‘The Virgin Widow’ by Anne O’Brien – Discussion Questions


'Virgin Widow' by Anne O'Brien (2010).
‘Virgin Widow’ by Anne O’Brien (2010).

I recently finished reading ‘The Virgin Widow’ by Anne O’Brien, a novel about the life of Anne Neville, up until the birth of her son, Edward of Middleham. I really liked it, and look forward to reading ‘The Kingmaker’s Daughter’ by Philippa Gregory to compare. Below are the discussion questions from the back of the book. You also get lists of questions in historical books by Philippa Gregory and Emily Purdy to help you understand the story. I have posted my answers to the ones from ‘The Virgin Widow’ below, and I hope you’ll post what you think, and whether you disagree with any of my answers.

1. A wife was regarded as little more than a possession of her husband. To what extent does the life of Anne Neville and her family support this view of marriage in the fifteenth century?

Women weren’t thought to be able to think on their own and form their own views. In a lot of ways they were the property of their husband because they were expected to obey him and follow his commands and share his beliefs, even if she didn’t truly believe in them. For example, the Countess of Warwick was expected to support her husband in his rebellion and do what he commanded, though in the novel it is obvious that she doesn’t approve of him upsetting the possibilities for their daughters. The Duke of Clarence marries Isobel and immediately begins summoning her after him when he leaves a room. Isobel is expected to obey. And when he ditches Warwick in favour of his brother, Edward IV, Isobel was also expected to leave her father. Anne’s two marriages were much the same. Her marriage to Edward of Lancaster meant that she was expected to support the Lancastrian cause when she had been a Yorkist her entire life. She was under the thumb of Edward’s mother, Margaret of Anjou, who watched her to make sure she didn’t disgrace herself or disobey and contact the York brothers. She was essentially a hostage for her father’s good behaviour. In her second marriage to Richard, she is still expected to follow her husband’s example, although in the court she is allowed a bit more freedom, and she is willing to follow Richard’s example, rather than being forced.

2. How was the role and life of women in fifteenth-century England different from today? To what extent is this a good time to be a woman? Did Anne have a better experience of life than many women of her time?

I think in a lot of ways Anne had a worse time of it than other women. Poorer women were allowed to choose their own husbands and they didn’t have to worry about the political climate, or go into exile because their father revolted against the king. The general public just went on living their lives with occasional skirmishes in their back gardens, but the climate didn’t really touch them. Anne was right in the middle of it. However, she also had wealth, power and status and could marry into the royal family, and eventually become Queen. In the fifteenth-century women were expected to obey their father and then their husband. They were always expected to be under the control of a male. Women were seen as unstable and not able to control themselves. Today women have a lot more independence and freedom to do what they want, whereas then men and women were closely chaperoned when together and a woman was expected to marry, have children and keep house. Now women can work and have children outside of marriage. Today is a much better time to be a woman than it would have been in the fifteenth century freedom-wise, but there is also a lot more crime nowadays, particularly crime against women and a lot of gender-bias, which is actually a bigger deal now than it was five hundred years ago because we are supposedly an equal society, which Anne Neville didn’t have to worry about.

3. Why was King Edward not willing to uphold the law with regard to Anne’s inheritance? Was he justified in taking this stand in the circumstances?

I think that, given the circumstances, Edward was justified in refusing to settle Anne’s inheritance because he had already shed so much blood, and lost his mentor, Warwick, and nearly his brother, Clarence. It was understandable but that doesn’t mean that it was right. Anne needed her money and lands. Edward understood that but refused to split up his family. There are compelling arguments both ways. I think for Edward, the main concern was his relationship with his brother Clarence. I think that he understood that Clarence was unstable, and he wouldn’t do anything to provoke him. However, I also think that Edward was a little scared of the Neville girls, whether they had inherited more from their father than their looks and blood. What if they had inherited his ambition and wanted to be the power behind the throne? I think partly that is why Edward wouldn’t get involved and Elizabeth didn’t want him to. He was justified, I won’t deny it. The Nevilles, particularly Warwick and Isobel were very ambitious and wanted what they saw as rightfully theirs. But I don’t think, based on this novel, that Anne could be put in the same category. She seems very innocent, and wanting only happiness and family. Edward’s ultimate settlement of the issue of the inheritance was fair and just, and I think that if he’d made that decision earlier it would have been easier for both Anne and Isobel and they may have been able to salvage something of a relationship. I think Edward’s procrastination was also part of the reason why Clarence eventually revolted. If Edward had made a strong decision at the beginning, Clarence probably would have reconsidered standing against a strong monarch,

4. At what point do you consider that Anne came of age and left her childhood behind?

I think it was when Richard took his leave of Anne before they fled to Calais. It was her first real taste of heartbreak, an adult emotion. It was also the first point when she had really left her home behind and everything that was familiar to her. It really helped her grow up, cemented by the role she played in her sister, Isobel’s, miscarriage. The moment Richard left her was the moment that she realised they were on different sides and only one side would be victorious. Although she knew of death, battle and destruction before that, it was only when the love of her life went into danger that she fully realised the implications of what he was doing, and this matured her more quickly than otherwise. The change from child to adult was completed when she realised that she was expected to marry Edward of Lancaster. It was at that moment that the transition was complete. The intervening time was a transition period. The marriage to Edward symbolised Anne’s adulthood and the split from her childhood life as pampered heiress, to a future Queen of England. Her treatment by Edward of Lancaster cemented her growth, as she realised for the first time what a cruel place the world could be, and even people that she admired (at first).

Richard III and Anne Neville in Stained Glass at Cardiff Castle
Richard III and Anne Neville in Stained Glass at Cardiff Castle

5. Eventually Anne was driven to put much of the blame for her family’s sufferings at the door of her father, the Earl of Warwick. Do you think she was right to do so? Was Warwick in any way justified?

Warwick was to blame for most of his family’s sufferings. He was overly ambitious and his daughters were the ones to suffer. Both were forced to marry men (Isobel to Clarence and Anne to Edward of Lancaster), and had to flee their home country because of their father’s failings. Warwick wanted to control the King, but Edward didn’t want that and wanted to make his own decisions, like that of his wife. It was Warwick’s fault that Anne didn’t have more years with Richard. Perhaps they would have had more children had they married earlier. If Warwick hadn’t rebelled against Edward a second time then Anne and Richard would probably have married a lot earlier. It was Warwick’s fault that they had to make the crossing to Calais when Isobel was nine months pregnant and so lost the baby. I’m not surprised that Anne felt that everything was Warwick’s fault – because it was! I don’t think that Warwick was justified in the way he acted. King Edward IV had given him offices, wealth and power, but he just wanted more of it. Warwick was jealous because he had lost his power over the King with the Woodville ascendency, and that jolted his mind. I think it was Warwick’s fault essentially, that Anne couldn’t marry Richard before she did. It was Warwick’s fault that they had to flee and Anne’s happy ending wasn’t quite so happy. Anne definitely blamed her mother’s unhappy position on her father. When she is kept prisoner at Beaulieu Anne speaks about her mother’s loyalty, claiming that her father was a traitor, which doesn’t make her mother a traitor by association. She wasn’t made a traitor because of her marriage to Edward of Lancaster, because it was forced on her. She wants the same logic applied to her mother’s situation.

6. If Edward of Lancaster had lived and the Lancastrians had been victorious at Tewkesbury, do you consider that Anne would have had any chance of happiness as Queen of England?

I don’t think that Anne would have been happy as Queen of England as wife to Edward of Lancaster. Like she blames Richard for Edward of Lancaster’s death she would have blamed Edward for Richard’s death had the battle gone the other way. I think she would have found it harder to forgive Edward because she loved Richard and always hoped to marry him. She had also spent so long allied to the Yorkist cause, that she would never have really been committed to the Lancastrian cause. Loyalty was very important as you had to know who your friends were. It’s possible that eventually she would have grown used to her position, but I don’t think she could have been happy because she had no affinity to the Lancastrian cause except through her marriage, and there would probably always be suspicion over her and her family, particularly as her sister was married to one of the York brothers. With Edward’s violence towards Anne during the early days of their marriage it is obvious that Anne would never have had any happiness as long as Margaret of Anjou lived, because she was influencing her son against his own wife. Even after Margaret died, Edward would have been so influenced by her that I doubt he would have been able to change, or want to change, his behaviour.

7. Richard was guilty of Prince Edward’s death. How hard would you consider it to be for Anne to accept the death of her husband at the hands of the man she loved? Should she have accepted it as a necessity?

I think Anne did accept Edward’s death as a necessity because she knew that one side had to be victorious and that this time there would be no mercy. That was the rule of battle. Previously, King Edward had left Henry VI alive, because he was out of his wits, but this time the line had to be extinguished because otherwise there would always be attempts to restore him to the throne and depose Edward. As Edward of Lancaster was Henry’s only heir, he also had to die, and in the heat of battle it was an honourable way to go, many would say. Both Edward and Anne were aware of the risks, as Richard would have been. Had Edward of Lancaster succeeded then Edward and Richard would both have been killed and so, probably, would the Duke of Clarence. Those are the risks and both sides knew it. They thought it was a just cause to fight for. Anne would have understood the risks to both her husband and the man she loved. I believe that Anne, unlike in the novel, never really cared for Edward because she was so in love with Richard. Maybe she saw it as a release. It was made harder by the fact that Richard didn’t kill him in battle, but killed him afterwards in an Abbey, which should have been sanctuary, making his death just like murder. Anne couldn’t forget what he had done, even if she did still love him.

8. What do we learn about Richard’s character in his stance over the imprisonment of the Countess of Warwick and her eventual release? Does it make him a more or less acceptable character?

The main thing that we learn about Richard’s character is that once he makes his mind up about something he won’t be moved. For example, when he determines to marry Anne he doesn’t give up until she’s his. It’s the same with the Countess of Warwick – he knows how much Anne wants her mother with her, so he makes it happen, and claims the inheritance. I can understand why Richard didn’t act sooner to make it happen. He had to settle Anne in her position, and assure Edward of her loyalty, and make the arrangements, complicated by Clarence’s stance over the inheritance and his wardship over Anne herself. Richard’s character is questioned throughout the novel. As it is written from Anne’s perspective we only know what she knows and thinks. As her opinion of Richard changes, so does the view we get of him. What can’t be doubted is his love and affection for Anne. He rescues her from Clarence, and is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her and those she cares about. That is why he puts so much effort into the inheritance and, particularly, the Countess’s situation. I think it makes him a more acceptable character because he obviously cares deeply, even if he doesn’t always demonstrate it.

9. Anne’s relationship with the King and Queen is uneasy. What do we learn about the characters and motivations of King Edward and Queen Elizabeth?

We learn that Edward went against the advice of his councillors in marrying commoner Elizabeth Woodville, and that he is determined to hold onto his throne at any cost. When he outgrows Warwick who rebels he becomes ruthless. The Nevilles believe that Elizabeth and the Woodville family are usurping the other councillors and plotting. Whether this is true we don’t find out. It is a constant throughout the novel that the Woodville faction are influencing the King against Warwick and the other advisors. Edward is portrayed as being quite merciful – he lets Anne and her mother live, and not as captives in the Tower of London. He doesn’t violate the Countess of Warwick’s sanctuary and he tells Anne the true story of how her father died; how he was brave and Edward didn’t want him to die. One of the key scenes with King Edward and Queen Elizabeth was when Richard took Anne to see them to try and persuade her to marry him. I think that it speaks well for Edward that he told Richard to tell her the truth about her sister and brother-in-law and how they planned to steal Anne’s inheritance. I think it was also speaks well for Elizabeth in the advice she gave Anne on how to deal with Richard, and why she should marry him. It was sound advice, even if Anne didn’t really want to hear it. It was obvious that they wanted to support Anne and Richard but weren’t willing to anger Clarence to drive him to another rebellion. Their actions were understandable if not very admirable.

Romanticised image of the first meeting of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.
Romanticised image of the first meeting of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.

10. This is a period of unscrupulous treachery and bloody warfare. Is there any proof that ends justify means in bringing peace and stability to a country? Were such ethics in the fifteenth century any different from today in our attitude to modern conflicts?

I suppose, technically, the Wars of the Roses did end in peace, but only once the houses were united and each side had an equal stake in the throne. Why this wasn’t thought of earlier I don’t know. Even then there were rebellions, but they were more easily put down. I don’t think the amount of violence that went on in England during the fifteenth century is ever justified. So many people died and they could all have contributed to the stability of the country. Sometimes the end does justify the means, but not in this case because there was so much loss and there was always someone else with a claim to the throne. Even when Edward IV thought his throne was secure with three sons to follow him, his throne was taken by his brother. There is always something unexpected in the wings. This is no different from today. With world wars, civil wars and constant conflicts the fifteenth century was not really any different, except warfare is a bit more dangerous now with guns and nuclear weapons attacking the public rather than a battle on a field. The losses have increased dramatically for no results.

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