Elizabeth Woodville/Wydeville/Widville and her woes.

Elsewhere, Arlene Okerlund had posted a very interesting blog post about Elizabeth Woodville.

The post emphasises the suffering Elizabeth endured and her many losses. It would be inhuman to deny that suffering, although it must be pointed out that such trials were not unique to this particular woman. Almost anyone from an elite family (and many much poorer individuals) suffered as a result of the Wars of the Roses. To give but two examples (both women) Cecily Neville suffered the violent death of her husband and all but one of her sons (Edward IV). Indeed she had to endure the spectacle of one of her sons judicially murdering another. As for Margaret of Anjou – frankly, she would probably have regarded Elizabeth Woodville’s experiences as a comparative rest cure.

The question arises, perhaps, of how much did Elizabeth Woodville bring upon herself. Was she entirely a passive victim of fate? It seems unlikely. Something was going on in 1483. Her brother Anthony was checking his authority to raise forces in the Marches, and inserting a deputy into the Tower without apparently gaining the King’s approval. A large force – 2,000 men no less – was gathered to bring Edward V from Ludlow to London, through a tranquil land where there had been no serious fighting for fourteen years. (The force would have been still bigger had it not been for Hastings’ objections.) Edward Woodville, having apparently ‘borrowed’ a large sum from the Tower, was at sea, among other things looting a treasure ship at Southampton. Put all this together, with Dorset’s reported remark that his family was strong enough in council to do as they wished without the Duke of Gloucester, and it all begins to smell strongly of a coup. Elizabeth’s own actions, in fleeing into Westminster Sanctuary – knocking the odd wall down in the process to accommodate her possessions – also smack of a guilty conscience.

It is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of English history to speculate on what might have happened had Elizabeth kept her nerve. She was the recognised Queen of England, and there was no precedent in English history (with the exception of Maud de Braose several centuries earlier) for anything worse than imprisonment to befall an English noblewoman. (Even that was relatively rare.) In effect, Elizabeth imprisoned herself, and in doing so abandoned all her influence and position. Had she stood her ground, she could have made Richard of Gloucester’s position a lot more awkward. (If she was worried about the fate of her younger son, or her daughters, she could easily have followed good Yorkist precedent and sent them off to Aunt Margaret in Burgundy. It was not as if, during the days when she was waiting for Richard, she had no access to shipping. As mentioned above, her son Edward was acting (albeit under questionable authority) as Vice-Admiral of England.

To have real sympathy for Elizabeth in this situation, you have to believe that Richard was an unmitigated villain who would have behaved as he did no matter how Elizabeth and the other Woodvilles had conducted themselves. This is perhaps a rather extreme version of events, and one that views Elizabeth and her family as rather helpless little creatures in an evil world, rather than a tight-knit group of political men and women who were busy playing their own cards.

Okerlund makes quite a convincing case for a benign explanation of Elizabeth’s retirement from the world in 1487. Many historians agree with this interpretation. However, what it does not explain is the simultanious imprisonment of Elizabeth’s son, Dorset, in the Tower of London. Dorset certainly did not go there to pray, and the most likely explanation is that, however irrationally, Henry VII considered him a potential supporter of ‘Lambert Simnel’. By extension, it is not unreasonable to infer that he held the same suspicions of his mother-in-law. Moreover, Bermondsey, where she was lodged, was a male monastery. Would not a religious woman, seeking spiritual solace, prefer a female house, like the Minories?

This of course begs another huge question. Why should Dorset wish to put Warwick on the throne in order to depose his own half-sister? It beggars belief. It would only begin to make sense if Lambert Simnel was, or was believed to be, the proxy for one of Elizabeth’s sons. The only other explanation that makes sense (in the case of Dorset) was that Henry VII was absurdly paranoid.

One final point. Henry VII’s allowance to his mother-in-law, whom he recognised as Queen Dowager, was rather smaller than that paid by her supposed enemy, Richard III, who regarded her as plain Dame Elizabeth Grey. Very strange, do you not think?

23 comments

  1. The Woodvilles were always so ahead of their time – was Edward planning to set up a payday loan company?
    Elizabeth’s brother Lionel, a Bishop, also imprisoned himself. Up to this date, when had Bishops been harmed by the King – and which King?

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  2. In fleeing to sanctuary, Elizabeth also deserted her young daughter, Bridget, who lay ill at the Great Wardrobe. So apparently whatever danger she felt from Richard, it didn’t include a little girl. How very strange that a mother wouldn’t be concerned with the safety of all of her children if a nasty, violent, vindictive tyrant were coming at them….

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  3. Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, was threatened with hanging by Stephen, who also arrested him and several family members who were also bishops. But, like many of Stephen’s threats, it was never followed through (though in this case, it had the desired effect).

    Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, was imprisoned by his half-brother William I, but that was as Earl of Kent – the Conqueror never attempted to have his bishopric taken.

    But as for actual harm? Besides the already-mentioned St. Becket, I can’t think of any.

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  4. Although the cash annuity that HT paid EW was smaller than that paid by Richard, I understand that HT also restored her dower rights as queen which gave her additional income from the estates. It is possible, therefore, that she received an equal amount, if not a greater one by this process.

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  5. The other prelate seriously harmed by a king was Archbishop Scrope, executed by Henry IV’s orders in 1405. This was an execution of dubious legality, but as it was undertaken by a Lancastrian king, there is very little historical criticism of it. (The Pope protested but could do very little as this was the time of the Great Schism.)

    Elizabeth Woodville did indeed receive her dower rights from Henry VII, but when she ‘retired’ these were taken from her again and the modest pension was granted in lieu, not in addition. So her time of prosperity under Henry ended within two years, and she appears to have died in, at best, genteel poverty.

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    1. Presumably her queen’s dower rights passed to her daughter, Elizabeth because if she were widowed, then she would need them.

      I am very curious about EW’s retirement to Bermondsey. The modern view is that it was voluntary and that she had been planning it for a while before she went. Other views indicate that Henry was behind it.

      What are the sources?

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  6. Vergil is the source that sparked the rumour that Henry was punishing Elizabeth Jasmine, although he said it was for co-operating with Richard III. Franics Bacon first started the myth she was involved in the Simnel rebellion.
    In 1486 she took out a lease on Cheyneygates manor, the Abbots house she allegedly knocked holes in the wall to get all her ‘treasure’ in (that one is Thomas More), where she had stayed in sanctuary in 1483.
    Henry was also considering marrying her off to the King of Scots after his wife died in 1486 which may have also hastened her decision to retire from court.
    Anne Sutton has said her dower lands were given to Elizabeth of York as a tradition that the queen consort receive her income from Lancastrian properties (Okerlund pg 247 from The Ricardian 1999) and as we have discussed, Elizabeth also supplemented her sisters’ incomes from her own.
    Henry increased her annuity to 400 pounds after she moved in to Bermondsey where she was entitled to stay free of rent and sent her small gifts.

    And to the author, thanks for reading, but we study many female historical figures on our website and I don’t believe when we are discussing a single woman in an article that we are neglecting the trials of others.

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  7. It might be a view that Elizabeth elected to “martyr” herself, by running to sanctuary. I don’t necessarily hold to this, but just put it forward as a possible reading of her motives and actions. A public “Poor Little Me” and my innocent childers left to my present control. Who was the blogger/history maven, who published a hilarious segment featuring medieval queens and noble women, competing for the martyr’s crown? You know who you are. I will have to expose moi, as a senior who hasn’t upgraded the RAMs in her mental memory, while I search that thread. 🙂 Own up, please?

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  8. It may simply be that Elizabeth went into panic mode in 1483 – that in effect she was terrified of facing Richard of Gloucester. If so it does need explanation. OK, her brother and son had been arrested, but previously (we are told) Richard and the Woodvilles had been on good terms. So what had changed?

    As so often in this era, I wish we knew more.

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    1. Considering Elizabeth had sought sanctuary twice before when her husband was absent/captured/exiled and the second time she was in sanctuary her father and brother had been captured and executed by Warwick – now that her brother and son were arrested we could surmise she did panic rather than ascribe guilt to the matter.
      And no there is absolutely no evidence there was any friction between Richard and Elizabeth, or Anthony for that matter, prior to 1483. Do did Richard actually uncover a plot or was he helpfully informed of an alleged plot?
      In fact it was Hastings that led the objection to the size of the young King’s guard and made various threats – we might in fact speculate Elizabeth was fleeing an enemy that was already *in* London rather than the one who was on the way to London.

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  9. I would also suggest that she was ignorant of the fac of Edward’s bigamy until 1483. She had probably heard rumours earlier but he had denied them.

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    1. I don’t believe she knew anything prior to it being announced it 1483 either but there is a theory that Clarence had learned of the pre-contract and threatened Edward which led to his judicial murder. It is based in part on Mancini’s comment that ‘Thus she concluded that her offspring by the king would never come to the throne unless the duke of Clarence were removed’. I am not quite convinced by it however.

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      1. Sorry the whole comment from Mancini, I left the first half off

        “The queen then remembered the insults to her family and the calumnies with which she was reproached, namely that according to established usage she was not the legitimate wife of the king.Thus she concluded that her offspring by the king would never come to the throne unless the duke of Clarence were removed.”

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  10. I, however, do believe that EW discovered the pre-contract issue some time after her marriage and before the events of 1483. If Clarence had some inkling of this, it may have been around the time of his trial and execution that Elizabeth found out.

    I think it is interesting that she never commented on her marriage, either before the events of 1483 nor after 1485. She kept complete silence even when she could have added her voice to the condemnation of Richard post Bosworth.

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  11. To be fair she did assert she was Edward’s wife in her will, rather like Cecily asserting she was his mother in her will.
    If she did find out around the time of Clarence’s trial she would have been married around fifteen years already. I don’t think that is what Mancini is referring to however, it is possible he is simply referring to Edward marrying Elizabeth secretly. He also said that Clarence opposed the queen’s lineage and her being a widow when Edward should have married a virgin – which may be what Mancini was expanding on rather than George’s knowledge of the pre-contract.

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  12. The situation of Dorset is exactly the case one must consider when looking at those events. Real history considers that – what was occurring simultaneously to give us perspective on what the motives of those involved were. Lazy history simply looks at EW and suggests she was just retiring from public life. To a male monestary. Right.

    Thank you for being one of the real historians that looks into all the factors occurring at that moment and not simply looking at one event and coming to a conclusion.

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    1. It is very obvious Henry VII did not trust Dorset, who had attempted to abandon his cause prior to Bosworth. Henry publicly snubbed Dorset, while giving large grants of land to Sir Edward and Richard Wydeville, Dorset only had lands that were his right by marriage restored to him. Vergil says Henry placed him in the Tower as a precautionary measure – you may translate that to absurdly paranoid, or merely paranoid, but it seems fairly transparent. Henry’s worries may have been compounded by the fact that Simnel had switched identities to the Earl of Warwick and Dorset had been the young Warwick’s guardian.
      If Henry’s suspicions then extended to his mother-in-law why did he allow Edward Wydeville to take a small army to Stoke? Considering his near-miss with the Stanleys previously, he would hardly allow a seasoned military general to take an army to Stoke if he thought it likely he might switch sides.
      Of course we would also have to entertain that the earl of Lincoln and Francis Lovell would have welcomed Dorset’s involvement. It is not impossible, of course.

      As for Bermondsey it had royal lodgings, it was not a prison. Henry II and Eleanor’s Prince Henry was born there.

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  13. I read the blog post and she said that Elizabeth had nothing to do with the Lambert Simnel plot against Henry Vll because her daughter was already Queen and she would have nothing to gain from it. There’s no evidence that she was involved or not, so Arlene is stating her opinion, not proven fact. I’m not trying to be rude or anything about what she said I’m just saying that there’s no proof and Elizabeth could’ve been in the plot considering she plotted before against Richard lll.

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