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.
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.
The pairing of John, Duke of Bedford and Jacquetta of Luxembourg is one which never fails to jar me in hindsight. What are the odds that the Duke’s second wife would go on to become the mother of a queen of England via her own second marriage, particularly given the outrageousness of each match? Well, they’re nil. Much like how it can still be difficult to fathom that the marriage of Katherine of Valois’s that became most dynastically significant was hers to Owen Tudor and not Henry V.
Ohhh, the Woodvilles. For those that have never heard of them, here’s a quick download: An English widow named Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville) married Edward IV, the first king in the House of York, sometime in 1464. England was in the middle of what would become known as the Wars of the Roses and Edward was in his early 20s, had only been on the throne for about three years and stood to benefit (massively) from the foreign alliance that marrying abroad would bring him. He instead married for love, or lust, a Lancastrian widow who was older than him and the daughter of a mere baron.
Upon marriage, Elizabeth brought with her to court her parents and a plethora of unmarried brothers and sisters, all of whom needed positions befitting the family of the queen. Edward and Elizabeth’s two eldest sons would become the famed “Princes in the Tower,” and were likely murdered during the reign of their uncle, Richard III, while their eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, would marry Henry VII and help found the House of Tudor.
For those that are familiar with the period, then you will know that the Woodvilles have warranted refreshed appraisal in the last few years, which makes sense given the amount of recent scholarship that has been published on the Wars of the Roses, particularly its women. Almost always villainized, Elizabeth’s family are usually peripheral characters in the study or dramatization of the greater figures of Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII. Elizabeth, herself, is depicted as a cold ice queen, a social-climbing upstart or a witch dabbling in black magic – sometimes all three at once. Perhaps she was lucky – her Lancastrian counterpart, Marguerite of Anjou, is usually portrayed as a promiscuous, violent, foreign “she-wolf.”