Forget Anne Boleyn – when it comes to one Queen to cause the most controversy, face accusations of witchcraft and have more enemies than you can shake a stick at then look no further than good old Henry VIII’s maternal grandmother – Elizabeth Woodville.
Now, Elizabeth’s rags-to-riches story is something straight out of a fairytale. A poor widowed woman, mother of two sons, waits patiently underneath an oak tree to petition the king to reclaim the lands cruelly taken from her by her ex-mother in law. The King, Edward IV, sees her and immediately falls in love, despite the inconvenience of her family being staunch supporters of the king whose throne he’d usurped. Oh, and he was supposed to be marrying a French princess!
Edward had to have Elizabeth. But Elizabeth wasn’t the sort of girl to just have a quick tumble beneath an oak tree, oh no. As the legend goes, she took the Kings own knife against him to defend her honour and his advances! So, he did what any lustful man would do and marry her. Of course, with a man’s logic, this was done secretly with only her mother as witness, but, as with all best laid plans, the secret soon came out!
A painting depicting the meeting of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward.
The court, not to mention his mother, was outraged. This commoner and widow (hardly the pure virgin or political match required for a King) had socially climbed to such an extent that every modern day wannabe wag would have been envious. And she didn’t even have to get her kit off! And naturally, cue the witchcraft rumours…
Despite the rumours, Elizabeth doesn’t endear herself to her objectors. She snatches all the prime positions in court and council, and bags eligible marriages for her own kin fuelling even more bitter resentment. As with all controversies, struggles for power ensue. There are a couple of attempted usurpation’s of the throne and a tonne of gory battles. Edward has to flee for his life, and Elizabeth flees to sanctuary with their children in Westminster Abbey. Whilst in sanctuary, she gave birth to a longed for son and heir. But on the outside, her mother was put on trial for witchcraft and her father and brother cruelly murdered by the very man who had helped her husband to the throne – Warwick ‘The Kingmaker’.
Having held out, Elizabeth soon found herself reunited with her husband and normality resumed…fir a little while anyway. This was a dysfunctional family at best; more and more people were becoming wary of the White Queen. Following a couple of unfortunate deaths of her enemies and the Kings decision to execute his own brother, George Duke of Clarence, Elizabeth found a heap of blame at her door. Seems the fairytale wasn’t so sweet after all.
Edwards death left Elizabeth widowed once more. But now, she was mother to the heir of the throne. Her son was only 12 years old, and her only protection from her enemies at court. However, he was in Wales. And so it goes that Richard Duke of York, the late Kings brother, was named as Lord Protector.
After a little bit of child snatching on Richard’s part, Elizabeth flees to sanctuary once more with her girls and youngest son Richard. I’m sure you have heard the story of the ‘Princes In The Tower’ – well, she was forced to hand over Richard to her brother-in-law so that he could join his older brother, who was of course being held in the Tower of London. The boys were never seen alive again. Seems her fears were well founded.
The poor Princes, who many believe met their end in the Tower of London.
After declaring Elizabeth’s marriage invalid and her children illegitimate, Richard had managed to clear the path to name himself King Richard III. Fear not though, there’s hope for Elizabeth yet. Her saviour…the young Henry Tudor. Yes, King Henry VIII’s daddy. He was in exile in Brittany, raising an army with his uncle, Jasper Tudor, to come and take back the throne as the heir of the House of Lancaster. Clever Elizabeth seals the deal on a betrothal for her daughter Elizabeth and Henry, with the help of his mother, the long suffering, Margaret Beaufort. Henry does his bit; he defeats King Richard at the Battle of Bosworth, and is crowned King of England. Elizabeth sees her daughter crowned Queen and her place restored at court.
Henry VII of England.
However, it is not long before she faces more scandal. Rumours circulate that she is supporting an uprising against the new King and her own daughter. She is promptly packed off to Bermondsey Abbey to live out her life in “quiet reflection”. Whether she did so is still argued today!
Elizabeth Woodville – the Queen, the commoner, the widowed witch…what a woman, what a life!