Woodville, Elizabeth (1437–1492)

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Woodville, Elizabeth (1437–1492)

Queen of England and wife of Edward IV . Name variations: Dame Elizabeth Grey; Elizabeth Wideville. Born Elizabeth Woodville around 1437 in Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire, England; died on June 7 or 8, 1492, in Bermondsey Abbey, London; eldest and one of six daughters and seven sons of Sir Richard Woodville, 1st earl Rivers, and Jacquetta of Luxemburg; married Sir John Grey, 2nd baron Ferrers of Groby (died); married Edward IV, king of England, on May 1, 1464 (died 1483); children: (first marriage) Thomas Grey, 1st marquess of Dorset (d. 1501) and Richard Grey (c. 1453–1483); (second marriage) Elizabeth of York (1466–1503, who married Henry VII); Mary Plantagenet (1467–1482); Cecilia (1469–1507); King Edward V (1470–1483, who was murdered in the Tower of London); Margaret (1472–1472); Richard (1473–1483, who was murdered in the Tower); Anne Howard (1475–1511); George (1477–1479, who died of the plague); Katherine Plantagenet (1479–1527); Bridget (1480–1517, who became a nun at Dartford).

Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV, was the product of the blissful union between Jacquetta of Luxemburg , a Luxemburg princess, and Sir Richard Woodville, an English squire who married despite family disapproval. As the eldest of the couple's 13 children, Elizabeth became a second mother to her younger siblings, whom she continued to nurture and protect throughout her life. She was described as a beautiful young woman, with "silver-gilt hair" down to her knees.

Elizabeth's first husband was John Grey, with whom she had two sons. Because John was a staunch supporter of the Lancastrians, Elizabeth became a lady of the bedchamber to Henry VI's queen, Margaret of Anjou (1429–1482). John, however, was killed in battle, and when Yorkist Edward IV had himself proclaimed king, Elizabeth lost all her husband's estates and was left penniless. She then set out to petition the new king to provide support for her children. Rather than seeking an audience, Elizabeth purportedly waylaid Edward while he was on a hunting expedition near her mother's home in Northamptonshire. Under an oak tree (which was known as the Queen's Oak until the 19th century), flanked by her small sons, she approached the king, who, known for his weakness for beautiful women, lost no time in propositioning the young widow. Indignant at his suggested impropriety, Elizabeth was said to have replied: "My Liege, I know I am not good enough to be your Queen, but I am far too good to be your mistress." Edward apparently found Elizabeth irresistible, and they were married a short time later, although the ceremony was kept secret so that the king could avoid the anger of his family and court over his marriage to a commoner. Edward did not make the marriage public until negotiations with Louis XI of France for him to marry a French princess took a serious turn.

Elizabeth was finally crowned in a splendid ceremony at Westminster, after which she busied herself with having more babies and situating her many siblings within wealthy marriages, a task made simpler by her ability to favorably influence her husband. (One of the most notorious results of her matchmaking was the marriage of her eldest brother, just 20, to the dowager duchess of Norfolk, who was 80.) Elizabeth's leverage over Edward remained in the realm of what Norah Lofts terms "gossipy bedroom influence" and did not extend to sensitive affairs of state. Nonetheless, Elizabeth was not popular among many Yorkist supporters, who were incensed over the favors granted to her upstart relatives, many of whom had Lancastrian connections.

Katherine Plantagenet (1479–1527)

English princess and duchess of Devon . Born around August 14, 1479, in Eltham, Kent, England; died on November 15, 1527, in Tiverton, Devon, England; daughter of Edward IV, king of England, and Elizabeth Woodville (1437–1492); married William Courtenay, earl of Devon, in October 1495; children: three, including Henry Courtenay (c. 1498–1539), marquess of Exeter.

Jacquetta of Luxemburg (c. 1416–1472)

Luxemburg princess . Name variations: Duchess of Bedford. Born in Luxemburg around 1416; died on May 30, 1472; daughter of Peter of Luxemburg, count of St. Pol, and Margaret del Balzo ; married John of Lancaster, duke of Bedford (son of Henry IV and Mary de Bohun ), on April 20, 1433; married Richard Woodville, 1st earl Rivers, in 1436; children: (second marriage) Elizabeth Woodville (1437–1492); Anthony Woodville, 2nd earl Rivers (c. 1442–1483); John Woodville (c. 1445–1469); Lionel Woodville, bishop of Salisbury (c. 1453–1484); Richard, 3rd earl Rivers (d. 1491); Edward Woodville (d. 1488); Margaret Woodville (who married Thomas Fitzalan, 14th earl of Arundel); Anne Woodville (who married William Bourchier, viscount Bourchier, and George Grey, 2nd earl of Kent); Jacquetta Woodville ; Katherine Woodville (c. 1442–1512); Mary Woodville (c. 1443–c. 1480); Eleanor Woodville (who married Anthony Grey).

While Edward was out of the country during the Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth was forced by the dangers of war to take refuge in the sanctuary at Westminster for the birth of her fourth child, Edward V, heir to the throne. Hard times eventually gave way to victory for the Yorkists, and the royal court was restored to a place of luxury and lavish entertainment. While Elizabeth produced five more children, Edward began to ignore his royal duties in favor of the high life, which included liaisons with a number of other women, including Elizabeth Lucy and Jane Shore . After Edward's death in 1483, at age 40 (attributed by some to sheer overindulgence), Elizabeth was immediately caught up in the attempt of her power-hungry brother-in-law, Richard (III) of Gloucester, to keep Edward V, then 12, from succeeding to the throne. Villainous in his approach, Richard accused Elizabeth of witchcraft and, declaring that her children were illegitimate because her marriage had been irregular, had himself declared king. Most devastating to Elizabeth was the sudden disappearance of both Edward V and his brother Richard, who had been confined to the Tower of London, supposedly to await the coronation. Thought to have been murdered by agents of Richard III, their bodies went undiscovered for 200 years. (After two centuries of speculation, workmen repairing a staircase in the Tower found the bones of two youths, believed to be the brothers.)

During the two-year reign of Richard III (r. 1483–1485), Elizabeth, once dowager queen, became simply Dame Elizabeth Grey, and lived under the king's control in Bermondsey Abbey. When Henry VII finally defeated the Yorkists and took Elizabeth's daughter (Elizabeth of York ) as his bride in 1486, he restored the dowager queen's lands. One of the last pleasures of Elizabeth Woodville's life was attending the christening of Henry's and Elizabeth's first son Arthur, to whom she was godmother as well as grandmother. After her death in 1492, at age 55, Elizabeth was buried without ceremony beside Edward IV at Windsor. A likeness of her adorns a stained-glass window in Canterbury Cathedral.


Hall, Walter Phelps, and Robert Greenhalgh Albion. A History of England and the British Empire. Boston, MA: Ginn, 1953.

Lofts, Norah. Queens of England. NY: Doubleday, 1977.

suggested reading:

MacGibbon, David. Elizabeth Woodville, 1437–1492, 1938.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Woodville, Elizabeth (1437–1492)

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