I’ve been reading Michael Hicks’ Anne Neville: Queen to Richard III, a biography that has excited much outrage among Ricardians, mainly for its description of Richard III as a “serial incestor.”
Hicks’ description is based on Richard’s marriage to Anne, his sister-in-law, and his supposed plans to marry Elizabeth of York, his niece. Although, as Hicks points out, a papal dispensation for Richard and Anne’s marriage has been discovered very recently, it addressed their relationship as cousins, not their relationship as brother-in-law and sister-in-law through the previous marriage of Richard’s brother George to Anne’s sister Isabel. By not having sought to address this relationship, Hicks writes, Richard and Anne were essentially living in sin and bastardizing their son. Though Hicks does “deplore the immortality of the match,” as he puts it, he does later acknowledge that the marriage was “the best possible outcome for Anne,” in light of her precarious circumstances at the time.
I’m no expert in canon law, so I can only say that Hicks’ statement that a dispensation would have been needed to cover the in-law relationship seems correct, especially in light of the fact that Henry VIII would later obtain a dispensation to marry his sister-in-law Catharine of Aragon. (In any case, those who believe that Richard III would not have possibly married Anne without a proper dispensation, thereby jeopardizing the future of his heirs, seem to have no difficulty at all believing that Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville while he was still married to Eleanor Butler, thereby jeopardizing the succession to the throne.) It may be, however, that Richard and Anne believed that the dispensation they received was adequate.
Richard’s next act of incest, according to Hicks, was his intent to marry his niece. Evidence of this proposed marriage comes from a letter supposedly written by Elizabeth of York herself, now lost, and chronicle evidence that Richard publicly denied wishing to marry Elizabeth. As no marriage was actually contracted, however, and there is no reason to think that Richard would have risked marrying his niece without getting a dispensation, the description of him as a “serial incestor” does seem overwrought. So too does the strange comment in the epilogue that Anne “experienced high society and lots of parties, two husbands, fashionable and expensive clothes, plenty of sex, child-bearing, and lots of admiration and deference.” Though this comment should be taken in context, that of Hicks’ statement that Anne had a “full life,” he has no way of knowing that Anne with her one child had “plenty of sex,” and neither do we. In any case, the sex she had was within the context of marriage, or in what Anne probably thought was a valid marriage. Whoever Anne was—and Hicks reminds the reader frequently that not much is known about her—she was probably not the Paris Hilton-like creature that this passage implies.
Nonetheless, this book is worth reading. Hicks diligently draws together what is known about Anne’s life, and he attempts to consider events as Anne must have seen them from her point of view, though he’s hampered in this effort by the lack of historical detail about Anne and the scanty records of her everyday life. He’s fair-minded, as a reading of the whole book reveals, and those who focus in on his controversial and sensational remarks alone are doing Hicks, and Anne, a disservice.