Last week’s pre-exam discussions with Year 13 looked again at how we might adopt a Feminist critical stance to our exam texts. The fabled AO5, I hear OCR students gasp …
Regular visitors will know that Gayle Rubin‘s ‘The Traffic in Women‘ is my go-to text. This week’s reading uncovered a little additional contextual support, thanks to Tracy Borman‘s very readable book.
Consider Elizabeth of York: daughter of ex-Queen Elizabeth Woodville; sister to the Princes in the Tower; pawn in the power struggle between Henry VII and Richard III that ended on the fields of Bosworth.
“Keen to establish his dynasty, the new king needed to enhance his legitimacy by taking a bride of impeccable pedigree. In fact, the perfect candidate had already been selected for him before he even came to the throne. In 1483, while Henry waited in the wings for the right moment to contest Richard III’s throne, his mother Margaret made a tacit agreement with Edward IV’s widow, Elizabeth Woodville, that if Henry succeeded in taking the crown of England, he would marry her eldest daughter Elizabeth. Henry swore an oath to this effect at Rennes Cathedral on Christmas Day 1483 and applied for the necessary papal dispensation early the following year. […] Elizabeth of York held many attractions as a potential bride. Nine years younger than Henry, she was every inch the Plantagenet princess: tall and slender with luscious blonde hair.”
Not only was a papal dispensation required because of the blood relationship between Henry and Elizabeth; he was also obliged to rescind the Act of Attainder which disinherited her brothers, failing which she would have had no ‘market value’. This is something Josephine Tey believes to be a suggestive part of the case against Henry, by the way. If the princes were still alive when the Attainder was removed, they would have had precedence over him …
But that’s an argument for another day. It’s unlikely that Henry (Richmond as he was then) would have met Elizabeth, so he would have had to rely on reports of the beauty she handily inherited from her mother. That said, it seems it was a handy bonus, not a deal-breaker anyway:
“Elizabeth of York’s true appeal for Henry lay not in her physical charms, but in her lineage. As the eldest daughter of Edward IV, she was the greatest prize of the House of York – described by Thomas More as ‘a king’s fare in marriage’ – and in making her his wife Henry was signalling an end to the bitter war that had been waged with his own House of Lancaster. ‘Everyone considers [the marriage] advantageous to the kingdom,’ observed one foreign ambassador, adding that ‘all things appear disposed towards peace.’ So ideal a bride was Elizabeth in every respect that her late uncle, Richard III, was rumoured to have considered marrying her himself. When Henry had heard of this, he was said to have been ‘pinched to the very stomach’”
Hardly pinched at the thought of losing someone he loved. Henry was clearly worried he would be thwarted in his attempts to enhance his authenticity as new king. A side note: unusually, for someone who keeps quite careful details of sources, etc, I can’t find where I read it, but at one stage Elizabeth caused a Christmas controversy by appearing at a feast dressed in a similar style to her ailing Queen, Anne Neville. In fact, Richard was forced to send Elizabeth from Court to quell rumours of his plans for her.
Elizabeth’s feelings were never taken into consideration:
“There was no public pretence of love, only of courtesy and respect. At most, couples brought together by such alliances might hope for harmony and mutual respect. Love, romance and passion, were mostly reserved for a king’s extramarital affairs.”
Or poor things, plural. So in life, in art. Elizabeth’s plight in Richard III is little different to the historical record, as we discussed, or to that of the women in Marlowe‘s Edward II. Or in Tennyson‘s ‘Maud‘. Or in any other number of intertextually-linked works. Too often their journeys involve one or more transfers of ownership, or terrible episodes in which their market value is forever lost, with devastating consequences (try Tess of the D’Urbervilles, for example).
That’s not to say that Richard III – or any of these works – are inherently misogynist. What they do is reflect the contemporary societal attitudes they were created in. With our Feminist Critical tee shirts on, we can interpret the works (and episodes in them) as reflecting patriarchy without necessarily endorsing it.
Tracy Borman, The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’ Greatest Dynasty (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 2016)