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

Early life and first marriage

Elizabeth was born circa 1437 at Grafton Regismarker, Northamptonshiremarker, the daughter of Richard Woodville, 1st Earl Rivers and his wife, the former Jacquetta of Luxembourg, widow of 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 as "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 about eight years of age. In about 1452, she married Sir John Grey of Groby, who was killed at the Second Battle of St Albansmarker 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", suggesting a perhaps unusual criterion by which beauty in Early Modern England was adjudged.

Queen consort

Edward IV had many mistresses, the most notorious being Jane Shore, and did not have a reputation for fidelity. His marriage to the widowed Lady Grey took place secretly (with only the bride's mother and two ladies in attendance) at her family home in Northamptonshiremarker on 1 May 1464.

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 (later known as "Warwick the Kingmaker" because of the part he played in putting Edward on the throne and afterward replacing him with Henry VI). At around the time of Edward's secret marriage, Warwick was negotiating an alliance with Francemarker 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 Warwick's 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 VI 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 Abbeymarker 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, Titulus Regius, that contains the witchcraft charge, 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.[[Image:Elizabeth Woodville Arms.svg|thumb|right|upright|Elizabeth Woodville's arms as queen consort]]

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 Barnetmarker 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 made a previous promise (known as a precontract) to marry Lady Eleanor Butler, which was considered a legally binding contract that rendered any other marriage contract invalid as bigamous. One source, the Burgundian chronicler Philippe de Commines, claims that Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, carried out the ceremony between Edward and Eleanor. Titulus Regius itself gives no details of the alleged precontract except for the identity of the lady involved.

On the basis of the alleged precontract, 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 Londonmarker, 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; while it seems likely that they were murdered, whether this took place during the reign of Richard III or that of Henry VII is unclear.

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 Woodville 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; though according to the Crowland Chronicle he was pressured to do this by the Woodvilles' enemies who feared, among other things, that they would have to return the lands they had confiscated from the Woodvilles.

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:

  1. 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?)
  2. The Princes had been killed by a third party, and Richard had convinced Elizabeth that he was not involved.
  3. 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.
  4. Elizabeth may have planned to coerce Richard into marrying her daughter, thereby regaining her power, wealth, and prestige.
  5. 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 and this would at least discredit Richard.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 Bosworthmarker. 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 Dowager Queen Elizabeth spent her last five years living at Bermondsey Abbeymarker. 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, Viscountess 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, Margaret of Denmark, died in 1486. James was killed in battle later that year, rendering the plans of Henry VII moot.

Elizabeth died at Bermondsey Abbey on 8 June 1492. With the exception of the Queen, who was awaiting the birth of her fourth child and Cecily , 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 Chapelmarker in Windsor Castlemarker.


During her later years, Elizabeth Woodville 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 today reign over Great Britainmarker.

Children of Elizabeth Woodville

By Sir John Grey

By King Edward IV

In Literature

Elizabeth is a character in the plays Richard III and Henry VI Part 3 by William Shakespeare.

Philippa Gregory's 2009 novel The White Queen follows a (at times, highly) fictionalized account of Elizabeth's life from meeting her future husband, King Edward, up through the disappearance of her sons and the reign of her brother-in-law, Richard III. The novel places a great deal of focus on the legend of Melusine and Elizabeth and her mother's ties to witchcraft.

Elizabeth Woodville is a central figure in all five books encompassing the Rose of York Series by Sandra Worth, from the time she meets Edward IV in The Rose of York: Love & War to her death in The King's Daughter: A Novel of the First Tudor Queen (Penguin Group, December 2008). Elizabeth of York is the narrator. All five books are award winners in their own right, with Sandra Worth's The King's Daughter taking Best Historical Biography of the Year Award from RT Book Reviews.

Sympathetic fictional portraits of Elizabeth Woodville can be found in Jan Westcott's The White Rose and in A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

Screen portrayals




Further reading

  • David Baldwin, Elizabeth Woodville (Stroud, 2002) [7728]
  • Christine Carpenter, The Wars of the Roses (Cambridge, 1997) [7729]
  • Michael Hicks, Edward V (Stroud, 2003) [7730]
  • Rosemary Horrox, Richard III: A Study of Service (Cambridge, 1989) [7731]
  • J.L. Laynesmith, The Last Medieval Queens (Oxford, 2004) [7732]
  • Arlene Okerlund, Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen (Stroud, 2005); Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen (paper, Stroud, 2006) [7733]
  • Charles Ross, Edward IV (Berkeley, 1974) [7734]

External links

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