Elizabeth Woodville lived a remarkable life. Born into a noble family, she married Sir John Grey of Groby, by whom she had two children. Sir John was killed fighting for the Lancastrian army at the 2nd Battle of St. Albans. Elizabeth soon afterwards encountered King Edward IV. The King was well known for having mistresses. Sources suggest that Elizabeth Woodville was beautiful. Legend has it that the King soon became besotted and in love with Elizabeth but that she refused to be his mistress, which led to the couple’s secret marriage.
Marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
Edward and Elizabeth married in secret. When the king revealed that he was already married to Council, it rocked court and the political world. It was not only a mismatch in terms of the rank, but marriage negotiations had been underway regarding marriages alliances that would improve international relations.
The marriage produced ten children, most famously the Princes in the Tower and Elizabeth of York. It also led to the promotion of many of Elizabeth’s family members, causing a rift between the King and Earl of Warwick.
Elizabeth was a very shrewd political operator and she, along with Margaret Beaufort, arranged the match between Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor. She retired from public life in 1487, taking residency at Bermondsey Abbey, where she passed away on 8th June 1492.
Biography from the original Dictionary of National Biography.
Note: The original biography of national biography was written c1900. It has been superseded by research and modern interpretation of events is often very different to the views offered below. This is particularly the case with respect of the accession to the throne of Richard III and the role of Elizabeth Woodville in the events of 1483. It is included here as a contrast with the current thinking on Elizabeth Woodville.
Early life of Elizabeth Woodville
ELIZABETH, queen of Edward IV (1437?–1492), was the daughter of Sir Richard Woodville or Wydeville, afterwards Earl Rivers, by his marriage with Jaquetta, duchess of Bedford, widow of that duke of Bedford who was regent of France during Henry VI’s minority. Almost all the Woodville family seem to have combined ambition with a love of chivalry, and the first considerable step in their rise was this marriage of Sir Richard with a dowager duchess who was daughter of Peter de Luxembourg, late count of St. Pol. It took place, or at least was discovered, very early in 1437, having been effected without license from the king of England, and greatly to the disgust of the bride’s brother, Louis, then count of St. Pol, and of her uncle, the bishop of Terouenne (Stow, Annals, p. 376, ed. 1615). The consequence was that Sir Richard had to pay the king 1,000l. for his transgression and for liberty to enjoy the lands of his wife’s dowry; but he did valuable service in the French wars, in reward for which he was created Baron Rivers by Henry VI in 1448, long before Edward IV was attracted by the charms of his daughter.
Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to Sir John Grey
Sir Richard was regarded as the handsomest man in England. His bride, too, was remarkable for her beauty. They had a family of seven sons and six daughters, of whom Elizabeth was the eldest, born probably in 1437, within a year after her parents’ marriage (the date 1431 hitherto given is absurd, being four years before the Duke of Bedford’s death). Nothing is known of her early life except that we find two letters addressed to her before her first marriage, the one by Richard, duke of York, and the other by the great Earl of Warwick, both in favour of a certain Sir Hugh John, who wished to be her husband (Archæologia, xxix. 132). She, however, actually married Sir John Grey, son and heir of Edward Grey, lord Ferrers of Groby, who should have succeeded to his father’s title in 1457, but is spoken of by all historians simply as Sir John Grey. After this marriage it appears that she became one of the four ladies of the bedchamber to Margaret of Anjou, in whose wardrobe-book she is mentioned as ‘Lady Isabella Grey’ (the name Isabella was in those days a mere variation of Elizabeth). Her husband was killed at the second battle of St. Albans in 1461, fighting on the Lancastrian side. She was thus left a widow with two sons. Sir Thomas and Sir Richard Grey, in the very year that Edward IV became king, and the lands which she should have had as her dower appear to have been forfeited or withheld. In her poverty she made personal suit to the king for their restoration upon his visiting her mother at Grafton [see Edward IV].
Secret marriage of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, 1st May 1464
Edward’s first thoughts were to take a dishonourable advantage of his suppliant, but she withstood all oners to be his paramour and so increased his passion by her refusal that, without asking the advice of his councillors, who he knew would oppose his wishes, he made up his mind to marry her. The wedding took place at Grafton early in the morning of 1 May 1464, none being present but the parties themselves, the Duchess of Bedford, the priest, two gentlemen, ‘and a young man to help the priest sing.’ The fact was very carefully kept secret, and the king, after spending three or four hours with his bride, left her for Stony Stratford, where it was supposed that he had returned to rest after a day’s hunting. A day or two later, it is said, he sent a message to Lord Rivers that he would come and pay him a visit, and he was received again at Grafton, where he stayed four days, this time as an avowed guest, though not as an avowed son-in-law, the bride being so secretly brought to his bed that hardly any one knew it except her mother.
Promotion of the Woodville Family
The marriage was made known at Michaelmas, with results which principally belong to political history [see Edward IV]. The queen’s influence was also apparent in the advancement of her own relations. Her sister Margaret was married in October to Thomas, lord Maltravers, who many years after succeeded his father as Earl of Arundel. Another sister, Mary, was married two years later to William, son and heir of Lord Herbert, who after succeeding his father as Earl of Pembroke, exchanged that title for the earldom of Huntingdon. Other sisters also were well provided for in marriage, and Lord Rivers, the queen’s father, from being a simple baron was promoted to an earldom. All this excited much envy. But a very justifiable indignation was felt at the marriage procured for her brother John, for the young man, who was only twenty years old, consented to become the fourth husband of Catherine, duchess of Norfolk, a woman of nearly fourscore. That such a match should have led to much unhappiness is only what we might expect, but the words in which this seems to be intimated by William Worcester are enigmatical to modern readers. ‘Vindicta Bernardi,’ he says, ‘inter eosdem postea patuit.’
Contemporary opinions on Elizabeth Woodville as Queen
The queen’s relations were exceedingly unpopular, not only with the old nobility, whom they supplanted, but with the common people. This was shown by the manifestos published by the insurgents in Robin of Redesdale’s insurrection, and even in the very end of Edward’s reign strong indications of the same fact appear in contemporary records (Gairdner, Life of Richard III, App. pp. 393-4). The queen herself does not appear to have possessed those conciliatory qualities which would have diminished the prejudice entertained against her as an upstart, and it is clear that she and her relations were a great cause of the dissensions which prevailed in Edward’s family.
Coronation of Elizabeth, May 1465
She was crowned at Westminster on Whitsunday, 26 May 1465. The first three children of the marriage were all girls — Elizabeth, Mary, and Cecily. One of the king’s physicians named Master Dominick had assured him the queen was about to give him a son on her first confinement; and at her delivery he stood in the second chamber anxious to get the first news. As soon as he heard the child cry he inquired secretly at the chamber door ‘what the queen had,’ on which he was answered by one of the ladies, ‘Whatsoever the queen’s grace hath here within, sure it is that a fool standeth there without.’
Elizabeth Woodville in Sanctuary, 1470/71
Except a visit to Norwich with the king in 1469 (Paston Letters, ii. 354-5), there is little to record in the domestic life of Elizabeth till the time that her husband was driven abroad in 1470. Just before receiving the news of his flight she had victualled and fortified the Tower against any enemies who might attack it, but hearing that he had fled the kingdom to avoid being made prisoner by the Nevills, she hastily withdrew into the sanctuary at Westminster, where she gave birth to her eldest son [see Edward V]. There she remained half a year while Henry VI was restored and her husband attainted, but in April following her husband, having returned, came and delivered her from her confinement and lodged her at Baynard’s Castle, where they rested together one night before he quitted London again to fight Warwick at Barnet. Some time after these events she was praised by the speaker of the House of Commons for her ‘womanly behaviour and great constancy’ while her husband was beyond the sea (Archæologia, xxvi. 280).
Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s children
In September 1471 she went on pilgrimage with the king to Canterbury (Paston Letters, iii. 17). In 1472 she appears to have accompanied him on a visit to Oxford, where her brother, Lionel Woodville, who had just been elected chancellor of the university, received them with an oration. Early in 1473 she was in Wales with the prince, her eldest son by the king (ib, iii. 83). But the chief events in her life after her husband’s restoration were the births of her children. In 1471 she had a daughter, who died young, and was buried at Westminster. Richard, her second son by King Edward, was born at Shrewsbury on 17 Aug. 1472. A third son, George, who died young, was also born at Shrewsbury, according to an old genealogy, in March 1473 (doubtless 1474 of our reckoning, considering the date of the previous birth). The remaining children were a daughter, Anne, born at Westminster on 2 Nov. 1475, and two other daughters, named, the one Catherine, born before August 1479, and the other Bridget, the youngest of the family, born at Eltham on 10 Nov. 1480 (compare Nicolas, prefatory remarks to Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York; and the Gent. Mag. for 1831, vol. ci. pt. i. p. 24).
The Duke of Clarence accused Elizabeth Woodville of Sorcery
In 1475, when Edward IV made his will at Sandwich before crossing the sea to invade France, he appointed his wife to be principal executrix, out made no special provision for her beyond her dower, except securing to her some household goods as private property and ordaining that the marriage portions which he bequeathed to his daughters should be conditional on her approval of the marriages contracted by them (Excertpa Historica, 369, 378). Soon after this we find evidence of the ill-will borne to her by Clarence, who, when his duchess died in the end of 1476, attributed her death to poison administered by her attendants and sorcery practised by the queen. The interests of the duke and of the queen seem to have been much opposed to each other. The former, after the death of Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, in 1477, sought by the medium of his sister, the widowed duchess, to obtain his daughter and heiress, Mary, in marriage. To this Edward was strongly opposed, as the possession of so rich a duchy could not but nave made him dangerously powerful. Yet the queen’s brother, Anthony, earl Rivers, aspired to the same lady’s hand, and Elizabeth, perhaps after Clarence’s death, wrote to the Duchess Margaret asking her to favour his suit, which, however, was rejected with disdain by the council of Flanders as totally unsuitable in point of rank.
Influence on marriage union for her youngest surviving son
In 1478, just before the death of Clarence, took place the marriage of the child, Richard, duke of York, the king’s second son, then only in his sixth year, with Anne Mowbray, a mere babe in her third year, daughter and heiress of the last Duke of Norfolk, who had died without male issue the year before. It is difficult to say positively that this match was more due to the queen’s influence than to Edward’s own policy; but it seems to have much in common with the selfish alliances, some of them quite unnatural, procured by the queen for her own relations.
Death of Edward IV and its impact on Elizabeth Woodville
On the death of Edward IV in 1483 strong evidence soon appeared of the jealousy with which Elizabeth and her relations were regarded. Although Edward had on his deathbed conjured the lords about him to forget their dissensions, suspicion at once revived when the queen proposed in council that her son, young Edwurd V, should come up from Wales with a strong escort. Hastings threatened to retire to Calais, where he was governor, if the escort was greater than was necessary for the prince’s safety, and the queen was obliged to promise that it should not exceed two thousand horse. Her son, the Marquis of Dorset, however, being constable of the Tower, equipped some vessels as if for war. The whole Woodville party clearly expected that they would have a struggle to maintain themselves, and when Gloucester and Buckingham, overtaking the young king on his way up to London, arrested his uncle. Rivers, his half-brother, Lord Richard Grey, and their attendants, Vaughan and Hawte, the act seems to have met with the cordial approval, not only of Hastings, but even of the citizens of London.
Elizabeth Woodville in sanctuary, 1483
Elizabeth threw herself into the sanctuary at Westminster, taking with her her second son and her five surviving daughters, and conveying thither in great haste a mass of personal property and furniture, to make easy entrance for which her servants actually broke down the walls which separated the palace from the sanctuary. While this removal was going on. Archbishop Rotherham came to her and endeavoured to allay her fears, assuring her that if they set aside young Edward he would crown his brother, the Duke of York, whom she had with her in the sanctuary. As some sort of security for this, he very improperly placed the great seal for a while in her hands, but he soon repented his indiscretion and sent for it again.
Princes in the Tower
Elizabeth remained in sanctuary during the whole of the brief nominal reign of her son, Edward V. She certainly had little reason to trust the protector Gloucester, who on 13 June, in that celebrated scene in the council chamber in the Tower, very absurdly accused her of conspiring against him with Jane Shore, and practising witchcraft by which his arm was withered. Yet, notwithstanding the violent issue of that day’s proceedings in the execution of Hastings, she let herself be persuaded by Cardinal Bourchier the very Monday after to deliver up her only remaining son out of sanctuary to keep company with his brother in the Tower.
Usurpation of Richard III
Then followed, almost immediately, the usurpation of Richard III, and, a little later, the murder of both the young princes whom the usurper had in his power. That Richard lost, even by his usurpation, a certain amount of popularity which he had enjoyed as protector, is distinctly stated by Fabyan, and from the words of another contemporary writer it is clear that apprehensions were immediately entertained for the safety of the princes. Plans were formed for getting some of their sisters out of sanctuary and conveying them secretly abroad, even before the murder was known or the rebellion of Buckingham had broken out. But Richard surrounded the sanctuary with a guard, and the total failure of Buckingham’s rebellion in October extinguished for a time all hope of getting rid of the tyrant. His title, which was founded on the alleged invalidity of Edward IV’s marriage, was confirmed by parliament in January 1484, and the queen dowager was officially recognised only as ‘dame Elizabeth Grey.’
Richard III’s intentions and Elizabeth Woodville’s plans for her daughters
Nevertheless Richard, on 1 March, thought it right to make her a very solemn promise, witnessed by the peers of the realm ‘and the mayor and aldermen of London, that if she and her daughters would come out of sanctuary and submit to him he would make handsome provision for their living and find the young ladies husbands. His object clearly was to make her abandon hope of aid from abroad, for she had already consented to the project for marrying her eldest daughter to the Earl of Richmond, and it was in concert with her that a plan had been laid, which the stormy weather frustrated, for Richmond to invade England in aid of Buckingham. She now apparently had lost hope of Richmond’s success, for she not only accepted the usurper’s offer and came out of sanctuary with her daughters, but even wrote to her son, the Marquis of Dorset, at Paris, advising him also to desert the Earl of Richmond’s cause.
Elizabeth Woodville under the Tudor regime
The Earl of Richmond could not but feel this somewhat when, after Bosworth Field, he became king of England; but as he was clearly pledged to marry her daughter, he overlooked for a while what Elizabeth had done in the days of tyranny, and put her, for the first time, in full possession of her rights as queen dowager (Rolls of Parl. vi. 288). On 4 March 1486 she received a grant of the main portion of her dower lands which belonged to the duchy of Lancaster, and next day a separate grant for the remainder, under the great seal of England. But within a year what was then granted was again withdrawn from her, for in February 1487, on the breaking out of Simnel’s rebellion, Henry VII held a council at Sheen, where it was determined, among other things, that she had forfeited her right to all her property by breaking promise to Henry in his exile and delivering her daughters into Richard’s hands. She was, therefore, induced to withdraw into the abbey of Bermondsey, where, as King Edward’s widow, she was entitled to apartments formerly reserved for the Earls of Gloucester, and to content herself with a pension of four hundred marks allowed her by the king, which was increased in February 1490 to 400l. The lands of her dower were given to her daughter, the queen consort (Campbell, Materials for a History of Henry VII, ii. 142, 148, 225, 319; Patent, 19 Feb. 5 Hen. VII, m. 16), and she herself sank into a retirement, from which she only emerged on special occasions, leading, as we are informed by a contemporary, ‘a wretched and miserable life’ (Hall, 431). A project, however, was entertained, not long after her disgrace in 1487, for marrying her to James III of Scotland, who had just become a widower (Rymer, xii. 328); and at the close of 1489 she was with her daughter, the queen, when, soon after the birth of the Princess Margaret, she received in her chamber an embassy from France, headed by their kinsman, Francis, sieur de Luxembourg (Leland, Collectanea, iv. 249).
Illness and death at Bermondsey Abbey
In 1492 her last illness overtook her at Bermondsey, and on 10 April she dictated her will, in which she desired to be buried at Windsor beside her husband, and having, as she expressly says, no worldly goods to bequeath to the queen, her daughter, or her other children, she left them merely her blessing. She died on 8 June, the Friday before Whitsunday, and as it was her own request to have speedy burial with little pomp, her body was conveyed by water to Windsor on the Sunday, without any ringing of bells. There, on the Tuesday following, it was laid beside the body of King Edward in St.George’s Chapel, in the presence of all her daughters except the queen, who was then about to be confined.
Such in brief is the story of Elizabeth Woodville, to which some highly romantic details have been added, on no apparent authority, by a learned but fantastic writer of the last century (Prévost) in a biography of Margaret of Anjou. Her marriage with Edward was a romance in itself, but we may safely dismiss the story of her fascinating the Earl of Warwick, and being used by Margaret as a lure to entrap him.
Surviving letters of Elizabeth Woodville
There is preserved in the Record Office a letter signed by Elizabeth when she was queen consort and addressed to Sir William Stonor, warning him against interfering with the game in her forests, even under colour of a commission from the king, her husband. It certainly conveys the impression that she was a woman who did not easily forego her rights. That which is most to her honour of her recorded acts is the refounding and endowment by her of Queens’ College, Cambridge, which her rival, Margaret of Anjou, had founded before her. There is a portrait of her in the hall of this college, which is engraved in Miss Strickland’s ‘Queens of England.’
[Dugdale’s Baronage; Fabyan’s Chronicle; Paston Letters; History of the Arrival of Edward IV (Camden Soc.); Warkworth’s Chronicle (Camd. Soc.); Polydore Vergil; Hall’s Chronicle (ed. 1869); Will. Wyrcester, in Stevenson’s Wars of the English in France (Rolls Ser.); Collections of a London Citizen and Three Fifteenth-century Chronicles (Camden Soc.); Archælogia Cantiana, i. 147-9; Campbells Materials for a History of Henry VII (Rolls Ser.); Arundel MS. 26, f. 29 l (Brit. Mus,); Royal Wills, 350; Miss Stricklans’s Lives of the Queens of England, vol. ii.]
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 17
Elizabeth (1437?-1492) by James Gairdner