In fifteenth-century England, titled women, that is duchesses and countesses, enjoyed positions of great social and political importance. They were second only to queens in the power they held and influence they wielded. At that time, a duchess or countess was responsible for advising her husband; supervising her estates and assisting her adherents in a variety of matters; attending court in the queen’s household; and, most importantly, bearing children (preferably sons). Even today, duchesses and countesses of fifteenth-century England remain well-known. Women such as Jacquetta, duchess of Bedford, and Cecily, duchess of York, were influential, intelligent and strong-willed. They influenced their offspring and assisted them in their schemes to take the throne. Jacquetta masterminded her daughter Elizabeth Wydeville’s obscure marriage to Edward IV, while Cecily had played an important role in educating Edward and, perhaps, grooming him for kingship. Similarly, the political involvement of Margaret Beaufort, countess of Richmond and Derby, was significant. Her influence both at court and in local society ensured the continuing relevance of her son Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne, and the countess emerged triumphant in the summer of 1485 with Henry’s accession.
However, one countess remains largely unknown, and yet her story was every bit as tragic, as unpredictable, and as fascinating as the stories of the women above named. Anne Beauchamp, countess of Warwick, was the wife of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, who remains known today as the ‘Kingmaker’. She was the mother of Isabel and Anne, and her younger daughter would become queen of England in 1483 as the wife of Richard III. In the television series The White Queen, the countess is not one of the main characters, but she is portrayed as a shrewd, intelligent woman who played an advisory role to her husband. She was depicted as being extremely close to her two daughters. Whether the real countess enjoyed good relations with her offspring is unknown.
Above: Anne Neville, the younger daughter of the Countess of Warwick.
Anne Beauchamp was the daughter of Richard Beauchamp, thirteenth earl of Warwick, and Isabel le Despenser, who was the sole heiress of her deceased father Thomas. She was born in July 1426 at Caversham Castle in Oxfordshire. In 1434, when Anne was only eight years old, she was betrothed to Richard Neville. She married Richard at an unknown date and gave birth to two daughters by him: Isabel (born in September 1451) and Anne (born in June 1456). Both girls were born at the family seat at Warwick Castle. Whether the couple were severely disappointed by their failure to have a son is unknown, but it is entirely possible given that Richard may have wanted the estates and title to remain within the family. The son of the earl of Salisbury, Richard acquired significant wealth and status by marrying Anne Beauchamp and inheriting the Warwick estates and title. Upon her marriage to Richard, Anne became countess of Warwick.
The Neville family was one of the old noble families in England. They were proud of their lineage and were highly ambitious. Warwick’s ambition was renowned and he played a major role in securing the accession of his cousin Edward, earl of March, in 1461. However, Warwick experienced conflict with the new king when Edward elected to marry the relatively unknown Elizabeth Wydeville. The new king’s mother, Cecily, duchess of York, disliked her daughter-in-law and voiced outrage at her son’s folly. Warwick similarly disliked the new queen and harboured a great deal of resentment, eventually leading him to rebel against Edward. Whether Anne Beauchamp resented Queen Elizabeth, or whether she enjoyed good relations with her, is a mystery. Certainly she would have enjoyed a favoured position at court.
The sources are frustratingly silent about the countess. We know next to nothing about her. Did she welcome the favour shown to her family and did she feel pride at her husband’s influence at the king’s side? She surely harboured concern about the twists and turns of fortune. In 1470, the disaffected Warwick masterminded the restoration of the Lancastrian king Henry VI and his resourceful wife Margaret of Anjou, a woman who loathed Warwick. We cannot know whether the countess was on intimate terms with Queen Margaret, but she surely could not have envisaged that the queen would become her sister-in-law that same year. But that is exactly what happened. Anne’s younger daughter, also named Anne, married Edward of Westminster at the age of fourteen and, in the process, became Princess of Wales. She was destined to be England’s queen – but, unknown at the time, it would not be at the side of Edward, who was killed in battle at Tewkesbury the following year, leaving the young Anne a widow.
Above: Margaret of Anjou, briefly Anne Beauchamp’s sister-in-law.
1471 was perhaps Anne Beauchamp’s annus horribilis. Not only had she lost her son-in-law, but her husband Warwick was killed at the battle of Barnet that spring. With his death, the countess lost everything. Her husband was, in the eyes of the restored Edward IV’s government, a traitor. The countess herself was, by association, a pariah and she was forced to keep a low profile for a time. Her position, however, was uncomfortably ambiguous. Her elder daughter Isabel had married Edward’s younger brother George, duke of Clarence, in 1469. This ensured the countess’ continuing closeness to the ruling house of York. Isabel died in 1476, however, and Clarence was executed for treason two years later.
These were years of sorrow and loss for the countess. In a brief period, she had lost her husband, her daughter, and both her sons-in-law. She had been respected, perhaps even loved, during Warwick’s ascendancy, and she had enjoyed an influential position at court. Briefly she had been Margaret of Anjou’s sister-in-law, and had Margaret triumphantly regained her position as queen with the final collapse of the house of York, then Anne’s position would surely have been unrivalled as the mother-in-law of the heir to the throne. Instead, she was isolated and alone. She only had her younger daughter Anne for company, and as events were to prove, that was not necessarily a positive thing.
Above: Isabel Neville, duchess of Clarence, firstborn daughter of Anne Beauchamp.
The marriages of her two daughters caused the countess considerable stress. Her younger daughter Anne had married the king’s youngest brother Richard, duke of Gloucester. In Clarence’s lifetime, he had fought bitterly with Richard over the Neville inheritance. The countess resided in the household of her daughter, the duchess of Gloucester, but there may have been considerable ill-feeling between mother and daughter. Between them, the sons-in-law of the countess had effectively disinherited her.
The countess did not meekly submit to the schemes of her sons-in-law. She responded furiously and expressed both outrage and disbelief. She perhaps viewed herself as betrayed by her own daughter. While in sanctuary at Beaulieu Abbey, the countess had written several letters seeking both her release and her control of her own wealth, swearing that she had ‘neuer offended his most redoghted highnes’ [Edward IV]. She was determined to exercise control over her own future and she would do whatever it took to do so. The countess sought the assistance of the queen, the king’s mother, the queen’s mother, and even the assistance of the king’s eldest daughter Elizabeth.
It was to no avail. The countess was legally treated as if she were dead. Her lands were divided between her two daughters and their avaricious husbands. She did, however, acquire an income from her son-in-law Richard III when he became king. It is worth noting that Henry VII was more generous in his treatment of the countess, providing her with 500 marks a year while granting her life estates in over two dozen manors and lordships. Henry also made her principal keeper of the forest of Wychwode.
Anne died in 1492 aged sixty-six. Hers had been a long, tumultuous and, in many respects, tragic life. She had lost her husband in battle, her eldest daughter had died while still young, and she may have experienced conflict with her youngest daughter. Her lands and estates were seized from her by George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester. She had been respected as the wife of the Kingmaker, but she had also been an outcast, perhaps even a pariah. She was briefly the mother of the Queen of England, but unlike Jacquetta Wydeville, Cecily Neville or Margaret Beaufort, she did not enjoy a position of power and influence as the mother of the ruler. We know very little about the countess and evidence is scarce. Whether the countess was scheming and ambitious, or whether she was more sympathetic, cannot be known.