Blood Sisters – Sarah Gristwood

31 May 2013

Elizabeth of York, Unknown Artist, c1500. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

It seems very fitting on this the anniversary of Margaret Beaufort’s birth and Cecily Neville’s death to post a short review of Sarah Gristwood’s superb Blood Sisters: The Hidden Lives of the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, which I have been wanting to read for AGES.

We seem to be in the middle of a mini infatuation with the Wars of the Roses (or the Cousins’ War as it has started being called recently), which I am totally behind as an antidote to all the yawnsome fawning over the dough faced Henry VIII that has been prevalent over recent years. I suppose we have the novels of Philippa Gregory and the recent discovery of a Certain King Who Will Remain Nameless But I Think You All Know Who I Mean underneath a car park to thank for this reawakened interest in the epic drama that was the battling between the houses of York and Lancaster, battling often so perplexingly confuddled that even they didn’t seem to know which side they were on at times.

As you may expect from me, I am more interested in the lives and fates of the women involved in the turbulence of the Wars of the Roses than their menfolk (likewise for the Tudors as well) and so for me Blood Sisters was the perfect book, focussing as it did on the women at the very heart of the conflict: Marguerite d’Anjou, Queen of Henry VI; Cecily Neville, Duchess of York; Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond; Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of Edward IV; Anne Neville, Queen of Richard III; Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy and Elizabeth of York, Queen of Henry VII.

Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, Harding, 1792. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

I was held enthralled from the very beginning when Gristwood describes the funeral procession granted to Elizabeth of York after she died from a childbed fever on her thirty seventh birthday (I’ve always thought that was an especially depressing touch) and from that point on she never failed to have my full attention as the story of the women who came before Elizabeth and who in their own ways and sometimes with the lightest of touches influenced the world that she departed from on that chilly February day in 1503.

Gristwood’s book unfolds with a cracking pace which meshes the stories of the various women into a cohesively gripping tale but also means that she necessarily skirts over some details with the results that there are some omissions that may surprise serious students (or in my case ‘former serious students’) of the period. I didn’t mind this too much though – in a book of this scope which, above all, is primarily focussed on the lives and fates of the women involved, it would have slowed the pace down to deliberate and linger over the political machinations and motivations that spurred the men on. In fact I rather liked it that the book would skip quickly over the battles then linger lovingly over the description of a Book of Hours or the household arrangements of Margaret Beaufort. That’s what I was there for after all and I was absolutely not disappointed.

Queen Margaret of Anjou, Schenecker, 1792. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Of course, due to the general paucity of sources and documentation some of the women are rather less featured than others – most notably Anne Neville, whom I think is destined to always remain an enigma due to the lack of information about her personality and life. Seeing this laid bare in comparison to the wealth of information about certain of her contemporaries really brought this omission into stark relief however and effectively raised even more questions about what exactly her role in her husband’s life and, more essentially, rise to power actually was and, more to the point, did he have a hand in keeping her in the background? I hope not as I’ve always loved the Sharon Penman depiction of Richard and Anne as initially star crossed kissing cousins.

However, this is balanced by the other cases where it was a pleasure to read more about them and also gain a more balanced view than has perhaps always been accorded to them in the past – namely Marguerite d’Anjou, here depicted as not quite the French she wolf of popular imagining but rather an unconfident impoverished Queen, an alienated wife and a devoted mother who took on the mantle of defending her family’s rights when her menfolk (through age and well whatever was up with Henry VI) were clearly unable to step up to the plate. I also came away with a much improved opinion of Margaret Beaufort, traditionally depicted as cold hearted, ruthless and a bit of a sour puss bossy boots but treated rather differently here.

Elizabeth Woodville, Facius, late 18th century. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

It’s not just the usually unsympathetic Lancastrian women who were given a fresh perspective though – it was also nice to see Elizabeth Woodville, whom I have always been intrigued by, given more credit than usual for her behaviour as a Queen, wife and mother and also her piety which actually formed a greater part of her life than is usually discussed.

In summary, Blood Sisters is a marvellous read about a group of fascinating women enmeshed in all the drama and iniquity of one of the most interesting periods of English history and is definitely recommended.

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