The Long & Short of Elizabeth Woodville


We’ve talked about Elizabeth Woodville’s wedding date, her siblings and what the significance of her filling the role of Edward IV’s consort was before, but we’ve never just straight up covered her life from beginning to end. Elizabeth has seen a surge in popularity over the last decade, which doesn’t surprise me – it’s honestly more surprising that it took this long for her to get trendy. She had two husbands, 12 children and seemingly nine lives. She was a commoner who married a king, accused of witchcraft and sensationally beautiful. She lived through the reigns of five kings, was mother to another queen consort, attached to one of history’s biggest murder mysteries and may have ended her days under glorified house arrest. In short, there was a lot going on.

Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of Richard Woodville and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Dowager Duchess of Bedford. At the time of her birth, Henry VI was on the throne in the 15th year of his reign, however he was just assuming his majority and taking over control of the government after a protectorate council put in place when he was a child. Her mother had been married to Henry’s uncle, John, Duke of Bedford, for just over two years before his death. Widowed and in Rouen, Jacquetta secretly married Woodville, a man attached to Bedford’s household, without anyone’s permission at some point in late 1436 or early 1437.

Given that it followed on the heels of the secret second marriage of Henry’s mother, Katherine of Valois, the union attracted the stern displeasure of Henry’s government. A heavy fine was placed on the couple, but they were forgiven in October 1437. This date was traditionally thought to align with the birth of the couple’s first child, who many believed to be Elizabeth thanks to a portrait dated in 1463 that lists her age as 26. Unfortunately, the portrait’s date is likely off given that she was an impoverished knight’s widow in 1463 and thus we can’t say for certain she was actually born in 1437. My guess is she was born closer to 1440.

Marguerite of Anjou

We don’t know very much about Elizabeth’s childhood except that any time she spent at home in Northampton would have been full of siblings given the rate at which her mother produced children. She may have been placed in the household of a local noble family to be educated, possibly including the family of her first husband, John Grey – a not unusual arrangement – but we don’t know for certain. There’s been speculation for years as to whether Elizabeth served as a damoiselle in the household of King Henry’s wife, Marguerite of Anjou – unfortunately this is unlikely.

More likely is that she visited court in the 1450s given her parents’ relationship with the Royal Family. Not only was Jacquetta Henry’s aunt by marriage, she was also Marguerite’s – her sister, Isabelle, was married to Marguerite’s paternal uncle, Charles of Maine. As such, Jacquetta was friendly with the Queen and frequently in her company, a situation that benefited Richard Woodville’s career.

At some point in the first half of the 1450s, Elizabeth married John Grey, the son of Elizabeth Ferrers, 6th Baroness Ferrers of Groby. An exact wedding date is unknown, but it was likely wrapped up in 1454 when Elizabeth was about 14 or 15. Her son, Thomas, was born in 1455, and a second son, Richard, was born around 1457. By this point, England was in the midst of civil war and John would have been away from his young family (based in Hertfordshire) for large swathes of time, particularly once fighting commenced in earnest between 1458 and 1461.

Staunch Lancastrians, the Woodvilles found themselves in what would later be a rather ironic situation when Richard, Jacquetta and their eldest son, Anthony, were captured by Yorkists in 1460. Their captors were the ringleaders of the Yorkist party minus its head, Richard, Duke of York: York’s eldest son, the Earl of March; York’s brother-in-law, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury; and Salisbury’s eldest son, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. After prolonged verbal abuse and threats, Jacquetta was allowed to return to England and Richard and Anthony were eventually released unscathed. The irony, of course, is that the Earl of March would end up their son-in-law.

The Earl of Warwick

A few months later, the Second Battle of St. Albans was fought, killing John and leaving Elizabeth a widow. That blow was reinforced by the deposition of Henry VI. The King went into hiding while Marguerite of Anjou and their son ended up in exile in France. The new king was none other than the Earl of March, now Edward IV. And unfortunately for the Woodvilles, this meant their side had lost. Edward was crowned in June 1461 and by July the Woodvilles had thrown in the towel, acknowledged the Yorkist reign and made their peace with the new government.

Richard, Jacquetta and Anthony eventually made their way back to court, but it was less smooth sailing for Elizabeth. Because John had died fighting for the losing cause and had predeceased his mother, her eldest son’s inheritance was in jeopardy and she ended up having to formally petition the new king from her parents’ home in Northampton where she returned in her widowhood. Petitioning the king, of course, wasn’t particularly easy, if for no other reason than the sheer volume of “traitors” and their families seeking exemption under the new regime. Elizabeth reached out to a close friend and councilor of Edward IV’s – William, Baron Hastings.

It was through this connection that Elizabeth’s and Edward IV’s paths crossed in 1464. I have written on the timeline of all this in more detail here, but there are a few points worth considering. The traditional narrative has it that Edward fell in love with Elizabeth petitioning him with her sons at her side from under an oak tree near the Woodville’s home. He pursued her and after she refused to become his mistress, he married her on May 1, 1464. This is unlikely for a few reasons, not least of which is that the Woodvilles and the Yorks are known to one another and it’s entirely likely that Edward and Elizabeth met before. All four of their parents had been in Rouen at the same time in the early 1440s, their families’ paths would certainly have crossed at the Lancastrian court in the 1450s and certainly Edward IV was well-aware of who Richard and Jacquetta Woodville were when they were held captive in 1460.

None of this confirms with certainty that Edward and Elizabeth had personally met, particularly since we don’t know how frequently, if at all, Elizabeth visited court, but it should erase the image we have of a common widow appearing out of nowhere from middle-class obscurity.

Edward IV

We don’t know when exactly the blessed event occurred, but there is compelling evidence that it may have happened a few months later than May. Regardless, over the summer Warwick was in France negotiating a marriage between Edward and Louis XI’s sister-in-law and in September Edward dropped a bomb on his court – he was already married to Dame Elizabeth Grey.

Elizabeth left Northampton for London soon after, her two sons in tow. She was set up in the Palace of Westminster, proclaimed queen and treated with all honors as Edward’s wife. Officially, at least. Unofficially, London was in chaos. Edward’s government was livid that they wouldn’t have the expected boon of a foreign dowry. His councilors, but especially Warwick, were personally insulted they had been cut out of the decision. Edward’s family was horrified – by some accounts his mother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, threatened to acknowledge him as a bastard and transfer the crown to his younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence.

Even so, Edward and Elizabeth pressed on. The question of why this marriage took place should be considered. It has all the makings of romantic lore and yet, there have been theories put forth that question whether Edward purposefully sought to empower a large English family so as to put a check on Warwick’s reach. That he went out of his way to enrich and elevate Elizabeth’s family members in the hopes of creating a loyal faction behind him to counter-balance Warwick’s ambition. I suppose it’s not out of the realm of possibility, but all signs point to this as a love match. There were any number of ways to put Warwick in his place and the most obvious certainly didn’t include marrying a woman that would enrage his entire court.

Elizabeth’s reputation has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, but one image that has continued is one of coldness and hauteur. Part of this is because she is seen as some sort of Medieval Yoko Ono who broke up the York brothers and part of this is because of an anecdote from her coronation in May 1465. At her banquet she sat elevated at her table, eating in silence, various members of her court and family serving her and making low obeisances. And while, yes, to modern eyes and ears that seems ridiculous, it also wasn’t unique to Elizabeth – it was a perfectly normal operating procedure for a 15th century English coronation. There is no personality to glean from that scene.

Elizabeth and her daughters

What Elizabeth had going for her – and what made it difficult for her enemies to topple her – was her fertility. She became pregnant the same month of her coronation and gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, in February 1466. She was followed up by two more daughters, Mary and Cecily, in 1467 and 1469. While Elizabeth’s ability to conceive and produce healthy offspring was a plus, the fact that none were boys left her and Edward vulnerable.

As of 1469, Edward’s younger brother, Clarence, was still his heir. And Clarence was malleable, ambitious and not particularly honorable. Warwick, still smarting from the Woodville marriage and livid over the extent Edward had been generous to his in-laws through marriages, titles and grants, aligned himself with Clarence, concocting a plot in which Clarence married Warwick’s eldest daughter, Isabel, and they deposed Edward in their favor.

For a time, the plan worked. Edward was briefly held captive in the north in the summer of 1469, lodged with Warwick’s wife and daughters in Warwick Castle and Middleham. However, only eight years into his reign, there was little appetite from London to depose a popular monarch and when lawlessness began to break out, Warwick was forced the release Edward and he resumed control of the government.

For Elizabeth, this period of time was incredibly significant. Not only can the uprising be loosely tied to dissatisfaction stemming from her marriage, but the aggression was purposefully directed towards the Woodvilles. Warwick and Clarence arrested and executed Elizabeth’s father, Richard, and her younger brother, John, the latter of whom had drawn Neville ire by marrying Warwick’s elderly aunt, the Duchess of Norfolk, in 1465. We have no record of Elizabeth’s personal response to this news, but it’s not difficult to suppose the illegal execution of her family members created personal animosity towards Warwick and Clarence, or that she was disturbed by the swift reconciliation between them and her husband that December.

That said, however upset Elizabeth might have been, there is no indication that she began personally plotting either’s downfall as novels would have us believe. Nor did the incident appear to deeply affect her marriage, for she became pregnant with her and Edward’s fourth child in February 1470.

The tension between Warwick and Clarence and the rest of court didn’t stay in check for long: that March, they again rose up against Edward, this time forced to flee England for France. They joined forces with Marguerite of Anjou and her son, the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, a peace formalized that summer that was cemented in the marriage of the Prince to Warwick’s second daughter, Anne Neville. They returned to England six months later, in September 1470, launched a full-scale invasion and, thanks to the betrayal of Warwick’s younger brother, the Marquess of Montagu, Edward was deposed by October. He and his closest friends and family fled for Burgundy where Edward’s younger sister, Margaret, had married the Duke in 1468.

Elizabeth, eight months pregnant, entered sanctuary in Westminster with her two sons, three royal daughters and a handful of attendants and servants. It was here, on November 2, that she finally gave birth to the Yorkist son and heir, Prince Edward. The family remained there for another five months until Edward returned with military and financial support from Burgundy, defeated Warwick at the Battle of Barnet and killed the Lancastrian heir at the Battle of Tewkesbury. As for Henry VI, who had been held at the Tower of London since 1465, he too was executed once Edward returned to London in victory.

It was during this period that the first direct connections between the Woodvilles and witchcraft were made. Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, was briefly arrested for engaging in black magic, “bewitching” Edward into marrying her daughter and using its tools to advance her own family. Since then, Woodville lore at least acknowledges the accusations of witchcraft, usually nodding to their supposed ties to the myth of Melusine. It should be noted, however, that it wasn’t uncommon for royal and noble houses (particularly French ones, such as Jacquetta’s family) to claim such descent and doesn’t make the Woodvilles an anomaly. The details of this situation are worth a closer look, but we’ll have to save that for another day.

George, Duke of Clarence

Elizabeth and her children returned home, the young prince was presented to and acknowledged by his father, and the second half of Edward’s reign thus began. Compared with the 1460s, the 1470s was a quieter decade for Elizabeth. Clarence was welcomed back into the fold thanks to his last-minute defection from Warwick that helped ensure Edward’s victory. Edward’s youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, married Anne Neville, the Lancastrian Princess of Wales and began to spend more time up north. And Jacquetta Woodville passed away in the spring of 1472.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, continued to produce children. Between 1472 and 1480, she gave birth to Margaret, Richard, Anne, George, Katherine and Bridget. Prince Edward, as heir to the throne, was lodged at Ludlow Castle on the Welsh border in the care of her brother, Anthony, while his younger brother, Richard, was married to Anne Mowbray, heiress of the Norfolk inheritance. She also saw to it that her sons by her first marriage were appropriately married and/or provided with ample career opportunities.

The shining moment of maternal glory came in 1475 when her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was betrothed to Louis XI’s eldest son, the dauphin. She was styled the dauphine at court and preparations were made for her future as the first English queen of France (a reality that would in fact be realized by the younger Elizabeth’s future daughter, Mary Tudor).

The last years of her husband’s reign were marred by Edward’s decline in health. The brief loss of his throne appears to have made him more cautious, more inclined to hoard wealth than risk losing for glory and he gave in to excess. His daughter’s betrothal was part of a settlement with Louis XI to end English military aggression. He grew increasingly overweight in middle age, continuing to imbibe and indulge. He also took a long-term mistress, Elizabeth Shore (referred to as “Jane” in some records), who was shared with or stolen from his friend, Hastings. There is no record of Elizabeth’s thoughts or feelings on the matter – whatever reaction she had was kept private.

Edward also developed a ruthless streak. After years of forgiving Clarence’s transgressions, he finally ordered his brother’s arrest and execution in 1478 over the protestations of his mother and sisters. Elizabeth is often portrayed as in favor of Clarence’s death as retribution for his role in the deaths of her father and brother, but once again there is no actual proof to substantiate that. As for why Clarence died and what impact it had, more can be found here.

Everything came to an end during Easter 1483 when Edward took ill after a fishing trip with Hastings, was brought to bed of a fever and swiftly and unexpectedly died on April 9. His end is believed to have been hastened due to outrage at Louis XI for reneging on their financial arrangement, including ending the betrothal of their children. Regardless, it was catastrophe for Elizabeth whether she immediately realized it or not.

Richard III

The events of the next few days and weeks are better captured here, but they resulted in Edward’s brother, Richard of Gloucester, taking custody of Elizabeth’s son, now Edward V, en-route from Wales, and Elizabeth and her remaining children once again taking sanctuary in Westminster. Hindsight and a certain reading of the events of 1483 have led many to believe there was strong antipathy between Richard and Elizabeth, but unfortunately we can’t say for certain. How Richard behaved once he became the Lord Protector was so at odds with how he publicly behaved prior to Edward’s death (as far as we know) that there is little sign prior to 1483 of a bad relationship between the two.

The traditional narrative is that Richard had long harbored a grudge against Elizabeth for coming between Edward and Warwick, and Edward and Clarence. And Elizabeth, knowing this, was terrified of what would happen once Richard took power. Or, alternately, that Elizabeth was so power-hungry that she and her Woodville relations were effectively planning a coup with the aim of cutting Richard out of the picture altogether. Either is possible, though (once again) not certain.

Some of this stems from the personal nature of Richard’s attack against Edward’s family – that is, beyond potentially murdering two of his children. His claim to the throne was built on the argument that Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth was illegal because he had already been married to another Lancastrian widow when he married her. As such, his government proclaimed Elizabeth’s marriage bigamous and their children bastards. It’s understandable to draw the direct link back to Elizabeth’s introduction to the Royal Family in 1464, but it should also be noted that it wasn’t uncommon for political claims like this to be drawn from smearing the reputation of women. In other words, Richard’s actions can’t be read as a personal attack in and of themselves.

The strongest defense of Elizabeth’s character, frankly, is Richard’s own action. If she was afraid of him, well, he usurped her son’s throne within weeks of his accession, forced her other son out of her possession and the two disappeared from view by the end of the summer. Whether Richard ordered their murder is debatable, but what isn’t is that whatever instinct prompted Elizabeth to seek sanctuary within the walls of a church was a necessary one.

Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond

One other factor that has supported the trope of Elizabeth as a scheming Machiavellian character is her behavior from within sanctuary. She continued to correspond with the outside world, particularly Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. Margaret had served her at court and came from strong Lancastrian stock (as did Elizabeth). Her first marriage was to Henry VI’s half-brother, Edmund Tudor, and her son by him had lived abroad in Brittany since the Lancastrian collapse in 1471. The two, aided and abetted by others, schemed to marry their children and topple Richard from the throne, an interesting plot that lends credence to the idea Elizabeth believed her sons were dead by the autumn of 1483.

The potential rebellion was discovered and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s right-hand man and the husband of Elizabeth’s sister, Katherine, was executed in November. That winter, Richard and Elizabeth finally made peace. Notably, Richard made a public declaration that he wouldn’t harm any of his nieces and Elizabeth and her daughters finally left sanctuary in early 1484. What can be gleaned from this? Without delving too far into the murder mystery of the Princes, we can take a couple guesses. Either Elizabeth made her peace with the reality of Richard’s reign or she was playing for time until she and her allies could figure out a way to either bring back a true York heir or install Margaret’s Tudor son.

In the meantime, her daughter, Elizabeth, caused scandal over the Christmas of 1484, driving rumors that Richard meant to marry his niece once Anne Neville died. That fun little sitch can be read about here.

In the end, Anne Neville passed away in March 1485, nearly a year after the death of her and Richard’s only son and heir. Richard was dynastically vulnerable, unpopular and faced the threat of rebellion from multiple sides. His demise came from French funding of Henry Tudor in the summer of 1485 and he died defending his throne at the Battle of Bosworth in August. Henry Tudor became Henry VII, a succession that eventually brought about the end of decades of civil war, but did not mean Elizabeth’s peaceful passage into her twilight years.

The English support Henry tapped into was a mixture of die-hard Lancastrians and Yorkists who believed Richard had usurped the throne from his nephew. Regardless, Henry’s claim was iffy at best. He was descended from Edward III through his mother, but the line was clouded by illegitimacy. He was also descended from Charles VI of France, but from his grandmother’s shady marriage to a Welsh member of her household. He had an English title – the Earl of Richmond – but had spent half of his life living abroad.

Henry’s initial support was premised on a pledge he made during Richard’s reign to marry Elizabeth of York. He did so in January 1486, but only after he was crowned alone and had opened Parliament as king in his own right. In short, he was adamant that his rule should never be seen as an extension of his marriage, though it was in fact critical to his success. When his wife delivered a son, Arthur, eight months later, the Tudor dynasty was formally established.

Elizabeth of York

But Elizabeth’s actions during Henry’s reign have always been mired in controversy. Namely, she retired from court in February 1487 to Bermondsey Abbey, however the action came in the midst of a Yorkist uprising led by her nephew by marriage, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, to oust Henry. Lincoln had been Richard’s default heir during his reign, thus he had been one of the true losers from the results of Bosworth. One of the few York men left and a descendant of Edward III through his mother, he was a viable contender for the crown. Even so, his rebellion was less for himself (publicly at least) and more for a man named Lambert Simnel, who claimed to be Clarence’s son, the Earl of Warwick. With the support of Edward’s (and Richard’s and Clarence’s) sister, the Duchess of Burgundy, a full-scale military operation was launched.

The result was the Battle of Stoke Field, which ended in Tudor victory and Lincoln’s death. Any connection that Elizabeth had to the plot is nebulous at best, but given her activity from within sanctuary only a few year’s before and the timing of her departure from court, suspicion remains.

My inclination has always been to believe Elizabeth retired by choice and not force. Deposing Henry at this point meant deposing her own daughter as queen and her grandson as future king. Whether she believed her sons were dead or not, it was common practice for royal and noble widows to enter a religious house for their last years – indeed, her mother-in-law, Cecily Neville, did the exact same thing. Bermondsey Abbey, in particular, was a tony choice – Katherine of Valois died there back in January 1437.

Whatever the case, Elizabeth remained at Bermondsey until her death in June 1492. She made infrequent trips back to court, most notably in November 1489 for the christening of her granddaughter, Margaret Tudor. Her funeral was modest for a queen dowager and was attended only by her younger daughters, Anne, Katherine and Bridget. Elizabeth of York was heavily pregnant with her fourth child and it’s unknown why her daughter, Cecily, didn’t attend, but it was likely due to pregnancy or illness.

Much has been made about the relationship between the two Queen Elizabeths, particularly based on the younger’s absence from her mother’s funeral and the fact that the elder didn’t leave her much of anything in her will. The former issue we’ve addressed, but the latter is interesting. Likely, Elizabeth knew that her eldest daughter was taken care of thanks to her Tudor marriage and she opted to use what was left of her estate to care for her more vulnerable children, particularly given that as of 1492, neither Anne nor Katherine were married (Bridget was a nun).

Elizabeth was laid to rest four days after her death without ceremony alongside Edward at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor.

Bermondsey Abbey

Elizabeth had an eventful life and it’s easy to see why she’s sparked the imagination of so many novelists over the years. The sheer volume of scholarship and fiction that’s been churned out on her in the past decade makes it seem like she’s a known entity. In some ways, there’s quite a bit of information to work with thanks to the drama of the Wars of the Roses and the number of high-profile family members she possessed. In fact, very little – if anything – of her personality can be gleaned from the record.

We can assume Edward loved her, but we have no idea whether she loved him or jumped at the chance to become queen. We have no idea what she thought about Richard III or Edward’s initially relaxed attitude towards Warwick’s and Clarence’s treason. Nor do we have an inkling of what she believed happened to her son or if she in fact knew. Her desperate scheming from sanctuary in 1483 and 1484 has been seen as clear insight into the makeup of a woman who benefited handsomely from being the King’s wife, but those months need to be considered alongside years – decades – of passivity and silence.

In many ways that silence, her retirement and the simple funeral she requested from her deathbed are in fact choices we’ve been ignoring in favor of the more dramatic option.

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