In their blog, The Tragic Neville Sisters – Pawns in the Wars of the Roses, CMHypno poses one final question: … but did they have a happy, fulfilled life? The short answer to that is probably Yes, though, of course, in history or otherwise, there are rarely any short answers.
Two things need to be taken into account before we can examine the lives in question – or here, at least, the life of Isobel Nevill. 1. We need to stop measuring the lives of these two young women against the expectations and attitudes of young women today; and 2. We need to remember that when they were born, neither of them had a use-by date stamped on their foreheads. They had no idea they were going to die as young as they did; they did not walk through the world, doomed and tragic; they lived each day as we all do, with not a clue that it might be our last.
I was struck by something the other day that I’d never really thought about before. In his book English Political Culture in the 15th Century, M A Hicks writes … perhaps… York did not intend the Act to last and perhaps meant to make Henry VI abdicate. It’s not the content of the quote that matters here but its implications. Of course the duke of York didn’t wake up on the morning of 30 December 1460 and think “Ok, I’m going to die today, thank goodness I didn’t make any long term plans!”. We tend to see death as an ending while for many people, especially those who die unexpectedly, it’s an interruption. Isobel and Anne Nevill weren’t wound up at birth with faulty mechanisms that were bound to run down when they did. Isobel died in childbirth, or soon after, and Anne died of TB, which killed a lot of people right up to recent times. Of course their lives were neither happy nor fulfilled if measured by their brevity or by the fact that they were to a large extent controlled by a) a powerful father; and b) powerful husbands. If, on the other hand, we look at the lives they did live, the time they did have, and at how the men in their lives may have enhanced rather than oppressed their existences, we’ll get a very different answer.
There would have been no objections from either Isobel Nevill or George duke of Clarence to the prospect of their marriage. She was an heiress of considerable note, the accomplished, aristocratic daughter of the countess and earl of Warwick. He was a duke, the brother of a king, handsome, knightly and young. No husband of lesser rank would have done.
Warwick brought about the match at least as much (if not more) for his own ends as for the benefit of his daughter. It was fairly natural, given their place in society, that their interests meshed. Isobel would not have thought marrying George much of a chore, especially as Warwick’s stated aim at the time was to elevate George to the throne. Find me a girl of Isobel’s time and class who would have objected to being played as a pawn in order to reach the rank of queen and I’d say she came straight out of the pages of a modern historical romance.
Isobel and George were married on 11 July 1469 in Calais, with the archbishop of York officiating. Almost immediately, George, Warwick and the archbishop set to work, issuing manifestoes against the ‘evil counsel’ that surrounded the king and threatened the wellbeing and prosperity of England. Much has been made of Edward IV’s objections to the marriage, but it was well attended by members of the peerage. George’s mother, Cecily duchess of York, made an appearance at Sandwich, possibly in a last ditch attempt to stop the wedding, but possibly also simply as mother of the groom. Once it was done, however, it was done, Edward possibly reflecting on his own decision to marry who and when he did. No attempt seems to have been made to reverse the process.
The newlyweds didn’t get much of a honeymoon, with Warwick and Clarence in the thick of rebellion soon after, and the king their captive by the beginning of August. By the following March, however, they’d lost the initiative – and control of the king – and were on the run. Isobel was in Exeter, staying in the bishop’s palace and here her husband and father joined her in early April. They stayed for five days, then headed to Dartmouth, Warwick castle (where they collected young Anne and the countess) and soon after put out into the channel. By this time, Isobel was in the latter stages of her first pregnancy, so the young couple must have had some time to themselves after their wedding.
It can’t have been easy for the young duchess of Clarence. Having been through incident free childbirth several times, I can barely imagine the added stress, both physical and emotional, of crossing country in a litter, crossing the channel in a sailing ship and going into labour in cramped quarters with no help but from my mother and sister, especially at eighteen. The Countess of Warwick, according to Robert Rous, was highly skilled in matters of childbirth, but the situation was beyond even her abilities. The baby, a boy, was either born dead or died shortly after birth. As it was a bare nine months since Isobel and George’s wedding, he might have been some weeks, or even months, premature. In what must have been a bleak and sorrowful ceremony, he was buried at sea.
John Wenlock, Warwick’s lieutenant in Calais and a man of unwavering personal loyalty, prevented them from entering the harbour, sending secret messages warning them away. On request from Warwick, he also sent some wine for Isobel.
Already, Warwick was beginning to rethink his plans. He made for Barfleur in France where his wife and daughters were soon guests of queen Charlotte while Warwick was first making his peace then negotiating with Margaret of Anjou. It would seem that it was at this point, with the collusion and likely encouragement of his wife, that Clarence began his first tentative steps in making peace with his brother the king, while at the same time attempting to derive as much advantage from the new arrangements as he could. This was entirely understandable, given the shifting currents. It was always a danger, that Isobel would begin to identify her life and future with her husband rather than her father, in fact, for women of her time, it was expected. With the focus now shifting to Anne, and Warwick’s energies being spent plotting to make her queen instead of Isobel, it is also entirely understandable that Isobel would be feeling more than a little miffed.
With Anne, now Princess of Wales, in France with her new husband and mother in law, and Isobel and the countess of Warwick still guests of queen Charlotte, Warwick and Clarence launched their invasion of England in September 1470. Their supporters in England, including Stanley, Shrewsbury, the archbishop of York and John Nevill, were kept informed of the earl’s movements. On 2 November, John Nevill, angered by the loss of the earldom of Northumberland, showed his hand, forcing Edward IV, his brother Gloucester, William Hastings, Rivers and others to flee to Holland. Various others, including queen Elizabeth, the chancellor and the privy seal, took to sanctuary, but most nobles remained at large and “acquiesced to the new regime”.
Henry VI was released from the Tower and his second reign (the readeption) began. The succession was set: after Henry’s death the crown would go to his son and his issue. Failing that, it would go to Clarence.
The readeption itself hardly caused a ripple, even among the exiled nobility. There were no attainders, no forfeitures and only one execution, that of the earl of Worcester. Land, even that held by Warwick and Clarence, forfeited by recently exiled Lancastrians was ‘voluntarily’ returned to them and any attainders still in force were essentially overturned.
Up till Christmas 1470, things seemed to be going well for Clarence. Though not quite an equal partner with his father-in-law, he was recognised, and treated, as one of the two most powerful men in England. Once Warwick turned his attention towards Calais and the Cinq Ports, and even more when his attention was taken up with queen Margaret and the Prince of Wales’s entry into England, Clarence’s influence and authority began to slip. Now was the time for his family, his mother and sisters, his Bourchier cousins, to set to work on him. And it wasn’t only Clarence, the marquis of Montagu, and even Warwick himself, may have been open to suggestions of reconciliation and support for the return of Edward.
By Christmas, Isobel had joined her husband in London and she too may have added her voice to the growing chorus. An England where her sister was to be queen and she and her husband were to be sidelined and materially disadvantaged couldn’t have been much to her liking. And surely even Clarence, caricatured as he often is as inept and selfish, couldn’t continue to support a regime that so clearly disadvantaged both his brothers and two of his three sisters? In late March 1471, the duke and duchess were in Wells, where Clarence began to assemble troops. By now he was determined to change sides and support his brothers, already back in England and marching south. He did so in early April and immediately began to negotiate between his brother and his cousin. While he made some headway with Edward, who was prepared to offer Warwick more favourable terms than originally planned, he got nowhere with his father-in-law. The Arrivall says: [Clarence was] right desyrows to have procuryd a good accorde betwyxt the Kynge and th’erle of Warwyke… The Kynge, at th’ynstaunce of his sayd brothar…was content to shew hym largly his grace, with dyvars good condicions and profitable for th’Erle… If not for his own sake – his own affections for Warwick – then at least for his wife’s, he had no desire for the man’s death. Clara Scofield in The early life of John de Vere, thirteenth earl of Oxford, suggests that it was at Oxford’s insistence, or at least under his influence, that Warwick refused this last ditch, and probably sincere, offer of terms.
Warwick and Edward’s forces met at Barnet, where the earl and his brother were killed. Edward, Prince of Wales, was killed at Tewkesbury, Margaret of Anjou and her daughter-in-law taken prisoner, and Edward IV was back on the throne. On 3 July, Clarence swore allegiance to the young prince Edward, born in sanctuary, thus renouncing his own hopes for the succession.
Almost immediately, Clarence and Gloucester (who had gone essentially unrewarded and unendowed, despite his binding loyalty to Edward), began to quarrel over the Warwick and Nevill estates. In the ordinary course of events, John Nevill and his son would have inherited the Nevill portion, with Isobel and Anne equally inheriting the Warwick estates. In a dirty piece of political manoeuvering (and with the countess Anne in sanctuary), Edward took all Warwick’s property to the crown, gave Clarence what would have been due to both sisters and Gloucester the Nevill inheritance. What was given to Clarence included the countess’s jointure and the Beauchamp and Despenser lands which by rights, and failing her own attainder or treason, were hers and not her hushands’ or her daughters’. Clarence was reluctant to give up anything he had gained. Edward worked hard to promote peace between his younger brothers, despite Clarence’s recalcitrance and Gloucester, according to the Milanese embassador to France, preparing for war with his brother.
In the 1473 Act of Resumption, Clarence was not granted an exemption. This was not an oversight, nor an omission on Clarence’s part to seek one but a deliberate act on Edward’s part to deprive Clarence of his estates. With the countess of Warwick now in Gloucester’s custody, and Gloucester close to marrying her daughter, Anne, Clarence had no choice to but to submit to Edward’s judgement. In May 1474, an act of parliament divided the countess’s lands, as if she had died and her daughters inherited. In July, Clarence was granted the majority of his former property and, finally in 1475, John Nevill’s heirs, in particular his son George, were excluded from any inheritance of Nevill lands.
At the beginning of this period of conflict and upheaval (on 14 August 1473), Isobel gave birth to a daughter, Margaret. In 1475, their son Edward was born. A fourth child, Richard, who did not survive, was born at around the time of Isobel’s death. She may have died in or as a consequence of childbirth, her system weakened by tuberculosis.
On 22 December 1476 Isabel Neville, Duchess of Clarence died at Warwick at the age of twenty-five. Her body was removed for burial to Tewkesbury Abbey, the mausoleum of her Despenser ancestors. It was received there on 4 January 1477 by Abbot Strensham and other prelates. A service of nine lessons was conducted by suffragans of the Bishops of Worcester and Lincoln with the assistance of the dean and chaplains of Clarence’s chapel. Members of his houseshold stood vigil for a whole night. On the morrow the bishops and the abbot conducted three masses, one in honour of the Virgin Mary, a second for the Holy Trinity and a Requiem mass. At the latter a Franciscan friar, Dr Peter Webb, made an oration. The duchess’s body lay in state in the middle of the choir until 25 January 1477, when it was placed in a vault newly constructed behind the high altar, where probably Clarence himself was laid to rest. In the meantime masses were celebrated daily for the duchess’s soul.
MA Hicks, False Fleeting Perjur’d Clarence, p 114.
Clarence quite probably kept vigil with his household. He was from all accounts deeply grieved by his wife’s death. Their marriage was a happy one and it does seem that he was faithful to her. Her funeral itself points to a widower who wished his wife to be remembered and honoured in death. Their children, Margaret and Edward, were 3 and 1 respectively.
Barely a month after Isobel’s death, Margaret duchess of Burgundy, newly widowed, suggested Clarence (her favourite brother) as a husband for her stepdaughter Mary. Edward opposed the idea. Around the same time, an idea was put to Edward that Clarence marry the sister of James III. This, too, Edward declined. Despite Clarence’s no doubt real sense of grief at Isobel’s death, and there’s no way of knowing if he would have married either party had the decision been left up to him, Edward’s disapproval of both matches greatly upset him and relations between the brothers, already shaky, began to deteriorate further.
In May 1477, two men associated with Clarence were executed for treason at Tyburn. There is no evidence that Clarence was involved, or that Edward believed Clarence to be involved. However, after their deaths, he went with a Dr William Goddard to a session of council where Goddard read out a declaration of the men’s innocence. Also in May, Ankarette Twynho, one of Isabel’s servants, along with two others, was arrested, tried, convicted and executed on a charge of poisoning the duchess. The conduct of the trial, which included the kidnapping and forced removal of Twynho to Warwick, was highly irregular. Edward arrested his brother, not on accusations of treason but for bringing the laws of England and the justice of the king into question. This was not a charge that carried the death penalty. Some time before November, however, Edward changed his mind and Clarence was charged with treason.
Clarence was tried in parliament on 16 January, condemned as a traitor and sentenced to death, which sentence was carried out in the Tower on 18 February. Edward honoured his brother’s wishes and allowed him to be buried with his duchess at Tewkesbury. Several contemporary and near contemporary sources speak of Edward’s almost immediate regret at Clarence’s death and his part in it. Cecily Nevill pleaded for her son’s life, and as a result of her appeal the sentence was commuted from the traditional traitor’s death. Though this has been called into doubt in recent times, it also seems that both Gloucester and Hastings made some attempt to see Clarence spared. This doesn’t quite tie in with the fact that, of everyone, Gloucester stood to gain most from Clarence’s death. He and Hastings were certainly not as closely involved in the process and proceedings as the earls Rivers and Dorset. However, neither of them, both influential with the king, spoke up quite loudly or clearly enough to save Clarence’s life. Both men, at the time, enjoyed friendly relations with the queen and her kin. The Wydevilles were four square behind both the changes to the charges against Clarence, his conviction and the carrying out of the sentence.
Juxtaposed with the grave matter of Clarence’s trial was the spectacular celebrations of the marriage between Anne Mowbray and the young duke of York. Come for my son’s wedding and stay for the treason trial of my brother seems to be a bizarre contiguity of events.
Further discussion of Clarence’s trial (and his manner of death) would make this a very long post indeed and also detract from its point of focus – the marriage of George duke of Clarence and Isobel Nevill.
Isobel and George enjoyed seven years of marriage with twists and turns, periods of ascendancy and despair that would test the patience and resolve of anyone. At the start of their married life, he was to be created king by his father-in-law, and that would have made her queen. When this changed, they followed a course of action that they must have thought would be of more benefit to them than life as sister and brother-in-law of a new Lancastrian king – reconciliation with Edward IV. Though the battle over their parents’ wealth was fought by their husbands, both Isobel and Anne Nevill were beneficiaries of their joint success. Both duke and duchess of Clarence died far too young, Isobel at 25 and Clarence at 27. They left behind two small children who had no guarantees that anyone would look after their interests.
Did Isobel Nevill have a fulfilled and happy life? She was a duchess, she was wealthy, she had a husband who was faithful and at the very least fond, whose grief at her death was genuine and deep. She had four children, two of whom would survive childhood, one living to a very respectable age before meeting her end on Henry VIII’s block. It was her husband whose life was hardly happy or fulfilled. He had been offered the greatest prize of all and had it taken away before he even came close to obtaining it. He could never quite settle down under the rule of his brother Edward and didn’t enjoy a friendly relation with his brother Richard. His wife died and he was tried, condemned and executed for treason.
I think we need to hunt down all references to both Anne and Isobel being pawns and expunge them. Their duty, which we might now find distasteful but I doubt very much they did, was to marry well, to bring honour to their family, to bear children and grow them up to, in their turn, do their duty. Isobel Nevill’s life, though short and turbulent, was, by those lights, extremely successful, very fulfilling and, if not all the time (and who can ask for that?) at least for substantial and significant stretches of time, happy.