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Elizabeth Woodville, a thorny problem in the side of the Earl of Warwick but Queen to the King of England, King Edward IV.
It is to the past we must first go to understand the role played by Elizabeth Woodville in the convoluted history during the period of the events that constituted the War of the Roses.
In the reign of King Henry V, the royal family and that of the Woodvilles could not have been more different and yet they were brought together on the battlefield of Agincourt when Richard Woodville, a commoner, showed great bravery. He was tasked with carrying the King’s tallisman, and keeping it within sight of the King at all times. This placed Woodville in close proximity to Henry throughout. His valour noted, he continued a close presence after the battle and after the King’s death was given the title of Constable of the Tower of London.
It was his son, another Richard who really climbed the social ladder, not without creating quite a stir and giving opportunity for people to consider him an upstart.
He like his father took the title Constable of the Tower of London and served King Henry VI. He was made a knight in 1426 and went to France to serve the Duke of Bedford, the brother of King Henry V. He had been married briefly to Jacquetta of Luxembourg, a woman whose own father was a noble man Peter I, count of Brienne.
When the Duke died, Jacquetta took the title Duchess along with titles to land in England and she took a husband, her late husband’s chamberlain.
Whether a love or lust match is not known but the two married on the way back to England, without the King’s consent. Despite his fury, Jacquetta saw an opportunity. She was after all related to King Henry VI, being the widow of his uncle.
Jacquetta’s legacy was children, fourteen of them
Richard Woodville and Jacquetta, despite their unpromising start, became very influential at court, in 1448, he was created Baron Rivers by the King and became the Lieutenant of Calais, a very lucrative position. Richard became an important partisan of the Lancasters at the outset of the War of the Roses.
To return to Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville was the eldest daughter of Jacquetta and Richard Woodville.
The Woodville family despite all that had gone before were still thought of as less than noble. Whilst Jacquetta’s line was unimpeachable, Richard’s was not.
Elizabeth married Sir John Grey, who was killed just before the second battle of St Albans. She had two sons and a mother who it is thought contrived to make sure her beautiful daughter met and maybe bewitched King Edward IV.
King Edward IV stood over six feet tall, he was handsome, strong and charismatic and had an eye for the ladies.
He had it is said the ‘common touch’.
A visiting Italian Mancini, described him thus;
‘Edward was of a gentle nature and cheerful aspect.. He was easy of access to his friends and to others, even the least notable. Frequently he called to his side strangers…He was so genial in his greeting that if he saw a newcomer bewildered at his appearnce and royal magnificence he would give him courage to speak by laying a kindly hand upon his shoulder’
Elizabeth Woodville alledgedly approached the Yorkist King whilst he was hunting on Woodville land
Elizabeth pleaded with the King for the estates confiscated from her husband to be restored to her sons. King Edward , whose appetite for sexual liaisons was prodigious, offered to make the beautiful Elizabeth his mistress, but she wanted nothing less than marriage.
His youthful impetuousness and sexual appetite allowed him to enter into this marriage with Elizabeth without thought for the possible consequences. The couple were married in secret.
What a blow this was for the power hungry Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick and the King’s advisor
Warwick had been negotiating with the French to secure the hand of a French princess for the young King. These negotiations were instigated by Warwick and showed how high handed he had become regarding the King’s affairs. He expected to gain a great deal of prestige and wealth by securing this deal, imagine then how he felt when the King’s secret marriage in 1464 was revealed.
Warwick was further horrified to learn it was Elizabeth Woodville the King had married, Widow of a Lancastrian knight with a prodigious, power seeking family. Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta made sure her other daughters made good marriages and that the family had its feet well and truly tucked under the Royal table.
On 4 March 1466 Richard Woodville was made Treasurer. Soon after he was created Earl Rivers. Even Elizabeth’s son by her first marriage was made Earl of Dorset. Anthony Woodville became Lord Scales on marrying Elizabeth Scales. Lionel Woodville rose to become Bishop of Salisbury.
Warwick and the King became more and more estranged but that is another story. Eventually Warwick had his revenge, Richard Woodville and his son John were captured, transported to Chepstow and finally executed by Warwick at Kenilworth Castle on 12 August 1469.
Elizabeth suffered her husband’s infidelities but the mistress who caused her most despair was Jane Shore.
Sir Thomas Moore wrote of the love affair;
‘For many he had but her, he loved’
Elizabeth died nine years after her husband, after retiring to a convent following her husbands death
She was buried quietly, maybe because no one wanted to be reminded of her close ties to the house of York? She was buried ‘privily, without solemn dirge’, her herse such as they use for common people. It was a slight upon her family name and remembering she was a Queen of England, a sad stain on the history of the turbulent 15th Century.
More on the Lancasters, Yorks and the War of the Roses?
The death of Elizabeth was not the end of her line, even with the murder of her Princes in the Tower, murdered by their Uncle and Usurper Richard III. The Woodvilles blood and the legacy of her children would influence our history for a long time to come. For more on the intrigues of the House of Lancaster click here or the Yorkist perspective of Edward and his successors look here and at the end of the Turbulent times of the major and complex events that formed the period known as the War of the Roses where would a Woodville emerge and form a powerful marriage? The tangled web of the relatively low status Woodvilles and how Elizabeth’s children would continue to feature reveals just how intriguing some of these connections can be.