Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey by John Ashdown-Hill

As this is Nonfiction November, I have been working through a few of the non-fiction books on my TBR this month. This one, by the late historian John Ashdown-Hill, is a biography of Elizabeth Woodville, who became queen consort of England when she married Edward IV in 1464. Ashdown-Hill, who died in 2018, spent many years studying and writing about the Wars of the Roses and was a member of the Richard III Society, playing a part in the discovery and identification of Richard’s remains in 2012. This is the first of his books that I’ve read so I hoped I would be in good hands with an author who seems to have been an expert on his chosen subject.

As soon as I started to read, the depth of Ashdown-Hill’s research and knowledge was obvious. He begins with a detailed discussion of the origins of the Woodville name and why he believes ‘Widville’ is a more accurate spelling, before going on to spend several chapters looking at Elizabeth’s ancestry and genealogy charts. This level of detail continues throughout the book as we are taken through the rest of Elizabeth’s life, including her first marriage to Sir John Grey, her widowhood and meeting with Edward IV, the births of her many children and, after Edward’s death, how she fared under the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII. He frequently quotes long passages from primary sources (and doesn’t make it easy for us by translating them into modern English). However, his main source seems to be himself – he constantly references his own earlier works, which is not particularly useful when you haven’t read them!

Another thing that quickly became obvious to me was that this was not going to be a balanced, unbiased account of Elizabeth’s life. In his introduction, Ashdown-Hill questions whether Elizabeth could really be considered Edward IV’s wife and queen as Edward had allegedly been pre-contracted to another woman, Eleanor Talbot, before marrying Elizabeth (hence the book’s subtitle which refers to Elizabeth as ‘Edward IV’s chief mistress’). I already knew about the pre-contract, but Ashdown-Hill also puts forward a theory I haven’t come across before, which is that Elizabeth was responsible for Eleanor’s death. And this is not the only murder he attributes to Elizabeth; he also suggests that she was behind the deaths of the Earl of Desmond and of George, Duke of Clarence, and that she poisoned Clarence’s wife and young son. There is no real evidence for any of this and I found it disappointing that the author makes no attempt to be fair and objective, letting his own personal dislike of Elizabeth come to the forefront.

As this is my favourite period of history to read about, I found it interesting to read Ashdown-Hill’s thoughts on Elizabeth, even if I didn’t necessarily always agree with them – and, as I’ve said, the amount of detail he goes into is very impressive. He can even draw on his own studies into the mitochondrial DNA sequences of Elizabeth’s descendants. If you’re new to the period, though, I would recommend looking for a good general book on the Wars of the Roses first. As for other non-fiction specifically on Elizabeth herself, I remember enjoying David Baldwin’s essay in The Women of the Cousins’ War, but haven’t read any other full-length biographies. If you know of any good ones, I’d love to hear about them.

Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Women of the Cousins’ War by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones

The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother is a non-fiction companion book to Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of historical fiction novels. The series tells the story of the Wars of the Roses from the viewpoints of some of the women who were involved, including Jacquetta of Luxembourg, her daughter Elizabeth Woodville, who was married to Edward IV, and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Their stories were told in The Lady of the Rivers, The White Queen and The Red Queen respectively. The Women of the Cousins’ War features an essay on all three of these women, each written by a different historian, and in addition to the essays we are given some family trees, maps, list of battles, illustrations and colour photographs.

The book begins with a long introduction written by Philippa Gregory, which I actually found as interesting to read as the rest of the book! The introduction discusses the possible reasons why women in history have often been ignored and overlooked, and why it’s important to study the roles they played. Gregory also looks at the differences between writing history and writing historical fiction, and as a lover of historical fiction myself I find it fascinating to read about an author’s reasons for writing it.

The introduction is followed by Gregory’s essay on the life of Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Unfortunately very little is known about Jacquetta, there are no existing biographies and apparently there are only a few occasions where she actually appears in historical records, so Gregory didn’t have a lot of information to give us. For most of the essay she can only guess at what Jacquetta may or may not have done and how she probably reacted to the historical events going on around her. However, this was the essay I enjoyed the most and it was as easy to read as Gregory’s fiction. It sounds as if Jacquetta had a fascinating life and it’s a shame that so few historians have taken the time to study her.

The second essay is written by the historian David Baldwin and looks at Elizabeth Woodville. I did find Baldwin’s writing style slightly dry, but Elizabeth Woodville is a historical figure who interests me, so I still enjoyed reading the essay. The book’s final section is written by Michael Jones and examines the life of Margaret Beaufort. Again, there’s not a huge amount known about Margaret, but I thought Jones did a good job of working with what little information is available. He also spends some time discussing Margaret’s family history to help us understand the background she came from and to build up a more complete picture of the sort of person she was.

This book could be read either as a stand-alone non-fiction/reference book or as an accompaniment to Philippa Gregory’s three Cousins’ War novels. I’m not sure how satisfying it would be for a serious historian or history student though, as there are no footnotes or endnotes and only some brief lists of sources. I should point out that I have never studied the Wars of the Roses in any depth (most of what I know about the period comes from the small number of historical fiction novels I’ve read set during that time) and for the general reader like myself I would say that the book is very accessible and easy to follow. It filled some of the gaps in my knowledge and I thought it was worth reading, particularly for the wonderful introduction!

I received a copy of this book for review from Simon & Schuster

Review: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is best known for her Tudor court novels, but with The White Queen she moves further back in time to the Plantagenets and the Wars of the Roses.

Elizabeth Woodville is twenty seven when she meets and falls in love with King Edward IV. Following a private wedding, Elizabeth becomes Queen of England and finds herself caught up in the ongoing battles between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Amidst all the politics, intrigue and betrayal, Elizabeth’s concern is for the future of her children – in particular her two royal sons who will become the famous ‘Princes in the Tower’, a mystery which remains unsolved to this day.

The book is written in the first person present tense which I found slightly irritating, though not enough to stop me from enjoying the book. The use of present tense does help the reader to feel as if they are experiencing events along with Elizabeth, so it works in that sense, but my personal preference is definitely for past tense. There are a few passages where the viewpoint temporarily changes to the third person in order to describe battles which Elizabeth doesn’t witness but which are an important part of the storyline. I often find battle scenes boring, but these are well written and go into just the right amount of detail.

I found the story itself quite suspenseful and exciting – it probably helped that although I read a lot of historical fiction novels, I haven’t read many about the War of the Roses, so only had a vague idea of what was going to happen. Of course, this meant that I wasn’t sure exactly which parts of the book were based on fact and which parts were the invention of the author. In her note at the end of the book, Gregory mentions that there’s not much information available about the period, therefore there are some areas where she felt free to use her imagination.

If you’re not very familiar with the historical background, you’ll need to concentrate to be able to keep track of all the battles, changes of allegiances and numerous claimants to the throne. The family tree provided at the front of the book is not very helpful – it’s incomplete and really needed to show at least one more generation, as it ends before some of the important characters in the story were even born.

I found it difficult to warm to the character of Elizabeth but could feel sympathy for her, especially towards the end of the book. Richard III was also portrayed quite sympathetically – nothing like the evil hunchback in Shakespeare’s play! I would have liked to have seen his relationship with Elizabeth more thoroughly explored in the book – there was no real explanation for why she distrusts him so much, other than that she’s had dreams and premonitions that something bad will happen to her sons in the Tower. On the subject of the Princes in the Tower, the book explores an interesting theory, which may or may not be true – it would be nice to think that it was.

Interspersed with the main story is the tale of Melusina, the water goddess, from whom Elizabeth and the female members of her family are said to have descended and from whom they claim to have inherited magical powers.
Magic and mythology are recurring themes throughout the book. Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta’s witchcraft skills are used as an explanation for several key historical events – for example, they whistle up storms to defeat their enemies at sea. This aspect of the story became quite repetitive and just didn’t appeal to me much. Sometimes it felt as if there were references to Melusina, water, rivers, the sea etc on almost every page!

The book ends abruptly, but that’s not surprising since The White Queen is the first in a trilogy called The Cousins’ War and will be followed by The Red Queen and The White Princess which will focus on Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth of York respectively.

I would recommend The White Queen if, like me, you don’t have much knowledge of the Wars of the Roses and are looking for an enjoyable and relatively easy to understand introduction to the period. For those of you with a lot of background knowledge, I think there should still be enough new ideas to keep you interested.

Recommended

Genre: Historical Fiction/Pages: 417/Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Year: 2009/Source: My own copy bought new