Book Review – Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville; A True Romance by Amy Licence

Author Amy Licence notes in her introduction that Edward IV has been somewhat overlooked in the annals of British history, noting that he was ‘a king who has been damned with faint praise’. This may at first seem surprising to those that study the fifteenth century over which his sizable figure looms large. Edward was tall and handsome, a courageous soldier on the battlefield who had been blessed an irresistible charm around his subjects. Yet when one takes a step back and looks at medieval England objectively, the author has a point; Edward IV has been overshadowed, if not by his brother Richard III or grandson Henry VIII then certainly by other monarchs like Henry V and Edward III.

Licence endeavours to bring this first king of the House of York out of the shadows of his illustrious relations, a task in which she succeeds with this book, the first non-fiction work about their relationship. The story of Edward is principally the story of his scandalous, kingdom-dividing marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, a topic Licence examines in detail in an attempt to uncover the significance of their controversial nuptials in 1464. It is a subject the she feels continues to fascinate ‘as an enduring love story set against the most turbulent of times’. She’s right.

Edward could have chosen any woman in Europe to have been his wife; after valiantly winning his crown on a battlefield at the age of only nineteen, he was every inch a stereotypical fairy tale prince. Tall, handsome, athletic, rich and young, he possessed ‘princely and knightly courage’. Edward IV was the most eligible bachelor in the western world. It was therefore inconceivable that he took for his wife the widow Elizabeth Woodville, five years his elder and allied to the Lancastrian affinity. It was unpopular with his nobles, his subjects and his family. Perhaps the fact she was considered ‘the most beautiful woman in the island of Britain’ had a bearing, but as the author points out, there was much more to Elizabeth than her looks. That Edward persevered with Elizabeth is an indication of his genuine love and attraction for his wife.

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The first part book provides ample background information on both Edward and Elizabeth, focusing on their childhood and early adulthood, culminating in their fortuitous meeting, some say, under an oak tree. Particularly welcomed is the detail Licence provides about the early years of Elizabeth, not a topic often covered in most works which tend to concentrate on those of royal birth. Personally I was intrigued to discover that, prior to her first marriage, Elizabeth was courted by Sir Hugh Joneys of Swansea. I was aware that Joneys would later be entrusted with tutoring the young Henry Tudor in martial arts during the 1460s and was pleased to discover this other, lesser-known, event in his life. Such small detail is a credit to the research Licence has undertaken.

No book about Edward IV and Elizabeth is complete without covering the latter part of their relationship, the demise of the king due to his excessive lifestyle and the subsequent tragedy of the Princes in the Tower. Unlike many writers who may feel the temptation to do so, Licence doesn’t dwell on history’s most famous ‘whodunit’ other than to discuss the events from the viewpoint of her subject, the desperate Elizabeth, again an often underdeveloped perspective of the period.

It is difficult to cover such a broad topic as the Wars of the Roses and the multitude of characters without confusing a reader new to the subject, but Licence succeeds in simplifying the era and in particular the complex genealogical aspect of the conflict. To do this without omitting any vital detail is applauded. Another welcome aspect of the book is Licence’s regular usage of extended sourced material as part of the main text rather than footnoted, for example the letter of Edward as a child to his father in 1455. Whilst on some occasions this may interrupt the narrative, it is utilised to such effect by the author that in this instance that it helps the reader’s understanding of the period as well as perhaps formulating their own interpretation of the source along with Licence’s.

Overall the book is well researched and engaging piece that offers a fresh view of a well-told subject, a talent which Licence has shown numerous times in her previous work. At one point Licence poses the question – ‘What was it about this woman that so captivated Edward that he was prepared to take such a risk?’. Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville, a True Romance goes some way to helping answer that question.

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Amy Licence is the author of several books on the Tudor dynasty and the Wars of the Roses, including In Bed With the Tudors (‘A fascinating book examining the sex lives of the Tudors in unprecedented detail’ Daily Express), Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York and The Six Wives & Many Mistresses of Henry VIII, all published by Amberley. Amy has written for the Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and BBC History Magazine and has appeared on BBC radio and television. She lives in Canterbury with her husband and two children.

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