Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance by Amy Licence

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Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance by Amy Licence

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Given the current resurgence in interest in the Yorkist dynasty, this is a timely dual biography of the most successful and longest-lived Yorkist King and his Queen, a marriage which bitterly divided several of his supporters. This book tells the story of their lives in detail, as well as adding useful insights on love, romance and marriage in medieval England, and the contemporary court and household, against the ever-present background of the end of the Hundred Years' War and the Wars of the Roses.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: February 2016
Publisher: Amberley
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781445636788

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Given the current resurgence in popularity of biographies dealing with the Yorkists, the time is right for an account of the marriage of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, a union that proved so divisive in the era of York vs Lancaster. With several of the great nobility declaring allegiance to one side and then another in turn during the Wars of the Roses, it was a divisive era to start with.

The story – or rather this book - starts at Rouen during the Hundred Years War, with the burning of Joan of Arc and the birth of Prince Edward in the same city eleven years later. Much of the early part is spent on tracing his family history and that of the Woodvilles, against the final stages of the protracted war with France and the powers next to the throne during the reign of the ineffectual King Henry VI. The story of the ever-changing fortunes of both sides, culminating in a power struggle between Henry's wife, Queen Margaret, and Richard, Duke of York, is a familiar one to most readers familiar with 15th century British history, but remains an essential backdrop to the tale of the King's early years. Only a few weeks after it seemed the Yorkist cause was lost with the death of the Duke at the battle of Wakefield, the pendulum swung violently again and his eldest son Edward was proclaimed King, a transfer of the crown from one living sovereign to another by popular acclaim. The next battle which followed, that of Towton, is described by the author and others as 'the most brutal day in English History', with estimates of between 28,000 and 38,000 killed – even at the lower end, a shocking total when it is remembered that England was far less heavily populated at that time.

Just as King Edward looked relatively secure on the throne, along came the alluring widow Elizabeth Woodville. For the smitten Edward, it could have meant the unravelling of everything he had fought for, especially as the main result was to cost him the support of his kinsman Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick ('the Kingmaker'). The latter had already been negotiating for marriage between a French princess, only to find that the King was secretly married – and to a widow from a mainly Lancastrian-supporting family. Like the Nevilles, the Woodvilles were well connected with several members of the nobility, and bitter rivalry was almost inevitable.

At this point it should be noted that this dual biography of the couple and their families, thorough as it is, is more than a chronicle of events. Ms Licence not only fills in the background on Elizabeth's early life and the Woodvilles in general, but also offers a penetrating diversion into what marriage really meant in medieval times. Forget love stories and the like; marriage was all about material advantage. A bachelor or a spinster who looked likely to come into a golden inheritance, particularly a royal one, was there for the picking, and it was almost a duty for parents to secure the best possible partner for their son or daughter. While Edward was evidently in love with the widow Elizabeth, as far as the surviving documentary sources suggest, almost all other marriages in the 15th century and much later were strictly arranged transactions and nothing more.

There is also an impartial view of the assessments of Elizabeth Woodville's character as seen by recent modern biographers. The author disputes some of the more derogatory verdicts of writers such as Paul Murray Kendall and G.R. Elton, who have branded her as arrogant and vain or meddlesome and interfering. She was undoubtedly ambitious, but it appears that she also had dignity, adaptability and poise.

The marriage of Edward and Elizabeth proved very fruitful, but it was unpopular with the nobility and above all it strained the loyalties of his immediate family. That it endured says all we need to know about Edward being genuinely in love with her. He was prepared to experience, and had perhaps prepared himself for, the upheavals which resulted in an alliance between the Earl of Warwick and the former Queen Margaret. Her husband King Henry, now probably suffering from premature senility, was briefly restored to the throne, while King Edward was briefly a fugitive in danger of his life, before he too wrested the crown once again and vanquished his Lancastrian foes. The declaration of peace (and the murder in captivity of King Henry) is followed by a picturesque chapter on King Edward's household and court.

Thanks to the King's brother George, Duke of Clarence, peace did not last long. A rather unseemly interlude culminated in his being put to death – drowned in a butt of malmsey wine, we are led to believe – and possibly a falling out between the King and their surviving younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester. For the King, it was the start of five years of physical and moral decline, culminating in his early death, and with it the end of a comfortable life for Elizabeth as the first lady of the land. Her remaining years were to be bleak, but at least she died of natural causes. That is almost certainly more than could be said for her ill-fated eldest sons, King Edward V and the younger Richard, Duke of York, the Princes in the Tower.

This is a fascinating story researched in scrupulous detail and well told with a rich background the cultural scene of the 15th century, though the inclusion of a genealogical table would have been welcome. Ms Licence does well to emphasise just how much trouble among their contemporaries the marriage caused, especially after the privileges shown to the other Woodvilles, and the attention to her early years is also useful.

For further reading, the King's life has been well documented in Edward IV: Glorious Son of York by Jeffrey James, and that of their two eldest children in The Princes In The Tower by Alison Weir, while the novel The White Queen by Philippa Gregory is also recommended, not least as the title which gave birth to the TV drama series which was largely responsible for renewed interest in the subject.

Booklists.jpg Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance by Amy Licence is in the Top Ten Autobiographies and Biographies 2016.

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