Championing the Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses

Jo Romero

'falsely and traitorously schemed'

When we think of the women of the Wars of the Roses, we immediately think of Margaret Beaufort, mother to Henry Tudor, who advised and aided her son on his path to the throne. Or Elizabeth Woodville, the beautiful, intelligent queen of Edward IV. The Lancastrian Queen Margaret, who fought tirelessly in her efforts to win the throne for her husband and son, also appears centre stage. But what about less well-known women living during this period? It is sometimes claimed that there is a lack of evidence for women’s wider involvement in the fifteenth-century battle for the crown, but sources show that they did in fact play an active role in the conflict, at all levels of society. Some of these are more well-known than others. Alice Chaucer, wife of William de la Pole Duke of Suffolk served the Lancastrian Henry VI and Queen Margaret for many years, but later arranged a marriage between her son John, and Elizabeth, a daughter of the Duke of York. She would later be responsible for overseeing her friend and former queen, the imprisoned Margaret of Anjou, at Wallingford Castle. Alice Montacute Countess of Salisbury took a more martial approach. She was accused in the winter of 1459 of conspiring against King Henry VI for the Duke of York’s cause, having ‘falsely and traitorously schemed and plotted the death and final destruction’ of the king. Charged with treason and attainted in the Parliament of Devils, her lands were seized by the crown and distributed among Lancastrian supporters.
Championing the Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses
Alice Chaucer's effigy at Ewelme, Jo Romero

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Championing the Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses
A Medieval Birthing Room, The Met Museum, Public Domain

'mopped blood from the courtyard of her inn'

Other women’s stories are more difficult to find, but are no less fascinating. In the summer of 1450, one woman mopped blood from the courtyard of her inn, The White Hart in Southwark, after Jack Cade’s rebels beheaded one Hawaydyne there during Cade’s Rebellion and dragged the headless body of Lord Say there on a cart. Later, she identified the rebel’s own dead body before it was taken for its ritual traitor’s execution. Elizabeth Mores’ story is also interesting. A servant at Kinnersley Castle in Herefordshire, she caught the eye of her master Sir Richard Delabere and they married. In 1483, she played a pivotal role in protecting the young heir of the Duke of Buckingham following the duke’s rebellion against Richard III. Her brass can still be seen today in the floor of Hereford Cathedral. Elizabeth Venour also played a safeguarding role, but in a different context. A leading figure in law and order, she served as Warden of the Fleet leading captives through the prison’s musty, damp corridors, including one young Henry Percy following the Battle of Towton in 1461. The war was felt by women living in religious establishments, too. Elizabeth, the wife of John Talbot Second Earl of Shrewsbury, entered Shrewsbury Abbey just nine days after the death of her husband and his brother at the Battle of Northampton, signalling perhaps not only her wish to grieve in isolation but also her weariness of a world Sir John Paston described as ‘right queasy’. Nuns, prioresses and abbesses prayed not only for the souls of the dead but also for the restoration of peace. Nuns at Sewardsley Priory in Northamptonshire became entangled in a darker, more political event; an attempt to discredit and slander the Yorkist matriarch, Jacquetta Duchess of Bedford. And Gonnora Dowtton, abbess at Delapré, would have paused her prayers after hearing the clashing of swords and armour as the Battle of Northampton was fought outside her walls. There is no evidence of women fighting in an army during the Wars of the Roses, a role reserved only for men. But there were some that, like Gonnora, witnessed battle or took control of besieged castles. Alice Knyvet cautioned Edward IV’s men to stand down in her husband’s absence at Buckenham Castle in 1461. Elizabeth Blount commanded soldiers at a siege at Hammes Castle in Calais, her husband having defected to Henry Tudor against Richard III. John Leland, travelling in Yorkshire during the reign of Henry VIII, was told about a woman who bolted her door to the Duke of York’s son the Earl of Rutland. The earl had fled his pursuers after the Battle of Wakefield and hammered on the woman’s wooden door for help. Her refusal to protect the terrified man and his subsequent execution may have changed the course of history and the dynamics of the York brothers later in the period.
Ancestry UK

'a woman that singeth with a fidell'

Just as in other wartimes, women also worked through the conflict. They were merchants, silkwomen, embroiderers and laundresses. Alice Chestre, Agnes Overay and Elizabeth Stonor worked in the merchant industry. Alice Claver, Cecyly Walcot and Elyn Longwith provided silks, tassles and ribbons that enhanced the majesty of the royal family at a time when the concept of inherited royalty was actually very fragile. There was also the important job of soothing the minds of fractious kings and queens, a woman recorded as ‘a woman that singeth with a fidell’ being paid to ease the stresses of Henry VII at court in 1495. The birth of an heir aligned to the Houses of York and Lancaster was the key to ending the Wars of the Roses and midwives, nurses and rockers were employed to ensure the growing brood of legitimate princes and princesses that slept safely in their beds. These women are often overlooked, but their contribution was important. Marjory Cobbe assisted in the birth of the Yorkist Prince Edward in sanctuary in 1470, in an uncertain political atmosphere. Towards the end of the period Agnes Butler and Emlyn Hobbes were tasked with rocking the infant Arthur to sleep, the son of Elizabeth of York and Henry VII, and heir to the Tudor dynasty. These are only a few of the women who worked, lived, plotted, and fought during the Wars of the Roses. There were also servants who supported queens and duchesses, wives fighting for their lands and cash and mothers and wives providing horses, men, silver and weapons to aid the war effort. Mistresses too, played central and important roles in the conflict. Effigies and brasses in parish churches around the country commemorate their lives, but for many, it is only now that their stories are being told. Find out more in Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses by Jo Romero, published by Pen and Sword Books in February 2024, and available at https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Forgotten-Women-of-the-Wars-of-the-Roses-Hardback/p/24403
Championing the Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses
Find more women's stories relating to the conflict in Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, by Jo Romero
Championing the Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses

Jo Romero

Jo Romero has loved history for as long as she can remember. She achieved her BA (Hons) History: Medieval and Modern degree at The University of Hull in 1998. She writes on a number of topics at the blog Love British History and has over 10,000 followers across Facebook (@lovebritishhistory) and Instagram (@lovebritishhistorypics). She lives in Reading in Berkshire, in the UK.
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