Interview with Historian and Author Amy Licence
Amy Licence is an author and historian who has written books about; Anne Neville, Elizabeth of York and English Royal Babies. She also has written a soon to be released book about the infamous Richard III. She has done interviews, public talks and has written a wealth of information regarding different aspects of medieval history. Recently I had the pleasure of reading Amy Licence’s book – Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Queen. I found it to be a compelling and informative read and felt that Amy painted a detailed picture of a woman I had previously found to be quite elusive. Quite honestly once I picked the book up I simply could not put it down until I had finished!
I am very honoured to have been able to interview Amy about her book on Elizabeth of York and would like to give her a very heartfelt thank you for her time.
What first attracted you to writing a book about Elizabeth of York?
Actually, I think it was when I realised just how little I knew about her. From having read books about the period, I got the impression of her as a shadowy figure in the background and it fascinated me that she had potentially been a key player but the processes of history had relegated her to the shadows. She had been a living, breathing, feeling human being: a daughter, lover, wife, mother and Queen, yet she was often ghost-like in popular non-fiction. I wanted to find out more.
How did you go about researching Elizabeth of York when there is so little information directly relating to her life?
Obviously only so much material remains, so it was always going to be a challenge. I think the act of just collecting together all the sources I could and arranging them into a narrative that told her life from her perspective was a significant start. I trawled through all the primary sources and found whatever I could in other records, such as court rolls, chronicles and other accounts. After that, I tried to recreate something of her experiences by drawing on literary and contemporary models of what it meant to be a woman in those times, at the points where this intersected with the known facts of her life. Some speculation is unavoidable but it allows us to consider possibilities and encourages the open mind that is essential in studying people from the past and historical events.
What was something interesting about Elizabeth that you discovered in your research that you previously did not know?
I think it was the extent of her popularity. I loved reading all the little human details in her accounts, such as the gifts people brought her regularly, of little things like flowers and food. There were some lovely intimate details about her private life, such as the amount she paid for socks and medicines and her input in the development of their gardens and homes that really brought her to life for me. I also enjoyed researching the court entertainments and development of drama at Henry’s court: I had had no idea they were such pleasure-loving people, given the reputation Henry has from later in life. I was fascinated to see the contrast of him before and after Elizabeth’s death, leading me to conclude that he really did care for her and that she had played an indispensable and irreplaceable role in his life.
How do you think Elizabeth of York felt after her father died, she and her mother and sisters escaped into Sanctuary and her Uncle Richard took her brothers to the Tower?
It’s very difficult to know what anyone in the past thought, unless those thoughts are committed to paper, so we can only arrive at an informed speculation based on what we do know about their character. Knowing what we do about Elizabeth’s closeness to her family, she would have been grieving in 1483 and possibly supporting her mother through that process: they would have been torn between their personal feelings of wishing for a reunion with Edward V and the public need for him to be crowned quickly. At this point, they had no idea what the future held and would have been anticipating Edward’s rule as a time of security for themselves: they may have been uncertain of Richard’s intentions but there was nothing to suggest that the coronation wouldn’t go ahead, when they handed over Richard, Duke of York to Archbishop Bourchier. We mustn’t overlook that Bourchier was the boys’ great uncle by marriage, so they had every reason to trust him. It must have been a time of emotional turmoil which gradually resolved into the realisation that everything had changed. Being stuck inside Westminster’s sanctuary, they would have had imperfect communications with the outside world and the news that Richard had accepted the throne must have been a devastating blow for them. It must have been a very difficult and uncertain time for Elizabeth and her family.
What do you think happened to the Princes in the Tower?
Firstly, I’ll just reiterate that no one knows what actually happened to them, so this is purely just my opinion. I do think that in 1483 Richard III stood the most to gain by their removal. Even if he considered them illegitimate, as history shows us, such rulings could be reversed by acts of parliament and they were always going to provide a focus for future rebellions. The facts tell us that they disappeared in the summer of that year and there is no corroborated evidence that they were ever seen again, so on that basis, I would conclude they had been killed. However, no modern court of law would convict Richard on the surviving facts, and I could be persuaded otherwise if other facts were to emerge. This is just what appears to me to be the most likely scenario.
Do you think there were any romantic feelings between Elizabeth and her Uncle or was it simply court gossip?
With this question, we must differentiate between romantic feelings and the intention to marry. The court gossip of Christmas 1484, related by the Croyland Chronicler, is fraught with problems of interpretation, especially the oft-quoted comment about Queen Anne and her niece wearing the same clothing. It is a very modern response to interpret this as rivalry and comparison between two women, when contemporary examples of matching material and outfits were often designed to be complimentary. Croyland isn’t specific about his other causes for complaint and we don’t know the extent of his moral compass here, so it may simply have been riotous behaviour. There are also a number of problems with the letter Elizabeth reputedly wrote, which was later unearthed by the C17th historian Buck. It may allude to a potential Portuguese match and not one between Elizabeth and Richard, as if often claimed. Richard himself publicly refuted his intention to marry Elizabeth: what their private feelings were, can only be guessed at. For a modern reader, for Elizabeth to develop romantic feelings towards Richard seems incompatible with a belief that he killed her brothers, but this may well be an anachronistic interpretation. If only she had left a diary!
What is one question that you would like to ask Elizabeth of York?
I would like to ask her how fairly she has been represented by modern historians. I’m interested in the gap between our modern understanding of her life and the reality, which must be a significant one, given the sheer amount of sources and material that have been lost in the intervening centuries. Modern historians can only really draw conclusions based on what is left, so we may have missed out some key events or assessed her character and relationships incorrectly, let alone the secrets of her heart. I’d ask if she recognises herself in the book I’ve written.
You’ve written about Richard III, his wife Anne Neville and Elizabeth of York; do you have any plans to write about other people featured in the War of the Roses? Or perhaps a book which looks at the Cousins War?
My biography of Cecily Neville will come out in April and after that, I have a couple of other projects in the pipeline before I return to the Wars of the Roses. I’ll be writing about the wives of Henry VIII and pursuing a couple of other leads but, after that, I’ll be starting a joint biography of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville.
If you could choose any person in history to sit down and have a meal with who would it be?
Richard III, no question about that. I find many individuals from this time interesting but no one else really holds quite as much fascination for me.
You are a professional historian and author and have a family, how to you juggle writing and family life?
With difficulty! I’ve always written, since deciding I wanted to be an author at the age of 8. For years, I juggled it with a career as a teacher but my breakthrough into publishing co-incided with having my family: I even gave birth during writing one book! I write on the dining table, with two toddlers roaming round me and it is very hard to keep my focus sometimes. I tend to store ideas up in my head then head to my laptop once I get a moment to breathe, then I have to dash off and change a nappy. It does rather focus me though, having to operate within tight boundaries. I tend to have a book in my hand at all times and read five or six at the same time, I have to synthesise information pretty quickly but if you have a dream to pursue, you have to find ways to make it happen.
Again I would like to say a very big THANK YOU to Amy Licence for taking part in this interview. her book on Elizabeth of York is absolutely amazing and if you do get a chance I would strongly suggest giving it a read. If you’d like to find out more about Amy or purchase any of her books please follow the links below: