(First, after I began writing this, Karen Clark posted an excellent piece on the marriage of Anne Neville and Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Do check it out.)
One of the set pieces in almost every novel set during the Wars of the Roses–or at least every novel sympathetic to Richard III, which very nearly amounts to the same thing–is the scene where the hapless little Anne Neville is forced by her ambitious father to marry Edward of Lancaster, the vicious son of Margaret of Anjou. (In nine out of ten such novels, he’s not the son of Henry VI.) Depending on the novel, the marriage will be consummated in circumstances that are little distinguishable from rape or will be unconsummated in accordance with the Lancastrian goal of casting off Anne as a bride at the first opportunity.
There is, of course, a reason for painting Anne’s marriage to Edward in such a dismal light: Anne is pining for her childhood sweetheart, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. So that her trials before she finally enters into marital bliss with Richard can be all the more heart-rending, she cannot be even mildly satisfied in her marriage to Edward. (The possibility that Anne might look forward to becoming Edward’s queen cannot be entertained; ambition in these novels is only for evil female characters, like Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort.)
Needless to say, Anne’s feelings at her husband’s death at Tewkesbury at age seventeen generally range from indifference to outright relief. Only Margaret of Anjou is allowed to grieve for her son, and the typical novel will usually manage to temper any sympathy the reader might feel for her with a jibe about her being responsible for her son’s death and so many others. (Because, of course, any sensible medieval queen would have simply sat back and let her son be disinherited in favor of the noble Duke of York.)
So what was the real Edward of Lancaster like? The most famous description of him is that written on February 14, 1467, by Giovanni Pietro Panicharolla, Milanese Ambassador in France, to the Duchess and Duke of Milan. In recounting a dinner conversation between King Louis of France and Duke John of Calabria (Margaret of Anjou’s brother), the ambassador wrote:
As the king persisted in his praise of the Earl of Warwick, the duke said that as he was so fond of him he ought to try and restore his sister in that kingdom, when he would make sure of it as much as he was sure at present and even more so.
The king asked what security they would give or if they would offer the queen’s son as a hostage. This boy, though only thirteen years of age, already talks of nothing but of cutting off heads or making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle or the peaceful occupant of that throne (quale essendo in la eta di tredece anni gia, non parla cha di fare tagliare teste o far guerra, como se tuto havesse in mano o fosse dio de la bataglia o pacifico posessor di quello regno). . . .
After some further discussion the duke began to complain about his Majesty without any respect, saying he had never loved their house; to which the king retorted that the House of Anjou had given him reason for this. Thus, half joking, they said very sharp things to each other during the dinner.
There are a couple of things that should give us pause before taking this “cutting off heads” statement as the sum total of young Edward’s character. First, as Margaret Kekewich notes in her biography of Rene of Anjou, Panicharolla (Panigarola) “detested the Angevins,” so his description of young Edward should be viewed in that context. Second, if Edward did indeed talk constantly of cutting off heads and making war, it doesn’t seem all that unreasonable under the circumstances: Edward’s father was a prisoner in the Tower, after all, and the Lancastrian cause was at its most hopeless at the time. Third, Edward was thirteen when this description of him was written. How many of us, even at seventeen, would like to be judged upon what we said and did at thirteen?
This is not to say that Edward was not a militarily-minded youth: Chief Justice John Fortescue, who shared exile with Edward and his mother, wrote in his legal treatise De Laudibus Legum Angliae, which largely takes the form of a dialogue between him and the prince:
The prince, as soon as he became grown up, gave himself over entirely to martial exercises; and, seated on fierce and half-tamed steeds urged on by his spurs, he often delighted in attacking and assaulting the young companions attending him, sometimes with a lance, sometimes with a sword, sometimes with other weapons, in a warlike manner and in accordance with the rules of military discipline.
Urging Edward in his dialogue that he wished that Edward would be “devoted to the study of the laws with the same zeal as you are to that of arms, since, as battles are determined by arms, so judgements are by laws,” Fortescue nonetheless adds that it is fitting for young Edward to take delight in military exercises “not merely because you are a knight but all the more because you are going to be king. For the office of the king is to fight the battles of his people and to judge them rightfully.”
Aside from these two descriptions of Edward, one from a hostile source and one from a friendly one, we don’t have any glimmerings of Edward’s character. Even if he was the bloodthirsty youth depicted by Panicharolla, however, this wouldn’t necessarily preclude him from being a loving husband or from having other good qualities: the example of the fierce Edward I’s great affection for Eleanor of Castile comes to mind.
When the time came at last for Edward to put his military training into use, he did not shy from the reality of battle: he fought and died at Tewkesbury at age seventeen. Like Edmund, Earl of Rutland, who had died at Wakefield at the same age, he probably was killed in the rout.
It’s interesting to speculate what type of king Prince Edward would have made had the Lancastrians instead of Edward IV won the battle of Tewkesbury. The circumstances of his youth–growing up in an impoverished exile, dogged by rumors of bastardy, fathered by a man who was insane at his son’s birth and who even after his recovery seems to have been fragile mentally–might have made him into a bitter, cold man, or they might have made him into an attractive figure like Charles II, who grew up in not entirely dissimilar circumstances. We shall never know, but surely that’s no excuse for novelists to keep churning out the same stereotypical picture of a young man whose life was cut tragically short.