‘Blood Sisters’: A Review of Seven Royal lives

Sarah Gristwood’s book, ‘Blood Sisters’ looks at the lives and reputations of seven key women who lived through the tumultuous and deadly years of the ‘Cousins War’ in C15th England and who changed the course of our national story by their actions.

I particularly wanted to read this book because women are so often side-lined or underestimated when it comes to the re-telling of events, yet were as much the ‘glue’ that held society together then as they are now. Their efforts, devotion, ambition, desires and fears had as much impact on the lives of their family members and the wider course of events as their male counterparts yet many historians continue to portray these women as ciphers or subsidiary characters in events.

Historians can also continue to be unduly influenced by the contemporary accounts of infamy or notoriety which have become attached to these women and which have slewed the evidence of their contributions so much through time. Statements made by chroniclers are still too often taken at face value; without peeling apart the motivations and bias of the writer; the institutional misogyny of C15th social mores or the restrictions of the Christian faith which permeated every strata of society.

‘To insist that women were equal players with the men, on the same stage, is to run the risk of claiming more than the known facts can support. The profound difference between their ideas and those of the modern world must first be acknowledged; but so to, conversely, must recognisable emotions…’ p.7

The extent of their influence or personal power is still hotly debated, yet they were, unquestionably, vital components in the mechanisms of royal power. They were wives and mothers and sisters, yes, but also patrons, figureheads, political beings and guiding forces in the lives of their children and grandchildren too. They ran large estates, often governed in their husband’s place and in some cases, summoned armies to fight for their interests, even if they did not command in person on the field of battle.

Gristwood argues that we must see them within the context of their times, and this is vitally important, but just as today, women’s thoughts and feelings were often mis-interpreted by male commentators and critics who got it fundamentally wrong.

Marguerite of Anjou has carried the burden of her gender for too long and been judged a ‘she-wolf’ which has coloured subsequent debate about her motivations and actions. Did she see herself as ‘unnatural’ for trying to retain the power and authority of her family’s position or for defending the rights of her husband and son? Did any of these women accept, unquestioningly, the narrow definition of perfect femininity by which they were judged and found wanting and just how lonely and fearful were they when faced with the particular trials and challenges of their lives in a world that expected so much from them yet restricted their ability to take responsibility for their destinies?

Sarah Gristwood is at pains to remind us that their lives were inextricably interwoven with the great political decisions, battles and warring forces of their times. Without their labour, their personal input in the nurturing and education of their children; the monarchs who ruled England during this pivotal period would have been very different people. Their actions as intercessors, diplomats and trusted family members had a direct impact on events. In every case, these women were at the very heart of this crucial period which saw the birth of Renaissance humanism and the forging  of the modern state.

Interestingly, it is their very involvement in shaping events for which they are often criticised. Margaret Beaufort’s ambition for her son, Marguerite of Anjou’s protection of her husband’s honour and son’s inheritance, Cecily Neville’s ‘proud’ belief in her own bloodline and their place in the heart of royal government, Margaret of Burgundy’s unswerving loyalty to the House of York and support for Perkin Warbeck which resulted in her being labelled ‘the diabolical duchess’ have all been used to attack their reputations. The negative reaction to these women seems to be based on the fact that they dared to show their heads above the parapet at all, rather than fading into obscurity along with their sisters, in the great maul of history.

Christine de Pizan had written in her ‘Treasury of the City of Ladies’, earlier in the C15th, that ‘queens and princesses have greatly benefitted this world by bringing about peace between enemies, between princes and their barons, or between rebellious subjects and their lords.’

This was a hugely influential and important function of the aristocratic lady. Through the conventions of Christian belief and chivalric, courtly love, women of high birth were valued for their ability to unite and intercede, between male family members, different social stratas, in civic disputes and even between nations.

The role of the peacemaker is never an easy one. If they succeed then often their efforts are diminished by others who seek to take the credit and if they fail then they are usually castigated by the history writers with unfair criticism for what, in many cases, may have been an impossible mission to begin with. It was the perfect role for the medieval female because it required all the tact and diplomacy that they were trained in from infancy, along with compliance, flexibility and the abdication of personal ambition for the greater good of their wider family or society which the church taught women was their duty.

A woman’s body was her family’s, to dispose of as they wished. Her womb was not her own but rather the conduit for alliance and peace between warring nations and as for her soul; well, that belonged to God, so there wasn’t much left for these women to hold or call their own more than the clothes they were packed off with into an uncertain future and often at an age which we would consider to be too young to leave the securities of home.

They were often set as a hinge between conflicting parties; pulled between duty to their birth family and duty to their adopted family and husband which made them face difficult and painful decisions and have to tread a hard road to please either set of conflicting expectations.




Marguerite of Anjou would certainly have related to these dilemmas and would be judged from the moment of her emergence into the chronicles as the unwanted French queen of the impossibly ill-suited king Henry VI. The marriage alliance which was supposed to herald the end of the Hundred Year’s War between England and France, was seen as a disaster by her new nation. Henry’s ambassadors managed to settle for only the niece of the French king rather than one of his own daughters, concede Maine and Anjou which had been held at the cost of much English blood for so long and there wasn’t even a dowry to fill the coffers of the English treasury with.

Gristwood suggests that Marguerite was prey to rumours of factionalism and infidelity before she was old enough to establish her position as queen consort. She may have made poor choices in who she clung to for support – both Suffolk and Beaufort used her for their own political ends – but her options were limited and she tried to make the best of the unenviably tortuous and difficult position that she found herself in.

Henry’s descent into catatonic madness left her exposed and vulnerable and without an established means of controlling either her own destiny or her baby son’s future. York’s supporters saw her as ‘a woman who merely used his name (Henry VI) to conceal her usurpation, since, according to the laws of England, a queen consort hath no power but title only.’ p.40

The standard weapon of sexual deviancy was used to discredit her position, by suggesting that her son and heir to the throne was the product of adultery. Similar tactics would be used against Cecily Neville to question the legitimacy of her eldest son, Edward IV and also of Margaret Beaufort and Margaret of Burgundy, who’s virginity was impugned by King Louis before her marriage to Charles the Bold.

As for the charge that she overstepped her role as queen, yes, she did but had England ever had a king less capable of exercising the judgement and offices required of him than Henry VI? An all male council would still have faced enormous obstacles in pursuing the ‘common weal’ and holding French territories, given the situation, yet poor government was laid at the feet of Marguerite and her advisors because her detractors were always able to use her gender to suggest that a woman could not govern and therefore acted in defiance of natural law to the ruin of all.

Marguerite had been raised by two strong, independent women, who had governed and administered and fought in the form of her mother, Isabella of Lorraine and grandmother, Yolande of Aragon. She found herself in an invidious position, with a young son to defend and no established formula for exercising power and surrounded by nobles who were poised to rip the country apart for their personal ambitions.

Where the book fails slightly is in an evaluation of how Marguerite exercised the powers she tried to claim and to what extent her personal style of governance caused public support to evaporate. Was she simply too hamstrung to effect positive change on a country that was about to be torn apart by civil strife? Did she allow her troops to ravage and despoil the land and how much control did she really have of the situation at all? Did she demonstrate a real concern for the ‘common weal’ or attempt to steer the ship of state in the best interests of her adopted country?

The concessions and promises she made over the disputed Berwick-on-Tweed and Calais left her open to accusations of selling out the English to their enemies yet a man might have offered just the same kind of bargaining tools and we do not know whether she intended to actually concede these or merely use them as short-term incentives to gain crucial support.

These questions are hotly debated yet Gristwood doesn’t address them, perhaps because the scale of the events and fast-paced narrative leaves no room for a more detailed examination of just what Marguerite was responsible for and what her personal stance was.

Gristwood’s narrative weaves the lives of the seven royal women together, stressing their sympathetic understanding of each other’s trials and challenges which reached beyond the political divisions of their age. There were certainly connections between Marguerite and Cecily Neville during the period when their husbands and their affiliations were slowly building up to outright conflict with each other. Marguerite gave gifts to Cecily and her household and Cecily wrote to Marguerite in an effort to have her husband’s rightful grievances heard and dealt with.



Cecily Neville


Their extended family would inter-marry and ally, feud and kill one another during the course of several generations and it is interesting to question just how close these women were to one another and how much they understood and empathised with the hard choices they were all forced to make.

Civil war is particularly cruel in this respect and clearly it is possible to respect and even love the person who becomes your enemy through circumstance and division. The conflict between birth family and adopted family is already there for women and this is further exacerbated when cousins fight and alliances shift on an almost daily basis. Self interest and family interest are often too close to separate and once there are children to fight for and protect, it becomes impossibly difficult to unpick the morality of action.

Marguerite would nominally preside over the death of Cecily’s husband and son only to live to see her own son killed by Cecily’s sons in the aftermath of the Battle of Tewkesbury. The situation of the queen and her husband had a direct effect on the life of the Lancastrian heiress, Margaret Beaufort, who was married off at such a tender age and compelled to carry a child before her body was mature enough to endure childbirth, all due to dynastic pressures. Her son, Henry Tudor would one day put the last of Cecily’s sons into an early grave. Cecily lived to see her own children rip each other apart in the pursuit of power and yet her grand-daughter became queen of England and presided over the healing of the rifts which had blighted two generations of her family.



Margaret Beaufort


Tragedy is what binds these women’s lives together.

Elizabeth Woodville, like Cecily Neville, found herself married to the enemy and forced to swap allegiance for the sake of her children. Both watched their children suffer huge changes of fortune and status, as power shifted between various factions and both were blamed, vilified and overlooked in equal measure. If they supported their children’s rights, they were viragos; unnatural women who should be confined to domestic issues. If they failed to act, they were passive pawns or victims of events, helplessly giving over their children for slaughter or selling off their daughters for marriage in an attempt to hold on to power.



Fortune’s Wheel


Gristwood draws on the imagery of Fortune’s wheel when she talks about Margaret Beaufort, in particular and relates the sad words of her confessor, who said of her after her death

‘she was never yet in that prosperity but that the greater it was the more always she dreaded the adversity… she had full great joy, she let not to say, that some adversity would follow.’ p.57

However we might judge Margaret for her actions in life, this statement reveals a great deal about the emotional and psychological trauma that she carried with her and the level of crushing anxiety that she felt. This was likely a feeling that all these women shared in common, along with many other mothers and daughters who lived through such times of uncertainty and violent unrest. Their lives were as much bound by sadness and grief as by power and advancement.

There are passing references to other influential women who’s experiences may have influenced the way in which the seven royal ladies saw their role and spheres of influence. Gristwood mentions Joan of Arc and her legacy – especially in connection with Marguerite of Anjou and her family and her relationship with Mary of Guelders, the Scottish Queen Regent, who offered her assistance against the Yorkists and provided her with a base during her exile. Yolande of Aragon, Marguerite’s grandmother was another formidable figure in the shadows too and Isabella of Castille would also emerge as a courageous and powerful leader on the European stage by the end of the period as would Anne of Brittany in her capacity as Regent in France.

These other female governors and rulers suggest that women were exercising more political and military influence than has been generally acknowledged during the C15th. Why is it that historians continue to overlook or dismiss female power during this period as an aberration or to concentrate on contemporary views of a woman’s place when the evidence of their activity and achievement is there in the historical record, alongside the comments by contemporary male chroniclers of their ‘masculine’ qualities as leaders?

However difficult and unpopular female governance might have been for their male contemporaries, they were present; influencing events, making policy, demonstrating leadership and acting as models for other women in their society and in numbers which contradict the traditional narrative.

I think Gristwood could make more of this throughout her book as there is a real opportunity here to demonstrate that the seven women covered in ‘Blood Sisters’ fit within the context of wider female influence on political events at the time. Their contribution was contested and disputed, their actions were subject to often particularly unfair attack but they were not alone and were likely influenced by the example of other women who exercised power in their world.

Gristwood says on p.101

‘In a society that was arguably becoming more patriarchal, the chivalric spectacle provided a platform for women.’

How was society becoming more patriarchal? Had women enjoyed more liberties in previous centuries? Was there a counter-swing to the rise of the female warrior as embodied in Joan of Arc, Yolande, Marguerite etc? She doesn’t explain this sufficiently or explore how social attitudes impacted on the way in which chroniclers wrote about the main figures.



Joan of Arc


Where Marguerite had been distrusted and even hated for her French credentials, Elizabeth Woodville was criticised for lack of birth and for the rise of her family through the ranks of the nobility, due to her influence over the king. Edward IV was perfectly capable of seeing the benefits of having her relatives beholden to him and of creating an alternative faction as court to counter the enormous wealth and influence of the Earl of Warwick and his own brother, George of Clarence.

Elizabeth is often blamed by historians for bringing on her own destruction through her actions yet she also required allies at court, being newly catapulted into her role as queen and naturally looked to her family to supply these.

If the traditional role of the queen was to act as intercessor, then she was only fulfilling this by balancing the needs of her birth family against those of her husband and her children. Undoubtedly, if Cecily Neville had ever become queen, she would have seen to the rise of her Neville relations in a similar way. Male rulers had sought preferment for their relations – Richard II for his Holland half-brothers for example. That this caused resentment from other members of the court was hardly surprising or unexpected with so many competing for royal favour within the court system yet there seems to be more criticism for women who openly advanced their relatives than for male rulers.

Chapter nine introduces another useful tactic for undermining female respectability during this period – the accusation of witchcraft and how it was employed to discredit Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville’s mother and later Elizabeth herself. It was an easy device, in an age of superstition, and difficult to defend against as it was always possible to produce a witness who would swear to seeing sinister activity or could produce items that might incriminate.



Jacquetta of Luxembourg


Warwick and Clarence used such an accusation to assist their efforts to disrupt Edward’s reign in 1469, in the hopes of pushing Clarence forward as a better and more malleable candidate for the throne. If public opinion could be influenced against the queen and her family, Clarence might be able to step into the breech and replace his brother.

A witness, Thomas Wake, was produced who swore that the queen’s mother was in possession of

‘an image of lead made like a man of arms the length of a man’s finger broken in the middle and made fast with a wire; along with two other images, of a man and a woman, which he claimed Jacquetta had commissioned as a means of binding the king and her daughter together.’ p.107

How could a woman defend herself against such an accusation? Gristwood explains that fortune’s wheel turned once more and Edward was able to clear his mother-in-law of the slanders against her name but things could have worked out very differently if both Jacquetta and Elizabeth Woodville had fallen into the hands of their enemies and been brought to trial. The example of Joan of Navarre and Eleanor Cobham must have hung painfully over them both during this period of intense uncertainty. Despite appearing to have survived this ordeal in the short-term, Elizabeth Woodville would re-live these accusations again at the defining moment of her life, when she would be stripped of her status and any form of control over her own or her children’s destinies.



Elizabeth Woodville


Again, the combined diplomatic skills of the Yorkist women had a direct impact on the course of events as Cecily and her daughters pulled out every stop to get Edward and Clarence to make their peace. The pro-Yorkist ‘The Historie of the Arrivall of Edward IV in Englande‘ stating that

‘the high and mighty princess, my lady, their mother; my lady of Exeter, my lady of Suffolk, their sisters …and, most especially my lady of Burgundy’ mediating between them ‘by right covert ways and means.’

It is the covert nature of much female correspondence and influence which makes it so hard to prove just how much effort the women put into reconciling the warring family members and restoring peace and order to the country in general. Cecily had previously ridden to Sandwich to negotiate with Clarence before he committed himself to the dangerous alliance with Warwick and Marguerite of Anjou. She saw the danger in such a venture but perhaps was also still smarting for Edward’s love match with Elizabeth Woodville and conscious of her duty to her Neville family too. Certainly an unenviable position for any mother to be set between two of her own sons.

Gristwood writes of the aftermath of the Warwick rebellion, that Anne Neville, along with Marguerite of Anjou, were found in a nearby abbey and taken to London as part of Edward’s ‘triumphal’ return to the capital. Fortune’s wheel had turned once more and none had experienced it’s capricious nature more than the lady Anne.



Anne Neville


Even in a book about passed over figures, Anne remains a shadowy watercolour sketch. She is one of the least well-known or written about women, considering her prominence during the later part of the Cousin’s War, as daughter of the Kingmaker, wife of the Prince of Wales and queen consort of Richard III. It is usually suggested that she played no active part in her marriage with either men, being passed between powerful male relatives as a pawn. She saw her sister suffer terribly as a result of her father’s ambitions, helping her to birth a stillborn baby at sea after being denied sanctuary in Calais and most probably received a frosty reception from her unwilling mother-in-law, Marguerite.

No-one has any idea about her thoughts or feelings over her marriage into the ‘enemy’ camp and there is no record of her having particularly mourned Edward of Westminster’s death at Tewkesbury or of her ardent desire to be rid of him either. We simply have no idea what her role was in these matters and can only speculate, as Gristwood does on p.134 that the absence of information about Anne Neville might suggest that her autonomy was restricted by her second husband, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Was she being kept securely out of politics at Middleham, along with her mother in order to stop her from being of further use to Yorkist enemies? The Countess of Warwick did everything possible to write to all the ladies who might use their influence to protect her position but was declared legally dead so that her property could be divided between her two sons-in-law. Was this a fair and natural result of her husband’s betrayal or a particularly harsh punishment, inflicted on a helpless widow who had played no active part in her husband’s schemes?

Like the other women in the book, retribution for choosing the ‘wrong side’ came in different ways than for their male counterparts. Gristwood says of Margaret Beaufort’s part in the rebellion that she was

‘simultaneously disabled and protected by her gender.’

This seems as good a description as any for the particular circumstances of women who found themselves caught on the losing side during the many reversals of fortune in the Cousin’s War.

Cecily, Elizabeth Woodville, Marguerite, Margaret Beaufort, Anne Neville and her mother, the Countess of Warwick were all to experience confinement, the seizure of their possessions and major reversal of status as their male relatives floundered and failed, just as they had also experienced great wealth, position and acclaim when their families were in the ascendant. It is a very complex question to ask how much their own actions directly contributed to these twists and turns and whether they felt themselves responsible for their own actions in the fullest sense or struggled to make their voices heard.

The final queen in the list proved to be seen by history as the least controversial and most loved of all these women. The beautiful, kind, domestic Elizabeth of York seemed to be universally popular and respected as first the eldest daughter of the House of York and then the favourite of her uncle’s court before she embodied the alliance of the two houses in her marriage to Henry Tudor and creation of the next ruling dynasty.



Elizabeth of York


Like Anne Neville, we know little about the inner workings of her mind or her emotional responses to the rollercoaster of her life – forced into sanctuary twice before she reached maturity, used as a bargaining chip by her relatives and betrothed numerous times before she was finally given to the victor of Bosworth.

Was her ‘passivity’ a defence against the treatment she had seen meted out to her mother and grandmothers? Perhaps she chose a more subtle path along which to steer her life or just wanted some peace after the trials of her childhood. She had certainly experienced enough drama by the time she became queen to wish for a less openly ‘political’ role for herself.

If Gristwood thought Richard III had been controlling of his wife then there are parallels to be drawn with the way in which Henry VII kept her wife’s expenditure under his personal scrutiny. She was clearly unable to exercise the same extravagance as either Cecily of Marguerite had known during the more settled periods of their lives.

Elizabeth was, perhaps, one of the most successful of them all. She rode Fortune’s wheel all her life and managed to adapt to the political switchbacks, end her life as a beloved queen consort and pass on her genes to her children and found a new dynasty.

Perhaps some of the credit for her cool head and adaptability can be laid at her mother’s feet? Elizabeth Woodville is not often presented as an astute, calm and resolute political operator yet Gristwood’s account does pay tribute to her steadfast response to the crisis of 1470-1 and the commendations of Edward IV’s restored parliament paid to his queen.

While I do think the book could take a more analytical approach, it does provide an interesting and informative read and highlight just how much we owe to these women and the strength and determination they demonstrated in difficult and dangerous times. I would certainly recommend it as an introduction to the period for anyone with an interest in gaining a fuller picture of how both the men and women of the period contributed to the forging of our national story.

























One Response to “‘Blood Sisters’: A Review of Seven Royal lives”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


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