The Forgotten Women of The Wars of the Roses

Jo Romero

Here are the tales of four less well-known women whose stories reveal a different side to the Wars of the Roses.

We all know about the likes of Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret of Anjou - but what about the less well-known women who shaped the Wars of the Roses, defending castles and homes and surviving politically despite family scandal, side-switching and violent bloodshed? Here are the tales of four less well-known women whose stories reveal a different side to the Wars of the Roses. Alice Knyvet In 1461 Edward IV ordered men to take Buckenham Castle, the home of Lancastrian supporters Alice and John Knyvet. With her husband away, Alice stood firm, refusing to submit and risking arrest. Her bravery is recorded in the Calendar of the Patent Rolls of October that year: “On Tuesday before St. Matthew last they entered the outer ward of the castle to the foot of a brieve called a drawbridge across the water and found it raised so that they could not enter, and Alice, wife of the said John Knyvet, appeared in a little tower over the inner foot of the bridge, keeping the castle with slings… faggots, timber and other armaments of war…” Alice, from her tower and accompanied by fifty armed protesters, urged the king’s men to keep the peace and declared that she would not surrender the castle. The king’s men trudged back to court and Buckenham remained in Alice and John’s hands. She died at the castle in 1490. Margaret Paston In 1448, in the midst of Henry VI’s unsteady and uncertain reign, Margaret Paston, anticipating an attack on her home in Gresham in Norwich, wrote to her husband requesting crossbows, leather jackets and poleaxes, briefing him on completed fortifications including barred doors and holes drilled for the use of handguns. Before signing off she casually added almonds and sugar to his list and material for their children’s new clothes. Despite Margaret’s efforts, Gresham would later be overcome. While Margaret raised arms over a private rather than political dispute (the official Wars of the Roses wouldn’t start for another seven years although trouble was certainly brewing), it’s clear from her letters that fifteenth-century women were by no means inactive when it came to the threat of conflict. Margaret lived to see in the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III and died in 1484.
The Forgotten Women of The Wars of the Roses
The Yorkist Rose and Lancastrian Rose

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Alice Chaucer

Alice Chaucer’s tale sparkles with murder, side-switching and survival. Born around 1405, she married William de la Pole, becoming Duchess of Suffolk. She watched as her husband was forced by the growing political turbulence into exile for his own safety, only to be captured and beheaded by opponents at sea in 1450. His brutal fall from power made Alice’s position uncertain and, dodging a state trial against her in 1451, she eventually switched her allegiance from Lancaster to York. A wealthy landowner, she was a Lady of the Garter and owned a number of castles along with a glittering collection of expensive jewels. Alice died in 1475 and is buried at the church she founded with her husband, St Mary’s, at Ewelme in Oxfordshire. Alice was a political and social survivor, having managed to retain her position and status despite whispers of treason and her husband’s rapid downfall under Henry VI.
Ancestry UK

Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Stafford

The name might be familiar, but this isn’t Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother. The story of this Margaret underlines the extent of violence and uncertainty in fifteenth-century England and the very real impact of war. Margaret’s date of birth is estimated at around 1437, which makes her about eighteen years of age when she suddenly lost her father Edmund Beaufort, killed commanding Lancastrian troops at the Battle of St Albans in 1455. Shortly afterwards her husband would also die - either from plague or complications from lingering battle wounds. Margaret lost her brothers, too - either killed in battle or executed soon after the fighting, by Yorkists. Before the Wars of the Roses, the Beauforts were an incredibly influential and powerful family, but through ruthless politics and bloody war, they were cut down one by one and this must have had a devastating effect on Margaret. She died in the 1470s, never seeing her son Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham publicly executed in Salisbury for rebelling against Richard III in 1483. Margaret’s story shows that there were families that remained resiliently loyal to their cause during the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses, but this came at a very real and devastating cost - especially if theirs ended up the losing side.
The Forgotten Women of The Wars of the Roses

Jo Romero

Jo wrote for Edition 2, Forgotten Women of History
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