Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Susan Higginbotham on Why I love the Woodvilles

While Richard III lost the Battle of Bosworth, he has arguably won the battle of historical fiction. It’s rare to find a recent historical novel where he’s not depicted sympathetically, and it’s equally rare to find a novel where Elizabeth Woodville is depicted sympathetically. Even in the novels where she’s the heroine, she’s cold, calculating, and unscrupulous, and if the author can toss in a dash (or more) of sorcery, so much the better. 

But with The Stolen Crown, I came out of the closet, so to speak: I am a Woodvillian. Not only do I love Elizabeth Woodville, I love her large family.

Now, a Woodvillian doesn’t get that way overnight. Having first gained an interest in the Wars of the Roses through Shakespeare, I naturally gravitated toward novels set during that conflict when I became a voracious reader of historical fiction. As I read novel after novel depicting the Woodvilles in a negative light, I began asking myself, were they really that bad? My curiosity soon led me to the history shelves of the local university library and to my answer: No. 

We “know,” for instance, that Elizabeth Woodville procured the Earl of Desmond’s execution because he spoke slightingly about her marriage to Edward IV. But do we? No contemporary source links Elizabeth to his death, and none of her enemies made such an accusation against her, despite the great advantage to which such charges could have been put to use as anti-Woodville propaganda. We “know” that the greedy Woodvilles accused the unfortunate Thomas Cook of treason just so they could despoil him of his goods. But the Lancastrian plot that Cook was convicted of concealing was very real; some of the actual plotters paid with their lives, whereas Cook got off with a large fine and remained a wealthy man nonetheless. We “know” that Elizabeth Woodville and her mother, Jacquetta, were practicing witches—but the accusations against them, made by their enemies, were never proven.

What, by contrast, do we know about the Woodvilles that can be substantiated? We know that Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, married a handsome young man far beneath her social station without royal license, risking the king’s disfavor, and that this shocking match produced twelve children who lived to adulthood (including Kate, the heroine of The Stolen Crown). We know that Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, was an expert jouster, that he was one of the earliest patrons of the printer William Caxton, and that he spent the night before his execution writing poetry. We know that Edward Woodville charmed Ferdinand and Isabella and died gallantly fighting for a lost cause. We know that Edward IV, King of England, could have had a wealthy, well-connected foreign princess as a bride, but instead risked the anger of his advisors and married Elizabeth Woodville, a widowed commoner with little property and two young sons.
An interesting lot—and, I think, a lovable one.  My hope is that when you read The Stolen Crown, you’ll come to love them too—or at the very least, to realize that far from being cardboard villains, the Woodvilles were a lot like most of us, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but somewhere along that vast spectrum that lies in between.


  1. Fascinating, Susan. Thank you for sharing your insights into the Woodvilles. I look forward very much to reading The Stolen Crown.

    So much of what we "know" about historical characters from this period is propaganda, isn't it. Trying to construct a more accurate picture is a painstaking and intriguing task. As you say, few real people are wholly good, or wholly bad. I imagine that there would have been some benefit in having some unscrupulous qualities in such a complex society!

  2. Very interesting - thank you for posting. Of course - the current pro Richard vogue is simply a revisionist approach reacting to the anti Richard views that emerged from the Tudor period. No doubt, in time, there will be a counter revision and we will be back where we started. Uncovering historical truth or even a balanced historical view is a staggeringly difficult task - maybe even impossible.

    Thought provoking and fascinating post - thanks for sharing


  3. Good post. I am not a fan of the Woodvilles but I do not think that they were as horrible as some try to make them out to be.

  4. coming early next year, my book on Jacquetta Woodville, powerful, charismatic, demanding, ambitious and totally likeable lady.
    There were more than 12 children, BTW. She lists them in her book. Every list I have seen so far has them in the wrong order, or some hwo were not hers, or the dates are erratic, no one seems to get the Woodvilles right. That's my job. Jacquetta, then later, Earl Rivers himself, then later still, Elizabeth, her side of the story. Before then, Clarence, with his side of the story. And so the Wars of the Roses goes on, many aspects, many people, many viewpoints, all come down to one thing - they are people, just like us. Believe me, I live and work with them 24/7. They are just like us.

  5. This is fascinating, and uncovers a different perspective from usual.I can see the potential here, and I always love to hear the other side of a story. The Stolen Crown is now on my list. Very interesting post.

  6. Very interesting post! I think you give a lot of good reasons why we should not look at this family only in a negative light. I am going to be grabbing a copy of The Stolen Crown. It sounds like it would make a very interesting read for me!

  7. I tend to agree with you about the Woodvilles. Out of all the novels I have read, I have definitely enjoyed your description of them the most.

  8. I love when the "bad guys" turn out to be not so terrible after all...thanks for sharing this with us!

  9. Great guest post, Susan, as always. I share your sympathies with the Woodvilles....while I will always wonder about Elizabeth's decision to let her two boys go, she was a mother and I wonder what I would have done in her shoes. Either way, my heart breaks when I think of the loss she went through.

  10. I must confess that before reading The Stolen Crown, I hadn't given a lot of thought to some of the characters that you highlighted. I had seen some positive comments previously about Anthony, but not a lot about the rest of the Woodvilles, and definitely not a lot about Henry Stafford.

    Thanks for a very interesting guest post Susan, and a very interesting read in The Stolen Crown.