Noblewomen in the Wars of the Roses: Turning Fortune’s Wheel

Much has been written about the violence of the Wars of the Roses. Civil conflicts inevitably leave a deeper scar than international ones, and this fifteenth century combat has lived on in collective memory. However, until recently, one group whose fortunes were  closely affected by the Wars has been overlooked: the noblewomen involved. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of medieval history will know why this is. Chroniclers write about the public deeds of noblemen, surviving records document the actions and decisions of that group because they were the ones who attended Parliament and fought in battles. Finding information about women – even the richest, most influential women – is hard work. And it is only with the increasing interest in social and gender history in the late twentieth century that the difficult sleuthing necessary to unravel the lives of women was undertaken in earnest.

Sewing wasn't the activity for ladies in the Fifteenth Century...

Sewing wasn’t the only activity for ladies in the Fifteenth Century…

However, for every man directly involved in the Wars of the Roses there were numerous female relatives who were not only themselves affected by the conflict, but played an active part in it. Before you think I’ve gone too far, I’m not suggesting there were vast swathes of pseudo-Amazons marauding around fifteenth century England. Women did not fight in the Wars, as far as anyone has discovered. Even Margaret of Anjou, who was the leader of the Lancastrian resistance from 1461-71 never raised a lance. But perhaps our obsession with the bloodiness of this conflict, with the horror of violence on English soil, has blinded us to the essential work of women in this period. That is understandable. After all, attainder law and enfeoffment are definitely not as ‘sexy’ topics as beheadings and battles. How can the ancient Countess of Oxford, struggling to resist attempts to steal her estate by writing letters and employing lawyers, compare with the exploits of her son – leaping from castles to escape imprisonment and laying siege to St Michael’s Mount? But the activities of noblewomen in this conflict were not considered inconsequential at the time. On the contrary, efforts to claw lands back to one’s family by battling through the law courts or pleading with prominent powerholders were deemed essential to those involved, and at a time when many men found themselves on the wrong side of the law or battlefield, and thus lost their authority (or their life), it fell to their wives and mothers to try to save their estates.

Again, at first this hardly seems an  honourable effort. We find the land- and money-grabbing tendencies of our fifteenth century forebears rather grubby. But in a time when land determined status, ensured inheritance, truly reflected power, if you wanted to maintain your influence in the world, it was the absolute essential of noble existence. And to lose one’s estate represented the possibility of extreme impoverishment, not only for you but for all future generations of your family. After land, came your dynasty. The two were interlinked, and both determined your own status and honour before others.

Farleigh Hungerford (English Heritage), part of Margaret's lost Hungerford estate

Farleigh Hungerford (English Heritage), part of Margaret’s lost Hungerford estate

Thus, when Lady Margaret Hungerford spent twenty years struggling to regain the estates lost by her male relatives – firstly by a heavy ransom during the Hundred Years War and then by backing the wrong horse in the Wars of the Roses – no one thought it was time ill spent. The Hungerford men remained loyal Lancastrians, and were attainted (had their estates, titles and inheritances confiscated to the Crown) as a result. With her son and grandsons rendered powerless, Margaret was the only one who could act to save their lands for future generations.  She was wise enough to know that courting the new regime, the Yorkist dynasty, might be the only long-term solution to the family’s troubles. She shackled the interests of powerful men to her own family’s by enfeoffing her estates to leading Yorkists like the earls of Warwick and Essex, and by arranging her granddaughter’s marriage to the son of the King’s best friend, Lord Hastings. She also knew how to cheat the system, suppressing the intelligence that certain estates she was holding really belonged to her attainted son. When the Duke of Gloucester – future Richard III, and remarkably adept at sniffing out the inheritances of rich elderly women – discovered the truth, Margaret did not simply give up, but repeatedly issued petitions to have the estates restored. When instalments of mortgages were due, she made new loans, sold lands and even plate. When Margaret made her will in 1476, she, like her husband before her, complained of having little to leave to her dependents. As a last sign of her political acuity, she stipulated that her grandson could only inherit her lands if he swore loyalty to the reigning Yorkist king for a decade. Even on her deathbed she was determined to save the Hungerford estate.

Anne of York and her second husband, Thomas St Leger

Anne of York and her second husband, Thomas St Leger.

We know of other women who pursued their family’s interests in defiance of the letter of the law. Anne, duchess of Exeter, is a unique case. As the Yorkist King Edward’s sister she was far from supportive of her husband’s loyalty to the Lancastrian cause. Usually, the interests of a woman’s birth family would be abandoned on marriage in favour of her husband’s, but in this case Anne remained firmly on the side of her brother. Her husband was attained in the first Yorkist parliament and fled abroad, but Anne stayed behind – and was immediately granted the confiscated estate of her husband. Later, she divorced him and remarried. According to attainder and divorce law, she should thus have forfeited her dower lands – instead, she not only kept them but also gained control of the entirety of her husband’s estate.

Margaret Beauchamp (mother of Margaret Beaufort and thus grandmother of the future Henry VII) was certainly no shrinking violet in the law courts. When her second husband, Leo, lord Welles, was attainted and killed she managed to maintain control over dower lands that should legally have been stripped from her. She even went further, and effectively disinherited her stepson Richard by alienating parts of the Welles estate to herself and her son, John.

To modern eyes this brutal stripping away of lands and money from your husband or stepson seems ruthlessly avaricious. But we need to bear in mind what might happen to these women if they did not fight their corner. There are numerous petitions that survive from women left destitute by the loss of their estate.

The widowed Eleanor, lady Dacre, complained in 1467 that ‘she has been despoiled of her goods by the Scots and other rebels and has no means of support’. Maud, lady Willoughby, had not only her estates but also her ‘clothing and goods’ seized by the Crown. Anne, lady Neville, was left an unsupported widow ‘to the great hurt and heaviness and uttermost undoing of your Suppliant, considering that she hath not wereof to find her (money for) her children and servants’. In 1464, Eleanor, duchess of Somerset (who lost her husband and all her four sons to the Lancastrian cause) appealed to the Yorkist King that she:

‘hath been in jeopardy of her life, robbed and spoiled in such wise as she was like to have perished for lack of sustenance, had not divers persons of their very pity and tenderness relieved and comforted her.’

The Battle of Barnet, 1471

The Battle of Barnet, 1471

According to the chronicler, Fabyan, after her husband’s attainder Margaret, countess of Oxford, had nothing ‘to live upon, but as the people of their charities would give to her, or what she might get with her needle’. However, we should not see the Countess simply as a victim of her husband’s actions. A letter sent by the Earl to his wife in the wake of his defeat at the Battle of Barnet in 1471 reveals that she was aiding him in his rebellion:

‘Also ye shall send me in all haste all the ready money that ye can make; and so many of my men as can come well horsed, and that they come in divers parcels. Also that my horse be sent, with my steel saddles, and bid the yeoman of the horse cover them with leather.’

The Countess was clearly sending men, funds and – not to be underestimated –moral support to her husband. Compare the Earl of Oxford’s persistence and ultimate reward (his estates were restored and augmented after he helped Henry VII to the throne) with the miserable end of the Duke of Exeter, abandoned and stripped of his estate by his wife, ‘begging his pittance from house to house’ in Burgundy, too poor even to afford hose according to one chronicler.

Philippa Gregory's Margaret Beaufort (BBC)

Philippa Gregory’s Margaret Beaufort (BBC)

To demonstrate how we perhaps fail to grasp the sincerity of noblewomen’s desire to maintain their estates in order to protect their children and own persons, we need only consider the recent representation of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII in fiction. In The White Queen Philippa Gregory presented Margaret as a woman obsessed with her son’s claim to the throne. In reality, Margaret was concerned simply with a) his survival and b) his right to the Richmond estate. Given that during her brief marriage to Henry’s father she had endured losing her virginity at twelve, being widowed a matter of months later and giving birth at thirteen (probably rendering her infertile), it is little wonder that she would fight to maintain every claim that her son had to her late husband’s inheritance. Something good had to come of her suffering.

Margaret Beaufort represents a microcosm of all of the noblewomen mentioned here, and the many more who both suffered and triumphed during the Wars of the Roses. Sometimes they endured great personal hardship and sometimes they received reward beyond their wildest dreams, and certainly beyond what the law should have allowed them. But their success or failure was not made solely by outside forces. These women were weak or powerful in their own right, and despite the vagaries of war it was their skill, cunning and acumen (or lack thereof) that set the fates not only of themselves, but of the generations that followed them.

This information is taken from my Masters thesis, The impact of the Wars of the Roses on Noblewomen, 1450-1509, Oxford, 2007.

5 thoughts on “Noblewomen in the Wars of the Roses: Turning Fortune’s Wheel

  1. Great article. Women certainly kicked butt during the Wars of the Roses.

    I didn’t like Philippa Gregory’s portrayal of Margaret Beaufort, as it so different from what I’ve reac in history books.

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