Ohhh, the Woodvilles. For those that have never heard of them, here’s a quick download: An English widow named Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville) married Edward IV, the first king in the House of York, sometime in 1464. England was in the middle of what would become known as the Wars of the Roses and Edward was in his early 20s, had only been on the throne for about three years and stood to benefit (massively) from the foreign alliance that marrying abroad would bring him. He instead married for love, or lust, a Lancastrian widow who was older than him and the daughter of a mere baron.
Upon marriage, Elizabeth brought with her to court her parents and a plethora of unmarried brothers and sisters, all of whom needed positions befitting the family of the queen. Edward and Elizabeth’s two eldest sons would become the famed “Princes in the Tower,” and were likely murdered during the reign of their uncle, Richard III, while their eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, would marry Henry VII and help found the House of Tudor.
For those that are familiar with the period, then you will know that the Woodvilles have warranted refreshed appraisal in the last few years, which makes sense given the amount of recent scholarship that has been published on the Wars of the Roses, particularly its women. Almost always villainized, Elizabeth’s family are usually peripheral characters in the study or dramatization of the greater figures of Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII. Elizabeth, herself, is depicted as a cold ice queen, a social-climbing upstart or a witch dabbling in black magic – sometimes all three at once. Perhaps she was lucky – her Lancastrian counterpart, Marguerite of Anjou, is usually portrayed as a promiscuous, violent, foreign “she-wolf.”
There’s been consistent criticism of the “feminization” of history, a topic (believe me) I will be returning to, but when it comes to taking a second look at our assessment of female historical figures, there’s a reason for it. We know that history is written by the winners, and so we have made a concerted effort to use the benefit of hindsight and distance to ensure we are leaving behind an objective historical record when it comes to key male figures. We have been less fair to our women, who were deemed important enough by their rivals to slander at the time, but not important enough for history to clear their name.
But this isn’t meant to be an analysis of Elizabeth’s character. The only question I want to answer here is what year she was born. Yes, unfortunately, behind all of the rhetoric that surrounds her name, we don’t know some of the most basic facts about her life.
Now, the year of Elizabeth’s birth is important. The fact that she was older than her second husband, Edward IV, is usually used to help illustrate how horrifying it was that he married her. Literally years lost in fertility, and what a problem that was given their 10 eventual children.
Traditionally, Elizabeth is believed to the eldest of her parents’ children, her birth date always recorded as October 1437. Biographies of her, her Wikipedia page, fiction – all is based on her having been born in the fall of 1437, thus being five years older than Edward, and therefore meaning all of the single siblings she brought with her to Westminster in 1464 were younger than her.
I disagree and here’s why: The year 1437 is based on one factor – a portrait (below) which lists her age as 26 in the year 1463. Well, subtract 26 from 1463 and you get 1437. Except, small problem, why would Elizabeth have sat for a portrait in 1463? That was a year before she married Edward, at which point she would have been an impoverished Lancastrian widow – indeed, how she and Edward came to each other’s attention in 1464 is from her petitioning him to have her son’s rights to her husband’s lands restored. It is highly unlikely that any excess funds she had would have been spent on commissioning an expensive portrait of herself.
Thus, the year 1463 is likely incorrect. It very well could have been commissioned in 1464 when she was remarried, making her birth year 1438. Or it could have 1465, when she was crowned queen. Or 1466, after the birth of her first child. The point is, it’s possible Elizabeth and Edward were closer in age than previously thought.
Now, the month of October comes from the month that her parents, Richard Woodville and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Dowager Duchess of Bedford, received a pardon for having married without the King’s permission. Jacquetta was the widow of Henry VI’s uncle, John of Bedford, and her marriage, a year after his death, to the relatively low-born Woodville scandalized the English and French courts. The couple were abruptly pardoned in October, leading many historians to posit it was due to the imminent birth of their first child.
As for the rest of them, here is how they are traditionally listed:
- Elizabeth Woodville b. October 1437
- Anne Woodville b. 1438
- Margaret Woodville b. 1439
- Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers b. 1440/1/2
- Mary Woodville b. 1443
- Jacquetta Woodville b. 1444/5
- John Woodville b. 1445
- Lionel Woodville, Bishop of Salisbury b. 1446
- Richard Woodville, Earl Rivers
- Edward Woodville
- Thomas Woodville
- Lewis Woodville
- Joan/Eleanor Woodville
- Martha Woodville
- Katherine Woodville b. 1458
Richard, Edward, Thomas, Lewis and Eleanor/Martha are unknown and sometimes peppered throughout their siblings in various orders. But Elizabeth is always listed first and Katherine last.
We have very few of what I will call “anchor dates,” dates which allow us to draw some conclusions.
We have already examined why Elizabeth’s birth date may have been later than October 1437, however we can safely say that it was by the early 1440s. Her eldest son, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, has been established to have been born in 1455, at which point she would have had had to have been old enough to conceive and give birth. Her first husband, Sir John Grey, was described as “25 and more” in the year 1458, putting his birth year at 1433. Given that, at the very youngest, women had to have reached 12 years of age to marry, the last possible year Elizabeth could have been born is 1443. We can safely establish a bracket of 1437-1443.
Katherine’s birth year is the firmest anchor we have. When her brother, Richard, died on March 3, 1491, Katherine’s age was listed in his post-death inquiry as “34 or more,” placing the year of her birth in 1458. With Jacquetta having been born in 1415 or 1416, it stands to reason that Katherine would have been her last child. That year also lines up with the age of her first husband, Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who was born in 1455, as well as the birth date of their eldest child, Edward Stafford, who was born in 1478, at which point she would have been 20. We know, also, that she was young enough to have been carried at Elizabeth’s coronation in 1465 – had she been seven at the time then that makes sense.
Our next anchor is that of John Woodville, who was executed on August 12, 1469 alongside his father when Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and George, Duke of Clarence rose in rebellion against Edward IV. He had been married to Warwick’s aunt, Katherine Neville, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, four years previously, at which point he was described as being 20 years of age. Thus, we can safely place his birth year in 1444.
We have then have some more nebulous guesses around which to form a birth order. We know that Anthony was the eldest son since he inherited his father’s title in 1469. And we know that Richard, who inherited it upon Anthony’s death in 1483, couldn’t have been the youngest since his brother, Edward, was still living at the time. There is also the matter of Lionel, who is sometimes described as being born in 1446, however when he was elected dean of Exeter in 1478 he was described as being 25, placing his birth seven years later in 1453.
As for the girls, our best guesses as to their ages are based on when their children were born and the ages of their husbands, while their birth order is based on the order at which they were married. However, this is by far trickier since sisters weren’t always married off in order of oldest to youngest, husbands ages could be all over the place and the birth of their children doesn’t account for fertility issues, miscarriages or stillbirths.
So, let’s begin with Anne, who is usually described as being the sister closest in age to Elizabeth. Based on Elizabeth’s household accounts as queen, Anne served as a lady-in-waiting in 1466-1467, indicating she was at least an adolescent by then. Before August 1467, she was married to William, Viscount Bourchier, the eldest son of Henry Bourchier, Earl of Essex, and Isabel of York (paternal aunt of Edward IV). We don’t have a firm birth year for William, but based on the births of his siblings, it can be placed in the first half of the 1430s. Her only son, Henry, was likely born in 1472, while one of her daughters, Isabel, was born in 1477. Based on this, it is certainly conceivable that Anne was born as early as the late 1430s, however there’s nothing here to rule out a later birth date in the 1440s.
Next up we have Margaret, who is also sometimes described as the sister closest in age to Elizabeth. She is described as being named for Queen Marguerite of Anjou, consort to Henry VI, who was a close friend of Jacquetta. However, Marguerite and Henry weren’t married until 1445, leaving an eight-year gap between her and Elizabeth’s purported births. Margaret married Thomas FitzAlan, heir to the earldom of Arundel, in early 1466, when he was 15 or 16 years old. Their eldest son, William, was born in 1476. While this doesn’t rule out an earlier birth for Margaret, her name indicates that she was born later in 1445, while the age of her husband indicates she may have been born as late as the first half of the 1450s.
Then we have Mary, who married into the prominent Herbert family in January 1467. Her husband, William, was born in 1455. They would have only one child, Elizabeth, who was described as 16 in 1492, placing the year of her birth in 1476. Assuming that Mary was roughly the same age as her husband, she would have been one of the younger Woodville sisters, which is consistent with the gap between her marriage and the birth of her child (her having been married as a child, like her sister, Katherine).
And then Jacquetta, named for her mother. Now, usually a namesake indicates that that child is the eldest of their gender, but there are some exceptions to that rule, and the Woodville family appears to be one of them. Her birth is usually placed in either 1444 or 1445. Now, we know that her brother, John, was born in 1444, however given the fertility of her mother, it’s not out of the realm of the possibility that she gave birth to a child in January and another in December. However, Jacquetta is one of the few Woodville siblings that appears to have been married before Elizabeth became queen, indicating that she was one of the older children. Complete Peerage notes that she was married before March 1450 to John Strange, facts disputed by David Baldwin in his biography of Elizabeth. However, his reasons for doing so are that a younger daughter wouldn’t be married before an older daughter and Elizabeth didn’t marry John Grey until later in the 1450s. But, we have no idea when Elizabeth’s marriage to Grey was arranged – it very well could have been when she was a child. The Greys, like the Strange family, were on par with the wealth and nobility of the Woodvilles before one of their own married into the House of York. Since Strange was also born in the mid-1440s, it’s entirely likely that Jacquetta, a younger daughter, was deemed more age appropriate than Elizabeth. Jacquetta’s only child, Joan, was born in the late 1450s or early 1460s, which would track with Jacquetta being born in about 1445.
Next we have Joan/Eleanor – why these names, which sound nothing alike, are up for debate, I don’t know. Joan/Eleanor was married to Sir Anthony Grey in 1465 (no relation to Elizabeth’s first husband), who was born in the early 1440s. There were no children from the marriage and Anthony died in 1480 – that childlessness could indicate, however, that Joan/Eleanor was still a child at the time of their wedding, limiting their potential child-bearing years.
And finally there is Martha, who is almost always included in the list of Woodville siblings and reportedly married a Sir John Bromley. However, neither she nor any of her offspring appear in the inquiry conducted when her brother, Richard, died in 1491. She may not have existed at all. Indeed, she is not mentioned in a list of the Woodville children written in 1580 – long after their deaths, but certainly closer to it than we are now.
Which brings us to this list, written by Somerset Herald Robert Glover, which says:
“Richard Erle Ryvers and Jaquett Duchesse of Bedford hath yssue
Anthony Erle Ryvers, Richard, Elizabeth first wedded to Sir John Grey,
after to Kinge Edward the fourth, Lowys, Richard Erle of Riueres, Sir
John Wodeuille Knight, Jaquette lady Straunge of Knokyn, Anne first
maryed to the Lord Bourchier sonne and heire to the Erle of Essex,
after to the Erle of Kent, Mary wyf to William Erle of Huntingdon,
John Woodville, Lyonell Bisshop of Sarum, Margaret Lady Maltravers,
Jane Lady Grey of Ruthin, Sir Edward Woodville, Katherine Duchesse of
I am inclined to trust this as the correct birth order. It doesn’t interfere with the birth ranges laid out above, though, critically, it indicates that Elizabeth was not her parents’ first born. Based on this list and the above factors, here are the birth dates I believe are correct:
- Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers b. 1437/1438
- Richard Woodville (died young) b. 1438/1439
- Elizabeth Woodville b. 1439/1440
- Lewis Woodville b. 1441/2
- Richard Woodville, Earl Rivers b. 1442/3
- John Woodville b. 1444
- Jacquetta Woodville b. 1445/1446
- Anne Woodville b. 1447/8
- Mary Woodville b. 1448/9
- John Woodville b. 1450/1
- Lionel Woodville, Bishop of Salisbury b. 1453
- Margaret Woodville b. 1454/5
- Joan Woodville b. 1455/6
- Edward Woodville b. 1456/7
- Katherine Woodville b. 1458
Now, let’s defend it. But, with the caveat that even if we trust the above source, this is still guess work.
Anthony: We know he was the eldest son. We know that he was married by the time his sister became queen to Elizabeth de Scales, Baroness Scales, and that that marriage probably took place in the late 1450s. If we believe that his mother, Jacquetta, was pregnant at the time that his parents’ marriage was pardoned by Henry VI, then that would make him the child she was carrying. Even if she was not, his birth likely took place in 1437 or 1438. This is in keeping with the inquiry conducted after his mother’s death in 1472, which listed his age as “30 and more.” That “more” could stand to make him 33 or 34 at the time.
Richard: This appears to be a son that died as a child, likely before his brother Richard’s birth in the early 1440s. However, naming two children the same name wasn’t unheard of in the Middle Ages given the mortality rate.
Elizabeth: The marriage jointure between Elizabeth and Sir John Grey is dated 1454, which doesn’t set anything in stone, but taken together with the birth of their first son the next year indicates that this is the year that the couple were married, or began co-habitating if their marriage had been arranged when they were children.This would make Elizabeth around 14 or 15, a normal age to be married at the time. This would also only make her two or three year older than her second husband, Edward IV, and mean she became queen at the age of 24 or 25. It would also indicate that the portrait painted of her, which lists her age as 26, would have been painted in 1465 when she was crowned queen or in 1466, after her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, was born.
Lewis: While Jacquetta Woodville enjoyed wildly good luck when it came to fertility and children surviving into adulthood, Lewis appears to be another child that died young.
Richard: This son would eventually inherit the family earldom when his brother, Anthony, was executed by Richard III in 1483. It was the inquiry after his death in 1491 on which much of the information we have about his siblings is sourced. He never married and died childless, rendering the earldom extinct since all of his younger brothers were dead.
John: Aged 20 at the time of his marriage to Katherine Neville, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, we know for a fact that he was born in 1444. He would live to 24.
Jacquetta: As outlined above, this birth year and placement in the birth order are the youngest that Jacquetta could possibly have been. If she were born in 1445, it would have been in the latter half of the year since her mother accompanied the embassy sent to France to escort Marguerite of Anjou to England for her marriage. She was likely not to have been pregnant at the outset, indicating that she either conceived while in France or after returning to England in the spring of 1445.
Anne: As noted above, while Anne is usually listed as having been one of the oldest Woodville siblings, there’s nothing from the dates of her marriage or children’s birth to necessitate that. Likely it’s based on the fact that she was a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth in 1466, however a birth date of 1447 or 1448 would have made her about 18 or 19 at the time, which would have been normal.
Mary: Now, this one is trickier because this order means Mary would have been older than her husband, William Herbert. But that doesn’t rule it out. The Herbert family was on the rise during the reign of Edward IV, and it makes sense that they would jump at the chance to ally their family with the queen’s. And with William, at the time, in line to inherit the prestigious earldom of Pembroke, this would have been a good match for Mary, even if she had to wait for her husband to grow up.
John: Another John? I have no idea, but like I said above, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they named two sons John, as bizarre as that may seem today. In any event, this one died young.
Lionel: This order allows for Lionel to have been 25 when he became dean of Exeter in 1478. Indeed, it makes it impossible for him to have been born in 1446, his traditional birth date.
Margaret: This is a big jump for Margaret, sometimes listed as the second Woodville sister. It also means that while she was likely named for Marguerite of Anjou, it didn’t happen the next time a daughter was born to her parents, which is a bit strange, but not wildly so. After all, it’s not as though every girl born in England in the late 1440s was named Margaret. This birth year puts her closer in age to her husband, who was born around 1450, and indicates that the match occurred while Margaret was still a child and wasn’t consummated until closer to the late 1460s or early 1470s.
Joan/Eleanor: Joan being one of the youngest sisters is in keeping with her marriage to Sir Anthony Grey not being immediately consummated, leaving less time to conceive before her death in 1480.
Edward: This makes sense for Edward as well, who we know was younger than Richard. He died unmarried in 1488.
Katherine: The youngest sister, Katherine’s life would be the only one to even come close to rivaling Elizabeth’s. However, thanks to her age being listed from the inquiry after her brother’s death, we know that she was born in 1458, when her mother was in her early 40s.
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