The Foreign Consort: Power, Position and Peril by Conor Byrne


Thank you to author and historian Conor Byrne for joining us today with this guest article. I know many of you enjoyed his book on Katherine Howard so you’ll be pleased to know that his latest book Queenship in England is a kindle countdown deal from 2-4 May. 99c/99p is a bargain for this book.

Over to Conor…

Edward IV’s secret marriage to the Lancastrian widow Elizabeth Wydeville in 1464 was controversial for a number of reasons, as has long been recognised by historians. What was perhaps most striking about their union, however, was that Elizabeth was the first Englishwoman to become queen of England since the Norman Conquest. Strikingly, her two immediate successors Anne Neville and Elizabeth of York were also Englishwomen, and as is well known, Elizabeth Wydeville’s grandson Henry VIII married four English brides. The marital choices of Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII and Henry VIII, however, strayed from contemporary custom, in an age when monarchs were expected to wed royal spouses from foreign kingdoms. This custom proved to be highly influential during the Middle Ages and was only discarded in 1464, although later kings, including Henry VIII, resumed the practice of marrying foreign brides. So inexplicable was Edward IV’s choice of wife that rumours circulated that he had been bewitched into marrying the beautiful Elizabeth. In a worsening political climate that culminated in the Earl of Warwick’s rebellion against the king, it was alleged that both Elizabeth and her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, were sorceresses.

My book Queenship in England: 1308–1485 Gender and Power in the Late Middle Ages examines the tenures of nine women who were married to English kings. Seven of them were foreigners, the exceptions being Elizabeth Wydeville and Anne Neville. Rather than being a traditional narrative biography of England’s medieval queens, my book is more of a study of the institution of queenship and its associated roles, including intercessor, patron, lord and household manager. It is especially interested in the often vexed relationship between gender and power as it operated at the heart of the English monarchy, and endeavours to shed light on informal avenues of power that were accessed by the consort in order to wield influence. Moreover, the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries can be regarded as a period of intermittent crisis, occasioned by political, economic and military tensions that resulted in war, rebellion and conspiracy and, on several occasions, in the usurpation of the king. Whether or not we can speak of a crisis of medieval kingship during the late Middle Ages is contentious, but if so, then it strikes me as worthwhile to consider whether – and how – this impacted on contemporary expectations of queenship, and whether queenship itself underwent change and development during a period of troubles.

The period that I am interested in means that the institution of English queenship is approached with the understanding that the occupant of that office was, aside from two occasions, foreign born. It is worth pointing out that the queen’s foreignness was not necessarily the principal factor governing her effectiveness – or otherwise – in conforming to, or challenging, contemporary expectations of queenship. However, it is also true that the foreign queen could experience difficulties that were not necessarily applicable to native consorts. For example, contemporaries expressed dissatisfaction with their queen if they believed her foreign entourage to be exercising a malign influence on her actions, or if they believed that the entourage was a financial burden on the crown. Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV, was vulnerable to accusations that her foreign servants betrayed the king’s counsel to his enemies and there were calls for their expulsion from the realm. A former duchess of Brittany, it is interesting that Henry’s subjects requested him to order the expulsion of all Frenchmen and Bretons from the kingdom, and two of Joan’s daughters from her first marriage may have been compelled to depart with them. Criticisms of the queen’s household seem to have arisen in especially unfavourable political, financial and military circumstances. Anne of Bohemia, who married Richard II in 1382, apparently struggled to govern her household effectively. Her attendant Agnes de Launcekrona, who had accompanied her from Bohemia, commenced a clandestine affair with Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford, and the earl later petitioned the pope to grant him an annulment of his marriage to Philippa de Coucy, cousin of the king. Rumours alleged that Anne had encouraged the pope to sanction the annulment in order for the earl to wed her maiden. The queen’s failure to protect Agnes’ honour and the suggestion that she was involved in the attempt to annul the marriage to a royal cousin did not reflect well on Anne.

The queenship of Margaret of Anjou sheds light on the tensions that could be encountered by a foreign consort during the late Middle Ages. Henry VI’s subjects do not appear to have interpreted his marriage favourably, for it was not perceived to bring substantial diplomatic or financial gains to the kingdom. Complaints were made that Margaret had arrived in the realm without ‘any peny profite, or foote of posession’, and England was imagined as the unsuspecting victim of corrupt French policies. The queen was criticised for her apparent decision to pressure her husband into ceding the territories of Maine and Anjou to the French, although her actions were likely influenced by the encouragement of her father and the king of France. As I note in Queenship in England: ‘In the early years of her marriage, Margaret’s actions were largely conventional. Had it not been for the onset of her husband’s illness and the resulting civil strife, she might have been remembered and praised as a conscientious, efficient and dutiful consort.’ The onset of civil war, however, required Margaret to play a more politically active role than contemporaries expected of the queen, but in doing so, it rendered her vulnerable to accusations of treachery, accentuated in part by her foreignness. Alongside rumours of her sexual immorality, it was alleged that Margaret ‘ruled the realm as she liked’, an allegation that was informed by, and played on, residual English fears that their kingdom would be undermined, even ruined, by the malignant presence of their foreign consort. As is well known, these fears explicitly resurfaced when the first queen regnant Mary I made public her intent to marry Philip of Spain.

The collapse of Henry VI’s health and, by extension, authority meant that his consort was compelled to take an active role at the centre of government, but in doing so, she found herself vulnerable to allegations of sexual immorality and political treachery. The effectiveness of Yorkist propaganda, moreover, has ensured that Margaret of Anjou’s historical reputation continues to be dubious, the lingering image of her a vengeful, cruel and bloodthirsty woman responsible for decades of war and bloodshed. In contrast, while her status as an unpopular queen believed to favour her native realm and England’s ancient enemy, France, complicated Margaret’s tenure during her husband’s lifetime, the foreignness of her predecessors Joan of Navarre and Katherine of Valois rendered them especially vulnerable after the deaths of their husbands.

During her tenure as consort, evidence suggests that Joan enjoyed amicable relations with her stepchildren, including her husband’s heir Henry, who succeeded his father as Henry V in 1413. However, everything changed for Joan in 1419, when her stepson accused her of sorcery and ordered her arrest in a calculated bid to seize her lands in order to finance his wars with France and his impending marriage. As was noted earlier, the queen had been vulnerable to hostile accusations during her marriage to Henry IV, and after his death, she found herself without a powerful protector to safeguard her interests. As Paul Strohm notes, Joan ‘was an outpost of foreignness – and hence of suspicion – in an increasingly English and English-speaking milieu’. Her failure to produce children during her marriage to Henry, moreover, rendered her vulnerable during her stepson’s reign and meant that she lacked political relevance.

Similarly, Joan’s successor Katherine of Valois had every reason to regret her husband’s death in 1422. Deprived of the security that she had enjoyed as consort, salacious rumours circulated that the dowager queen was clandestinely involved with Edmund Beaufort and, later, Owen Tudor. Whether Katherine ever actually married Owen is open to debate. Traditionally the union has been romantically identified as one based on love, but it is also possible that Katherine sought a powerful protector to safeguard her position and uphold her interests during the reign of her son. She appears to have sought to resolve her precarious situation by remarrying, although her remarriage was forbidden by an act of Parliament. That Katherine feared the reaction of her son’s council explains why her marriage to Owen remained secret until after her death.

Conor Byrne’s book Queenship in England: 1308–1485 Gender and Power in the Late Middle Ages is a Kindle Countdown deal on and Amazon UK from today until the end of 4th May 2017 meaning that it’s just 99c or 99p. Grab it while you can! Here are the links:

It is also available as a kindle book on the other Amazon sites and as a paperback. Here is the blurb:

“An interesting and accessible exploration of medieval queenship in relation to gender expectations.”
– Amy Licence, author of Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate Life of Henry VIII’s True Wife

“A very readable and thoroughly researched book that looks at the role of late medieval Queens of England in an original way.”
– Toni Mount, author of A Year in the Life of Medieval England

Between 1308 and 1485, nine women were married to kings of England. Their status as queen offered them the opportunity to exercise authority in a manner that was denied to other women of the time. This book offers a new study of these nine queens and their queenship in late medieval England.

Isabella of France, wife of Edward II
Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III
Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard II
Isabelle of France, second wife of Richard II
Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV
Katherine of Valois, wife of Henry V
Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI
Elizabeth Wydeville, wife of Edward IV
Anne Neville, wife of Richard III

The fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries were frequently characterised by dynastic uncertainty and political tensions. Scholars have recognised that the kings who ruled during this time were confronted with challenges to their kingship, as new questions emerged about what it meant to be a successful king in late medieval England. This book examines the challenges faced by the queens who ruled at this time. It investigates the relationship between gender and power at the English court, while exploring how queenship responded to, and was informed by, the tensions at the heart of governance.

Ultimately Queenship in England questions whether a new model of queenship emerged from the great upheavals underpinning the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century polity.

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4 thoughts on “The Foreign Consort: Power, Position and Peril by Conor Byrne”
  1. Interesting article and highlights some of the problems domestic marriages of Kings and some advantages if and when it can be found. Elizabeth Woodville was married to a knight from the opposite side, but her mother was of foreign noble birth and her father was also a Baron, not a highborn noble. Edward iv basically slept with any woman or (according to two recent studies, any male) although closer examination shows he actually had fewer women than has traditionally been claimed. He caused more than a problem with his choice of Queen, however, as his powerful uncle and benefactor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick was in France negotiating his marriage to a royal French bride. Edward being the young twit that he was doing as he pleased only revealed his marriage several months later in a council meeting when he had no other choice. Amy Linence supposed this was partly due to her being pregnant and partly due to pressure from both Elizabeth and her family as well as the upcoming last phase negotiations. There is no solid evidence for a pregnancy during the Summer 1464, but it is possible. However, his embarrassing admission can’t have failed to cause offence, to the French, to his own family and to Uncle Warwick. Edward had married for love or lust or if you accept the legend from a hostile source because Elizabeth refused to sleep with him before he did so. However, they were married, howbeit secretly, another habit for Edward iv, who had previously married Eleanor Talbot, but kept the fact hidden for several years, and the court had to accept it. There was eventually a rift between Edward and Warwick and although Elizabeth has been maligned over the years, there would be internal and external problems for Edward to cope with due to his bridal choice, mainly because with Elizabeth came a vast unmarried family, who then were joined to various members of the older nobility. There was resentment, just as would be aimed at Henry Viii and Anne Boleyn. This resentment has of course coloured sources about EW. She was an active and well defined woman who stood up for herself and was probably helpful in making Edward grow up and take responsibility for his realm.

    Richard of Gloucester was not meant to be King when he married Anne Neville, whom he rescued from the impossible situation of being under the control of her sister and brother in law Clarence simply because her father had sided with Margaret of Anjou and Anne was married of to the Prince of Wales, Edward. Henry vi was back on the throne and Margaret hoped to push the Lancastrian claim forward. Unfortunately by the time she landed, it was too late…Edward iv was back and had killed Warwick at Barnet. Margaret and Anne were forced to wait while her young son, Anne’s first husband fought Edward’s army at Tewkesbury. The Prince was killed and Anne a widow, on the wrong side and awarded as a ward to her sister Isabella and George Duke of Clarence.. Either for her part of her fortune or more likely because he genuinely had a fondness and had compassion for Anne, Richard married her and rescued her from a terrible situation. He also helped to achieve her half of her family inheritance. They had a successful marriage and when Richard became Richard iii, Anne of course became his Queen. However, they only had one child, a son who died in 1484_and Anne herself died after several months of illness, not because Richard poisoned her and Richard saw no more advantage in an English bride. Contrary to unfounded rumours and Hicks, Richard had no interest in marriage to Elizabeth of York and evidence from the Portuguese archives shows he was going to marry Joanna of Portugal, a senior Lancstrian claimant after Bosworth.

    Henry Vii obviously chose Elizabeth of York because his own claim was nonsense, very weak and he needed her established York credentials to strengthen his own claim. They appear well suited, however, and it was a good match but it didn’t bring the alliance which a new Dynasty requires for legitimacy abroad. His strength in Elizabeth was their children whom he used to form those alliances with Spain and Scotland. His second son also began by seeing the strength and political sense of continuing an established foreign alliance by marriage to Spain with Katherine of Aragon. This also ironically strengthen his Lancastrian links as Katherine also was descended from his older Lancastrian ancestors. His hope of course was to have sons and daughters to both carry on his dynasty and to marry abroad and make more strong alliances. His domestic wives came about after call this failed. The first he was in love with and was the intellectual and fascinating Anne Boleyn, but that too went wrong and his other three domestic wives each for personal needs as well as more sons. He caused problems with various factions as there were religious issues as well as rivals hoping their family member would catch his eye. Henry Viii also had little choice but to marry at home after his treatment of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. By the time he was considering a fourth marriage after Jane Seymour died trying and succeeding to give him a son, he was not popular marriage material and nobody would have him. Cromwell saw the advantage of an alliance with Cleves as a wealthy and military buffer against both the Emperor and France. Henry was eventually won over by the portrait of Anne of Cleves who at 24 was pitched as a good match. Unfortunately it was a disaster and the reluctant bridegroom escaped after six months. Anne had the common sense to say yes to an annulment and get a good settlement. However, the relationship with Cleves continued until Henry made a new alliance with the Emperor for military purposes. Cleves also submitted to the Empire. His last two wived were what Henry did best, two of his own choosing. One with Katherine Howard was completely without any common sense on his part due to her youth, but Katherine as a Queen didn’t do too badly and Henry was completely taken with her. Unfortunately, factions saw fit to raise the issue of her past before her marriage, poking their noses in and came to Cramner with her relationship with Mannox her music teacher which was probably abusive and Francis Dereham who is seen either as her lover or alleged rapist depending on which historian you accept has correctly interpreted the problematic evidence. Unfortunately investigation into her past revealed that Katherine was seeing a gentleman in the King’s privy chamber, Thomas Culpepper. Neither confessed to adultery and the verdict is out on the true extent of their relationship. Unfortunately it was all enough to condemn them and Francis Dereham who followed Katherine to court to death. Henry made a much wiser if somewhat troublesome choice for his last wife. Katherine Parr was in her 30s, twice widowed, capable, able to care for him and his children, was intelligent, well educated and could rule while he fought in France. She had one disadvantage, however which could have proved fatal. Katherine Parr was a convinced Protestant and a very active one who didn’t keep her views to herself. She was debating and practically preaching at the King one night and Henry was persuaded to arrest her for heresy. Fortunately Katherine got a tip of and showed good sense in going to Henry and telling him it was only the opinion of a woman and she wanted to learn from him. Henry accepted her explanation and she was saved. However, it did affect his judgement of her and he altered his will go exclude her from government. England didn’t have the tradition of a female regent anyway so he was only practising protocol. He also didn’t follow the tradition of a Lord Protector but made a council to rule for Edward. Edward Seymour took the Protectorate for himself.

    A foreign match could bring strength and wealth and prestige and a partner trained to rule. It could also be a disaster with lack of attraction and rejection or as in the case of Margaret of Anjou, resentment towards her country, especially as England gained nothing financially or in lands as her family were broke. Later the problem of religion prevailed and with a female King, did they go abroad and the marriage vow to obey their husbands. Queens with powerful relatives abroad could command their own power and even cause warfare. Military alliances could result from a foreign bride but also armies may be turned against their King. Then there was the question of ending the marriage if no sons were born or for other reasons. What if like Katherine of Aragon they refused to go? What if ending the marriage resulted in war? A domestic marriage didn’t bring such a threat.

    A domestic marriage may bring affection, loyalty, good links with handy families and prestige for them. Many nobles in fact had more money and bigger domestic armies than the King. Anne Neville was co heiress to a considerable fortune and the crown gained lands in Wales, the Midlands, the Marchers, the North and the home counties. In much earlier times you married the daughter of a powerful noble to expand your territory, your power, gain vital support and unite countries. Frankish Kings married in this way as did Ssxon Kings such as Alfred of Wessex double unity with Mercia or another King gaining unity with Northumbria. This was how power bases and countries were formed under one ruler. However, by this time, such alliances were no longer necessarily the best way forward and could foster resentment and bitter rivalry at court. The Queen could be put in danger by such resentment and false charges of conspiracy or adultery brought against them as they were in the way of another ambitious family. They may bring in much needed new blood rather than you marrying your first or second cousin but as can be seen with Henry Viii, the Queen could also be more easily desposed of if they didn’t have powerful rich foreign relatives with an army to protect them if the marriage failed.

    1. One thing I forgot, the Black Prince, Edward, married his cousin who was his father’s grandchild by his second marriage, Joan of Kent, mother of Richard ii. Edward only died one year before his father, so he would have succeeded as King and Joan as his Queen. It was a very advantageous marriage and they were of course from within the same royal family, just as Richard and Anne Neville were closely related and raised within the same royal family. It’s a domestic royal marriage which is often overlooked and they would have been the next King and Queen but for Edward ‘s untimely death.

      1. Hi BanditQueen, thank you for your detailed and fascinating comment. I find it interesting that Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon was so popular and the royal couple were praised for their learning, their erudition, their breeding and their good looks, and Katherine was loved and admired by her subjects during her thirty five years in England. And yet, by her daughter’s reign, a widespread antipathy to Spaniards was gradually emerging, which of course escalated in the reign of Elizabeth I.

        It is also interesting that Henry chose to marry a foreign bride in 1540, probably in response to England’s increasing isolation in European affairs. Other candidates for the king’s hand included Marie of Guise and Christina of Milan. Anne of Cleves was actually an excellent candidate for Henry’s hand; her lineage was the best of any of his wives, second only to Katherine of Aragon.

        In the fourteenth- and fifteenth-centuries, however, it was seen as bizarre for a king of England to marry one of his own subjects. Edward IV was the first king to marry an Englishwoman in four hundred years. Of course, as you say, Richard III married Anne Neville before he became king, and it has been suggested that loyalty to Anne’s family in the north played an important role in providing support for Richard’s rule. Henry VII’s marriage to Elizabeth of York, of course, legitimated his own claim to the throne and symbolically brought to a close the war between Lancaster and York.

        1. Anne of Cleves was indeed a fine choice as far as royal descent and Cleves was a respected independent Duchy in its own right, making a series of good matches over time. Anne was probably too sensible for Henry anyway, but she was able to learn everything and was familiar with all the ceremonial and good breeding needed as a Princess, as she was royal. She was described as charming and gracious and compassionate. What more did he want? There is certainly no other contemporary evidence that there was anything wrong with her appearance other than Henry’s complaints which of course are totally unbiased (no)and her dress may have been unfashionable and weird to an English court used to French and Italian fashions (nothing much has changed). Anne had led a very protective life and there is no doubt about her virtue, but he had to knock that to cover up his own inadequate bedroom behaviour. She was quick to learn English manners and customs and she later became an accomplished card player, musical and loved to dance. She appears to have been very friendly and had fun and approachable and she exchanged notes with Henry’s children. She didn’t hold it against him when he invited her to dine with him and his new wife, she was courteous, humble and gracious. She was also generous and she definitely had a good brain. She demanded to see the papers regarding her betrothal to the Duke of Lorraine and her marriage and to find a legal loophole, but there was nothing she could really do. The German lawyers had sown her marriage to Henry up well but Henry’s henchmen took his word and Cromwell’s testimony to get the marriage annulled. Anne always saw herself as Henry’s true wife and wasn’t too pleased when he married a sixth time. She must have had a decent amount of intelligence and common sense and decided to accept Henry’s need for an annulment and made a good settlement. It was probably the reaction of their first disastrous meeting which put him off and made things difficult between them and a combination of inexperience on her and his own reluctance meant no sexual chemistry emerged at all. I don’t believe Anne was unattractive. After the annulment Henry and Anne became friends and he treated her with relative respect and called her his sister. He visited her so often that poor Katherine Howard heard rumours Henry was returning to Anne. She outlived them all, save his daughters. Anne was held in esteem by Mary and Elizabeth and took a motherly/sisterly role with a genuine interest in them. She carried herself and behaved in Queenly manner. Although Henry stuck a spy in her household and monitored the letters she wrote to her brother, he treated her well and as long as he lived her income was guaranteed. Mary made certain Anne of Cleves had a real state funeral in Westminster Abbey, the only one besides Jane to get full honours. Jane was placed in the royal chapel in Windsor but had all the trappings of a royal funeral.

          Cleves had a good military expertise and professional soldiers to offer as well, so certainly it’s value continued. I think you are right about Spain, it is amazing how the situation and attitude changed from that of the days of Catherine and Henry who were a really popular and devoted couple for 24 years. Katherine continued to be so till her death. What had changed by their daughter Mary’s reign? Well I can think of a few theories which partly makes sense, religious changes had made Spain more of an enemy because she was more totalitarian than she was in 1509, she was more warlike towards the rest of Europe since the 1520s and 1530s under Charles V and his son Philip was seen in some quarters in negative terms and England had also changed, religiously and politically so there were fears about foreign rule. Another difference was that Mary was the first Queen Regnant of England. The question of her marriage was of more concern because of her sex. A wife had to promise to obey her husband and there was discussion about how a woman to be a Sovereign and obey her husband. There was also a problem because a woman normally left her home Kingdom and went to live with her new husband and new people to rule as their Queen, so it was a concern that Mary would leave England and what happened then? Spain was an expanding power, associated to the larger Holy Roman Empire and there was concern over England being a satellite state. What would England’s status be? An equal as with Castile and Aragon or independent or would Philip be the senior ruler? For radical Protestants and ex supporters of Lady Jane Grey and nervous radical nationalist young gentlemen like Thomas Wyatt the Younger these were genuine concerns. I am not convinced that the majority of ordinary people found the proposed Spanish marriage a problem before Wyatt published and proclaimed ideas that Philip would control everything to numerous people in order to raise support for his rebellion. Mary may not have listened to her council but she did have a plan to make this work, but Wyatt was too impatient. A Spanish marriage was actually the best option. Her English cousins were unsuitable and France was aggressive at this time. Protestant rulers were out of the question and Philip offered a strong ally against France and other aggressive powers. He was eligible and he came highly recommended. He appeared to be a good match and was agreeable to Mary’s terms. The treaty ensured no active interference in English political affairs and independent rule as joint sovereignty but with Mary as the only active ruler. It was also meant to keep us out of their wars but we did help to gain a victory at Saint Quentin and the surrender of Calais as a consequence. However, considering how expensive Calais was handing it to France was a good thing. Mary’s marriage didn’t turn out well for her personally, but she made the best match she could at the time and her reign was far more successful than is often accepted.

          Foreign marriage of sovereigns and princes was quite normal in the Middle Ages and most of our monarchs have made foreign matches. However, it is possibly because of a need to renew their blood and modern ideas of love that our modern royals have moved towards more or less their own choice of bride. However, the ladies are not just anyone, most are from good families in royal military service or families connected to the royal family of known royal blood and pedigree. For example Lady Diana Spencer came from the Spencer Churchill family and gentry of Althorpe House. They are related to the Churchill descendants of the Duke of Marlborough, Sir John Spencer Churchill, believed to be an illegitimate son of Charles ii. I don’t believe the house maid or local grocers daughter would be in a position to marry one of the Windsors, but someone the equivalent rank of Lady Anne Boleyn would. I apologise for my long waffle, but I find the idea of suitable ladies and gentlemen or consorts for monarchy fascinating.

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