Did Elizabeth Wydville die of the plague….?

Elizabeth Woodville

We all know that on 8th June, 1492, Elizabeth Woodville died in relative obscurity in Bermondsey Abbey, and it has been imagined that she died a natural death, perhaps brought on by her greatly reduced circumstances and exclusion from court. (Although perhaps she preferred to hide away because she’d simply had enough of court life and court intrigue?) Anyway, she came to prominence because of her scandalous (at the time and since) marriage to Edward IV.

Edward IV

Henry VII disliked her, and because of this, maybe her daughters saw the wisdom of “dropping” her. Maybe. It just isn’t known. What is known is that Henry, being a fond son-in-law, relieved her of her possessions.

Now, thanks to a recently discovered letter, there is a new theory about the actual reason for her death. According to this article :-

“….Euan Roger is a records specialist at the National Archives and while looking through 16th century documents, he found a letter from the Venetian ambassador to London which seems to indicate Elizabeth’s death came about because of the feared illness. The document was written in 1511, some nineteen years after she had died, but Euan Roger believes its description of ”the Queen-Widow, mother of King Edward” can only refer to the most famous Woodville of them all.

“….The letter states that she has died of the plague and “the king is disturbed”….”

Being written some nineteen years after Elizabeth’s demise casts a rather curious light on the tenses used in the letter. She “has” died of the plague? The king “is” disturbed? Would the Venetian ambassador really express himself like that so many years after the event? And which king? Henry VII had died in 1509, and the present king in 1511 was his son, Henry VIII.

Something doesn’t seem quite right, and yet, as Mr Roger concludes, to which other Queen Elizabeth could the letter refer? Henry VII’s queen, Elizabeth of York (eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville) died in 1503, but she wasn’t a widow and did not have a son who could be termed “King Edward”. Elizabeth Woodville was a widowed queen, and her eldest son by Edward IV is still referred to as King Edward (V), so she does indeed seem to be the only candidate.

Elizabeth of York

It is an interesting thought that Elizabeth Woodville passed away of the plague, but it doesn’t alter the fact that she was sidelined and virtually ignored. And that the reason was probably (in my opinion) Henry VII’s gut-wrenching fear that the truth about her clandestine marriage would out. He depended upon his marriage to Elizabeth of York to legitimise his reign, because it “united” the warring factions in the realm. It was to make such a marriage possible that he very carefully overturned Richard III’s claim to the throne, which was based upon the illegitimacy of Edward IV’s marriage, and therefore of the children born of it. Yet by doing this, Henry also legitimised his new queen’s missing brothers, and I think he spent the rest of his life agonising about the triumphant return of one or the other of the missing boys he himself had given a superior claim to the throne than his own.

While Elizabeth Woodville lived, she was a danger to him. She could at any time confirm that Richard III had been correct to take the throne, because her children were baseborn and Richard was the true heir. Would this thought “disturb” Henry VII? Yes, I rather think so.

Which brings another possibility to mind. Was Elizabeth perilously close to broadcasting the truth? Had something happened to trigger this? If so, her sudden demise might be very desirable. Blaming the plague for what was actually a murder might be a neat solution. There is no proof to support such a theory, of course, but I have always believed that Elizabeth of York’s brothers, the “princes in the Tower” were disposed of after the Battle of Bosworth, and were therefore Tudor victims. Richard III did not do it, but has borne the brunt of the blame throughout history. Maybe the plague/unhappiness didn’t dispose of Elizabeth Woodville either.

But the tenses in the letter are still problematic, and, like Mr Roger, I can only arrive at the same conclusion: the king and queen in question are Elizabeth Woodville and Henry VII.

Henry VII



  1. I don’t think the young princess were ‘disposed of’ after Bosworth, I think Richard lll had them taken to a place of safety. Elizabeth never said anything about them being killed. She detested Richard, and I’m sure she would have loved to be able to say something if they’d been killed. If I’m right and they were alive, it makes sense to think Henry Vll would be bothered about one of them coming back. As he’d re-legitimised them in order to marry their sister Elizabeth of York, their claim to the throne would automatically depose him.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If the boys survived in the tower for two years, and then disappeared, wouldn’t someone notice and say so, if not in England, abroad where it was safe?
      In any case, if Henry Tudor disposed of them, he knew they were dead and presumably, where they were buried. With his sense of PR, I don’t think he would have overlooked the opportunity of having masses said for them, have a state funeral, etc. If the bodies were too ‘fresh’ to be used in 1486, they were ‘riper’ during l’affaire Warbeck, and certainly after Tyrell’s ‘confession’ in 02. Yet he did nothing.
      All Henry knew for sure was that the princes had disappeared, and I think that was all Richard knew, as well. Certainly it is all we know today.
      If, on the other hand, Richard had sent them abroad, then Henry lacked opportunity to commit the crime. But that is an argument for another day.
      As for Elizabeth Woodville, maybe she died of the sweating sickness, which was endemic in the early Tudor period.


  2. Also people forget.that Edward Plantagenet (George and Isobel’s son) was also in the tower. The two princes having been declared illigitimate were now equal to to Edward Plantagenet since he too was barred from the throne. If they were such a threat to Richard why would Richard leave him. Even if Edward was considered simple.

    Also Elizabeth of York and her sisters presented a threat to Richard. Killing the two boys but leaving all others makes no sense. He was moving to marry the daughters of E-IV into other royal families, including E of Y, at the time of Bosworth.

    What an enigma.

    I can picture Henry VII being enraged at EW, especially if she was part of the Simnal or Warbeck plots. I think it’s entirely plausible that H-VII used Edward Plantagenet-Earl of Warwick as a cover to claim that Simnel was claiming to be him rather than Edward V. Plus it’s plausable that Edward V would have used “Plantagenet” rather than V upon entering England. As far as I know/have found, Simnel/Edward never actually claimed to be the Earl of Warwick. This was all put forward by H-VII.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Interesting. There appears to be some debate about when his first appearance in the tower occurred. Peter A. Hancock states in Richard III and the Murder in the Tower that Edward Plantagenet, son of George and Isobel was there with the princes. It also appears that Richard had him at some point too, which would explain why he would be taken back to the tower after Bosworth.


      2. He was living with John Earl of Lincoln, his cousin, and the other legitimate Yorkist children until 1485, expecting to join the Council of the North which Lincoln chaired. These included Richard’s own son, Edward of Middleham.


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: