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Friday, February 26, 2010

Elizabeth Woodville: Beauty Queen

The lovely Elizabeth Woodville was the daughter of Richard Woodville, Earl of Rivers, epitome of chivalrous knight, and Jacquetta de Luxembourg, Duchess of Bedford. Elizabeth’s secret marriage to Edward IV was not the only scandal she was involved in; her birth was shrouded in secrecy due to Jacquetta’s marriage to her first husband’s favorite, and when discovered Richard was thrown in prison only to be saved by Henry based on Jacquetta’s position as a sort of honorary Queen Mother at court. From a young age Elizabeth was a prominent lady of Queen Margaret’s maids of honor, and she attracted many suitors. She married John Gray, a very wealthy heir and military commander under Queen Margaret, and she became one of the lady’s of the Queen’s bedchamber and a mother of two sons, Thomas and Richard. But when John died in 1460, things looked bleak: her two sons would be deprived of their inheritance and Elizabeth was grief-stricken for two long years.

Marriage to Edward IV.

And then she met Edward. The story goes that Elizabeth heard he was in the neighborhood near her castle at Grafton, so she waited for him beneath a tree now known in Northamptonshire as “the queen’s oak,” with her two sons. When he arrived she begged him to restore their lands and he was love-struck. Of course, Edward, the playboy that he was, did not actually want to marry Elizabeth and she did not want to settle for anything less. Playing hard to get, however, only increased Edward’s fervor and he eventually offered her his hand and they were married May 1, 1464, to the great annoyance of his mother, the Duchess of York. She gave birth to her daughter, Elizabeth, five months later at Westminster palace, helping to ease the tension between the child’s grandmothers (Edward’s mother was probably doubly annoyed when the daughter was christened to flatter his wife and not his mother). She was immediately unpopular at court, being the first royal marriage to an Englishwoman in more than two centuries and bringing with her a whole flock of relatives eager for promotions. It was her secret marriage to Edward and coronation a year later that finally pushed Warwick overboard. Edward not only ruined his plans for a marriage alliance with Bona, the princess of France, but he was also personally insulted when Edward did not go after his own eldest daughter, Isabel. Isabel was instead given to George, Duke of Clarence, and Warwick made war.

During the coming insurrection, Edward was captured by Warwick, who tried to convince Edward that his wife’s power over him was actually the result of her mother’s use of witchcraft, which would not be the first time the men of this history have used that line. Edward somehow found his way out of this scrape and returned to a welcoming London, stowing his wife and babes away in the Tower for their own safety while he fled the danger of Warwick’s return from abroad. Of course, this is where the old king, Henry VI, was also being held. Who could blame Elizabeth from making her way up the Thames to Sanctuary at Westminster instead? It was here that she had her first son, Edward V. After briefly and joyfully meeting with her husband, she returned to the Tower while Edward fought the battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury, calling on her brother Anthony to save her during an attack.

Elizabeth's three daughters, including Elizabeth of York.

The Queen not only had her hand in the promotion of her family and friends, whom received many rewards and attentions from Edward, but also did a little match making. In 1477, she walked her almost five-year-old son Richard, Duke of York, down the aisle to meet his three-year-old bride, Anne Mowbray.

The skull of Anne Mowbray.

But the Queen also knew how to exact revenge. She certainly did not try to dissuade Edward from punishing Clarence, under whose name her brother and father had been murdered in 1469, for treason. Shortly after his death, she was celebrating an extravagant festival of the Garter along with Elizabeth’s recent engagement with the dauphin of France, although it was broken by Louis XI shortly after, infuriating the Queen and her husband. Elizabeth also had to put up with the fact that Edward enjoyed his mistresses, especially the clever, lively Jane Shore. Just before Edward’s death, he attempted to resolve the conflict between Lords Stanley and Hastings and the Woodvilles, to little avail. Elizabeth was given very little attention in Edward’s will, which probably has to do with why Shakespeare’s widowed Queen is so worried about her position. And to make matters worse, the one ally she thought she might be able to count on, Edward’s steadfastly loyal but frequently absent brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, proved just the opposite.

Although Richard had sent Elizabeth some very gentle, thoughtful letters of condolences, he then preceded to kidnap her heir and arrest her brother Anthony, Earl of Rivers, and son, Lord Richard Gray. In a somewhat bizarre moment of carelessness, Elizabeth agreed to let Richard, Duke of York, join his brother Edward, probably contented some with the fact that coronation ceremony preparations for Edward V continued as usual. The princes were never seen again. Shortly thereafter, Earl Rivers and Richard Gray were also beheaded by Ratcliffe.

One can image the queasy stomach Elizabeth might have had watching the coronation ceremony of Richard III with her daughters. According to Sir Thomas More, Elizabeth fell apart when she heard the news of her sons’ deaths while in the care of lieutenant Sir Robert Brackenbury. When the new Queen Anne fell ill after her son Edward’s sudden death, her physician, Dr. Lewis, who was then the physician of another important mother, Margaret Beaufort, recommended the alliance of her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, with his other patient’s son, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Elizabeth was overjoyed, although she considered backing out after the failure of Buckingham’s Rebellion. Her patience paid off and in 1586 after the Battle of Bosworth she witnessed the marriage of Henry VII to her daughter and was once again raised from her despair. She received land and wealth to help compensate for her cheated position as Queen Dowager due to the fact that the Duchess of York had seized most of Edward’s properties. She died more or less impoverished in 1492 and was quietly buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor.


Jokinen, Anniina. “Wars of the Roses: Elizabeth Woodville.” Luminarium: Encyclopedia Project. 2009. Web. Accessed 2-25-10. <>.

Wagner, John A. Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. 2001. Print.

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