Part Fifteen: Richard III & the Elizabeths

Richard of York

Better late than never? Let’s hope so. In the late summer and early autumn, there were 14 blog posts dedicated to Richard III, and then…time got away from me. Apologies. But, we’re back at it, and today we’re going to pick up with the fifteenth, covering what Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York can tell us about Richard III’s reign and the fate of the “Princes in the Tower” – Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York.

As a catch up, the first 11 posts in the series covered Richard’s life from birth until 1483, and then there were two timeline posts that laid out the events of 1483-1485 without commentary. We’re now zooming in on specific people and events, with today’s post starting to really dig into the question of the “Princes.” So, if you want to catch up, here’s a link to the first post in the series, and if you’re good to go, then here’s a link to the timeline of 1484-1485, to which I’ll be referring throughout.

So, Elizabeth Woodville. The “Princes'” mother. I’ve mentioned this throughout the series, but so much of how you may feel about Elizabeth depends on how you feel about Richard. It’s possible to look at the events of Richard’s reign and read them entirely differently depending on with whom your sympathies lie. Elizabeth’s behavior after her husband’s death is confusing, at best, so before we delve into it, let’s pull out key moments:

  • First, there’s her retreat into sanctuary after Richard arrested her brother, Anthony Woodville, and her son, Richard Grey. We discussed this in greater detail here, but the conclusion was that her behavior can be read two ways – 1) that she was guilty of a planned Woodville coup and sought safety or 2) that she legitimately feared Richard.
  • Second, there is the loss of custody of Elizabeth’s youngest son, the Duke of York, in June 1483.
  • Third, there is her assumed involvement in some sort of plot in the autumn of 1483. As discussed here, it’s entirely possible the Buckingham rebellion was actually a mash up multiple uprisings, all with different goals. Nevertheless, one of them was spearheaded by Henry Tudor and his mother, Margaret Beaufort, and included Tudor’s promise that he would marry Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, Elizabeth of York.
  • Fourth, there is Elizabeth leaving sanctuary with her daughters in March 1484 after Richard makes a public vow not to harm his nieces. Not only that, but she then allowed her eldest daughter to attend Richard’s court.
  • Fifth, there is the rumor in early 1485 that Richard meant to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, after his wife’s (Anne Neville) death.
  • Sixth, there is the fact that after Henry defeated Richard at Bosworth in the summer of 1485, he did in fact marry Elizabeth of York after re-legitimizing her and her siblings. If Elizabeth Woodville’s sons were still alive, the move would have re-legitimized them, too.
  • Seventh, there is the longstanding rumor that Elizabeth Woodville participated in the last gasp of the Wars of the Roses – the rebellion of 1487. We’re going to get into this, but one narrative has Elizabeth supporting an uprising that would have deposed her daughter and grandson (Arthur Tudor) in favor of her nephew by marriage, the Earl of Warwick. Her involvement, according to this theory, led to her (forced) retirement to Bermondsey Abbey by Henry Tudor (then Henry VII).

The logic of Elizabeth’s behavior is hard to follow. On the one hand, if she believed Richard murdered her sons, then it makes sense that she cast her lot in with the Tudors in the autumn of 1483. She was out of royal sons, so her best hope was to make her daughter queen and depose the man responsible for their deaths. If that’s the case, then it makes it all the more odd that less than six months later, she would leave sanctuary on Richard’s word that he wouldn’t kill any more of her children.

Now, on the other hand, if she didn’t believe that Richard killed her sons – and in fact, thought or knew that they were still alive, then it’s equally hard to parse her behavior. Why did she stay in sanctuary so long after Richard vowed to protect her after he arrived in London in 1483? Why would she agree to marry her daughter to Henry Tudor? The only aspects of her behavior that seemingly make sense, then, is her decision to leave sanctuary in 1484 and let her daughter reside with Richard, as well as her “allowing” the Duke of York to leave sanctuary in 1483.

As such, Elizabeth Woodville throws a bit of wrench into theories of Richard’s guilt or innocence.

Custody of York

We’ve already covered interpretations of the first bullet, so let’s turn to the second. The Duke of York left sanctuary on June 16, 1483, more than a month after Richard arrived in London with Edward V. This has traditionally been viewed as an act that makes Richard look guiltier – by compelling the boy to join his elder brother in the Tower, they were then in one place, and thus easier to dispose of. As such, we generally take for granted that Elizabeth was against the removal of her younger son from her protection. Given that the boys disappeared not long after, it’s a safe assumption.

But in fact, the removal of the Duke of York from sanctuary wasn’t a violent act. The Archbishop of Canterbury was asked by Council to go to Elizabeth and persuade her to let York go, the reasoning supposedly given being that Council didn’t want Edward V living alone, or having his coronation conducted without the presence of his brother. That explanation isn’t only emotional – at that time, York was his brother’s heir, and given the roles that Richard and George of Clarence played during Edward IV’s reign, it stood to reason that York would play a similar role in the realm in coming years. Thus, he was important enough that approaching Elizabeth was worth the hassle.

If we assume that Elizabeth entered sanctuary out of fear of Richard’s motives, then it makes less sense that she gave her son up. Even if she feared the Archbishop would use force if necessary, if she truly thought there was a chance Edward V was already in physical danger, it’s hard to fathom her not putting up a fight. Yes, she would likely have lost, but Council physically breaching sanctuary to forcibly remove a child would have played terribly to the London public and signaled Richard’s malicious intent. That even the chroniclers at the time note that Elizabeth was “persuaded” – not forced – to give up York, indicates that neither she nor the Archbishop feared Richard was a murderer. And given the number of chroniclers writing after Richard’s death, it’s unlikely that force would have been used and then covered up.

Henry Tudor’s Betrothal to Elizabeth of York

Now, the third bullet – Elizabeth Woodville agreeing that Henry Tudor could marry her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, in the autumn of 1483. By this point, the “Princes” hadn’t been publicly seen in a while (at least as far as we know), Richard had taken the throne, and rumors were percolating that the boys were dead. Thus, the most important factor in considering Elizabeth’s behavior is examining what she could possibly have known. The reality is that she was obviously secluded in sanctuary, so she was cut off from the tension and rumors of day-to-day life in the capital. She had access through specific individuals allowed to visit her, but her ability to gauge reality was necessarily filtered through them.

We know that she was in communication with Margaret Beaufort through their shared physician, and we know that it is through this link that the women communicated and the betrothal of their children was agreed upon. Thus, there are three possibilities. 1) The boys were dead and Margaret confirmed this through the physician, 2) it benefited Margaret for Elizabeth to think the boys were dead to bolster Henry Tudor’s invasion through the promise of his marriage to her daughter, or 3) Elizabeth wasn’t privy to the full scale of the Tudor plot, and in fact believed that Margaret and her son would support the restoration of Edward V in exchange for her daughter’s hand.

The first of these three theories is entirely possible, but it does beg the question: How would Margaret have definitively known the boys’ fate when so many others were uncertain? The likeliest answer is that we know she had a conduit to the Duke of Buckingham and was in communication with him by the late summer. He almost certainly knew whether the boys were still alive as of when he launched his rebellion, and if you believe that his uprising was in response to Richard’s murder of the boys, then it stands to reason he communicated this to Margaret, who in turn relayed the news to Elizabeth.

The second is possible, though it does cast Margaret in a decidedly negative light. This theory depends on either the Tudor matriarch purposefully misleading Elizabeth about the fate of her sons, or believing the rumors and sharing bad information. There are people out there who in fact believe it was Margaret who had the boys murdered to make way for her son, though I’ve never lent it much weight. Yes, she had motive, but while it’s not impossible for her to have gained access to them, it would have been difficult and regicide is a stretch for a dowager countess.

The third makes more sense to me than the second. It’s again possible that Elizabeth Woodville was purposefully fed false information – that Margaret was only pushing for her son’s return to England, and that in exchange for his marriage to Elizabeth of York, she was willing to offer Beaufort money and Stanley (her third husband’s family) backing. Also possible is that neither women knew for certain whether the boys were alive, and thus hatched a plot in which they would push for Edward V’s restoration and Henry Tudor’s return, but if Edward V and his brother were dead, then the way was clear for Tudor, with Elizabeth of York as his queen.

Bear in mind, too, that there were three possible “plots” in the autumn of 1483. One included Buckingham invading from Wales, one involved Tudor invading from Brittany, and still a third involved some sort of incident taking place around Westminster that may well have been an attempt to break Elizabeth and her daughters out of sanctuary, and was aimed at Edward V’s restoration. If the latter two, at least, are linked, it makes the third theory likelier.

Leaving Sanctuary in 1484

The fourth bullet is easily the trickiest to pick apart. Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters left the safety of Westminster sanctuary in March 1484, six months after she ostensibly signed on to the Tudor cause. At the same time, Richard made a public oath that he wouldn’t harm any of Elizabeth’s daughters…with no mention of her sons. This seemingly lends credence to both theories – Richard was safe enough that Elizabeth trusted him around her five daughters, but potentially homicidal enough that she needed him to promise not to kill them.

If we assume Richard killed the boys, and that Elizabeth also believed he did, then it makes very little sense for Elizabeth to not only leave, but to allow him access to her daughters. Many argue that she was desperate, having been in sanctuary for over year, and with the Tudor invasion having failed, she decided to make the best of a bad situation. That’s a pretty big leap – for a mother to risk the lives of her remaining children by accepting the promise of the man who killed three of them already.

This also ignores the fact that Henry Tudor was planning another invasion, made clear by his declaration in December 1483, several weeks after he was forced back into Brittany, when he repeated his promise to marry Elizabeth of York.

It similarly ignores the fact that Edward IV’s daughters were still potent in their own right, their gender not withstanding. In other words, the fact that they were female didn’t inherently keep them safe, nor lessen them as a threat to Richard. After all, it can’t be argued that Elizabeth of York was so benign to Richard as a woman that he wouldn’t kill her, but at the same time she was important enough to serve as the linchpin to Henry Tudor’s claim to the throne. It’s also hard to argue that a man who would kill children wouldn’t dare kill women and girls.

So, it stands to reason Elizabeth had good reason to trust Richard in March 1484, prompting the question of why was there an oath? The wording – or rather, the fact that the oath specifically names Elizabeth’s daughters, but not her sons – is significant. This could, yes, mean that Richard had already killed the “Princes” and thus saying “children” would be false, but if you’ve secretly murdered children then this seems like a rather glaring tell to leave in the public domain. It also ignores the existence of Elizabeth’s two elder sons – Richard had already ordered the legal execution of Elizabeth’s adult son, Richard Grey, while her eldest son, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, was abroad in exile. So, the oath may well have said daughters because of Richard Grey’s death, and because Richard wasn’t going to promise the safety of Dorset given his treason.

This leaves us with the definite possibility that Elizabeth had good reason to believe Richard hadn’t killed her sons – that he either wasn’t responsible for their deaths, or that one or the both of them were alive in March 1484.

Richard III & Elizabeth of York

The fifth bullet – the rumor that Richard intended to marry his niece. Yikes. I actually wrote a post on this ages ago covering Alison Weir’s theory that Richard did in fact intend to, and that Elizabeth of York was in agreement. Regardless, we know that this rumor existed and was pervasive, because Richard took the extraordinary step of publicly refuting it. It only has bearing on Richard’s innocence or lack thereof if you 1) believe that Richard intended to marry Elizabeth of York, and 2) if you believe Elizabeth Woodville would have allowed it (to the extent she had the ability to stop it).

The event from which this stemmed was Christmas 1484, nine months after the York women left sanctuary. By then, Elizabeth Woodville and her younger daughters had settled in the country, but Elizabeth of York joined Richard’s court at the invitation of him and his wife, Queen Anne. Things weren’t going well for Richard – his only legitimate child had died earlier that year, leaving him without a straightforward heir, and Henry Tudor had escaped from Brittany to France, where the government of Charles VIII (led by his regent and sister, the Duchess of Bourbon) had every intention of using Tudor to destabilize England. Remember, too, that Henry Tudor’s grandmother was Katherine of Valois, a French princess, making him the King’s cousin, and there was little love lost between Richard and the Valois post-1475. Simply put, the Tudor threat was growing, and Richard was less stable without a clear line of succession.

Onlookers to the festivities were outraged by the “gaiety” on display, as well as the numerous outfit changes that Anne and Elizabeth of York undertook. They specifically called out that they found it unseemly Elizabeth of York was dressed similarly to her aunt. The clearest reason was their markedly different stations – apparel indicated status, and while Anne was queen, Elizabeth of York was legally a bastard. The more opaque reason was that given Anne had provided Richard one child in 12 years of marriage and he was dead, speculation abounded that he either meant to divorce her or wait until after her death to replace her – seemingly with Elizabeth of York, the 18-year-old daughter of the very fertile Elizabeth Woodville.

That Richard might have contemplated divorce isn’t outlandish. Fifty years later Henry VIII would do just that when he divorced Katherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn. Arguably, it was Richard’s job to provide an heir, and there was an “out” in his marriage contract with Anne Neville that would have helped facilitate matters. He had also been in contact with the Pope – now, we don’t know what it was Richard was writing to Rome about, but the possibility that it was a preliminary discussion of divorce can’t be ruled out.

The necessity of a divorce was voided just three months later when Anne died in March 1485, but her illness and death only lent credence to the public’s belief that Richard wanted to marry his niece. Gossip stated that he “shunned” Anne’s bed in her final months, however given that Anne died of tuberculosis and Richard’s health was a matter of national importance, the likelier conclusion is that doctors forbade him from contact. Those who believe the worst of Richard have postulated that he poisoned her, but there’s no evidence of that, and as mentioned, the likely culprit was TB. Still, the timing did little to dampen speculation that Elizabeth of York was about to become his second wife.

The crux of the argument that this marriage plan was real relies on a fire-damaged letter from Elizabeth of York to John Howard, Duke of Norfolk in February 1485, in which she discusses her desire for marriage, laments that Anne is still alive, and praises Richard. Frankly, if nothing else, the letter dispels the myth of the serene wife and mother Elizabeth of York would later become known as – or at the very least, indicates there was little love lost between her and Anne Neville. So, yes, it’s possible that Elizabeth desired the marriage, though the letter cannot be used as evidence that Richard did.

Another possibility is that Elizabeth still intended to marry Henry Tudor and fanned the flames of this rumor, knowing how damaging it was to Richard. That would be pretty savvy for a 19-year-old, but still possible. Finally, it’s possible that Elizabeth wasn’t talking about Richard at all, and was instead referencing the embassy that had recently left England for Portugal since Richard was considering marrying her to to the King of Portugal’s cousin. That would have been a lofty match for a bastard, but she was a king’s bastard, and the potential bridegroom only a king’s cousin, so sure.

This also leaves on the table how Richard would have handled Elizabeth of York’s legitimacy if he indeed meant to marry her. In order to make her queen, he would have almost certainly had to re-legitimize her, which would of course re-legitimize her brothers. We can safely assume that Richard wouldn’t do that unless he knew they were dead, leaving us with: 1) this was a baseless rumor, or 2) Richard knew the boys were dead and meant to marry their sister. Even if we assume the worst of Richard and go with the second option, this means Richard would basically have to say that Edward IV’s children were legitimate, his claim to the throne in 1483 was false, and Edward V shouldn’t have been deposed when he was, rendering the last two years of his reign illegitimate.

The likeliest conclusion is that at the very least, this wasn’t an option Richard was seriously considering.

Henry Tudor’s marriage to Elizabeth of York

Let’s move on to the sixth bullet – Elizabeth of York’s marriage to Henry Tudor. Indeed, behavior after Richard’s death is nearly as illuminating as events during his reign. After Henry Tudor defeated Richard and became Henry VII, he destroyed the Titulus Regius, the legal instrument by which Elizabeth of York and her siblings were de-legitimized. On the one hand, this was a necessary step before Henry could marry Elizabeth, which he very much had to do to maintain Yorkist support, but on the other, it also re-legitimized her brothers. That Henry so swiftly did so can be – and is – read as his certain knowledge that Edward V and the Duke of York were safely dead.

And yet…how could he be? Henry had been living abroad since 1471 and all of his intelligence was based on second-hand information, at best. Yes, it’s still possible that his mother received confirmation from the Duke of Buckingham and in turn shared that with Henry, but if that was the case, then why didn’t anyone say so? The Tudors made clear that they had no problem blackening Richard’s reputation in death, but neither Henry nor his government ever publicly accused Richard of the murder and confirmed the boys were dead.

By failing to do so, rumors of their survival continued to take root, so much so that Henry had to combat two very serious threats to his reign with so-called pretenders claiming to be Yorkist princes. He had every reason in the world to shut the book on this issue, but stayed silent. So, too, did Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York. In fact, when Perkin Warbeck claimed to be the Duke of York in the 1490s, Henry never had his wife come forward and definitively say that the man wasn’t her brother (Elizabeth Woodville was by then dead).

The likelier answer is that Henry didn’t know for sure – that even after Richard was dead and men with information could safely come forward, they didn’t, and the “Princes'” disappearance was as much a mystery in 1485 as it is today. As such, Henry revoked the Titulus Regius on the best guess that the boys were dead, married Elizabeth of York, and founded the Tudor dynasty. From that point onward – and certainly once he had his own children – it was less important whether he or “they” had a better claim; he had to protect his own line.

Now, we are going to cover the seventh bullet, but that, my friends, will come in later. Until next time.

2 thoughts on “Part Fifteen: Richard III & the Elizabeths

  1. Personally I do not believe the princes survived Richard iii reign. If they did somebody would have known and supported them, instead of Tudor, if they where secretly spirited away it would have been known and the rebels who opposed Richard would have supported them instead of Henry vii.
    Elizabeth Woodville may believed Buckingham’s rebellion was to restore her son on the throne. But when she was told by who ever it was that her sons were dead by the orders of their uncle, she threw in her lot with Tudor, to make her daughter queen. It could be that she may have expected that her daughter would be co-monarch. Her decision to leave sanctuary is strange indeed. Maybe there where no other options for her, remember she was no foreign princess who could expect foreign assistance e.g Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou, Katherine of Aragon.
    Let us remember that Henry did not marry Elizabeth of York immediately after Bosworth, and he crowned her 2 years after Bosworth, making a statement that he was king in his own right and not through his wife. Am very skeptical that things were rosy like others have suggested between Henry vii his mother in-law and the others.

    1. These are all good points! If you’re reading along in the series, we discuss a good bit of these in the next two posts (published later in December).

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