I can’t quite delude myself that Elizabeth Woodville is a “Hidden Historical Heroine” – plenty of people will have heard about her – a number set to increase this spring when the BBC debuts its television adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s novel The White Queen, a fictionalised account of Elizabeth’s life. But before Philippa’s unnecessarily sexed-up brand of medieval history hits unsuspecting viewers (case: The Other Boleyn Girl) I felt I should throw together a quick – but most importantly, truthful – treatise on this rather remarkable woman.
Click here to see the trailer for the forthcoming The White Queen television series.
Elizabeth Woodville (c. 1437 – 8 June 1492) was the Queen of England when consort to King Edward IV from 1464 until his death in 1483. She has come down to us as one of the key figures of the Wars of the Roses, a forerunning contender for “most unsuitable woman for a King to marry”, the mother of the unfortunate ‘Princes in the Tower’ and the maternal grandmother to the infamous Henry VIII.
Elizabeth was nothing special. Born in the late 1430s, she was the eldest child of Richard Woodville, a minor nobleman. Her main claim to fame was her scandalous parents; her mother was Jacquetta of Luxembourg, daughter of hereditary Counts, who had come over to England in her teens to be married to John of Lancaster (the third son of King Henry IV). When John shuffled off this mortal coil two years later, the beauteous and exotic Jacquetta shocked Christendom by running off and marrying the son of her late husband’s chamberlain, as you do.
Although there were royal grumbles at this, Jacquetta was related to – and a favourite of – both Henry IV and his queen, Margaret of Anjou; in fact, she enjoyed Margaret’s favour to the extent that Margaret petitioned the king to make Richard Woodville “Baron Rivers”, to make him worthier of the quasi-royal bride he had pinched. It is clear to see why Richard, Jacquetta and their children were staunch supporters of Henry’s House of Lancaster when the ‘War of the Roses’ finally broke out.
Elizabeth no doubt inherited her mother’s beauty and charm (although I’ve always believed her father must have been quite a dish himself to tempt the Lady Jacquetta!). Contemporary accounts all agree Elizabeth was beautiful – “the most beautiful woman on the Island of Britain!” gushed one fan – and surviving portraiture seems to indicate she was fair and blonde, or maybe red-headed (perhaps the progenitor of the famous Tudor-red/gold hair?).
In about 1452, when she was in her mid-teens, Elizabeth was married to Sir John Grey of Groby who was to be killed in battle fighting for the Lancastrian cause against the Yorkists in 1461. Elizabeth was left a young widow, mother of two small sons. To add insult to injury, her widow-lands were seized by her scheming mother-in-law who refused to give them up. Elizabeth was destitute.
And so, legend has it, Elizabeth decided the only way out of her predicament was to petition the new Yorkist king, Edward, for the return of what was rightfully hers. As the daughter of a famously pro-Lancastrian family, and widow of a Lancastrian knight, this was very brave indeed, but Elizabeth felt she had no choice. When she heard the new king was hunting in the nearby forest, she took her small boys and waited in the shade of an oak tree for him to come near enough for her to accost.
Whatever Elizabeth said to Edward, it certainly had an impact. Despite the fact that Warwick, his most influential advisor (“the Kingmaker”) was at that very point negotiating marriage with a suitable European princess for his little kinglet (Edward wasn’t quite twenty years old when he was first declared king), Edward became set on the widow Grey to be his bride. So surprising, so unprecedented was this that there are people to this day who shake their heads and murmur that Elizabeth – along with her witchy, foreign mother – must have cast spells to enchant the boy, turning his head, entrapping him in lust…
Edward was king, but the Lancastrians weren’t fully routed. Tradition has it that he left his troops camped at Stony Stratford and rode to the Woodville estate in Northamptonshire, where he married Elizabeth in a private, secret ceremony on 1st May 1464 (it was probably much later in the year than May, but hey – who am I to argue with the romantic tradition?). Edward announced that he had secretly married in September of that year; Warwick was humiliated and – most importantly – seething. All his hard work in the name of this boy-king and he had gone off to wed-and-bed an up-start commoner? A historically Lancastrian commoner at that!
Understandably, the first few years of Edward’s reign were perilous. Elizabeth was a sore point between the king and his long-standing advisors. To make matters worse she came with a hoard of twelve siblings, who she gleefully married into all of the oldest and most respected houses in England. Edward delighted in and indulged his in-laws, despite the fact that they clashed with the ‘establishment’ and prominent members of his Privy Council. Their court was a happy and merry place, with one visitor from Europe describing it as “the most splendid … in all Christendom”.
The affronted Warwick offered his services to the Lancastrians and indeed, Henry IV was reinstated as king for a period of six months in 1470. Elizabeth fled to sanctuary in Westminster Abbey during her husband’s temporary fall from power. There she gave birth to her eldest son (he who should have been Edward V, had he not ‘disappeared’). In total, her marriage yielded ten children for the House of York, the eldest of whom was another Elizabeth – the “White Princess” – who would become the mother of Henry VIII.
In April 1483, everything changed. Edward IV had always been a fine man – like his grandson Henry VIII he was very permissive when it came to his food and to women – a great, tall fair man who had already begun to run to fat due to his over-indulgences. Still, Edward was a powerful figure – and relatively young. It came as a shock when Edward died suddenly – probably from something like pneumonia. He lingered just long enough to create his only surviving brother, Richard, Protector and Regent for his young son during his minority.
The young Prince Edward was only twelve years old. The court still seethed with enemies of the social-climbing Woodvilles. Richard was so concerned that the Woodvilles would assert control over the new boy-king that he moved to secure him and had Elizabeth’s favourite brother – Anthony (the most politically prominent one) – and eldest Grey son imprisoned.
Understandably, Elizabeth saw these actions as aggressive and fled with her remaining children back to Westminster, which had kept her safe so successfully before. It is clear that no love was lost between these in-laws. Neither of them trusted the other, Richard – now acting as regent – claimed that his enemies were in league with Elizabeth and intended to murder him. For her side, Elizabeth refused to give up her younger son, Richard, Duke of York, when Richard demanded him. Although she was eventually prevailed upon, it is the stuff of historical fiction that she in fact sent a dressed-up and tutored servant boy in his place, and smuggled Richard out to the continent, where the legitimate York line survives in his secret descendants!
Either way, two boys went into the Tower of London on Richard’s orders and never came out again. The boys were not seen again after the summer of 1483. Richard moved to claim the throne, arguing that the little York princes were illegitimate, as Edward IV had never been officially married to Elizabeth Woodville. His ‘evidence’ held that Edward had made a pre-contract of marriage with a woman called Lady Eleanor Butler and in going to bed with her had legalised and actualised this promise. This isn’t that hard to believe – Edward was rather a womaniser, and he certainly showed a proclivity in plotting secret marriages, evidence: Elizabeth herself! Eleanor Butler had still been alive at the time of Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage, thereby making that union a bigamous one and any issue from it, illegitimate.
Elizabeth was humiliatingly demoted to “Dame Elizabeth Grey”. There were grumbles about witchcraft once again, but nothing boiled over, thankfully. Anthony Woodville and Elizabeth’s eldest son by John Grey were executed for treason. Elizabeth and her daughters remained in sanctuary. Richard claimed the throne as Edward IV’s only legitimate heir, creating himself (the lately infamous) Richard III. Whether Elizabeth had been plotting and scheming before this point – as Richard had accused her – she certainly began to now. Desperate to free her little sons and restore the legitimacy of her entire brood, she began corresponding with her only hope – Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor. Edward IV had been so successful in rooting out and killing all of the Lancastrian heirs that this was the only one left – a great-great-great-grandson of Edward III, through an illegitimate line, to boot – but Elizabeth must have felt her options were rather limited.
It was agreed between Elizabeth and Margaret that Henry Tudor could claim Elizabeth of York as his bride, uniting the two warring houses and lending a much-needed legitimacy to his claim to the throne. By this point Elizabeth had been informed that her sons were likely murdered, and so all her plans needed to be invested in her eldest daughter.
For all his infamy, Richard III was an able king and intended to rule the country fairly and well. He could afford to be lenient to his former sister-in-law and gaggle of royal-blooded nieces – indeed, a public show of kindness and benevolence to the women was exactly the sort of PR he was looking for, what with London already swirling with rumours of little princes smothered in their sleep.
On March 1, 1484, Richard publicly swore an oath in front of the London crème de la crème, promising that if Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters came out of sanctuary they would not be imprisoned or have reason to be frightened for their lives. He would see the girls given dowries and married to gentlemen. Elizabeth herself would be given an annuity of seven hundred marks a year and the attendance of one of Richard’s favourite squires. Elizabeth agreed, and she and her daughter returned to court, apparently reconciled to the reign of Richard. It was the obvious decision, one that immediately safeguarded the welfare and future of her daughters – although, of course, it cannot have been an easy one. Elizabeth had shown herself above all things to be pragmatic and a survivor. Of course, she didn’t have all of her eggs in one basket – what with her previous promises and correspondence with Margaret Beaufort and the “Lancastrian” rebels under Henry Tudor…
In 1485, Richard’s queen, Anne Neville (daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker) died. The rumour mill churned ever faster. Had Richard poisoned his long-suffering wife to clear the way for a new marriage with his niece, Elizabeth of York? The rumours grew so loud that Richard felt compelled to publicly deny that he had any intention of this incestuous union. The mysterious Anne Neville is another topic for another day, but safe to say she probably died of tuberculosis, she had been a childhood companion of Richard who was genuinely fond of her and wept at her funeral.
Whatever Richard’s true intent, the War of the Roses was entering its final stage – the prize, the hand of the beautiful daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. In August 1485, Henry Tudor met Richard on the field during the Battle of Bosworth and emerged triumphant. The Plantagenet dynasty was over; the Welsh upstart Henry Tudor was king and the body of Richard of York trundled off to – as we now know – eventually turn up underneath a car park in Leicester.
The newly crowned Henry VII claimed his prize, revoking the act that had declared Edward IV’s marriage bigamous and its issue illegitimate. With her eldest daughter safely crowned queen and her other daughters on the verge of suitable marriages, Elizabeth Woodville more or less retired from court, spending her final years living at Bermondsey Abbey. Some think that Henry insisted on this – the dowager queen still elicited (and gave) strong opinions and was a living, breathing embodiment of the “old days”. However, her biographers point out that Elizabeth had shown a proclivity towards a simpler, more religious life for many years by this point, and seemed to enjoy her new son-in-law’s favour, receiving a pension straight from his purse. There was even talk of Elizabeth being sent off to end her days as Queen of Scotland after James III’s wife died in 1486, but these plans were halted by James himself dying not long after, in 1488.
Like the unfortunate Anne Boleyn, who would become the second wife of her grandson Henry VIII, Elizabeth Woodville is often mocked and vilified, even to this day. Because she was married by a king for the love of her and not for her status or connections, she gets earmarked with the usual labels – whore, schemer, witch! Because she loved her family and wanted to advance them, she has been labelled a grubby social-climber, the medieval equivalent of “white trash”. Because she chose to make a brave gamble in coming out of sanctuary – back into the reach of the man who had stolen her son’s crown and very possibly killed him – to vouchsafe her daughters’ futures, she is painted as a queer and uncaring mother. The facts show that Elizabeth was a fair queen. She was far less lavish than her predecessor, Margaret of Anjou, and spent more time and funds on charitable works. I imagine that those who hated her hated her class and what she represented, as opposed to her as a person, but – of course – most everything about Elizabeth’s personality and motives are pure speculation, as is the case with so many historical figures, especially the women! All we can say is that she was a woman living through hard times, who had to make hard choices.
Elizabeth died in the Abbey on the 8th June 1492, specifying in her will that she wanted a simple funeral, which is what she received, attended by those of her daughters who were not in the latter stages of pregnancy and her one surviving son, the younger by her first marriage, who knelt at the head of her coffin throughout the service. In St George’s chapel, north aisle, is the tomb of Edward IV. On a flat stone at the foot of this monument is engraved:
King Edward and his Queen, Elizabeth Widville
Because “probably bigamous wife, but mother of his heirs” would have been a little impolitic, and besides, wasn’t likely to have fit.