Elizabeth Woodville

Elizabeth Woodville

Infobox British Royalty|majesty|consort
name =Elizabeth Woodville
title =Queen consort of England

caption =
reign =1 May 1464 - 9 April 1483
coronation =26 May 1465
spouse =Sir John Grey
Edward IV
spouse-type =Spouse
issue =Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset
Richard Grey
Elizabeth, Queen of England
Mary of York
Cecily, Viscountess Welles
Edward V
Margaret of York
Richard, Duke of York
Anne, Countess of Surrey
George, Duke of Bedford
Catherine, Countess of Devon
Bridget of York
royal house =York
othertitles =
father =Richard Woodville, 1st Earl Rivers
mother =Jacquetta of Luxembourg
date of birth =3 February1437
place of birth =Grafton Regis
date of death =8 June 1492
place of death =Bermondsey
place of burial =St. George's Chapel, Windsor|

Elizabeth Woodville or Wydeville (3 February 1437 – 7 June/8 June 1492) was the Queen consort of King Edward IV of England from 1464 until his death in 1483.

Early life and first marriage

Elizabeth was born circa 1437 at Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire, the daughter of Richard Wydeville, 1st Earl Rivers and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who had previously been married to John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford. Although spelling of the family name has sometimes been modernized to "Woodville", it was spelled "Wydeville" in contemporary publications by Caxton and "Widvile" on Queen Elizabeth's tomb at St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle. Through her mother, Elizabeth was a distant descendant of King John of England. She was a maid of honour to Margaret of Anjou, Queen of Henry VI in 1445 when she was only about 10. In about 1452, she married Sir John Grey of Groby, who was killed at the Second Battle of St Albans in 1461, fighting for the Lancastrian cause, which would become a source of irony as Edward IV was the Yorkist claimant to the throne. Elizabeth had two sons from the marriage, Thomas (later Marquess of Dorset) and Richard.

Elizabeth was called "the most beautiful woman in the Island of Britain" with "heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon", highlighting a perhaps unusual criterion by which beauty in Early Modern England was adjudged.Fact|date=June 2008

Queen consort

Edward IV had many mistresses, the most notorious being Jane Shore, and did not have a reputation for fidelity. His marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville took place secretly (with only the bride's mother and two ladies in attendance) at her family home in Northamptonshire. Traditionally it was assumed to have taken place on 1 May 1464, but more recently it has been suggested that the marriage actually took place the following August.

In the early years of his reign, Edward's governance of England was dependent upon a small circle of supporters, most notably his cousin, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick (also known as "Warwick the Kingmaker"), who was partially responsible for having placed him on the throne. At around the time of Edward's secret marriage, Warwick was negotiating an alliance with France in an effort to thwart a similar arrangement being made by his sworn enemy Margaret of Anjou, wife of the deposed Henry VI. The plan was that Edward should marry a French Princess. When the marriage to Elizabeth became public, its concealment was the cause of considerable rancour on Warwick's part. Later, when Elizabeth's relatives, especially her brother, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, began to challenge his pre-eminence in English political society, he turned against Edward and fled to France with his son-in-law, Edward's brother the Duke of Clarence. Warwick and Margaret of Anjou then formed an alliance of their own to restore Henry to the throne and Warwick's daughter Anne married Margaret's son Edward of Westminster.

Elizabeth was crowned Queen on Ascension Day, 26 May 1465. There was an infamous incident at her coronation which was not attended by Edward IV (kings traditionally did not attend their consorts' coronations) in which her mother's Luxembourg kinsmen landed in a ship at Ship's Green and arrived at Westminster Abbey carrying shields painted with the figure of Melusine, a "water-witch" (actually a medieval version of the old pagan goddess) described variously as a mermaid or possibly as a female figure depicted as a snake from the waist down, but with the face clearly that of the young Queen. This immediately caused whispers of witchcraft to circulate throughout the Abbey, as it was indeed the intention of the Luxembourgers to suggest an accusation of witchcraft thereby. Elizabeth's brother Anthony came to her rescue, driving the Luxembourg kinsmen forth from the Abbey all the way to Ship's Green where he would not allow them to embark and depart until he had answered this charge of witchcraft in single combat with every one of them and scratched every Melusine shield. (This "infamous incident" appears to be a modern invention. It is not recorded in any of Elizabeth Woodville's modern biographies, including the relatively hostile one by David MacGibbon, or in any contemporary chronicle. The charge of witchcraft was later laid against the Duchess of Bedford in 1469, some considerable time after the Coronation, by a follower of the Earl of Warwick, and she was acquitted the following year. Although Richard III, in declaring Elizabeth's children by Edward IV to be illegitimate, accused Elizabeth Wydeville of having procured her marriage through witchcraft, he never brought her to trial on witchcraft charges or otherwise proved their veracity. The 1484 Act of Parliament that contains the witchcraft charge, Titulus Regius, gives no pertinent details. The House of Luxembourg, however, is said to have claimed a mythical descent from Melusine, but there is no evidence that Elizabeth Wydeville made use of this legend or that her beliefs were anything other than the conventional Christianity of her day.)

With the arrival on the scene of the new queen came a host of siblings who soon married into some of the most notable families in England. The marriages of her sisters to the sons of the earls of Kent, Essex and Pembroke have left no sign of unhappiness on the parts of the parties involved, nor does that of her sister, Catherine Woodville, to the queen's 11-year-old ward Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, though the duke stood with the duke of Gloucester in opposition to the Woodvilles after the death of Edward IV. The one marriage which may be considered shocking was that of her 20-year-old brother John Woodville to Lady Katherine Neville, daughter of Ralph Neville, 1st Earl of Westmorland by Joan Beaufort, widow of John Mowbray, 2nd Duke of Norfolk and dowager Duchess of Norfolk. The wealthy Katherine had been widowed three times and was probably in her sixties.

Queen Mother

Elizabeth and Edward's marriage was to produce ten children, including two sons who were still living at the time of the King's sudden death in 1483. The elder, Edward, had been born in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey in 1470, during the period when his father was out of power and in exile following his overthrow by Warwick in favour of Henry VI. Edward later returned to England and Warwick was killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471.

Following Edward's death, Elizabeth now, briefly, became Queen Mother, but on 25 June 1483, her marriage was declared null and void by Parliament in the act "Titulus Regius" on the grounds that Edward had previously promised to marry Lady Eleanor Butler, which was considered a legally binding contract that rendered any other marriage contract invalid as bigamous. (It was said that Eleanor Butler had done the same thing Elizabeth Woodville did later: a widow who caught Edward's eye, she refused to give in to him until he promised to marry her.) This information came to the fore when a priest (believed to be Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells), testified that he had carried out the ceremony.

On the basis of his evidence, all Elizabeth's children by Edward, including King Edward V, were declared illegitimate, and her brother-in-law, Richard III, was given the crown. Young Edward and his brother Richard, Duke of York, were kept in the Tower of London, where they had already been lodged to await the Coronation. The exact fate of the so-called Princes in the Tower has been long debated, but the best scholarship leaves little doubt that they were dead by September 1483.

Elizabeth now lost the title of Queen Mother and was referred to as Dame Elizabeth Grey. She and her other children were in sanctuary again, fearing for their safety. This may have been to protect themselves against jealous courtiers who wanted revenge against the entire Wydeville clan.

Elizabeth and Richard III

On 1 March 1484 Elizabeth and her daughters came out of sanctuary and returned to Court. Rumours even spread that the now-widowed King Richard was going to marry his niece Elizabeth of York. Richard issued a denial, but according to the Crowland Chronicle he was pressured to do so by the Wydevilles' enemies who feared, among other things, that they would have to return the lands they had confiscated from the Wydevilles.

Elizabeth's behaviour has been a source of frustration to historians. They reason that she would never have recognised Richard as King unless she knew for sure that both her sons were dead and that she would have to resort to other means to keep her family in power. There was also the fact that Richard had had her brother Earl Rivers and her son Richard Grey executed.

The Wars of the Roses are notorious for the number of times that leading figures changed sides whenever it suited them (examples including Warwick and the Duke of Clarence), and it is possible that Elizabeth was no exception. But would she have been heartless or thoughtless enough to side with a man who had quite likely killed her own sons and could thus arrange the deaths of herself and her daughters?

There are several possible explanations for Elizabeth's willingness to reconcile with Richard:

# The Princes had died of natural causes for which Richard could not be held responsible (but then why did he not make this public, especially since rumours about their fate were already circulating?)
# The Princes had been killed by a third party, and Richard had convinced Elizabeth that he was not involved. (In his biography of "Richard III", Paul Murray Kendall suggests that the Duke of Buckingham may have been responsible. Margaret Beaufort or her third husband, Lord Stanley, are other possibilities.)
# It is also known that by this time Elizabeth had been plotting with agents of Henry Tudor, another claimant to the throne, and it is possible that she was getting closer to Richard in case Henry's attempt failed.
# Elizabeth may have planned to coerce Richard into marrying her daughter, thereby regaining her power, wealth, and prestige.
# Elizabeth realised that, by Richard marrying her daughter, he would be acknowledging her daughter's legitimacy and thus her marriage to Edward IV. This would imply that her son Edward V was also legitimate and so the rightful King, this would at least discredit Richard.
# Elizabeth viewed people in light of what they could do for her. She may simply have been more concerned with herself than with the fate of her sons.
# Elizabeth believed that this was the best choice for her and her family and that her daughters, being females, were not at risk from Richard III. She knew that she might not be able to remain in sanctuary forever, and her growing daughters were probably miserable there.

It should be noted that before Elizabeth and her daughters came out of sanctuary, Richard III publicly swore an oath that her daughters would not be harmed or ravished and that they would not be imprisoned in the Tower of London or in any other prison. Richard III also promised to provide them with marriage portions and to marry them to "gentlemen born."

In the end, Richard was defeated and killed at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry Tudor became King Henry VII and married Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth Wydeville's marriage to Edward IV was declared to have been valid, and thus their children were once again legitimised (because Henry wanted his wife to be the Yorkist heir to the throne, to cement his hold on it). Elizabeth was accorded the title of Queen Dowager.

Later life

Scholars differ about why Queen Dowager Elizabeth spent her last five years living at Bermondsey Abbey. Among her modern biographers, David Baldwin believes that Henry VII forced her retreat from the Court, while Arlene Okerlund presents evidence that indicates she was planning a religious, contemplative life as early as July 1486. At the Abbey, Elizabeth was treated with all the respect due to a Queen Mother, lived a regal life, and received a pension of £400 and small gifts from the King. She did not attend her daughter's coronation, but was present at the birth of her second grandchild, Margaret, at Westminster Palace in November 1489. The Queen rarely visited her, although Elizabeth's younger daughter, Cecilia Welles, who had married Viscount Welles, came to see her as often as she could.

Henry VII briefly contemplated marrying Elizabeth off to King James III of Scotland, when James' wife, Queen Margaret, died in 1488. James was killed in battle later that year, rendering the plans of Henry VII moot. Elizabeth died on 8 June 1492. With the exception of the Queen, who was awaiting the birth of her fourth child and Cecilia (Viscountess Welles), her daughters attended the funeral at Windsor Castle: Anne (the future Countess of Surrey), Catherine (the future Countess of Devon) and Bridget (a sister at Dartford Priory). Her will specified a simple funeral. Many ardent Yorkists, who considered themselves slighted by the ordinary and very simple burial of Edward IV's Queen on 12 June 1492, were not pleased. Elizabeth was laid to rest in the same chantry as her husband King Edward IV in St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle.


During her later years, Elizabeth Wydeville had the satisfaction of knowing that her daughter was securely on the consort's throne. She lived to see the birth of two grandsons, Princes Arthur and Henry, the latter of whom would later become Henry VIII. Through her granddaughter, Queen Margaret of Scotland, Elizabeth became an ancestress of the Stuart, Hanover, and Windsor dynasties, whose descendants reign in England, Scotland and Wales today. Her great-granddaughter Elizabeth I (the Virgin Queen) became arguably the greatest female monarch to sit on the English throne.

Children of Elizabeth Wydeville

By Sir John Grey

* Thomas Grey, Earl of Huntingdon, Marquess of Dorset and Lord Ferrers de Groby
* Richard Grey

By King Edward IV

* Elizabeth of York (1466-1503), Queen Consort of England
* Mary of York (1467-1482), buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle
* Cecily of York (1469-1507), Viscountess Welles
* Edward V of England (1470-1483/5), one of the Princes in the Tower
* Margaret of York (Apr. 1472-Dec. 1472), buried in Westminster Abbey
* Richard, Duke of York (1473-1483/5), one of the Princes in the Tower
* Anne of York, Countess of Surrey (1475-1511)
* George Plantagenet (1477-1479), Duke of Bedford; buried in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle
* Catherine of York (1479-1527), Countess of Devon
* Bridget of York (1480-1517), nun at Dartford Priory, Kent

Further reading

David Baldwin, Elizabeth Woodville (Stroud, 2002) [http://lccn.loc.gov/2003501109]

Christine Carpenter, The Wars of the Roses (Cambridge, 1997) [http://lccn.loc.gov/97007038]

Michael Hicks, Edward V (Stroud, 2003) [http://lccn.loc.gov/2004401877]

Rosemary Horrox, Richard III : a study of service (Cambridge, 1989) [http://lccn.loc.gov/88022899]

J.L. Laynesmith, The Last Medieval Queens (Oxford, 2004) [http://lccn.loc.gov/2004041528]

Arlene Okerlund, Elizabeth Wydeville (Stroud, 2005) [http://lccn.loc.gov/2005482149]

Charles Ross, Edward IV (Berkeley, 1974) [http://lccn.loc.gov/74079771]

External links

* [http://www.quns.cam.ac.uk/Queens/Misc/Elizabeth.html Queens' College website:Brief notes and the portrait]


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