Biography of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of England

Edward IV's Controversial Queen

Caxton Stained-Glass Window with Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville
Caxton Window with Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Elizabeth Woodville (1437–June 7 or 8, 1492, and known variously as Lady Grey, Elizabeth Grey, and Elizabeth Wydevill) was the commoner wife of Edward IV, who had a key role in the War of the Roses and in the succession battle between the Plantagenets and Tudors. She is best known today as a character in Shakespeare's Richard III (as Queen Elizabeth) and the title character in the 2013 television series The White Queen.

Fast Facts: Elizabeth Woodville

  • Known For: A commoner who was destined to become wife of Edward IV, mother of Edward V, sister-in-law of Richard III, mother-in-law of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII.
  • Born: About 1837, in Grafton, rural Northamptonshire.
  • Parents: Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford and Sir Richard Woodville.
  • Died: June 7 or 8, 1492.
  • Spouse(s): Sir John Grey (ca. 1450–1461); Edward IV (1464–1483).
  • Children: Two with John Grey (Thomas Grey (Marquess of Dorset) and Richard Grey) and ten with Edward IV (Elizabeth of York who married Henry VII; Mary; Cecily; Edward V; Margaret; Richard; Anne who married Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey); George; Catherine who married William Courtney, Earl of Devon; and Bridget. The two "princes in the tower" were Richard and Edward V. 

Early Life

Elizabeth Woodville was probably born at Grafton in rural Northamptonshire, England, about 1437, the eldest of the 12 children of Richard Woodville and Jacquetta de Luxembourg.

Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta was the daughter of a Count and a descendant of Simon de Montfort and his wife, Eleanor, daughter of England's King John. Jacquetta was the wealthy and childless widow of the Duke of Bedford, brother of Henry V, when she married Sir Richard Woodville. Her sister-in-law Catherine of Valois also married a man of lower station after she was widowed. Two generations later, Catherine's grandson Henry Tudor married Jacquetta's granddaughter, Elizabeth of York. Jacquetta's second husband and Elizabeth's father was the less highborn county knight Sir Richard Woodville.

At the age of seven, Elizabeth was sent to another landed household (a custom of the period was to trade children so that they would have social contacts in the future), probably Sir Edward Grey and his wife Elizabeth, Lady Ferrers. There she had formal lessons in reading, writing (in English, French, and Latin), and a grounding in law and mathematics. The Woodville family was wealthy when Elizabeth was born, but as the Hundred Years' War wound down, and the Wars of the Roses conflict began, the family's finances became straitened, and as a result, Elizabeth married John Grey (7th Baron Ferrers of Groby) in 1452, at about 14 years of age.

The recently-knighted Grey was killed at the Second Battle of St. Albans in 1461, fighting for the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth petitioned Lord Hastings, Edward's uncle, in a controversy over land with her mother-in-law. She arranged a marriage between one of her sons and one of Hasting's daughters.

Ancestry

Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of King John of England, was the 8th great grandmother of Elizabeth Woodville through her mother, Jacquetta. Her husband Edward IV and son-in-law Henry VII were of course also descendants of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

  • Elizabeth Woodville > Jacquetta of Luxembourg > Margherita del Balzo > Sueva Orsini > Nicola Orsini > Roberto Orsini > Anastasia de Montfort > Guy de Montfort > Eleanor Plantagenet > John of England > Eleanor of Aquitaine

Meeting and Marriage with Edward IV

How Elizabeth met Edward is not known for certain, though an early legend has her petitioning him by waiting with her sons beneath an oak tree. Another story circulated that she was a sorceress who bewitched him, but she may have simply known him from court. Legend has her giving Edward, a known womanizer, an ultimatum that they had to be married or she would not submit to his advances. On May 1, 1464, Elizabeth and Edward married secretly.

Edward's mother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, and Cecily's nephew, the Earl of Warwick who had been an ally of Edward IV in winning the crown, had been arranging a suitable marriage for Edward with the French king. When Warwick found out about Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, Warwick turned against Edward and helped restore Henry VI briefly to power. Warwick was killed in battle, Henry and his son killed, and Edward returned to power.

Elizabeth Woodville was crowned Queen in Westminster Abbey on May 26, 1465; both her parents were present for the ceremony. Elizabeth and Edward had three sons and six daughters —Elizabeth of York who married Henry VII; Mary; Cecily; Edward V, briefly King of England (not crowned); Margaret; Richard, Duke of York; Anne who married Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey; George, Duke of Bedford; Catherine who married William Courtney, Earl of Devon; and Bridget. Elizabeth also had two sons by her first husband—Thomas Grey, the Marquis of Dorset and Richard Grey. One was an ancestor of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey.

Family Ambitions

Her extensive and, by all accounts, ambitious family was favored heavily after Edward took the throne. Her eldest son from her first marriage, Thomas Grey, was created Marquis Dorset in 1475.

Elizabeth promoted the fortunes and advancement of her relatives, even at the cost of her popularity with the nobles. In one of the most scandalous incidents, Elizabeth may have been behind the marriage of her brother, 19 years old, to the widowed Katherine Neville, the wealthy Duchess of Norfolk, 80 years old. But the "grasping" reputation was enhanced—or created—first by Warwick in 1469 and later Richard III, who each had his own reasons for wanting Elizabeth's and her family's reputation to be diminished. Among her other activities, Elizabeth continued her predecessor's support of Queen's College.

Widowhood

When Edward IV died suddenly on April 9, 1483, Elizabeth's fortunes abruptly changed . Her husband's brother Richard of Gloucester was appointed Lord Protector, since Edward's eldest son Edward V was a minor. Richard moved quickly to seize power, claiming—apparently with the support of his mother, Cecily Neville—that the children of Elizabeth and Edward were illegitimate, because Edward had been previously formally betrothed to someone else.

Elizabeth's brother-in-law Richard took the throne as Richard III, imprisoning Edward V (never crowned) and then his younger brother, Richard. Elizabeth took sanctuary. Richard III then demanded that Elizabeth also turn over custody of her daughters, and she complied. Richard attempted to marry first his son, then himself, to Edward and Elizabeth's oldest daughter, known as Elizabeth of York, hoping to make his claim to the throne more solid.

Elizabeth's sons by John Grey joined in the battle to overthrow Richard. One son, Richard Grey, was beheaded by King Richard's forces; Thomas joined Henry Tudor's forces.

Mother of a Queen

After Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field and was crowned Henry VII, he married Elizabeth of York—a marriage arranged with the support of Elizabeth Woodville and also of Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort. The marriage took place in January 1486, uniting the factions at the end of the Wars of the Roses and making the claim to the throne more certain for the heirs of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.

Princes in the Tower

The fate of the two sons of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, the "Princes in the Tower," is not certain. That Richard imprisoned them in the Tower is known. That Elizabeth worked to arrange the marriage of her daughter to Henry Tudor may mean that she knew, or at least suspected, that the princes were already dead. Richard III is generally believed to have been responsible for removing the possible claimants to the throne, but some theorize that Henry VII was responsible. Some have even suggested Elizabeth Woodville was complicit.

Henry VII re-proclaimed the legitimacy of the marriage of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV. Elizabeth was the godmother of the first child of Henry VII and her daughter Elizabeth, Arthur.

Death and Legacy

In 1487, Elizabeth Woodville was suspected of plotting against Henry VII, her son-in-law, and her dowry was seized and she was sent to Bermondsey Abbey. She died there on June 8 or 9, 1492. She was buried in St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, near her husband. In 1503, James Tyrell was executed for the deaths of the two princes, sons of Edward IV, and the claim was that Richard III was responsible. Some later historians have pointed their fingers at Henry VI instead. The truth is that there is not now any sure evidence of when, where, or by what hands the princes died.

In Fiction

Elizabeth Woodville's life has lent itself to many fictional depictions, though not often as the main character. She is the main character in the British series, The White Queen.

Shakespeare's Queen Elizabeth: Elizabeth Woodville is the Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare's Richard III. She and Richard are depicted as bitter enemies, and Margaret curses Elizabeth with having her husband and children killed, as Margaret's husband and son were killed by Elizabeth's husband's supporters. Richard is able to charm Elizabeth into turning over her son and agreeing to his marriage to her daughter.

Sources

  • Baldwin, David. "Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower." Gloucestershire: The History Press (2002). Print.
  • Okerlund, Arlene N. "Elizabeth of York: Queenship and Power." New York: Palgrave Macmillan (2009). Print.