Before there was William and Kate, there was Edward and Elizabeth. Henry VIII’s royal grandparents married for love centuries before it was tolerable. Their marriage divided the nation but it produced a large lasting dynasty. Their daughter, Elizabeth of York, is the most recent common ancestor of all English monarchs. Before she became Queen of England, Elizabeth’s background is a little patchy. Here’s what we do know.
Elizabeth Woodville was born around 1437-8 probably at her parents home at Grafton in Northamptonshire. Her father, Sir Richard Woodville, later 1st Earl Rivers, was a humble country squire however her mother Jacquetta, Dowager Duchess of Bedford was of the Luxembourg royal house. Sir Richard and Jacquetta married for love, much to the scandal of the royal court, and without the permission of King Henry VI. They were eventually pardoned for their crime and produced an enormous family of fourteen children, most of whom survived into adulthood, a massively high average for the day.
Elizabeth had a better education than the average girl in her position as her mother Jacquetta loved literature and had inherited a nice collection of books from her first husband the Duke of Bedford. As the eldest child in the family, Elizabeth was the first to be married off. When it came time for her to be married, Jacquetta chose Sir John Grey of Groby, Leicestershire. Because of the sketchy details that exist around Elizabeth’s birth, her marriage to Sir John, and the birth of their first son, Thomas, it is believed that Elizabeth was only around thirteen or fourteen when she gave birth to her first child. Sir John was killed fighting in the Second Battle of St Albans in 1461 and Elizabeth found herself a widow with two young sons to raise. Elizabeth returned to live with her parents with her two boys because she could not afford to support herself and her children whilst she disputed her widow’s pension with her mother-in-law.
Turns out that Elizabeth didn’t need her widows pension. Within weeks, on 1st May 1464 Elizabeth Woodville married the young King Edward IV of England, five years her junior, in a private ceremony in the Woodville’s private chapel. It was clearly a love match (especially on his part). It was the first time since the Norman Conquest that an English king had married one of his subjects (whilst he was actually king). Kings were expected to marry foreign princesses for state reasons, to strengthen foreign alliances, not the daughters of their enemy, lowly upstarts from the House of Lancaster. It’s impossible to know the details of when and how Edward and Elizabeth met. Romantic stories of the young widow standing under an oak tree waiting for the king to ride by abound. Sadly, we just don’t know.
Edward and Elizabeth’s two families were at war. It was the House of York versus the House of Lancaster so when Edward announced to his privy council that he had concealed his wedding to Elizabeth, all hell broke loose. Edward’s cousin, the Earl of Warwick “The Kingmaker” struggled to deal with his diminished power over Edward after his marriage. Plus Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, was ambitious and wanted more from Edward and he felt that Edward was giving too much power/titles/honours/lands/etc was going to Elizabeth’s family. Edward’s mother Duchess Cecily wasn’t happy about the marriage either. Denied the opportunity to become Queen Consort herself when her husband, Richard Duke of York, was killed at the battle of Wakefield before he could claim his crown, she may have felt bitter towards her daughter-in-law although she was treated with the respect of defacto Dowager Queen.
Peace in England lasted for six years until 1470, when Warwick and George of Clarence banded together to depose King Edward so that they could make George King of England (and therefore his new bride Warwick’s eldest daughter, Isobel would become queen). Part of the Warwick-George gamble relied on the fact that Queen Elizabeth had not yet produced a male heir (the three princesses didn’t count).
Six months later, after the Battle of Tewkesbury, Edward was back on the throne and everything was as it was before. Except that it wasn’t. Casualties from the bloody period included:
Earl of Warwick
King Henry VI (previously deposed by Edward)
Edward of Westminster (Henry VI’s heir)
Elizabeth’s father Earl Rivers
Elizabeth’s brother John
Elizabeth emerged from the safety of sanctuary in Westminster Abbey and out of the confines of the church basement carrying one precious piece of cargo – a new baby named Edward, after his father. Prince Edward was shortly after created Prince of Wales. Elizabeth showed that she was made of tough stuff by remaining in sanctuary during the difficult time without her husband and without any powerful friends that could intervene for her. For the rest of King Edward’s reign, Elizabeth became increasingly more her husband’s partner in government. She was the head of Prince Edward’s council until he was old enough to take up his position of Prince of Wales based at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marshes.
Elizabeth gave birth to Prince Richard in 1473 so that they now had an heir and a spare. This new period of peace lasted for the rest of King Edward’s life until he passed away suddenly in his prime at age 40 in 1483. Chaos ensued. The King’s brother Richard was named Lord Protector and Elizabeth was essentially excluded from government. She tried to make sure that her son, now, Edward V, was crowned King but he was taken into Richard’s custody, and after a few months Richard named himself King Richard III.
Edward V and his brother Richard of York were held at the Tower of London whilst the nation stabilised under Richard’s rule. Within a few months the princes disappeared from the Tower and it is generally believed that they were murdered. Two small skeletons of just the right size were found buried near the White Tower in 1674. King Charles II had them buried in Westminster Abbey so he must have had decent reason to believe that it was the lost princes.
Around Easter 1484 Elizabeth and her daughters came out of sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. The now Dame Elizabeth Grey (her marriage to Edward was declared invalid and her children bastards) made an agreement with Richard III that he would treat them as his own kinswomen and not imprison them without hearing their side of the story. Elizabeth was probably being pragmatic in her decision to come out of sanctuary. With six daughters who would need husbands, Elizabeth knew that their collective future was at stake.
Elizabeth’s daughters took up positions in the household of Richard III and his Queen Anne Neville. Just prior Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth of York was betrothed to Henry Tudor. This was a strategic alliance. The plan was that if Henry could overthrow Richard III, he would marry Elizabeth of York and unite the two houses of York and Lancaster. Whilst Henry was mustering an army in Brittany, Queen Anne was dying. There were rumours that Richard was planning on marrying his niece Elizabeth of York. Henry invaded Wales and faced Richard’s army at the Battle of Bosworth. Henry won and declared himself king. True to his word he married the now restored Princess Elizabeth.
Under her son-in-law’s reign, the Dowager Queen Elizabeth played a small part at her daughter’s court but the relationship between Henry VII and Elizabeth was always a little tense. During his reign, Henry had to content with impostors pretending to be Edward V or his younger brother Richard. Henry could never really trust his mother-in-law completely that she wasn’t scheming to produce one of her missing boys who would be the rightful heir to the throne. Not to mention the fact that Henry’s mother Lady Margaret Beaufort was a domineering personality at court. The two mother-in-laws didn’t really get along. It was a strange role-reversal for Elizabeth. Once she had been the number one lady at court and now Lady Margaret was calling all of the shots, despite the fact that her daughter-in-law the Queen should have been the most prominent woman at court.
On 12th February 1487 Elizabeth retired to Bermondsey Abbey to live out the rest of her life in quiet, religious contemplation. Historians are conflicted as to the reason why Elizabeth was sent to Bermondsey, whether she was forced or not by her son-in-law but it was there that she died in relative obscurity on 8th June 1492. Her will specified that she wanted a simple burial which most of her daughters attended. However, Henry VII was criticised for not providing a more lavish affair as a send-off for his mother-in-law. Elizabeth was buried next to her husband in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
If you’d like to learn more about Elizabeth Woodville, come and join us at Tower of London for a talk and tour focusing on the lives of the incredible women who have been associated with the Tower on 17th January 2015. More information here.