Well, traditionally the answer is today in 1464. According to some versions of the story Edward IV happened upon Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville) under an oak tree near her family home in Northamptonshire where she played the damsel in distress card and petitioned the king for help in reclaiming her son’s inheritance. Taken by her beauty, Edward tried to make her his mistress and when she refused, he married her, kept it to himself for five months and then dramatically announced it at court when his cousin and first councilor, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was pressuring him to marry King Louis XI of France’s sister-in-law.
But there are some problems with this narrative. First, the whole oak tree imagery is a bit over the top. Second, the date of May 1 or “May Day” is very romantic, but the very fact that it is romantic should raise some eyebrows. Third, there is clear indication from events in the summer of 1464 that there was no plan to present Elizabeth as queen. And four, it is unlikely that Edward and Elizabeth only met for the first time that year.
So, let’s dive in.
First, who was Elizabeth? She was the eldest daughter of Richard Woodville and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Dowager Duchess of Bedford. Her parents had (somewhat ironically, I suppose) also married in secret back in 1436/7 after Jacquetta’s first husband, John, Duke of Bedford, died. They paid a hefty financial penalty and then went about having a dozen children while working their way back into royal favor.
Much has been made over the years about the “lowly” birth of Elizabeth, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. Was she queen material by Medieval standards? No, not really. It was a politically stupid match. But Jacquetta of Luxembourg had been deemed high-born enough to marry the Duke of Bedford in 1433 when he was Henry VI’s heir apparent, her brother was the Count of Saint-Pol, her other siblings had made advantageous matches that connected her to the ruling families of France and, until Henry VI married in 1445, she was the highest-ranking woman in England. A milkmaid she was not.
Her second marriage to Richard Woodville, then a knight, was certainly beneath her station, hence the scandal and fine that followed it. But Woodville became a member of the peerage in 1448 and held royal favor throughout the majority of Henry VI’s reign. He was doing alright and his children had the ability to make solid, if not lofty, marriages.
But perhaps most importantly, the Woodvilles had ties to Normandy. Jacquetta had lived in Rouen during her first marriage and publicly stated a preference to remain there after Bedford died. Right around this time a certain Richard, Duke of York arrived in Rouen to take over as Lieutenant of Normandy and he brought with him his wife, Cecily Neville. It was there that their two eldest sons, Edward and Edmund, were born in 1442 and 1443.
However, attached to York’s household at this time was none other than Richard Woodville and it’s very likely that Jacquetta was with him given the cadence by which they produced children. If Elizabeth had already been born in England we have no idea whether she was brought with her parents to Rouen, but given that we don’t have an exact birth date for her it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that she was actually born there. Certainly, Jacquetta and Cecily knew one another well before their children married two decades later and it’s likely that Jacquetta would have known her future son-in-law as a child.
Do we know the nature of the relationships? No. But the idea that Elizabeth Woodville came out of nowhere to the entire House of York is fiction.
Whatever the arrangement had been, it was over by the end of 1445. In 1444, the Woodvilles had been selected to accompany William de la Pole, Marquess of Suffolk to France to escort Marguerite of Anjou to England and by the next year York had been recalled and was then replaced by his political rival, Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset.
The Woodvilles fared very well with the arrival of Marguerite; York and Cecily did not. What that meant for the likelihood of the two families maintaining any sort of relationship is anyone’s guess, but certainly opportunities presented themselves for Edward and Elizabeth to have met years before 1464. For a long time it was taken for granted that Elizabeth had served Marguerite of Anjou as a lady-in-waiting, making her eventual rise all the juicier and downright Tudor-esque, however there isn’t firm evidence to substantiate this. More likely is that Elizabeth visited court as an adolescent and young adult, particularly after her marriage to John Grey c. 1454.
Edward, meanwhile, spent his formative years at Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border after his family returned to England. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1450s that he left, but 1454 was a turning point for both halves of the later royal couple. Not only did Elizabeth likely marry that year, but it coincided with the first bout of Henry VI’s mental illness and a vying for the regency by York and Marguerite of Anjou. York won and it’s known that his eldest son made an appearance at court. If Elizabeth was there at the time, she would at the very least have known who Edward was and been aware of his presence. She might not have been top of mind for him, but then again she was Jacquetta’s daughter and a noted beauty.
The latter half of the decade would have mostly kept them apart as the country descended into civil war. Elizabeth likely spent most of her time at her husband’s home in Hertfordshire were she gave birth to two sons, Thomas and Richard. If she ventured to court, it was no longer a place where the York clan was welcome and the Woodvilles remained staunch Lancastrians.
That wouldn’t change until 1461 when the Second Battle of St. Albans left Elizabeth a widow, Henry VI was dethroned and Edward IV was proclaimed king. Our view of Elizabeth over the next three years is murky at best, but we do know that by July of that year the Woodvilles had sworn fealty to the new Yorkist king and over the next several months to a year, they were slowly readmitted back into royal favor and Richard Woodville and his eldest son, Anthony, were present at council meetings. Assuming that the Woodvilles were familiar commodities given their familiarity in the 1440s, it’s not that surprising that Edward was quick to make his peace with them.
It also casts an incident in 1460 in a different light. At some point in the last year of the war’s first leg, Edward and the Earl of Warwick captured Richard and Anthony Woodville, as well as Jacquetta, and a slew of insults were thrown at the Woodvilles by the Yorkists. It’s known that Woodville was taunted for not being highly-born enough to have married his wife (again with the irony…) and that Edward personally ordered Jacquetta’s release, allowing her to return to England.
If the two families knew one another, then all of this has different implications. Were Warwick and Edward only politically motivated or was there personal outrage that former friends hadn’t taken their side? Was Jacquetta released because she was a woman or out of respect for years past? Complete conjecture, of course, but that event didn’t appear out of thin air and should be placed in proper context – much like Edward and Elizabeth’s later marriage.
Anyway, at some point after John Grey’s death Elizabeth returned to her parents’ home in Grafton Regis, a rather impoverished widow. In theory, her eldest son should have been able to inherit his father’s lands, however a legal snafu with the Grey family had complicated the matter and it is here that Elizabeth firmly steps back into view. HOWEVER, given that her parents and brother were clearly going back and forth to court it is incredibly possible that she was too. If she was, then there was more than ample opportunity for Edward and Elizabeth to have met on multiple occasions in 1461, 1462 and 1463.
Elizabeth, via entree from her family, approached Edward’s close friend William, Lord Hastings for help in working out her legal and financial issues. Those negotiations were under development for several months leading up to the September 1464 announcement that Edward and Elizabeth had married. It’s possible, if not likely, that Hastings’ dealings with Elizabeth provided an entry point for the two to meet (perhaps again) in the winter or spring of 1464 and begin a relationship. And certainly based on Edward’s movements in April and May of that year, he had ample opportunity to visit Elizabeth at Grafton Regis, hence why some historians still place value in May 1 as a potential wedding date.
Indeed, it’s very possible. But as late as that August there was discussion of Thomas Grey becoming the ward of Hastings. If Thomas’s mother had just married the King of England then that’s a slightly strange arrangement as Elizabeth would have been well-positioned to oversee his inheritance until he came of age. Now, it could point to Edward not planning on making his marriage public, however that is slightly complicated by the fact that he did just that a month later.
So, what was going on? John Ashdown-Hill, a historian who has gained notoriety for his theory that Edward was, in fact, married to Eleanor Talbot in the early 1460s – a claim made public in 1483 when his younger brother, Richard III, made his play for the throne – believes that Elizabeth may have either claimed to be pregnant or was pregnant and then suffered a miscarriage. His theory is that Elizabeth was calculating, knew she had to force Edward’s hand and that given how regularly she conceived during her marriage to Edward, it’s odd that their first child wasn’t born until February 1466.
Sure, maybe. But Elizabeth had also been married between the years 1454-1461 and only produced two children. If she and Edward weren’t regularly seeing each other, and thus sleeping together, when their marriage was still under wraps then it’s not out of the question for there to have been a delay in pregnancy despite healthy fertility.
Another possibility is that Edward and Elizabeth never married in May and didn’t until September. That would mean that their marriage was kept secret for a matter of days and weeks, not months. It would also mean that their relationship wasn’t quite the frantic love affair that it has always been portrayed as, which is perhaps borne out by the success of their subsequent marriage.
I highly doubt Elizabeth claimed to be pregnant to force Edward’s hand simply because I don’t think it would have worked had he not already wanted to marry her. He had bastards and while their birth dates are a bit fuzzy, it certainly wouldn’t have raised eyebrows for a bachelor in the 15th century to have fathered a child or two out of wedlock. If she actually was pregnant then I find it strange it wouldn’t have been announced once she was brought to court. Understanding that doing so at the same time the marriage was announced might have undermined Elizabeth’s reputation, there wouldn’t have been a reason to delay the news within a month or so of her moving to London and yet there is no record, rumor or whisper from those first months of Elizabeth being with child.
Elizabeth of York, their eldest daughter, was born in February 1466 and was thus conceived right around late April or May 1465. If her parents had married in September 1464 that means it only took seven or eight months for Elizabeth to become pregnant, which is in line with how regularly she conceived her later children with Edward.
Therefore, I’m of the belief that Edward and Elizabeth married at least a few months after May 1 and today is not their anniversary. Cheers to that.