Edward IV’s Marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in Context

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Lately I have been reading John Ashdown-Hill’s “The Private Life of Edward IV.” I’m not too far into it yet, but so far it’s been enjoyable and it’s certainly a fresh look at the King’s reign, which is usually examined through the lens of the civil war of which he reigned in the middle. Broadly, it argues that perhaps Edward IV was not quite the ladies’ man for which his reputation has given him credit.

Ashdown-Hill has gained some notoriety of late for his theory that Edward IV did, in fact, marry before his queen consort, Elizabeth Woodville, and that their children’s legitimacy was undermined. It’s an interesting argument, one that would add some nuance to Richard III’s usurpation of the throne from his nephew, Edward V. However, this post is not about the veracity of that argument or even, really, about Edward’s relationship with Elizabeth.

Ashdown-Hill argues in the introduction of this book that the Woodville marriage in 1464 that so scandalized Christendom was, in fact, not that shocking in the context of other marriages made by the Royal Family. He includes a simplified family tree that breaks down which marriages were “arranged” and which were “personal choice,” Edward and Elizabeth’s obviously being the latter. By his math, 60 percent were arranged, while 40 percent were of personal choice. In his own words:

“Thus, while Edward IV’s marriage decisions may have been regarded as inappropriate by some of his contemporaries, actually what the king did was in no sense a complete break with the royal precedents of his dynasty, despite the fact that his marital history has often been represented in that way.”

He goes on to cite Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine and Edward, the Black Prince’s marriage to Joan of Kent as two relevant examples.

Now, let’s just hold on here, because this got a major eyebrow raise from me. I obviously can’t duplicate the exact chart included in the book, but I will go marriage by marriage for those that he marked as “personal choice” and defend why Edward IV’s was absolutely an anomaly.

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Edward IV

Before we do that, some very quick context: Edward IV came to the throne in early 1461, deposing his cousin, the Lancastrian King Henry VI, in what has become known as the first half of the Wars of the Roses. Not only was Henry VI still alive, but so were his wife and son, who were being half-heartedly housed in France on the charity of Marguerite of Anjou’s French relations. Edward IV was 18 when he came to the throne, unmarried and remarkably handsome – he was a catch, save for the fact that his grasp of the crown was shaky at best. A strategic marital alliance was of absolute necessity and Edward’s cousin and closest adviser, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, had his heart set on a French alliance, effectively cutting off Marguerite of Anjou’s potential source of income. Another option was Burgundy, which had been sympathetic to the House of York throughout the ’40s and ’50s. At one point Isabella of Castile (as in  one half of Ferdinand and Isabella) was proposed as a match, but she was passed over. In the summer of 1464 Warwick went to France to negotiate a potential match with King Louis XI’s sister-in-law, Bona of Savoy, but that September Edward announced to his court that he was already married. Earlier that year he had wed an English widow, Elizabeth Grey (née  Woodville). She had no personal wealth, her father was a mere baron and her late husband had been a knight for the opposing side of the war. All she had to claim was two sons which spoke to her fertility and a high-born mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who had previously been married to Henry IV’s son, John, Duke of Bedford. Christendom was aghast.

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Elizabeth Woodville

Now, the so-called comparisons:

Henry II: Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine after her divorce from King Louis VII of France, with whom she already had two daughters. Was it scandalous? Hell yes. But Eleanor was no Elizabeth Woodville. She was Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, land considered so valuable it’s why she landed the French king and the inheritance of which prompted portions of the Hundred Years’ War years later. Henry’s marriage to Eleanor may have been a love match, but she would have been a strategic alliance even had she been a hag. She was a risk, for sure, given the potential enmity of Louis VII, but God knows pissing off the kings of France hasn’t deterred many English kings. This may have been a scandal, but it was a smart scandal.

Richard I: To be honest, I’m not sure what the reasoning is for calling Richard I’s marriage to Berengaria of Navarre one of choice. There’s even some debate as to whether this union was ever consummated. Richard appeared to be in no rush to marry Berengaria, who may have grown to love her husband, nor did he go to great lengths to spend time with her. There has been some conjecture that the two may have met years before they were married and there was some attraction, but those claims are hazy at best. There’s also the factor that Richard ended a betrothal to Alys of France, however there is some evidence that Alys had become the mistress of Henry II, Richard’s father, which would have made the marriage illegal on religious grounds, not to mention distasteful. Also, Berengaria was the daughter of the king of Navarre. Not a stupid match.

King John: By my math, John’s marriage to his first wife, Isabella of Gloucester, very much was an arranged marriage, but it’s been marked a personal choice. Nevertheless, it was literally arranged by John’s father, Henry II, who disinherited Isabella’s sisters, making her the sole heiress of her father and thus providing one of his younger sons with a fortune (long before it was anticipated he would ever ascend the throne). Ten years after they were married, John became king and promptly had his marriage annulled, in part because it was childless and he needed an heir. His second wife was Isabella of Angouleme, daughter of the Count of Angouleme. This may very well have been a love match, and it was certainly scandalous, but that is because it was partially motivated by politics – specifically, John “stole” Isabella from her betrothed, Hugh of Lusignan, whose son she would marry after John’s death. Reports on their happiness vary, as do rumors of mutual infidelity. Regardless, while it may have been a personal choice, Isabella wasn’t an insignificant figure on the European stage.

Edward, the Black Prince: Edward, Prince of Wales, eldest son of Edward III, married an English woman known as Joan of Kent. Prince Edward would be her third husband and her reputation was spotty, to say the least, given that she married her second husband while her first (contracted in secret) was very much still alive. While Joan had close ties to Edward’s parents, she was hardly the wife for him t hey had been envisioning. That said, when Edward made this match he was not only not king, but had he been he would have been the beneficiary of a peaceful transfer of power from his father. This is certainly the closest comparison to what Edward IV did – perhaps worse because Elizabeth Woodville didn’t have a bad reputation – but Edward IV’s position as king coming out of a civil war goes hand in hand with why his marriage was deemed so horrifying.

John, Duke of Gaunt: His first marriage to Blanche of Lancaster is marked a choice, but again 1) John wasn’t king and 2) Blanche was an heiress who made John rich. We also have no idea how he really felt about her, the most concrete evidence of their “love” being that John chose to be buried next to her despite two subsequent wives and Chaucer’s writing. But Blanche was also the mother of his heir and the source of his money, so I’ll call it a toss up. His third marriage, to his long-time mistress Katherine Swnyford, was absolutely one of choice. But again, John wasn’t king, he had an heir and his professional life had already been attended to. Not for nothing, but he didn’t marry Katherine until the tail end of his life after a decades-long (albeit interrupted) relationship.

Henry IV: Henry’s second marriage to Jeanne of Navarre is believed to have been one of choice, however it’s worth noting she was also the daughter of the King of Navarre and the dowager Duchess of Brittany – not a nobody by a long shot. Now, the popularity of this marriage was less than one would hope as England was going through a fun little phase of robust nationalism and distrusted Bretons. Henry’s recent usurpation of the throne from Richard II and Jeanne’s lukewarm reception in England make this is a fairly close comparison to Edward and Elizabeth, however Jeanne’s position on the European stage differentiates her significantly.

Roger Mortimer, Anne Mortimer & Richard of Cambridge: The latter two are Edward IV’s paternal grandparents, while Roger is Anne’s father. According to Ashdown-Hill, they all partook in marriages of personal choice. Once again, none of these figures were monarchs. Indeed, unlike the figures mentioned above, they weren’t even children of monarchs. To what extent their marriages were of choice is debatable given the weakness of available evidence, but if they were, it’s not really a comparison to Edward and Elizabeth.

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Edward V

But the argument is, to what extent was Edward truly deviating from the precedents set by other Plantagenets. He was. The issue is not that he loved Elizabeth, nor that she was a widow with children. She was English and she was fortune-less. That’s the crux of the matter: Kings didn’t marry domestic. In 1464 Elizabeth would become the first English queen consort in the country’s history. Nor is that a trend that really picked up. Richard III was already married to Anne Neville when he ascended the throne, while Henry VII had already promised to marry Elizabeth of York when he did so. The next true comparison would be Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and once he broke from Rome to marry her, they kind of made Edward and Elizabeth seem quaint.

The men above weren’t in the same position that Edward was, which Edward well knew. He needed an alliance, and the “choices” above were still largely strategic foreign matches, particularly when the man in question was sitting on the throne. Edward’s decision to marry Elizabeth had significant implications, regardless of what your opinion of the Woodville family or Richard III is. It’s worth considering, after all, whether Richard III would have had the means or the motive to take the throne after Edward IV’s death had Edward V’s maternal family been another royal house abroad. I don’t see him messing with France, Castile or Burgundy with quite as much confidence.

This marriage, even in comparison to Edward’s forbears, was very much in a league of its own.

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