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4 January 2011

The Prince and the Peon

I don't really keep updated on the Royal Family, although Grandmaman has a habit of spending our phone calls chatting about "that lovely William," keeping me in the loop (at least, in the loop with what the Daily Fail is saying about him). Now, of course, she tells me all about Kate Middleton ("such a lovely girl") instead. I've tried to explain that my interest in the English Royal Family only lasts up until about 1603 (possibly a little further into the 17th century, on a good day) but it's no good trying to persuade Grandmaman, whose obsession with Princess Diana is surpassed only by that of the Express, anything to do with the royals...

I am starting to run out of books to read on the Tudors and I shifted my period of interest back to the Wars of the Roses and the Plantagenets (the etymology of the latter is, strangely, planta genista, or the Latin for "broom" (the shrub) on account of the original Plantagenet having worn a sprig of it in his cap). This is not just because Philippa Gregory, whose historical fiction I quite enjoy, has also stretched back into the 15th century with her books The White Queen (about Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV) and The Red Queen (on Lady Margaret Beaufort, patron of St Jocks' College). Both were interesting and encouraged me to find out more about the period but as with Gregory's The Other Queen, on Mary, Queen of Scots, the writing included the constant, almost chant-like repetition in the head of the narrator of a certain phrase.

In the case of the White Queen, it was her mantra of "I am Elizabeth, daughter of Melusine, the serpent goddess..." (and I will have my marriage) that irked me. Still, Elizabeth Woodville was the original commoner to marry a king, some 550 years before Kate Middleton. As with the future Queen Catherine, commoner is a relative term--Elizabeth was the daughter of country gentry and she married a knight, who died fighting for the Lancastrian cause. Enter the tall, blonde, handsome King Edward IV, a notorious womaniser, who decided Elizabeth was a hottie. She was, however, also rather feisty and reportedly fended off his advances with a dagger and, in the end, he had to marry her to have his wicked way with her. At such a politically unstable time, Edward's marriage was of prime importance and his advisors were not best pleased that he had married for love when a powerful alliance could have been made but it was too late.

As queens consort went, Elizabeth did a pretty good job, producing oodles of children including two boys who survived infancy (and who would become the Princes in the Tower) and securing titles and advancement for many of her family members. Naturally, then, many did not like this upstart queen and her upwardly mobile family and, after the death of Edward when powerful men grasped for control of the young king and then the throne, rumours spread that Elizabeth's marriage to Edward was invalid in the first place, making her children illegitimate.

Funnily enough, when Henry VII married Elizabeth's daughter, Elizabeth of York, who had a stronger claim to the throne than he did, he was quick to ensure that everyone knew Elizabeth Woodville's marriage was indeed valid, after all. Although the older Elizabeth's marriage did not bring England the peace it needed, that of her daughter did manage to unite York and Lancaster for long enough--long enough for all of the Yorkist claimants/potential claimants to be bumped off, that is.

It's unlikely that Kate Middleton's marriage to Prince William will involve princes in towers, accusations of witchcraft (how Elizabeth was said to have ensnared Edward, natch) or brothers being drowned in a barrel of Malmsey. This is, I suppose, progress.

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