The role of Women in the Wars of the Roses is an area which is increasingly significant to scholars. From the women who wore the crown to those who held communities together, the influence and impact they had on the wars were great. Arguably, it was two of the better-known women of the era who brought the conflict to an end. By forming an unlikely alliance, the matriarchs of the houses of Lancaster and York enabled the route to the throne for Henry Tudor and his marriage to Elizabeth of York. Elsewhere, women held together estates, formed a vital part of the supply line to those fighting and were an integral part of the economy that enabled the wars to rumble on for over 30 years.
Margaret of Anjou
Margaret of Anjou – the consort of King Henry VI. Margaret grew in political importance after the expulsion then the murder of Suffolk. Forming a ‘Court Party’ she fought for the regency during Henry’s catatonia. She then prepared the Lancastrian faction for a war with the supporters of York. Margaret led from the front. She took a role in tactical decision making and was in the vicinity of several significant battles. She returned to England following the formation of an alliance with the Earl of Warwick. This was a bid to secure the crown once more for Henry VI and the dynasty through their son. Following the defeat of the Lancastrians at Barnet and Tewkesbury and with Henry VI and her son killed, she returned to her ancestral lands where she lived out her days. Read our in-depth article on Margaret of Anjou here.
Elizabeth Woodville – born into a Lancastrian family, Elizabeth married into the Grey family. Her husband, John Grey, was killed at the Second Battle of St. Albans. As a result, herself and her two children were subsequently disinherited. Determined to regain her lands she confronted King Edward IV as he travelled. The pair fell in love quite quickly. Edward initially asking Elizabeth to be his mistress, a role she refused. Soon afterwards the couple married in secret, in 1464, with just a handful of guests. The marriage remained a secret until the Earl of Warwick proposed that the King be engaged for diplomatic reasons. Elizabeth was immediately disliked by many leading Yorkist nobles. To them, she was from a common Lancastrian family that had fought against them.
Over the next few years, members of the Woodville Family secured important roles which strengthened her position whilst Edward IV lived. Equally, it increased resentment held by others of her newfound influence. This triggered Warwick’s revolt in which her brother Earl Rivers was executed.
Elizabeth was vulnerable once Richard III was in power. Her sons had vanished, presumed dead. Her father and brother had been murdered. This led the Dowager Queen to negotiate a deal with the Lancastrians. Her daughter, Elizabeth of York, would marry Henry Tudor. This move tied some of the House of York to a new cause and ultimately led to a union which brought the feud to an end.
Anne Neville – daughter of Richard, 16th Earl of Warwick. As a Neville, Anne was of importance politically. Her father betrothed her to Edward of Westminster, the Prince of Wales. This was to cement the alliance that he had formed with Margaret of Anjou. Anne and Edward married, though her tenure as Princess of Wales was short as Edward was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Soon after, she remarried. This time she married Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III. Anne and Richard had to receive Papal dispensation for this union. Her elder sister, Isabelle, inherited lands held by their father, the Earl of Warwick. These were transferred to Isabelle’s husband, George, Duke of Clarence. Upon his death, they passed by right to Anne and Richard. This gave the couple a great deal of power in the North, where Richard was governing on the king’s behalf and also in South Wales. Anne bore one child to Richard, a son known as Edward of Middleham. The boy passed away before either of his parents. Anne was crowned Queen upon Richard taking the throne. When Edward of Middleham died suddenly in April of 1484 she was overwhelmed with grief. She took on responsibility for Edward of Warwick, a mutual nephew of both herself and Richard. Anne soon fell ill though. Richard, perhaps as an act of affection to Anne, named Edward of Warwick as his heir. It was an illness from which she failed to recover. Anne passed away in March of 1485, probably of tuberculosis.
Elizabeth of York – sister to one king, niece to two, mother of one and wife of the founder of the Tudor Dynasty. As the political situation changed following the death of Edward IV, his sister, Elizabeth of York, became an increasingly important lady. As Richard changed the royal household some within the House of York, and the Woodville Family, became upset at the changes being made. The invitation of her uncle, Richard, to become King saw her brothers sent to the Tower, then vanish. It was a time when Elizabeth’s mother saw the family under threat from within: from Richard. So a line of communication was opened up that would see a marriage alliance designed to change the political landscape. This involved Elizabeth of York. She was betrothed to Henry Tudor as part of an agreement that would see allegiances change to the Tudor claim. Following Tudor’s success at the Battle of Bosworth, Elizabeth of York married Henry Tudor. It was a union that, following the death of John de la Pole at the Battle of Stoke Field, did ensure an end to fighting between the rival houses.
Women of high birth
Margaret Beauchamp – the life of Margaret Beauchamp is a good example of the way that inheritances, widowhood and remarriages by noble ranked women were both commonplace and influential. Margaret became an heiress at a reasonably young age, inheriting several Manors upon the death of her brother. She married St Oliver St. John, to whom she bore two sons and five daughters, remarkably for the period, all of whom survived beyond infancy. Sir Oliver was killed fighting in France in 1437. In 1442 Margaret remarried. This time, to John Beaufort, 3rd Earl of Somerset. This marriage was a high status one, John Beaufort was descended from Edward III and grandson of John of Gaunt. Margaret was at the heart of the political circle that became the Court Party. She bore one daughter, Margaret Beaufort, to John before his death in France in 1444. Margaret spent some years managing her estates and arranging a marriage contract for her youngest and most eligible daughter. This contract was to the son of the Duke of Suffolk. However, following Suffolk’s murder, the marriage was annulled and at the suggestion of the King and Margaret of Anjou, a new union was agreed for Margaret’s daughter, to Edmund Tudor. This tied Margaret to the extended royal family through both her own marriage to John Beaufort, 3rd Earl of Somerset and through her daughter’s marriage to Edmund Tudor. Margaret married for a third time, to Lionel, Lord Welles, a wealthy baron in the Midlands. She bore him one son, John, who was to go on to marry Cecily Neville. All of Margaret’s adult life involved management of estates, inheritances and political decision making, especially in relation to marriage alliances. As a result of these marriages, she became the grandmother of Henry Tudor, King Henry VII following the Battle of Bosworth.
Margaret Beaufort – not to be confused with her mother, above, who was also called Margaret Beaufort for the duration of her marriage to the Duke of Somerset. Margaret was politically important from birth, though suffered a troubled time. Her father had failed miserably in the French campaigns and was rumoured to have taken his own life. A wardship was granted to the Duke of Suffolk who took it upon himself to marry her to his own son, as a marriage of political gain. Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou intervened following Suffolk’s demise and the marriage was annulled. There followed a more acceptable marriage, to Edmund Tudor. She became pregnant at an early age, even by medieval standards. When 6 months pregnant, Edmund died of the Plague. Margaret sought the protection of Jasper Tudor and gave birth to her only son, Henry Tudor, whilst in Pembroke. Jasper aided her in arranging a third marriage, to Henry Stafford a son of the Duke of Buckingham. Her son, Henry was placed in the care of William, Lord Herbert, following the Yorkist victory at Towton. Upon the return to the throne of Henry VI, Margaret ignited her support for the Lancastrian cause. It meant that following the deaths of Henry VI and Prince Edward, her son was a major claimant to the throne. She ushered him to the safety of France in 1471. Around the same time, she made arrangements for her fourth marriage. This was to Thomas Stanley, a powerful magnate from the north-west. She was able to remain close to the court and gain some favour from the Yorkist regime, with her son safely out of harm’s way. The death of Edward IV and the ascendancy of Richard III led Margaret to make dangerous political decisions. She plotted with the Duke of Buckingham and was complicit in the uprisings against the king in 1484. Margaret also opened negotiations with Elizabeth Woodville about an alliance in favour of her son against Richard III. The uprising failed but the Stanley’s loyalty to Richard saved her from dire consequences. The following year upon the landing of her son in Wales, she was able to communicate with Henry. Upon Henry Tudor becoming King of England, Margaret’s position was elevated. In the Tudor regime, she had an extraordinary amount of influence and played a major role in the political activity of Henry’s court.
Jacquetta of Luxemburg born into a noble family with strong ties to several royal families, Jacquetta was married to John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford in 1433. It was a high profile marriage, John was the 3rd son of Henry V and was of huge importance in the minority of Henry VI. However this marriage was short-lived, John died in 1435. The widowed Jacquetta retained her title of Countess and inherited one-third of the Duke’s lands: making her incredibly wealthy. Sir Richard Woodville was commissioned by King Henry VI to bring the widow to England. As they travelled, they fell in love and married, without royal approval, in 1437. Payment of a fine of £1000 acquired Royal approval. Jacquetta was now closely tied to the Royal family and only Margaret of Anjou of the ladies at court outranked her. This position gave her a great of influence and led to Richard Woodville being created Baron Rivers. The early stages of the Wars of the Roses altered Jacquetta’s influence. After Towton, the Yorkists held the throne. However, she was to return to the court following the marriage of her daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, to the Yorkist King Edward IV. As parents of the Queen Consort Jacquetta and Richard Woodville rose in prominence again. Richard became Earl Rivers and was appointed as Lord High Treasurer. Jacquetta was able to secure strong marriage unions for her children, cementing powerful unions and increasing the influence of her family. Earl Rivers and the couples eldest son, John, were executed by Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick’s men during his revolt against Edward IV. Soon after, Jacquetta was accused of witchcraft by Thomas Wake. Evidence was presented in the form of a model man and the suggestion that testimony could be given by an eyewitness. The allegation was swiftly thrown out by Edward IV’s council upon his return to the throne, though was resumed posthumously by Richard III in 1484 as an attempt to discredit his brother. Jacquetta died in 1472. She had seen her families fortunes rise and through marriage become part of the Royal Family.
Other women for whom adequate evidence exists
Margaret Paston was born in Norfolk in 1423. Her family were reasonably prosperous landowners and upon her father’s death, it was Margaret who inherited the estates. Women in this position were seen as being suitable bride for upwardly mobile suitors. One such family were the Paston Family, famed for the Paston Letters. Margaret married John Paston, a lawyer. During the Wars of the Roses life for Margaret was extraordinary. As John Paston was frequently away from their estates on legal duties, it was left to Margaret to manage the estates. The local disputes that overboiled during the Wars of the Roses saw Margaret Paston facing an armed band whilst defending her own home. This first occurred in Gresham in 1448, a Manor that had been purchased by the Paston family. (It was seized by force, badly damaged and not returned until 1451). In the 1460s Margaret faced significant foes: the Duke of Suffolk raided Paston lands in Hellesden and the Duke of Norfolk laid siege to Caister Castle. Clearly, Margaret was not facing armed men all of the time, as the rest of the country violence erupted then faded. The evidence from the Paston Letters shows how she managed the estates, dealt with the upbringing of the children of the couple, including arranging suitable marriages for them and day to day matters of family life. John Paston died in 1466 and from that point onward the number of letters that Margaret wrote diminished. Her will does indicate several things though. It gifts money to the church, provides for her children and included family servants.
Margery Kemp though she passed away shortly before the Wars of the Roses began, her life and work are worth noting. Margery was a mystic who wrote what is often referred to as the first English Autobiography. It largely deals with her religious beliefs but also to other aspects of life. Margery was accused of heresy several times and acquited on each occasion. Similarly, she was accused of being a Lollard, again denied. Her story shows how significant religious beliefs remained during the period. Travel and pilgrimage were extensive in Margery’s life, appearing several times in the book.
The book detailed two business ventures that she undertook, brewing and running a grain mill. These industries were commonly undertaken by women from the home. She also comments on the problems associated with the birth of a child and her subsequent illness. In doing so she gives an insight into how those commonplace women’s issues were viewed and addressed at the time. The British Library holds the only surviving original copy of her book, though it has been transcribed and published. A useful resource on the book, from the British Library, can be found here.
Causes of the Wars of the Roses – Battles of the Wars of the Roses – Personalities of the Wars of the Roses – Women in the Wars of the Roses – Timeline of the Wars of the Roses – Infographic: Key Facts on the Wars of the Roses – Primary and Secondary Sources on the Wars of the Roses – Nathen Amin – the Rise of the Beaufort’s and Tudor England