Book Review: Blood Sisters
Basic Books, 2013
The Wars of the Roses, that violent and murky spasm in English history, ended at roughly 10 in the morning on 22 August 1485. That was when Richard III, the Yorkist usurper-king, died while flinging himself into battle against half a dozen men commanded by his arch-enemy Henry Tudor, who wanted to steal his stolen crown. The small battalion of historians and novelists who’ve taken up the Wars of the Roses as their hobbyhorse like to stretch the whole thing out, sometimes going – as Sarah Gristwood does in her nimble, engaging new book Blood Sisters – as late as 1509. But as landmarks go, there’s nothing cleaner or more definitive than a king getting hacked to death.
Beginnings can be murkier (ultimately, the Wars of the Roses probably began because the mighty King Edward III was a short-sightedly indulgent father with exceptionally can-do sperm; he had five sons who grew to adulthood, and he created powerful dukedoms for them all – Gloucester, Clarence, Cornwall, and most importantly, York and Lancaster). A good candidate in this case would be 1309, when muscular adventurer Henry of Bolingbroke seized the English throne from King Richard II, thereby setting two murderously-inclined branches of the Plantagenet line against each other in a protracted battle for supremacy. Each branch attracted adherents and speculators and sideshow gawkers, and, as both Shakespeare and the aforementioned novelists spotted right away, each branch contained some of the most remarkable figures in British history.
The heart of Blood Sisters is Gristwood’s contention that among the most remarkable of those figures were seven women: Marguerite of Anjou (so styled by Gristwood in an attempt not to have too many ‘Margaret’s), the wife and in essence regent for her doddering, ineffectual husband, King Henry VI; Cecily Neville, the matriarch of the York clan and mother of the first Yorkish king, Edward IV; Elizabeth Woodville, Edward’s wife and the first English queen consort in centuries; Anne Neville, daughter of the powerful “kingmaker” Earl of Warwick; Margaret of Burgundy, sister of Edward IV and implacable foe of the Lancasters; Elizabeth of York, who would become the wife of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, and Margaret Beaufort, the unblinking, unsleeping, unbreathing matriarch of the Lancaster branch, mother of Henry Tudor.
Like all ages before the present one, the 15th century was an age of men. They controlled money, commerce, law, government, and war – and they controlled women, who were siphoned of their dowries, slapped around, and traded like poker chips in a non-stop game of marriage alliances. They could shine at court and impress onlookers with well-chosen finery, but in practical matters they were entirely, desperately second-class citizens. This is a crucial limitation in writing history, although it’s proven an irresistible lure for novelists – and the novelist in Gristwood responds accordingly. Her book is a multi-part biography of her seven subjects, she tells us, but it is also a fairly novelistic inquiry:
… an attempt to understand their daily reality, to see what these women saw and heard [sic] (and read, smelled, and even tasted): the bruised feel of velvet under the fingertips; or the silken muzzle of a hunting dog; the discomfort of furred ceremonial robes on a scorching day, a girl’s ability to lose herself in reading a romantic story.
A historian who invokes a girl’s ability to lose herself in a romantic story is asking for trouble, and Gristwood doesn’t exactly allay potential worries when she talks about those pesky things, facts:
To insist that women were equal partners with men, on the same stage, is to run the risk of claiming more than the facts can bear, but the only alternative might seem to be to accept the deal the women themselves apparently made (and generations of historians have followed) and chronicle them only through those men. We have to find some way of negotiating this rocky terrain, where reliance on the few known public facts seems almost to get in the way.
The ‘few known public facts’ are almost no help when it comes to the silken muzzles of hunting dogs, and Gristwood must resort often to those old suppositional standbys, “it must have been,” “there is no reason to doubt,” “it is likely” (and the subtly more troubling “in the absence of evidence to the contrary”). She’s a lively enthusiastic recounter of the violent turnovers of the age, although she lapses into 21st century idioms far more often than is good for her – ‘an heir and a spare,’ ‘charm offensive,’ etc. (she tells us that Marguerite of Anjou had “never gotten in touch with England emotionally”). She seeks out any possible importantly female aspects of her story, but that requires as almost as much speculation as documentation:
Elizabeth [Woodville] did not hesitate to exercise influence, sometimes using a specifically female network to do so. In 1468 instructions of the king’s concerning the Pastons’ affairs were echoed by letters of the queen to the Duchesses of Norfolk and Suffolk; she had already written more directly to the Earl of Oxford on the same point. On the other [sic] it begs the question of when and how the use of that influence might be seen as inappropriate by her contemporaries.
(And it demonstrates yet again that whole generations of writers and speakers are growing up not knowing the difference between ‘begging’ a question and simply raising one.)
She’s done a good deal of solid research (some of it endearingly personal; after quoting a haughty letter by Elizabeth of York, she snorts, “Well!”), and the footnotes sprinkled throughout her text are almost always informed and entertaining, although they can also be a bit frustrating, as when she records that Elizabeth Woodville’s 20-year-old brother Jonhathan married the sexagenarian Duchess of Norfolk “purely for money” and then offers a clarifying note:
Of course, as is so often the case, a look at the personalities offers a slightly different perspective: this Duchess of Norfolk, Katherine Neville, Cecily’s Neville’s elder sister, had been married off by her father in 1412, in the chapel of Raby Castle to the Duke of Norfolk. She swindled his estates after he died, then married a servant in the household, and then married a third time to the Viscount Beaumont. She would outlive all her husbands, the last included. It is just possible she was not entirely a passive victim here.
… without seeming to realize that she’s refuting a point that she hasn’t made or conveyed. The context here isn’t that the Duchess of Norfolk was a passive victim – it’s that young Jonathan was yet another grasping, greedy Woodville, and so he still remains, even after we learn that Cecily Neville once married her stable master.
Gristwood is far more convincing when writing about the main currents of the conflict (perhaps ironically, she’s extremely perceptive when writing about men) as it surged back and forth in battle after battle, with fortune now favoring York, now Lancaster. Sometimes, indisputably, her women shine – most famously when the indomitable Marguerite of Anjou (about whom Tudor historian Polydore Vergil once wrote that for “speedy execution of courses” she was “comparable to a man”) leads 30,000 men at the second battle of St. Albans in 1461, haranguing them about their former fascination with Jean of Arc: “I have mowed down ranks far more stubborn than theirs are now. You who once followed a peasant girl now follow a queen … I will either conquer or be conquered with you.”
And naturally, the Battle of Bosworth Field calls out her most dramatic stuff:
Richard’s own horse thundered down the gentle slope with perhaps as many as a thousand knights riding behind. … the noise – on a battlefield already ringing with the thunder of primitive cannon, with the voices of the fighting and dying, with the screams of horses as the foot soldiers’ billhooks ripped open their bellies – must have been terrifying.
But in any account of the Wars of the Roses, intrigue will predictably take precedence over battle – and one particular intrigue most of all: the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, the two young sons of Edward IV who went into sanctuary in the Tower of London during the summer of their uncle Richard’s usurpation and were never seen again. Six centuries have not ceased theorizing about what happened to the Princes, and what role Richard might have played in their disappearance. It’s at this point in Blood Sisters that Gristwood loses herself completely in a romantic story. She tries to maintain her historian’s objectivity, but it’s clear she’s a raving Ricardian.
After dispassionately consulting the sources (“it is likely,” she informs us, that Polydore Vergil “had been spoon-fed the party line on the all-important question of the princes’ fate”), Gristwood makes a plea for the defendant:
If Richard did not kill the boys, the question must be, why did not simply produce them, when rumors of their murder began to spread? One conceivable answer is that he knew they had died – by someone else’s hand, or indeed by natural causes – and that he would be blamed for their deaths, even if he was not in fact guilty.
And without considering that maybe a usurper wouldn’t want to ‘produce’ for volatile London crowds the living rightful king, she proceeds to raise suspicions about a baker’s dozen other suspects, including spidery old Margaret Beaufort. And she makes sure to include an end-note in which she leaves the door open for virtually every Richard-novel ever written:
We cannot wholly rule out the possibility that the younger boy at least may – with or without Richard’s contrivance – eventually have been sent abroad … given a new identity, or both. … If this were done with Richard’s connivance, the intention might have been to get the boy out of the way of Henry, to whom he might have figured as a tool or a threat.
But she’s careful to draw no conclusions, and her book ends amiably enough, with all of England smoothly moving into “a Tudor, which effectively meant a Lancastrian, age.” Margaret Beaufort organizes a “massive cover-up” for two days in order to hide the fact that her son died on 21 April 1509, thereby assuring a smooth transfer of power to her grandson, Henry VIII – and effectively removing herself from the chessboard, as Gristwood shrewdly notices:
Margaret had a vital role to play in that tense moment of succession, but young men do not usually wish to be governed by old women, as Elizabeth I would discover in the last years of her reign.
Blood Sisters can’t do the main task its author sets it: for the most part, these well-dressed gaggles of Woodville and Neville women remain resolutely in the background, amenable mainly to speculation. Historical novelist Philippa Gregory is currently the literary world’s most talented spinner of such speculation, in the pages of her excellent novels set during the Wars of the Roses, The White Queen, The Red Queen, The Lady of the Rivers, The Kingmaker’s Daughter, and the forthcoming The White Princess. These novels (and all the others, including Josephine Tey’s balefully influential The Daughter of Time) clearly demonstrate the ways fiction can go places history cannot. With a minor tweak here and there, Blood Sisters could have been a fine example of such fiction (and it reads that excitingly anyway). As history, it can’t help but be a bit less successful; the bruised feel of velvet remains tantalizingly out of reach.