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?