Passive Pawn or Lady Macbeth: Who was Richard III's queen?

Dead by the age of 28, Anne Neville didn’t leave much of a paper trail. Who was this woman who stood so close to the king, yet seems so distant today?

Anne Neville. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In some ways it seems strange to think of Richard III having a wife. Rather like Shakespeare’s abandoned spouse, it sounds like a poem written by Carol Ann Duffy to celebrate female love and loss. But this is largely because the domestic aspect of Richard’s life is comparatively unexplored and his wife, Anne Neville, has received little critical attention.  She has also suffered, like her husband, from literary misrepresentation. Yet she was a constant presence at his side and, as I theorise in my new book, potentially played a far more significant role in his seizure of the throne than has been imagined. Anne was not a wife of the “second best bed” variety - in fact, she was the joint recipient of Richard’s crown.

This is the woman who shared his home and bed, who bore his child and deputised for him on their Yorkshire estates; the woman who had known him as a teenager, practising his archery skills under her window, who had seen his boyish body transformed by the painful condition that bent his spine into a breathless curve. As his wife, she was probably the person who knew him best, so what exactly did she know? When it came to the unanswered questions of Richard’s reign, particularly his motives and actions in the summer of 1483, how far did he confide in her? Did she know the fate of the Princes in the Tower, the cousins of her own little boy? Did she condone her husband’s seizure of the throne? Who was this woman who stood so close to the king, yet seems so distant today?

While researching Anne Neville; Richard III’s Tragic Queen, I was forced to seek some answers. This wasn’t easy; dead by the age of 28, Anne didn’t leave much of a paper trail, despite having been married first to a Prince of Wales, then to a King. Reading about Richard’s life, you get a sense of a shadowy figure at his elbow much of the time, who did not commit her feelings to paper and inspired few surviving descriptions. Anne is something of a historical void and it has been customary for romantic fiction to fill it with anachronistic interpretations, designed to suit the sensibilities of a modern audience. This works well in novels but it is no use when it comes to non-fiction, where this caricature is also rearing its one-dimensional head. Because Anne was female and the teenage subject of an arranged marriage, she has been cast as the pawn of great men, the victim of their schemes and the fickle turns of fortune. But take a look at her contemporaries, the warlike Margaret of Anjou and Isabella of Castile, famous for their ambition and drive. Why shouldn’t the Anne-shaped void beside the King be filled in the same way?

Born in 1456, the second daughter and final child of Warwick "the Kingmaker", Anne couldn’t have had a better model of ruthless ability to follow. Instrumental in the toppling of one king, in order to replace him with Anne’s brother-in-law, Warwick then reversed this process, dethroning Edward IV and restoring Henry VI when it suited him to do so. He was the most powerful English magnate, rumoured to have the king in his pocket. Which king? Well, both of them. He died in battle when Anne was just 14 yet his memory must have been lasting; it would be no surprise if his daughter felt a strong grievance against the family he had hated, the ambitious Wydevilles with whom he struggled for the final decade of his life.

In 1483, those Wydevilles were poised to take over the reins of power. When Edward IV died unexpectedly in April, his son by Elizabeth Wydeville was only twelve years old. The day was appointed for his coronation but the boy-king was never crowned. Historians have long disagreed over the motives of his uncle, Richard, who declared the king and his brother illegitimate, eliminated his enemies and assumed the throne. Yet perhaps they have been looking in the wrong place. Richard had given every appearance of loyalty until this time; of course, loyalties can change and appearances can be deceptive, but what of that shadowy figure at his side? With the accession of the boy king, Edward V, Anne was about to see the victory of her former enemies. Only 14 years had passed since Warwick had beheaded Queen Elizabeth’s father and brother and another brother, Anthony Wydeville, had prevented Warwick’s family from boarding their ship when trying to flee the country in 1470. Anne’s elder sister Isabel had been heavily pregnant at the time and lost her first child, Anne’s niece, on the journey.

After Warwick’s death, Richard had become the inheritor of the Earl’s titles, estates and role in the north; perhaps he and his wife of 12 years feared reprisals. At the very least they might expect Richard’s role to be curtailed and the reallocation of their properties and lands. In the days and weeks following Edward IV’s death, it is not impossible to imagine them plotting together about the best way to secure their future and that of their young son. Anne may even have egged Richard on, Lady Macbeth-like, urging him to action. Instead of being the passive “stand by your man” figure of so many novels, tossed about by cruel fortune and grieved by his villainy, she may instead have been a shaper of her own destiny, as a proud, ambitious, typical aristocrat of her day. Anne may even have masterminded the whole thing, the brains behind the coup, the female kingmaker.

Of course, there is no evidence to suggest this. But equally, there is no evidence to suggest the opposite. A quick glance at Anne’s contemporaries in the field of English politics - Queen Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Wydeville and Queen Mother Margaret Beaufort - instantly reveals alternative models of female strength. Perhaps it is as their foil that Anne has traditionally been portrayed as so weak. One thing we do know about Richard’s wife is that she deputised for him at least once, during his absence in France, representing the public face of his “good lordship.” A strong ambitious Anne is far more realistic given the necessity of survival and the protection of inheritance. She had already been married to the enemy, in the form of the Lancastrian Prince Edward of Westminster, then lived through uncertain times in which she lost her husband, father and father-in-law. She was taken prisoner, brought before Edward IV and kept in the custody of her sister, which she escaped in order to make a marriage of her own choosing. When she became queen, she was a fully grown woman of 26, and it seems she was in good health almost her entire life, as there are no records of her illness until three months before her death. In spite of this, in the popular imagination, she has remained stuck as a docile teenager, mistakenly reputed to be sickly and ill, to better suit a romantic narrative. How wrong we could be.

Then there are the Princes in the Tower. Following the publication of Josephine Tey’s popular novel The Daughter of Time, the finger of blame has been firmly pointed at Margaret Beaufort, who reputedly killed the boys to secure the succession of her own son, Henry VII (although he did not manage to invade successfully for another two years). But what about Anne? She arrived in London in early June 1483, around the time of the last sighting of the Princes, and she had every reason to ensure that her husband’s coup went unchallenged and that her own son would inherit. She would also have had access to the Tower and we know she followed tradition by staying there with Richard on the night before their coronation, early in July. If Margaret could do it, why not Anne?

Personally, I don’t think Anne did kill the boys, but the fact that she has never been accused of the crime is typical of the way she has been infantilised by the process of history. She must have been too sickly and insipid to carry out such a deed, surely? Queen Anne has not been overlooked by history, she had been as miscast as her husband is in Shakespeare’s play. Yet she was bred with the anticipation of a high status match, if not actual queenship, and what Fifteenth Century noblewoman wouldn’t have embraced the opportunity to wear the crown? It is time to reconsider our preconceptions and place Anne back firmly centre stage as a main player, if not a driving force, in the life and “usurpation” of Richard III. 

Amy Licence is a late medieval and early Tudor historian focusing on women's lives. She is the author of the forthcoming biography Anne Neville, Richard III’s Tragic Queen and her blog can be found here.

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era