Anne is perhaps one of the most marginalized characters of Richard III, acknowledged only to be pitied before we turn our attention elsewhere. She is always thought of as a victim historically, and Shakespeare certainly encourages this. But if our production is interested in exposing the construction of history to suggest new ways of thinking about the past, how can we do this with Anne? I would like to suggest that by examining the “real” Anne Neville, it is possible to undo some of her mythical positioning as an inherently weak character.
Anne was born around 1453 to Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick “the kingmaker,” who had supported Richard of York and Edward IV on their quests for the throne. As you can guess, Anne inherited the burden that came with this connection to one of the most powerful families during the Wars of the Roses. In 1470, she was betrothed to Prince Edward of Lancaster in order to confirm the political alliance between Margaret of Anjou and her father, who had decided to support the restoration of Henry VI to the throne in an attempt to overthrow Edward IV. Anne stayed in France with her new husband and his mother until the following year, when they returned to England only to lose both her father and her husband within a few weeks at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, respectively.
Now a widow with a great inheritance, one might think that Anne’s fate would be looking up with the prospect of a little freedom. However, she was placed in the care of her older sister, Isabel, and her brother-in-law, George, Duke of Clarence, and thus flung into the middle of a fight over the Neville inheritance between Clarence and his brother, Richard. If Richard married Anne, he would get her share of Neville’s estates in the North along with the power that accompanied them (which, of course, her father had gotten by marrying her mother, Anne Beauchamp). Clarence on the other hand, wanted to keep it all for himself through his marriage to Anne’s sister, and “supposedly disguised Anne as a London serving girl and hid her in the city” (Wagner 172). Richard, however, promptly discovered her, “likely with Anne’s connivance” and took her to sanctuary (Wagner 172). They were quickly married sometime in 1472, not even waiting to receive the “papal dispensation that was required for cousins to marry,” since Anne and Richard shared a mother and great-aunt in Cecily Neville, Duchess of York (Wagner 172). It is important to note, however, before completely writing off the alliance as a mercenary one, that Anne and Richard would have known each other intimately from growing up together in Warwick’s Middleham Castle.
Anne lived in northern England, mostly at Middleham Castle, for the next decade, with little involvement in politics. She became queen on July 6, 1483 at Westminster, but spent little time as queen before her death nearly two years later. Contrary to Shakespeare’s version of the story, her death was most likely the result of an actual illness that she contracted soon after the death of her son, Edward, in April 1484 at the age of eight. However, weeks before her death, there were already rumors that Richard would marry his niece, Elizabeth of York.
What makes this different from the story that Shakespeare tells and the way in which Anne is traditionally characterized? First of all, it is clear that Anne was a woman with a great amount of power attached to her name and situation. And she knew it. If you are at the center of political power-struggles between some of the most important figures in the country, chances are you are aware of your position. Although Anne may not have actively transformed this wealth and power into political agency, it is believed that her marriage to Richard was as much about finding away to ensure her own safety from Clarence, crazy to keep the estate in his grasp, as it was about gratifying Richard’s lust for power.
While it might not be possible to argue that Anne was politically or socially free and assertive, like her mother-in-law Margaret, the second thing that surfaces when looking at the historic Anne is that she is not just a victim of Richard’s immediate cruelty, trickery, and exploitation, but that of an entire society, complete with institutionalized oppression and exploitation of women. Anne was like any woman trapped in 15th-century English society, both a literal and symbolic object to be involved in trading and heir-getting by men. What changes is how Anne is perceived as a victim of a larger structure, one that affects both her and the men she interacts with, including Richard, allowing us to think less about how villainous Richard was and instead how villainous patriarchy was and still is. Not only is this useful for rethinking this play for a modern context, but also in rethinking Anne’s role in the play and how her behavior might differ depending on whose victim she really is.
Fraser, Antonia. The Wars of the Roses. Los Angeles, CA: Cassel & Co, 2000. Print.
Wagner, John A. Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. 2001. Print.