The Long & Short of Elizabeth Woodville

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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.

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The Elder Daughters Who Could Have Ruled

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Recently we discussed changes to the succession laws in 2013 that allow the eldest child, not just the eldest male, to inherit the crown. Because the rules aren’t retroactive, Princess Charlotte is the female member of the British Royal Family to directly benefit from the rule change, meaning that even if she is followed up by a younger brother, he won’t trump her in the line of succession.

So, in honor of that, we’re going to go back and look at the elder daughters who could have ruled if absolute primogeniture had been in place from the get-go – well, from the Norman Conquest.

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Katherine of York, Countess of Devon & the Courtenays

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Remarkably given their dynastic importance, the chaos with which they were surrounded and their potential for mischief, the daughters of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville were a quiet lot. Much like the eldest, Elizabeth of York, there are only flashes of agency against an overarching pattern of obedience for the younger daughters.

While we know that Elizabeth became the queen consort of Henry VII and the third sister, Anne of York, married Thomas Howard, future 3rd Duke of Norfolk, today we’re going to focus on the second-to-youngest daughter, Katherine, whose life followed a very interesting Medieval pattern.

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The Crowning of Richard III & Anne Neville

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Today marks the 534th anniversary of Richard III’s coronation, an event that stands out from his reign as a moment of near-optimism. It was also an unusual ceremony in that it was a double crowning – Richard and his wife, Anne Neville, were anointed side-by-side in Westminster Abbey. The 12th century had seen the same with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, while the 13th century had seen Edward I and Eleanor of Castile and the 14th their son, Edward II, and his wife, Isabelle of France. That last coronation had taken place in 1308, 175 years before.

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The Ick Factor: Richard III & Elizabeth of York

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Speaking of the Tudor Myth, a fun little twist to exanining Richard III is seeing two wildly divergent schools of thought on him. While there are presumably some objective histories of his life and reign, most fall into two camps: those that revile him and those that apologize for him.

This is particularly evident in the question as to whether or not Richard III made plans to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, in 1485. What exactly the nature of their relationship was has been eroded by time, but there is far too much smoke around the issue for there not to have been at least a reasonably-sized fire. In this case, the theory is borne out by the fact that there was contemporary speculation on the subject, as well as the fact that Richard took the pains to publicly deny it.

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The Tudor Myth

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Let’s start at the beginning: What is the “Tudor Myth”? Essentially, it’s a school of thought that the study of the Tudors and their immediate predecessors has been warped by Tudor propaganda. At its root, it’s a more specific way of saying, “History is written by winners.” The two Tudors considered most guilty of this whitewashing, if you will, are Elizabeth I and her grandfather, Henry VII, albeit for slightly different reasons.

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The Accession of Richard III

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I’ve been waiting to do a post on Richard III for a few reasons. For one, he’s a controversial figure, as most recently evidenced by the furor over where his long-lost body would be buried. For another, he is one of the figures for whom you must do justice – there is little about him that can be referenced without context or further explanation and the Wars of the Roses was a complicated period, particularly for the uninitiated. And so, it’s taken time to get to him, but summer is as good a time as any to do so – it’s the season during which he assumed the throne and the season in which in he lost it.

We’ll return to him a few more times over the next few months, but today I want to discuss his accession – its legality and logistics, and the motivation behind it.

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The Matriarch: Cecily Neville, Duchess of York

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One of my favorite figures from the Wars of the Roses is Cecily Neville, Duchess of York who came very close to becoming England’s queen through her husband and ended up mother to two, Edward IV and Richard III. She was grandmother to the Princes in the Tower, mother-in-law to Elizabeth Woodville and Anne Neville, mother to a Duchess of Burgundy and rival to Marguerite of Anjou. In short, she was something to almost everyone and while we know where she was and what she did more often than most women of her time, we know remarkably little about who she actually was.

If you’re familiar with her, it’s actually a bit astonishing given the wealth of information we have to parse through and the level of fame that her family achieved. We have flashes of activity over the course of several decades, but only two real moments of humanity shine through, both of which relate to her children. We know that she was beautiful, though it’s unclear to what extent that was exaggerated given her rank. We believe that she was religious based on her increasingly public piety and retirement to a convent. We assume she mourned the loss of her husband and children.

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When Did Edward IV Marry Elizabeth Woodville?

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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.

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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.

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