Elizabeth Woodville was Queen of England during one of the country’s most volatile periods, the Wars of the Roses. Her marriage to the Yorkist king, Edward IV, in 1464 sent shockwaves through the English court, intensifying political strife that would last for decades between the houses of York and Lancaster.
Largely consigned to history as a scheming temptress and social-climber, Elizabeth was realistically an incredibly intelligent and powerful figure in the Wars of the Roses, and joins a host of women side-lined in its history. Here are 10 facts about the captivating ‘White Queen’.
1. Her parents’ marriage caused a scandal at court
Elizabeth Woodville was born in Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire around the year 1437. Unlike most of her predecessors as Queen of England however, her family name was not always ‘great’, and at the time of her birth was even beset by scandal.
Her mother, the eminent noblewoman Jacquetta of Luxembourg, had secretly married lowly knight Richard Woodville after the pair fell in love when he was ordered to escort her to England. When news of this broke, a court scandal ensued and Henry VI forced them to pay a hefty fine of £1,000.
Jacquetta had for a brief period been married to Henry VI’s uncle, therefore marriage to a knight was outrageous for one considered the king’s aunt! When Elizabeth was born, the Woodville name must still have been a sore topic of discussion in most of England’s eminent circles.
2. She was married before Edward IV – to a Lancastrian!
Through her parents’ strong links to the House of Lancaster, Elizabeth began much of her life on the side of the red rose during the Wars of the Roses. In 1452, aged only 15, she married her first husband Sir John Grey of Groby, who too was a Lancastrian supporter. They had two sons – Thomas and Richard.
In 1461, the bloody Second Battle of St Albans claimed Grey’s life whilst fighting on the Lancastrian side, and Elizabeth was now a widow aged 24. Desperately seeking support for her young sons, she could never have imagined what would happen next.
3. Legend surrounds her first meeting with the king
The story of Elizabeth Woodville’s meeting with Edward IV is something of a mystery. Legend tells that following her husband’s death, the future queen stood waiting beneath an oak tree with her two young boys, hoping that the king would pass by. In desperation, she sought to petition him for the reinstatement of their lands, yet got far more than she bargained for.
When he did indeed pass, he was reportedly so enamoured by her beauty that he insisted on making her his mistress right then and there. Appalled by this suggestion, she pulled a dagger on him and threatened to slit her own throat should she be forced to do so. Tantalised by her refusal, he instead offered to make her his queen.
While this is likely mere folklore, it is known that Elizabeth was a great beauty and may well have unsuspectingly dazzled the king into his proposal of marriage, as contemporary reports name her:
‘the most beautiful woman in the Island of Britain’.
4. Their marriage was not well-received
As her parents’ scandalous marriage had been, Elizabeth and Edward IV’s union was undertaken in secret on 1 May 1464. By September however, the news was out – to the horror of the Privy Council. Edward IV had taken the throne from the Lancastrians only 3 years before at the Battle of Towton, and was still dangerously susceptible to losing it.
The Earl of Warwick – aka the Kingmaker – had been locked in tireless talks with the French to marry one of their princesses to Edward, thus when the king announced to the court that he had in fact already wedded a commoner, and the widow of a Lancastrian no less, he was gobsmacked.
Their relationship never recovered, and Warwick would go on to betray Edward in the coming years.
5. She built a powerful faction around her
Now widely hated at court, Elizabeth sought to build a strong contingent of supporters around her.
Bringing 12 siblings into the royal fold, she soon set about arranging advantageous marriages for each of them, such as the union of her 19-year-old brother to the elderly yet powerful and wealthy Duchess of Norfolk. Such actions aided in her lasting legacy as a calculated schemer, who promoted the interests of her family over that of the kingdom.
In reality, while it was clearly advantageous for the Woodville faction to grow in strength around Elizabeth, Edward IV was also pursuing a policy of reconciliation with the Lancastrians who had fought against him. Promoting a traditionally Lancastrian family sent a message to other supporters that the new Yorkist king had a penchant for forgiveness.
6. She was the ‘true founder’ of Queens’ College, Cambridge
Queens’ College, Cambridge was first founded in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s fierce queen consort.
Her mission to ‘laud and honour [the] sex feminine’ in establishing the college clearly resonated with her successor and rival Elizabeth however, as when Edward IV sought its dissolution following his ascension to the throne, she stepped in to save and refound it in 1465.
A portion of her yearly income was set aside for its upkeep and improvement, and it flourished under her patronage. While contemporary accounts named Margaret as ‘fundatrix rostra prima’ (first founder), Elizabeth was named ‘vera fundatrix’ (true founder), and her portrait now hangs in the college’s Old Hall.
7. Richard III became her mortal enemy
Following her husband’s unexpected death from probable pneumonia in 1483, Elizabeth entered into a vicious battle for control of her young son Edward V. Richard of Gloucester, the king’s brother and future Richard III, was named Lord Protector to the 12-year-old boy and swiftly removed him from under the protection of his Woodville relations.
Believing Elizabeth was attempting to overthrow him, he issued a declaration the following year that invalidated her marriage to Edward IV, and even suggested she and her mother had achieved it ‘by sorcery and witchcraft’. Her sons were named illegitimate, and Richard took the throne.
8. She lost most of her close male relatives to the Wars of the Roses
Being so violently close to the centre of the wars took a huge toll on Elizabeth and her family. Through the entire conflict spanning 1455-87, she saw the death of her first husband in battle, the executions of her father, two of her brothers and her son Anthony, and the infamous disappearance of her two youngest sons.
They are widely remembered as the Princes in the Tower after they were imprisoned by Richard III in the Tower of London and never heard of again, with much intrigue still surrounding what really happened to them.
9. She arranged a monumental marriage for her eldest daughter
Having suffered losses so great in her lifetime, Elizabeth was determined to forge a better future for her descendants. She joined forces with Margaret Beaufort, another of the period’s most influential women, and together made a plan to join their two great houses in marriage.
The union of Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest daughter, and Henry Tudor, Margaret Beaufort’s son, would bring to a close decades of political strife.
They were at last married in 1486 following Richard III’s death at Bosworth Field, and ascended the throne as the new King and Queen of England. The red rose of Lancaster and white rose of York were combined to create the Tudor rose, a symbol still widely used today in British iconography.
10. She was present at the birth of Henry VIII
With a sense of peace now achieved, Elizabeth Woodville retreated to Bermondsey Abbey in Surrey to live out her life as queen dowager. She occasionally returned to court and was present at the birth of two grandchildren – Margaret, the future Queen of Scotland, and Henry, the future Henry VIII.
On 8 June, 1492 she died at Bermondsey aged 55 and was laid to rest beside her husband in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. The infamous House of Tudor, founded by she and Beaufort’s political savvy, would rule for the next hundred years in a dynasty still captivating audiences to this day.