While John Adams was in Philadelphia helping to draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776, his wife Abigail admonished him to “remember the ladies,” because “all men would be tyrants if they could.” Her words ring no less true in 1483, the year in which The Protector is set, than in 1776, nor indeed for many years before (and after) that.
The Protector is a novel dominated by men. From Richard III himself to Lord Hastings to the Duke of Buckingham, the main characters are all men. They are the major players, the movers and shakers of the plot. Events hang on their decisions and actions. But women are hardly absent from the proceedings and in some cases play major, though often hidden, roles in the story.
The lot of fifteenth-century women would seem like a sorry one to us today. Young women of the noble classes were considered more or less the property of their fathers until marriage. They had little or no influence over whom they would wed and often were married off at a young age to seal a political alliance or gain an economic advantage. After the wedding, they became the property of their husbands for better or worse.
The noble wife knew her role in life was well prescribed: She was the keeper of her lord’s household, a provider (though often not the only provider) of his sexual comforts, and most importantly the bearer of his children. There was no presumption that in return for all of this her husband would necessarily treat her well. Of course, some did; others unfortunately did not. Widows might enjoy a bit more freedom than married women but their situation was often precarious with their lands and properties at risk of confiscation by some over-eager baron or king. A noble widow without a strong male relative to look after her interests was wise to find a second husband to protect both her and her assets or to retreat to a convent.
Unlike Abigail Adams in the eighteenth century, most women of the fifteenth seem to have accepted these restrictions as right and even divinely ordained, and yet some still managed to wield considerable influence over their affairs. How did they do this?
In The Protector, there are six female characters who have an impact on the plot, each in her own way. The first of these, in order of appearance, is Jane Shore, King Edward IV’s favorite mistress, and she is certainly not a lady. She is the only one of the six who is not, and she is a fascinating character. The others, again in order of appearance, are Edward IV’s Queen, Elizabeth Woodville; Richard’s wife Anne Neville; his mother Cecily Neville, Duchess of York; Margaret Beaufort, Lady Stanley; and Katherine Woodville, Duchess of Buckingham.
From time to time, I will be discussing these women in separate articles, for each is worthy of her own treatment. I will talk about both the real-life counterparts that underlie my fictional interpretations and what role these characters play in my version of events. My latest and as yet unpublished novel, The Neville Inheritance, features a much younger Anne Neville as one of the major characters along with two other women of great significance, Anne Neville’s mother Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick, and Margaret of Anjou, the formidable one-time Queen of England. I will be talking about these ladies of The Neville Inheritance as well.
It is always wise to recall that despite the restrictions placed on women in the Middle Ages, many of them were far from powerless. How they obtained and exercised that power when law, custom and the church did all they could to deny it makes for some interesting discussions.