them up.  Infant mortality was high and women had large families, where sometimes very few of the children reached adulthood.

Richard III and Anne Neville, Rous Roll
Richard III and Anne Neville, Rous Roll

But what if you were a princess or born into an aristocratic family like Anne and Isobel Neville?  Surely then your life would have been more like the Hollywood movie? Not really, is the answer.  Royal and noble women in medieval times were still controlled by their family.  They would have been reared with the skills to run a large household and be a mother, but they probably had been betrothed at a young age to someone they might not even have met.  Their lives would have been more comfortable and they would have the beautiful gowns and jewels, but their lives could still be cut cruelly short by disease or death in childbirth.

So let’s have a look at the lives of these two sisters in 15th century England, who on the surface of things seemed to have had such romantic and exciting lives? Isobel and Anne Neville were both born at Warwick Castle; Isobel in 1451 and Anne in 1456.  Their parents were Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and his wife Anne Beauchamp.  The couple were to have no further children and this would be a grievous blow to the Earl as it meant that he had no heir. Girls at that time could inherit property and estates, but not carry on the title. Both of the girls spent much of their childhood at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire in the company of Richard the young Duke of Gloucester, George Duke of Clarence and Francis Lovell.  Their childhood was played out against the violent backdrop of the War of the Roses and they were both to become pawns in the struggle for the throne.

The Earl of Warwick supported the claim of Edward of York and helped him onto the throne as King Edward IV.  Edward was the elder brother of George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester, and this is why Warwick took them into his household and was keen for them to become close to his daughters.  He was looking to consolidate his power by marrying them to the two royal princes, who at this time were still Edward’s heirs.  The Earl of Warwick became dissatisfied with his rewards for helping Edward IV gain the throne and was outraged when he married the widow Elizabeth Grey, humiliating him as he was negotiating an alliance for Edward with a French princess.  He was desperately unhappy with the amount of titles, lands and money that Edward lavished on his new wife’s family and what he regarded as the new Queen’s grasping, avaricious nature.

In 1469 Isobel was betrothed to George of Clarence.  This was against the king’s wishes as he believed that the union would bring too much power and influence to Warwick. Because of Edward’s disapproval, Warwick took the young couple to Calais where they were married on 11th July 1469 by Warwick’s brother George Neville, Archbishop of York.  The Duke of Clarence turned traitor against his brother the King and threw his lot in with Warwick and the Lancastrians who were plotting to overthrow Edward IV and restore Henry VI to the throne.

 At this time the Lancastrian forces were led by Henry VI’s wife Marguerite of Anjou, and to cement their alliance the Earl of Warwick offered his 14 years old daughter Anne in marriage to the 17 year old Prince of Wales.  They were formally betrothed at the Chateau d’Amboise with the blessing of the French king.  The Earl of Warwick had Anne’s sister Isobel in his train along with her traitorous husband George, Duke of Clarence.

However, after Anne was married to Edward, Prince of Wales, Clarence perceived this to be a snub to him and his pretensions to power.  So he threw himself on his brother’s mercy and betrayed Warwick to return to his brother’s side with his large army.  Marguerite of Anjou had been suspicious of Warwick’s motives because of Clarence’s presence, but Warwick returned to England to fight to restore Henry VI to the throne.  He was initially successful but was eventually killed at the Battle of Barnet early in 1471.
Anne Neville returned to England with Marguerite and Edward, but their army was defeated at the Battle of Tewkesbury in May 1471.  Her young husband was killed and she was imprisoned along with Marguerite.   It has been argued that Richard of Gloucester was closely involved in the death of the young Prince of Wales, as he himself wanted to marry Anne. Again it has been argued that this was because he was in love with her or, more cynically perhaps, that it was because he wanted to get his hands on the estates and possessions of her late father and her mother’s vast Beauchamp inheritance. She was taken first to Coventry and then to the household of her sister and brother-in-law, the Duke of Clarence who was once more back in the Yorkist fold.

Richard of Gloucester asked his brother Edward IV for Anne’s hand in marriage, which outraged Clarence who believed that he should get the lion’s share of the Warwick estates and titles.   There is a story that Anne was either so scared of Clarence that she ran away and worked as a kitchen maid in a chophouse in the city or was put there by the Clarence to keep her out of Richard’s hands.  Richard supposedly tracked her down and placed her in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey until they could be married on 12th July 1472, with the King’s blessing.  Richard was allocated much of Warwick’s former estates after his marriage. He was also appointed Governor of the North and the young ducal couple spent most of their time at Middleham Castle.  Their only child, a son called Edward, was born there some time in 1473.

Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle

The Clarence’s first child was stillborn, but in 1473 their daughter Margaret was born and in 1475 she was followed by their son Edward.  Tragically, Isobel died the following year at the very young age of 25, probably from consumption.  After Isobel’s death, Clarence continued to plot against his brother the King and was finally imprisoned in the Tower of London.  He was executed privately there in 1478 and there is a legend that he was killed by being drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.  Anne Neville, as their aunt, took his two young children into her care.  Isobel and George’s son Edward later became Earl of Warwick and Earl of Salisbury, but historians believe that he may have had learning difficulties.  After the Battle of Bosworth, Henry VII kept him in prison because of his claim to the throne and he was executed in 1499 supposedly because he had been plotting to escape with the pretender Perkin Warbeck.   Their daughter Margaret was married to Sir Richard Pole and had five children and she was allowed to take the title Countess of Salisbury.  When she was 67 year old she was charged with treason by Henry VIII and beheaded.  There is a story that she refused to lay her head on the block and that the inexperienced executioner had to strike her with his axe ten times before he managed to kill her.

Edward IV died prematurely in 1483, and after confronting the Woodville’s and declaring his two nephews illegitimate, Richard took the crown and Anne was crowned Queen and their son Edward created Prince of Wales.  Edward tragically died suddenly at Sheriff Hutton Castle in April 1484 at the age of 11.  His mother Anne was already suffering from consumption and seemed unlikely to bear another child.  Rumours apparently sprang up at the Court that Richard was planning to divorce Anne and marry his niece Elizabeth of York. When Anne Neville died in March 1485 at the young age of 28, more rumours arose that Richard had poisoned her so that he could marry a healthy young wife who could bear him an heir.  Anne Neville died in the Palace of Westminster during an eclipse of the sun. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Westminster Abbey, and there was no memorial for her until in 1960 the Richard III Society installed a bronze tablet.  Her husband, Richard III died a few months later during the Battle of Bosworth, ending the rule of Plantagenet kings in England.

So however entrancing the lives of these two women may seem to have seemed on the surface, in reality they both died tragically young, after suffering from consumption (tuberculosis).   In their short lives they had been used as political pawns first by their father, the Earl of Warwick and then by the two Plantagenet brothers they were married to.  They knew the heartache of losing children at a young age and had had to bear the grief of the deaths of many of their close relatives and companions on the battlefield or on the scaffold, including their own father and Anne’s youthful first husband. Their stories make a good historical tale, but did they have a happy, fulfilled life?

Richard III family image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Warwick Castle Image Roland Turner Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic

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