The Kingmaker's Sisters: Six Powerful Women in the Wars of the Roses by David Baldwin

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The Kingmaker's Sisters: Six Powerful Women in the Wars of the Roses by David Baldwin

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An account of the six sisters of Warwick the Kingmaker, the most powerful nobleman of his time. The author admits little is known about the lives of the women, and to some extent this is just as much, if not more, a history of the age as a collective biography.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 200 Date: July 2009
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978-0750950763

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Due to the small amount of surviving personal sources, any book which purports to be a biography of a 15-century subject is almost inevitably going to be more a 'life and times' than a life. In the case of women who were sisters but not sovereigns or consorts themselves, the lack of data will be even more acute.

David Baldwin, author of several historical and biographical studies relating to the 15th century, has done well in adding some detail to a rather blank canvas. Naturally, though, this is more a study of the age, and to some extent the dynastic conflicts remembered as the Wars of the Roses, than of the sisters of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known to posterity as 'the Kingmaker', and sometimes dubbed England's Caesar.

As was to be expected, the siblings, namely Joan, Cecily, Alice, Eleanor, Katherine and Margaret all married wealthy and influential noblemen. Their husbands often found themselves on opposite sides during the wars, and the author has sought to show the way in which the conflict affected their wives as individuals and as part of an extended family.

Yet such is the lack of detail that we cannot be sure when the eldest, Joan, later Countess of Arundel, was born – the nearest we can get to is 'before 2 November 1424'. Likewise Cecily, who became successively Duchess of Warwick and after his death Countess of Worcester, was about the same age as their famous brother, and may or may not have been his twin. There is some doubt as to whether Eleanor, who married Lord Stanley (and who according to other writers was probably also the wife of the Duke of Somerset), was elder or younger than Alice, Lady Fitzhugh. We know that Katherine was successively Lady Harrington and then Lady Hastings, and that the youngest married the Earl of Oxford, but apart from that much is lacking. There is a stone effigy of Joan in the Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel, but she is the only one of whom a real likeness is preserved to this day. Very few letters from them are preserved, and those that remain tell us virtually nothing about the writers.

As Baldwin candidly admits at one stage, when discussing the turbulent period of 1469-71 which saw the Earl of Warwick depose King Edward IV, restore King Henry VI, and die alongside several members of his defeated army at the battle of Barnet, we have no direct information of how the Kingmaker's sisters fared during this period of trouble, anxiety, and ultimately sadness. A few pages later, he explains that the vast majority of married women make fewer appearances in the source material than men, as the law did not allow them to hold land or initiate legal proceedings independently of their husbands. Despite the title, to a certain extent he deals as much with social history as with pure biography – maybe more of the former than the latter. As well as relating the ups and downs of the Lancastrian and Yorkist dynasties during the battles and various changes of allegiance among the nobility to each during the three decades of intermittent fighting, he tells us vividly about life for the well-to-do in England, and for women, during the time. A chapter on 'The sisters at home' paints a vivid picture of how they ran the household, on what hospitality they offered to others, their diet, how they travelled and spent their leisure time, and what religious services they attended.

All things considered, this book is not just about the sisters – although they provide the framework for the story. Nevertheless it is an enjoyable and well-researched read on the age. It ends with various appendices, a time chart (always invaluable for a work of this nature), and a brief look at the sisters' descendants. Among them are the Stanley Earls of Derby (notwithstanding the execution of the 7th Earl during the Civil War) and also – possibly – an unnamed gentleman living in Australia, descended from the Hastings family and the Duke of Clarence, who claims to be the rightful King of England. We could easily criticize this as being a rather thin biography – but it could hardly have been otherwise.

For more on royalty during the Wars of the Roses, may we also recommend The Princes In The Tower by Alison Weir.

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