Elizabeth Woodville

Queen of England During the Wars of the Roses

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

Elizabeth Woodville had a key role in the Wars of the Roses and in the succession between the Plantagenets and Tudors. She's known to many as a character in Shakespeare's Richard III (Queen Elizabeth) and title character in 2013 television series The White Queen.

She lived from about 1437 to June 7 or 8, 1492.  She is also known in historical records as Lady Grey, Elizabeth Grey, and Elizabeth Wydevill (spelling in that time was quite inconsistent).

Most sources stress that Elizabeth Woodville, who married a king, was herself a commoner or minor noble, but it is worth noting that her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, 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.

Early Life and First Marriage

Elizabeth Woodville was the eldest of the children of Richard Woodville and Jacquetta, of whom there were at least ten. Maid of honor to Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth married Sir John Grey in 1452.

Grey was killed at 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.

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. 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, were arranging a 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 two sons and five daughters who survived infancy. Elizabeth also had two sons by her first husband. 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: Relationship to Kings

When Edward IV died suddenly on April 9, 1483, Elizabeth's fortunes changed suddenly. 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 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 in June, 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.

Family of Elizabeth Woodville

Father: Sir Richard Woodville, later, Earl Rivers (1448)

MotherJacquetta of Luxembourg

Husbands

  1. Sir John Grey, 7th Baron Ferrers of Groby, 1452-1461
  2. Edward IV, 1464-1483

Children:

  • by John Grey:
    1. Thomas
    2. Richard
  • by Edward IV:
    1. 1466-1503 Elizabeth of York
    2. 1467-1482 Mary
    3. 1469-1507 Cecily
    4. 1470-1483? Edward V, briefly King of England (not crowned)
    5. 1472-1472 Margaret
    6. 1473-1483? Richard, Duke of York
    7. 1475-1511 Anne
    8. 1477-1479 George, Duke of Bedford
    9. 1479-1527 Catherine
    10. 1480-1512 Bridget

Ancestry: Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth Woodville

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