April 2024
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TSS: Anne Neville

My reading this Sunday has been all academic.  I’ve been reading articles about bastard feudalism and two books under the same theme.  My presentation on this topic is finally ready to be presented and I can put them away.  On my trip to the uni library, I also discovered that my request for Anne Neville by Michael Hicks had come in.  I have to say, on a brief glimpse I’m absolutely dismayed by this work.  Michael Hicks is my favorite historian and I’ve frequently been very pleased by his even-handed treatment of Richard III and the many magnates that surrounded him.  I find he agrees with me on many respects, at least from what I remember of reading most of his publications in 2007-2008.

So, here he is writing a biography of Anne Neville.  I have a number of problems with it and I’ve only just skimmed a bit of it.  Firstly, biographies of women in the middle ages are difficult business.  They’re inevitably about their husbands, fathers, and sons, because that’s who we know most about.  This woman has a controversial father and husband, but Hicks has done biographies on them before, so we can assume he knows his stuff.  At least, my past reading has suggested that this is so.

Here, though, I’m a bit perplexed by several things, mainly relating to a suggested divorce:

  1. He had her crowned with him.  Who on earth would do this if planning divorce eventually?  This woman is queen of England now!  She might not have power, but that is a political statement.  Notice Henry Tudor didn’t crown his wife, Elizabeth of York, for some time, possibly as a “just in case”.
  2. He suggests that Richard may have wanted to divorce or poison Anne, but on the same page we learn that they were still sleeping together (he later argues that Richard spurned her bed – what??  Make up your mind!  Or was he finally listening to the doctors who ordered him to do so?) and that she was ill before this, possibly at their coronation.  He obviously wanted an heir, but their son had just died and as the chroniclers say, they were both grieving and she was ill!  There were rumors that he poisoned her at the time, but Hicks dismisses these (and rightfully so).  No English king had set aside his wife in recent history and I think it’s horribly anachronistic to say Richard was thinking to do so.  He must have realistically considered that she might die and he might marry again, but poison is pushing it.  The chronicles say he was thinking of divorce, but again, he never did anything to make this happen.  Perhaps she died too fast, or perhaps he didn’t think of it at all.  Rumors were flying and some of them did make it into chronicles.
  3. Hicks then uses all of this to argue that Anne Neville was convinced when she died that her whole life had been an incestuous lie.  If so, she probably chose it, because according to Hicks, everyone knew this was incest and they both knew their dispensation wasn’t quite good enough.  Secondly, if this is as outrageous as he suggests, why on earth don’t we have the protests the suggested marriage to Elizabeth of York caused?  Maybe this suggestion of incest would have made Anne unhappy, but it’s her own fault and she had to have known it the whole time.
  4. Maybe Richard did want to marry his niece, but he did not do so.  Even if the letter cited showing Elizabeth’s enthusiasm did exist, there was no marriage and he denied the plan.  You seriously can’t call a guy a “serial incestor” if he never actually committed incest.  (I don’t think two brothers marrying two sisters is incestuous and even in a contemporary context, his first marriage was accepted).  That is unnecessarily harsh language, especially for something that did not happen.  Hicks also argues that opposition wouldn’t have stopped Richard, but obviously it did as no marriage took place.
  5. He then takes issue with her lack of a will.  It was not unusual for high-born women to have wills, but Anne was perhaps a special circumstance.  One, Hicks takes great care to explain that Anne had pretty much nothing.  Richard could have retained all of her inheritance even under a divorce.  So first we have to wonder what she’d be leaving to someone.  Secondly, who would she leave things to?  Her niece and nephew, perhaps, but her nephew was again under control of her husband and I’m not sure where her niece was, probably the same.  She didn’t need to give them anything if she didn’t have anything and they were under her husband’s protection.  It seems a bit pointless, particularly given how sick she was and her age.  Most people gave things to their children and asked for alms to be given to the poor.  I don’t think it’s exceptional that she doesn’t have a will if she had no need for one, and we can also note that it may have been lost. As Hicks himself states, we don’t even have the records for Anne that we do for some of her contemporary women, but he suspiciously leaves this idea out here.

I don’t know.  He uses facts, but he twists them, and I hate when they do this.  The whole biography feels very anachronistic.  He refers to Anne as “past her sell-by date” when she was only 28 years old.  He then refers to her as a housewife and assures us that she had a full life with lots of sex.  I’m left wondering what happened to the historian who even-handedly assessed Richard’s ambition in light of his good lordship and attempted to reconcile the Ricardian Richard and the detractors’ Richard.  He painted a compelling picture of necessity there and I think got the closest to a real fifteenth-century person I’ve ever seen.  And now he calls Richard’s queen a housewife who “shacked up” with then-Duke Richard and argues that the fact that nearly all of her close relatives died during her lifetime probably didn’t affect her because that was normal at the time.  Her father, son, sister, first husband, grandfather, and brothers-in-law all died in her lifetime and some violently.  Are we to assume fifteenth-century people didn’t feel grief even when we have evidence that Anne grieved for her son?  After he chides historians for forgetting that love matches occasionally existed earlier?  I’m so perplexed by this biography.  Am I crazy?  This review on LT shares some of my confusion at least.

Okay, that’s my rant over.  Apologies for hijacking my own blog!  Someday soon I will give this book a proper read and review.  For now, I think it’s time for some pleasure reading.  I’ll be starting with The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende for the Book Club Girl radio show on Wednesday.  I’m excited about it!  Here is the link if you’re interested.

Sorry if this was a boring Sunday Salon for you, I’ll do my best to return to normal bookish programming soon.  I’m sure I’m driving my subscribers away in droves.  ;)


16 comments to TSS: Anne Neville

  • i think this is a great post. i love the questions you’re asking about the book. i wish i were as engaged with own reading!

    marie’s last blog post..Sunday Salon

    • Meghan

      I’m being trained to do it, really, but it bothers me that someone I have previously respected allows all of these problems to get into his work!

  • Eva

    I hate it when I’m reading nonfiction and alarm bells start going off. And I especially hate latent sexism-it raises my hackles more quickly than anything else! Hope you get to do some non-academic reading too. :)

    Eva’s last blog post..Sunday Salon: the Extended Post

    • Meghan

      Yeah, the sexism really bothered me. There isn’t anything wrong with being a housewife, but I don’t think anyone would equate one with being the queen of England with huge estates to manage who had probably been training her entire life for just this “job”.

  • I found your post very interesting, Megan. No reason for apologizing.

    Literary Feline’s last blog post..Sunday Salon: A Reading Retrospective, February 2004

  • Great post! I have noticed that some biographers speak in wishy-washy and often contradictory terms about their subjects and it make you wonder how well they have thought out their theory I always think its best when they examine conflicting data (if that’s the actual case) and then give what they think to be the most likely scenario and why they feel that way. Most often I think they get carried away with the language and just don’t make a whole lot of sense.

    Nicole’s last blog post..The Sunday Salon ~ February 22, 2009

    • Meghan

      Usually, I’d say it’s fairly normal for a popular historian – someone who has had a look at the primary sources and some secondary sources and decides to publish their opinion – but for a guy who has spent his entire life doing history at the highest academic levels, these mistakes are grave.

  • I found this biography bothersome also. It’s tempting to think that Hicks felt obliged to spice things up for a general audience by throwing in the bits about serial incest and the like. And wait until you get to the part where he discusses Anne’s age at the time of her marriage–he really goes off the rails there. I’m not a Ricardian, and even I thought that Richard got a unfair shake there.

    • Meghan

      I wondered about this. I had originally checked it out because someone told me he called Richard a child molester, and in fact he does! I’m not sure how to define myself, Ricardian or not, but that’s taking the situation out of its historical context and slandering for no good reason. I think he did spice it up for a public audience, considering his academic work has none of this.

  • You boring. Never! I found the whole post rather fascinating because it was reminding me of some of things we learned in history about them.

    Robin of My Two Blessings’s last blog post..The Sunday Salon # 7 – Reading and Writing

  • You’ve made some excellent points! I hate it when an author says one thing and then states just the opposite elsewhere in the book.

    As for the emotional part of loved ones dying, I think it affected them, though not as it does people today. We are used to people living well into their 80’s and 90’s. It was a common thing to die young then, but that doesn’t mean it was any easier emotionally. Perhaps there was not a shock value is all.

    Arleigh’s last blog post..award time!

    • Meghan

      Yeah, I agree with you. It wouldn’t have been considered a tragedy or even unusual, but I don’t think that means fifteenth-century people didn’t grieve and just shrugged off the losses of people close to them.

  • Though I know next to nothing about this topic, I very much enjoyed reading your rant, Meghan. And I understand why you were annoyed. I hate being let down by an author like that.

    Nymeth’s last blog post..Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

  • VERY interesting rant – I’d be interested in reading more of these!

    S. Krishna’s last blog post..Names My Sisters Call Me – Megan Crane