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.
Let’s talk about George, Duke of Clarence. And why wouldn’t we? Talking about him gives us the first and second parts of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III, the Neville family, the Woodville family, the Princes in the Tower, a dramatic (if not suspicious) execution and the fate of his York children well into the reigns of the Tudors. Today, of course, marks the anniversary of George’s execution in 1478, a death ordered by his older brother, King Edward, when he was only 29 years old. Did he deserve it? Yes, absolutely. To be honest, it’s shocking that George lived as long as he did given his propensity for treason.
I almost started this post with “Poor Henry VI,” but that’s debatable, isn’t it? Even today, historians question whether Henry was hapless, pious, unlucky or all three. In any event, he wasn’t a very good king, which is remarkable only because he never knew another existence. He would ascend the English throne on August 31, 1422 when his father, one of England’s most famous and beloved kings, Henry V, died in France at the age of 36. Henry was eight months old, having been born the previous winter at Windsor Castle to his mother, Katherine of Valois.
But fate wasn’t done with the infant king yet: Two months later, on October 22, 1422, his maternal grandfather, King Charles VI of France, died as well. Under the Treaty of Troyes, which had been signed by England, France and Burgundy in June 1420 – and contracted his parents into marriage – Henry also inherited the French throne, now ruling over a dual empire constructed by a father not around to execute it.
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.”