English Queen Consort Elizabeth Woodville (c. 1437-1492) remains a controversial figure. The wife of King Edward IV, Woodville was cast in a negative light by many both during her time and throughout history. Woodville was mother to many royal children, including the romanticized “Princes in the Tower.” Recent scholarship has re-examined her place in history, however, and cast her in a more favorable light.
Daughter of Minor Nobility
The first child of Sir Richard Woodville and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville was born in about 1437 at Grafton in Northamptonshire, England. Through her mother, she was a descendent of such distinguished luminaries as Charlemagne. Her mother was the widow of John, Duke of Bedford, younger brother of the ruling monarch, Henry V; despite some scandal when the couple married, as Richard Woodville was not of the same level of nobility, the couple enjoyed royal favor. Elizabeth Woodville, along with her younger brothers Anthony and John and younger sister Margaret, spent her earliest years primarily on her family's estate at Grafton. Thomas More claimed that Woodville had served as a maid to Margaret of Anjou, Queen Consort of Henry VI, as a child but some evidence suggests that this is unlikely. More probable is that some time after her seventh birthday, she went to live with another noble family—probably Sir Edward Grey and his wife Elizabeth—in Leicestershire. At the time, noble parents commonly sent their children to live in other households as a way of developing both personal independence and necessary social or marital contacts. In 1448, Woodville's father became Baron Rivers, a significant elevation in his status.
Some time in the early 1450s, Woodville married Sir John Grey, the son of Sir Edward Grey and his wife. Writing in Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower, David Baldwin argued that “it is, perhaps, unlikely that Elizabeth was married at thirteen and a mother at fourteen; but … this may be another instance of a family's desire to seal an agreement as quickly as possible taking precedence over the well-being of the bride.” Regardless of the exact date of the marriage, it is known that Woodville had two sons by Grey: Thomas, who became the Marquess of Dorset, and Richard. The young family probably lived at one of the Grey family manors in Warwickshire, but very little is known about this time in her history.
Became Queen Consort
Sir John Grey died on behalf of the Lancastrians in the Second Battle of St. Albans during the War of the Roses in 1461. On behalf of the Yorkists, Woodville's mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, met with longtime friend Margaret of Anjou, the Queen Consort of deposed ruler Henry VI and head of the Lancastrian armies, to discuss whether the Lancastrian army would move on London. In Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen, Arlene Okerlund stated:
“As a result of the feminine parley between Margaret and Jacquetta, Margaret limited Lancastrian entry into London to a symbolic force …. That fateful decision destroyed her cause and allowed the troops of Edward, Earl of March to enter the city just days later. Soon, Edward was crowned King Edward IV. The newly-widowed Elizabeth Woodville returned to her family home at Grafton, perhaps then meeting Edward IV for the first time. The new monarch soon pardoned the Woodville family for their participation on the Lancastrian side of the War of the Roses.
In April 1464, Woodville married King Edward IV of England. It remains unclear how the attachment was formed or when the King decided to marry her; a rather colorful legend suggests that Woodville, knowing that Edward IV was hunting in a nearby forest, waited for him with her sons beneath a tree known as the Queen's Oak to ask his assistance with a property agreement she was negotiating. Taken with her beauty and unwillingness to submit to his advances, the King then returned to secretly marry her a few weeks later at her family home in Grafton. Little evidence supports this series of events, but it does seem clear that the engagement and marriage happened quickly and without the knowledge of Edward IV's advisers.
Many in Edward VI's court expected him to form a marriage alliance with a member of an important European ruling family, or at least marry a daughter of a prominent Yorkist family. Baldwin summarized the objections to Woodville by noting that “the new Queen's father was a former Lancastrian who had only been ennobled comparatively recently while she herself was some five years the King's senior, a widow with two young sons.” However, Woodville was young, beautiful, and had proven herself capable of bearing healthy sons, an important consideration for a monarch. Her connections to the Lancastrians showed Edward IV was attempting to heal the wounds of the War of the Roses. Any arguments Edward IV's councilors could make were, however, moot as the marriage had already taken place. Elizabeth Woodville was crowned Queen Consort on May 26, 1465.
In early 1466, Woodville gave birth to her first child by Edward IV, Elizabeth. The need for a male heir tinged all royal marriages, but Edward IV remained dedicated to his bride despite the birth of two more royal daughters, Mary in 1467 and Cecily in 1469. (Despite his dedication to his wife, Edward IV often had relationships with other women and sired numerous illegitimate children over the years.) During these early years on the throne, Elizabeth and her Woodville relations developed a negative reputation; many thought that their new influence over Edward IV led to unfairly advantageous marriages and that, generally, the family aimed at building its own power above all other aims. However, Woodville supported Cambridge's Queens' College as well as Eton College, showing that she had at least some domestic aims.
Years of Rebellion
General dissatisfaction with the King grew as well, as some of his subjects believed that little progress had been made since the removal of Henry VI from the throne despite increased taxes. In 1469, the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville—a relative of Edward IV's who had helped raise him to the monarchy during the War of the Roses— conspired with Edward IV's younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, to undermine Edward IV's power. Edward IV marshaled an army, and Elizabeth Woodville went to Norwich, where she remained for several months. During this time, the conspirators raised an army to battle the King's forces, and successfully captured the King, whom they held captive. Shortly after this coup, Elizabeth Woodville's father and brother were executed; Baldwin argued that “their deaths and the allegations that Jacquetta had used sorcery to make Edward marry her daughter, were really private acts of vengeance designed to remove the barrier which developed between [Warwick] and his royal master.” However, Warwick soon discovered that the majority of the nobility were not willing to accept his pretense of ruling the country through Edward IV, and released the King.
Edward IV attempted to reconcile with his rebellious subjects, but the following year they again attempted a coup, this time unsuccessfully. Warwick fled to France, and managed to strike a deal with Margaret d'Anjou. In the summer of 1470, Elizabeth Woodville and her children moved into the Tower of London for protection while Edward IV attempted to raise an army to oust the coming invasion from France. However, the opposition's military advantages forced Edward IV to flee the country. Woodville gathered her family and sought sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. Because the traditions of chivalry usually protected royal women, Okerlund noted that this decision “to join the motley crew in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey indicated not only the extraordinary mayhem in the nation, but her profound distrust of Warwick.” There, she gave birth to a son, Edward, on November 2, 1470. She remained in sanctuary until April 1471, when Edward IV returned to London to depose Henry VI from the latter's brief restoration.
Returned to Queenship
Young Edward became Prince of Wales, the official title of the heir to England's throne, in June 1471. Elizabeth Woodville was named the head of the council responsible for the heir's upbringing to the age of 14, and further given the supervisory power over the Prince's daily routine. The following year, Woodville accompanied her son on travels throughout the country. In 1473, Woodville relocated to Ludlow Castle with Prince Edward. There, she gave birth to her second son, Richard, in August 1473. Two years later, the next royal daughter, Anne, was born. Woodville and Edward IV dedicated themselves to arranging suitable matches for their children; Princess Elizabeth, the royal couple's eldest daughter, went on to marry the future Henry VII. Life continued fairly quietly for Woodville for the next several years, excepting two more births: in 1479, she gave birth to Catherine, and the following year to the final royal daughter, Bridget.
In the early 1480s, Edward IV's health began to decline; in April 1483, he died. Edward V soon set out for London from Ludlow Castle. However, supporters of an opposing claimant to the throne, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, took the 12-year-old Edward V into custody en route. Deeming himself the Protector of the young King, Gloucester accompanied the boy to London. There, Gloucester imprisoned both Edward V and his younger brother Richard in the Tower, claiming that Edward IV's marriage to Woodville had been illegitimate and that he, Richard, was thus the true heir to the throne. That July, Gloucester was crowned as King Richard III. The ultimate fate of the “Princes in the Tower” remains unknown to this day, although it seems likely that the boys were executed. Richard III died at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and was succeeded by Henry VII.
Death and Legacy
In February 1487, Henry VII forced Woodville to retire to Bermondsey Abbey on arguably spurious charges. She was permitted to have visitors, but little broke the presumably dull routine of her life; the only recorded event during her years at the Abbey was a formal meeting with a group of French ambassadors in November 1489. In the early 1490s, Woodville's health began to decline and she died on June 8, 1492. She was buried quietly in St. George's Chapel alongside her husband; Okerlund commented that “the funeral procession … could not have contrasted more starkly with the elaborate processions of her queenly days.”
Woodville's greatest legacy was perhaps the great number of her female descendants who became queens. Her daughter married Henry VII and was the mother of not only Henry VIII, but also Margaret, later wife of the King of Scotland, and Mary, later wife of the King of France; Woodville's great-granddaughters included Queen Mary I and the enormously significant Queen Elizabeth I; her great-great-granddaughters included Mary, Queen of Scots and Lady Jane Grey, who ruled England for nine days in July 1553.
While some of her contemporaries respected and even admired Woodville, over the centuries following her death she has generally been regarded distinctly unfavorably. Historians have argued that she connived and intrigued to advance her family's claims to power, and some have made her into an outright villain. Her life and character have been reconsidered by some modern historians and a more favorable picture of her is emerging. Regardless, her contributions to the future of England's history is irrefutable.
Baldwin, David, Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower, Sutton, 2002.
Laynesmith, J.L., The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445-1503, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Okerlund, Arlene, Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen Tempus, 2005.
Smith, George, The Coronation of Elizabeth Wydeville, Queen Consort of Edward IV, on May 26th, 1465: A Contemporary Account Set Forth from the XV Century Manuscript, Gloucester Reprints, 1975.
Anthony James Pollard