Elizabeth Woodville is considered the first common-born Queen of England. As the wife of Edward IV of England, she was also a key power player in the War of the Roses. Over her career, Woodville went to royal bat for almost all the teams, from the House of Lancaster to the House of York, and finally those infamous Tudors. How did she navigate such treachery? Find out with these scheming facts about Elizabeth Woodville, the so-called Commoner Queen of England.
1. Good Knight
In truth, Elizabeth Woodville was not really a “peasant” queen. On her father’s side, she was descended from knights, sheriffs, members of Parliament, and others of gentlemanly vocation. This was nothing to turn your nose at, but it was hardly the pedigree the people expected from a girl who would become a king’s wife.
2. A Most Juicy Genealogy
Elizabeth Woodville was the first child born to a marriage of scandal. Her mother was Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the widow of King Henry V of England’s younger brother, the Duke of Bedford. As a woman of pedigree, her match to the mere knight Sir Richard Woodville was a big step down, and dropped jaws at the English court.
3. The Y’s Have It
In an age before standardized spelling, the Woodville family name was more often spelled as “Wydville” or even “Wydeville.”
4. It’s Not That Common
When we say Elizabeth Woodville is considered the first commoner queen, all that means is that she was born to anyone outside of the landed gentry. Seeing as her father was still a knight, I wouldn’t put too much rags on that “commoner’ status.
5. England’s Next Top Model: 1464
Woodville’s beauty was heavily praised in both her time and ours. Historians often cite a quote saying she possessed “heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon,” which might say something about medieval beauty standards. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest this quote comes from a contemporary source. Nevertheless, most agreed Woodville was hot stuff.
6. Out With the Old…
When she was about 15 years old, Woodville made her first marriage to a Lancastrian loyalist knight named Sir John Grey of Groby. The marriage produced her first two sons, Thomas and Richard. However, Grey himself would die nine years after the wedding in the Battle of St. Albans. Ironically, Grey died fighting against the cause of his wife’s next husband…
7. When the Tinder Is an Oak
How does a single mom meet a guy who will treat her like a queen? Before dating apps, there was (according to some legends) standing under an oak tree on the side road and waiting for King Edward IV to ride by. In this retelling, Woodville used her charms to catch the newly-crowned Edward’s attention and restore her late husband’s lands for her sons.
8. I Like the Cut of Your Jib
In some retellings of their “love” story, Elizabeth puts a knife to her own throat in order to avoid Edward’s advances. Other lore situates Edward as the one wielding the knife against Elizabeth, forcing her to submit. Many scholars believe this is dramatic embellishment, but it’s hardly a fairytale beginning either way.
9. Turn on Location Settings Next Time
The time and place of Woodville’s marriage to the king is unknown, which is very odd for a royal wedding. It probably took place in her family home at Northamptonshire in May, 1464. However, this ambiguity would spell future problems after King Edward’s death…
10. He Didn’t Get the Royal Memo
Woodville’s marriage threw a wrench in the Edward IV’s familial alliances. For one, his friendship with Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, aka the “Kingmaker,” never recovered. Warwick was in the midst of contracting a French marriage for his ruler. Unfortunately, Edward took his sweet time in telling Warwick he had eloped with Woodville.
This faux-pas made Warwick seem like a lying fool to France, as Edward revealed himself to be a married man. The earl would forever hold a grudge against both his liege and Woodville herself.
11. Sister, Make Me a Match
Woodville’s family hitched a ride to her rising comet in a big way. She came from a huge family of many brothers and sisters, who were now in-laws to the king and were married off as such. Most scandalously, Woodville’s 20-year-old brother John was married to the thrice-widowed Katherine Neville, Duchess of Norfolk, who was in her sixties.
12. Only Room for One
Elizabeth Woodville helped found the legendary Queens’ College at Cambridge University.
13. Who Doesn’t Love a Makeover?
In truth, Queens’ College at Cambridge University was originally set up by the Lancastrian Queen Margaret of Anjou. It collapsed as the Lancastrian regime crumbled in 1448, but Woodville stepped up in 1465 to help bring it back to life.
14. Seeing Red
Once upon a time, Woodville’s mother Jacquetta was directly in line to become a Queen of England. As the aunt-by-marriage to the baby Henry VI of England, she would have risen to the throne alongside her husband had Henry died without heirs. After said husband died, Jacquetta remarried a Lancastrian loyalist knight, taking herself out of the running.
15. Take Care of the Girls While I’m Gone, Liz!
Come 1470, Edward IV faced his first big rebellion in the form of Richard Neville (still pissed about the elopement, evidently) allying with Edward’s younger brother George. The two managed to overthrow Edward and put King Henry VI (back) in his place. While Edward fled to seek refuge across the English Channel, a pregnant Woodville remained in sanctuary with her daughters at Westminster Abbey for the duration of her husband’s fall from power.
16. Ill-Timed Delivery
While hiding in Westminster Abbey during the temporary restoration of Henry VI, Elizabeth gave birth to her first royal prince, the future Edward V. It was hardly a royal birthing room, but it would have to do.
17. Popping the Pops
Richard Neville’s 1469 rebellion against Edward did not leave Woodville’s family unscathed. Her own father and her brother John were executed by Neville’s orders.
18. Witch Which Is It?
In 1469, Woodville’s mother was accused of witchcraft. The evidence? Lead images allegedly produced by the lady for devious purposes. Although she was fresh off the loss of her husband and son, Jacquetta successfully defended herself of the charges. Unfortunately, witchcraft would haunt the legacy of her daughter too.
19. Room in My Heart for All of You
Although Edward was hardly faithful to his Queen Elizabeth, their marriage produced 10 children. With five daughters and two sons who survived childhood, the couple clearly kept busy.
20. Open Heart, Bent Knees
She came to the job in an unconventional way, but Elizabeth Woodville was otherwise a traditional queen. She invested heavily in acts of Christian charity and piety, including securing papal indulgences for anyone who knelt and said Angelus devotion three times a day.
21. The Cost of Love
Elizabeth Woodville’s parents were fined a “hefty” (by their day) £1,000 for marrying without the king’s will. It was eventually settled, but it’s difficult to imagine another Queen of England being born from a civic offense.
22. Stage Husband
Elizabeth Woodville’s coronation was the first truly decadent affair of the Yorkist regime. Edward IV had been crowned in an economic downturn (war does that…), so his coronation had been a modest event. Years later, when it was time for his wife to be crowned, he went all out and used the wealth seized from Lancastrian manors to fund an extravagant ceremony.
23. They’re Coming for Us
Edward died of ambiguous circumstances in April 1483, which left Elizabeth Woodville a widow and single mom to their seven surviving children. The king’s will had appointed his brother, Richard the Duke of Gloucester, as the Lord Protector to Edward V, the heir. In a power swipe against the new king’s maternal family, Richard arrested both Woodville’s brother, Anthony, as well as her son from her first marriage, Richard Grey. Sensing the tides, Woodville rushed herself into sanctuary once again.
24. I’m Taking You With Him
In 1453, Woodville was accused by Richard of Gloucester of attempts to “murder and utterly destroy” him from her sanctuary. Not sure how that would work, but OK, bud.
25. New King, New Rules, Old Girlfriends
The lurid romantic history of Woodville’s late husband came back to bite her in the royal rear. In 1483, Richard declared Woodville’s marriage to Edward IV invalid based on the late king’s alleged pre-contract to marry his old mistress, Eleanor Butler. That Butler was too long dead to say anything was perfectly convenient. Thus, Woodville’s children were declared illegitimate and barred from inheriting the throne. Richard declared himself Richard III, and imprisoned Edward V.
26. Magically Bitter About It
In the very same parliamentary act that dissolved her marriage, the widowed Woodville was accused of witchcraft. Fortunately, nothing really came of the charge. It seemed more like salt to rub in the widow’s wound.
27. When Throwback Thursdays Are Hard on the Bank Accounts
Under Richard III’s reign, Woodville was stripped of her royal title and lands. Her daughters were bastardized, and she would henceforth be known as “Dame Elizabeth Grey,” in reference to her first husband.
28. Thanks, Other Liz
Woodville doesn’t appear to have held any grudge against her husband’s mistresses. In fact, his chief mistress Elizabeth “Jane” Shore helped the widowed queen stay in contact with her allies from inside sanctuary. Unfortunately, no good favor goes unpunished: Shore was caught exchanging intelligence and forced to do an infamous walk of shame under Richard III.
29. Ladies of Terms and Conditions
Woodville and her daughters eventually came out of religious sanctuary in March, 1484. However, they only did so after Richard III swore an oath to leave them unharmed and free of the dreaded Tower of London.
It seems Woodville might have been hedging her bets on both sides at Richard III’s court. On one hand, Woodville actively worked with Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the future Henry VII, to bring Richard down. However, Richard was also rumored to be in talks to marry Woodville’s eldest daughter (and yuckily his own niece), Elizabeth of York. While these are just rumors, they do indicate the sly reputation in double-dealing that would follow Woodville around forever.
31. Lost and Never Found
Elizabeth Woodville will always live in the shadow of her elder sons’ uncertain fate. When King Edward IV first died, Elizabeth’s sons Edward V and Richard were taken into custody in preparation for Edward’s coronation. Unfortunately, the festivities would be postponed indefinitely, as Richard III seized the throne. After the summer of 1483, there would be no more sightings of Woodville’s sons, and the lost boys are now known to history as the tragic “Princes in the Tower.”
32. A Crown Is a Hat Best Worn Twice
More fortunately for Woodville’s prospects (and that of her surviving children), Henry VII invaded England in 1485 and seized the throne from Richard III. Her daughter Elizabeth of York married the king, became queen consort of England, and Woodville reclaimed her own title as queen too (albeit “queen dowager,” but it’s still better than nothing).
33. Mama Drama?
Woodville survived only seven years into the first Tudor king’s reign. She spent the last five of them in religious seclusion again at Bermondsey Abbey. Historians still debate how willingly she went away from court. One historian thinks Henry VII forced her away from London on the basis of the dowager’s rumored plotting against him in the 1487 Yorkist rebellion.
34. Power Nap
Some historians, however, think Woodville went to retirement more willingly. This is based on evidence that the queen was already planning her retirement into a religious life as early as one year into Henry Tudor’s reign. After losing her father, brothers, and sons to the violence of court politics, it’s not a stretch to imagine Woodville would welcome some peace and quiet.
35. Take My Mother-in-Law, Please?
Who says romance is dead? Henry VII considered marrying his widowed mother-in-law off to King James III of Scotland. Unfortunately, the king died in battle in 1488, and Woodville remained on the single’s scene until her death.
36. I Learned It From You, Mom
Woodville’s younger daughter Cecily followed her mother’s path by making a socially unequal remarriage. Unfortunately for Cecily, she took a step down rather than up. By marrying an obscure squire named Thomas Kyme, Cecily forfeited all her lands and was banished from court; her children by that marriage faded into obscurity. Hardly the courtly welcome her mother enjoyed for her elopement.
37. Heart of Gold
In her time, it was rumored that Elizabeth pilfered the royal treasury for herself in the chaos of Edward IV’s death. There is no contemporary evidence for this rumor; even Richard III didn’t accuse the Woodvilles of larceny. However, Woodville’s youngest brother Edward did seize £10,250 from a vessel in 1483, in the midst of his brother Anthony’s arrest, then escaped to Brittany when the warrant for his own capture went out. The stolen gold was never mentioned again. Hmmm…
38. Rest Home
Working against the idea that Henry VII shunned his mother-in-law, Woodville retired to a nice £400 per year pension and received occasional gifts from the Tudor king. She was also allowed to be visited by her daughters, most often by Cecily of York.
39. The World’s Most Depressing Rose Ceremony
When it came to the ladies, King Edward IV had a policy of “promise to marry it, hit it, and quit it” before he met Elizabeth. In fact, at the same time that Edward IV and Elizabeth were wed in secret, it was rumored that his previous mistress, Elizabeth Lucy, was heavily pregnant and waiting for her marriage to the king. Unfortunately, Lucy’s so-called Prince Charming turned around at the last minute and eloped with Woodville instead.
40. Minimalist to the Grave
Some people took the drabness of Woodville’s 1492 funeral as evidence of her disfavor under the Tudors. In truth, the self-secluded queen dowager specified in her will that she wanted a plain burial. After all, you can’t take royal decadence with you.
41. Reunited at Last
In the end, Woodville was buried in the same chantry as her second husband, Edward IV, at Windsor Castle.
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