The first thing that seems to come up in most biographies of Elizabeth Woodville is her phenomenal beauty. Legend has it that one look at her blonde beauty and King Edward IV threw caution to the wind to marry her. Hers was seemingly not just prettiness, but something far more ethereal and disconcerting: one admirer described her as having “heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon.” Her beauty may have been striking, but her strength of character, keen survivor’s instincts, and canny ability to make strategic alliances is what makes her such an unforgettable historical figure.
As is the case with so many non-royals from this era, we don’t know exactly when Elizabeth was born but it was probably around 1437. She was the eldest child of the controversial marriage between Sir Richard Woodville, a knight, and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, a minor royal. Richard’s family was wealthy but commoners; Jacquetta’s first husband had been the uncle of King Henry VI of England. So when the War of the Roses broke out between the Yorks and the Lancasters, the Woodvilles were obviously on #TeamLancaster.
We don’t know much about Elizabeth until she married Sir John Grey in around 1452, when she’d have been about 15 years old. They had two sons together until he was killed in a War of the Roses-related battle in 1461 (he was fighting on the #TeamLancaster side). This left Elizabeth was left a widow and single mother, aged 24. About three years later, she seems to have secretly married King Edward IV which is like: what? And how? And why? And nobody quite knows. That’s the thing about secret marriages in the 15th century: nobody really writes very good records of what happens. So here’s my best guess for what may have happened, bearing in mind that my best guess also includes me picking some of the most twisty, dramatic narrative theories which, knowing this family and this era, are probably more true than not.
So, John died in the Battle of St. Albans in 1461. He’d been fighting for #TeamLancaster against #TeamYork. This meant that #TeamYork took away the dower lands Elizabeth should have inherited as his widow, leaving her homeless and her sons without any inheritance. So Elizabeth was a 24-year-old widow and single mother whose main superpower seemed to be her incredibly — like “dragon-eyes” incredible — good looks. She moved back home with her parents because there was literally nowhere else for her to go. But she had a plan to try and convince the King to restore her land and her sons’ inheritance. How was she going to do that? With her superpower of being unbelievably beautiful.
So, she took her sons with her and went to sit under a tree where she knew King Edward would be passing by. Sure enough, he came trotting by and Elizabeth flagged him down to argue her case. And like Prince Harry Wales walking into that restaurant and laying eyes on Meghan Markle for the first time, Edward was entranced by her gorgeousness and lively personality and fell instantly in love with her because she was amazing. He was like, “Become my mistress!” and Elizabeth was like, “Restore my land!” and Edward was like, “What if you marry me?” and Elizabeth was like, “Deal!” There may or may not have been a bit where one or the other of them stabbed the other one (?) but out of this under-the-tree meeting Elizabeth Woodville seems to have emerged as the fiancee of the English King.
This was notable and rule-busting in numerous ways. 1) She was English. The English King had never married an English woman before, because the point of marriage to that point was to cement alliances between different countries. 2) She was not royal. Like, her mother was sort of royal-adjacent, but the Woodvilles were technically commoners. The fact that they got married in secret was also a huge change from normal customs, because royal marriages were usually celebrated with huge Meghan-and-Harry like parades and tournaments and hundreds of guests so that everybody knew who was married to who. In fact, Edward and Elizabeth only had four guests at their tiny ceremony: her mother, Jacquetta, two ladies maids, and the priest who married them. And none of them were about to tell anyone what had happened.
There was a plotline sort of like this on an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air once, where Will pretended to marry a woman who didn’t believe in premarital sex in order to have sex with her. And that may have been what Edward was up to, fake-marrying Elizabeth so he could make love to her incredibly gorgeous self. Would Jacquetta have gone along with that? Frankly, she may have, because she was wildly ambitious and knew the benefit of having a daughter who was the King’s mistress. So they were secretly married, and Edward didn’t tell anyone for months and months, meanwhile his advisor Lord Warwick was trying to sort out a marriage alliance to a French Princess. Finally Edward was like, “Warwick, I can’t marry the French Princess because I’m already married,” and Lord Warwick — who was like a Littlefinger type of schemer — was so mad he turned against him and never forgave him. But now the secret was out in the open, and so Elizabeth Woodville was crowned Queen of England on May 26, 1465.
The King’s mother, Cecily Neville, was like the original Evil Mother-In-Law and hated Elizabeth because she was 1) #TeamLancaster and 2) a commoner and 3) Cecily hadn’t gotten to choose her son’s wife. So between Cecily and Warwick, Elizabeth had some powerful enemies and wouldn’t you know it, rumours started flying around that the women with the dragon eyes was maybe like a witch or something?? This was not just because of her apparently supernatural beauty, but because one of her ancestors was *allegedly* the water goddess Melusina, which meant that both Elizabeth and Jacquetta had genetic magical powers, and that’s why Edward fell instantly in love with her — because she had ensorcelled him. Jacquetta was charged with witchcraft at one point, but she was found not guilty.
But Elizabeth’s relatives began gaining more influence around court, which sidelined Warwick, until he finally took off to go scheme elsewhere. Elizabeth and Edward were apparently still super-happy together, and had three daughters basically all in a row. As we know from their later descendant Henry VIII’s situation, it’s pretty crucial for people with tentative claims to the throne to have a son in order to continue on the dynasty. Elizabeth became pregnant with their fourth child JUST AS Warwick came back to town in a new alliance with #TeamLancaster. Yes, Warwick had teamed up with the badass and devious Margaret of Anjou to restore #TeamLancaster’s champion, Henry VI, to the throne. And if you don’t think I’m going to write about Margaret of Anjou some other time, then you have underestimated how much I love researching and writing about devious badasses.
So, with Warwick, Margaret, and Henry in town, Edward had no choice but to leave town and go into hiding. Elizabeth, hugely pregnant, was left to fend for herself. My God, the drama! So, Very Pregnant Elizabeth grabbed her children and went to Westminster Abbey, aka the place where Kate Middleton and Prince William got married. Because they had that thing where you could claim sanctuary if you were in a church and nobody was allowed to arrest you when you were in there, so it was the safest place for them to be and, it was in there that she gave birth to her first son with Edward. And she named the boy… also Edward. Who can blame her? At this point she didn’t know if she’d ever see King Edward again, and if she did, he would absolutely appreciate having a son named in his honour.
It took awhile but finally, by 1470, Edward rolled back into town and defeated #TeamLancaster for good, killing Warwick because that asshole deserved it, frankly. Edward nabbed the crown and throne back from the Lancastrian King Henry VI, and became King again. So he and Elizabeth were together again, King and Queen! Now, because it was olden days and he was a King and that’s just the way things were then, Edward was not entirely faithful to Elizabeth. While she kept busy having four more children, Edward took on numerous mistresses. Basically, things had gone from crazy chaos to borderline calm and stayed that way for quite awhile… until Edward died suddenly from pneumonia in 1483. And everything went to hell.
The new King should have been Elizabeth’s son, Edward, but a boy King isn’t the greatest monarch to have when power-mad ambitious schemers are literally crawling out of every wall. Because Edward was still a boy, his Uncle Richard was appointed as his Lord Protector. And Richard, who I haven’t mentioned here mostly because Warwick and Margaret were such first-class schemers he sort of faded into the background, proved himself to be maybe the worst of them all. He was paranoid that the Woodville family would try and seize power from him by making one of Elizabeth’s brothers the new Lord Protector, so he arrested her brother and her son (from her first marriage, remember she had two sons with John Grey?). Elizabeth didn’t have a good feeling about this, so she grabbed the rest of her children and went into hiding.
Prince Edward (because he hadn’t been officially coronated yet) was put in the Tower of London for safekeeping, or so Richard said. Because this Richard isn’t just Uncle Richard, bad news on two legs: he’s Shakespeare’s Richard III aka an evil villain! He accused Elizabeth of plotting to murder him, which: fair, if I were her, that’s what I’d plan too, because the next thing he did was execute Elizabeth’s son and brother (the ones he’d put in jail before). And THEN! THEN! He passed an act of Parliament declaring Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage null and void, which made all of their children illegitimate, which meant that he — Evil Richard — was the One True King.
This is where the secrecy of Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage came back to bite them. Because one of the reasons royals have huge party weddings is so that everybody knows who’s married who, so there’s no question about who did what and when. But Richard was like, “Edward had a secret pre-contract to marry some other random woman who is conveniently now dead! Which means he was never able to legally marry Elizabeth! Mwa ha ha ha,” which is how he talked, because he was THE WORST. He also accused Elizabeth of Dragon Beauty Witch Magic again, but that all sort of went away because everyone was busy with all the rest of Richard’s evil craziness. Somewhere in here, Elizabeth’s other son, ironically named Richard, was also sent to hang out with Prince Edward in the Tower of London… and neither was seen again. Yes, these boys were the infamous Princes in the Tower. They went into the Tower and were never seen again, aka, presumably, Richard killed them because he’s The Worst.
Elizabeth wasn’t going to go down without a fight, though. Now that she had been un-Queened, she was officially known as Dame Elizabeth Grey. She looked around at the chess pieces that were literally everyone around her, and chose to team up with Margaret Beaufort (another legendary badass who I will write about another day) to fight to get Margaret’s son Henry Tudor onto the throne. Now, the War of the Roses was a wild time with extraordinarily convoluted family trees but effectively: Henry Tudor was at the bottom of a random branch of the Lancastrian family tree; Evil Richard was at the bottom of the York family tree. Only one family could win, and Elizabeth figured out the best way to give Henry Tudor an edge: she decided to marry him to her daughter, also confusingly named Elizabeth. A marriage between Margaret’s son Henry and Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth would effectively join #TeamYork and #TeamLancaster into one unstoppable new team… #TeamTudors.
Richard was doing his best to be slightly less terrible, and swore a public oath that he wouldn’t harm Elizabeth Woodville or her daughters. So, she and the girls emergerd from hiding and re-joined the royal court, pretending like they didn’t all hate Richard and blame him for having murdered Prince Edward and Prince Richard. When King Richard’s poor wife, Anne Neville (who I’ll also write about one day) died, he began thinking that maybe he’d marry Elizabeth’s daughter Elizabeth — because he didn’t know she’d been pre-contracted to marry Henry Tudor.
But then!! Henry Tudor attacked, and defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Once he was King, Henry married Elizabeth Jr. and had Elizabeth Sr. re-instated as Queen Dowager, making her marriage to Edward and her children legitimate again. Hooray! And then… Elizabeth Woodville sort of goes off the radar. She went to live at Bermondsey Abbey for the next five years, but we don’t know why. Elizabeth had been very religious her whole life, so it’s very possible she just decided to spent her later years devoting herself to religious contemplation. But then again, there was a Yorkish rebellion in 1487 which she may have been involved with, and maybe the new King Henry VII sent her to the nunnery as a sort of punishment for that. Nobody knows for sure.
The marriage of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV was the first English royal marriage performed because of love, not for political reasons. Seemingly, Elizabeth passed along her belief int he importance of marrying for love, because all three of her grandchildren — Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, and Margaret Tudor — did just that, sometimes with disastrous and controversial repercussions. She died at Bermondsey Abbey on June 8, 1492, at the age of 55.
She was buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, alongside Edward IV, and across from bodies commonly accepted to be those of their sons Prince Edward and Prince Richard. This is the same chapel in which numerous royal marriages have been held, and where Prince Harry will be marrying for love to Meghan Markle. Again, a royal marries for love to a commoner who’s been married before, a woman whose stunning beauty can sometimes distract from her character and accomplishments. Elizabeth and Edward’s life was messy and complicated, but their story is one of true love defying the odds. What better place for a new unconventional, rules-breaking royal couple to begin their new life together?
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter