The First Queen Elizabeth

Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, was the first queen of England to bear the name that has so much significance to us today.  Before her, there had been several queens styled Isabella and one Isabel (Spanish and Italian variants of the Hebrew Elisheva), but she was the first one to carry this distinctly English version of the name.   And she was English, the first queen-consort since the Norman Conquest who was both a commoner and an Englishwoman.

She was never meant to be queen.  She was born in 1437 to a marriage of social unequals.  Her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, was of the high nobility, a daughter of the Count of St. Pol, and had previously been married to a younger brother of King Henry V.   Elizabeth’s father Sir Richard Woodville (later the Earl Rivers) began his life as a respectable member of the gentry class.  The marriage scandalized the country, but it was obviously a love match and was notably successful:  Elizabeth was the eldest of fourteen children.  She first wed Sir John Grey of Groby, a local knight and landowner, and bore him two sons.  He died at the second battle of St. Albans in 1461, fighting on the Lancastrian side and leaving his widow and children destitute.

According to legend, Elizabeth waylaid the new king, Edward IV of York, as he was out hunting near her family’s home of Grafton Regis, stepping out from the shadow of a giant oak tree while holding her two young boys by the hand.  Edward was five years younger than she and as yet unmarried, and she was undeniably beautiful with long, pale hair the color of “gilt”.  He was smitten.  She asked only that the victorious king restore her dead husband’s property rights to her and her sons, but what she got was something much more.  Edward apparently could not get her out of his mind and tried every means at his disposal to seduce her.  She steadfastly refused, reportedly stating that although she knew she was not good enough to be his queen, she was far too good to be his mistress.  She allegedly once threatened to commit suicide with his own knife if he dishonored her.

It was this refusal and Edward’s obsession with her that led to her head-spinning rise to power, though there was talk that she had also used witchcraft to inflame Edward’s lust. (Her mother Jacquetta was later charged in another incident with being a witch, but was acquitted.)  Elizabeth and Edward were married in a secret ceremony, probably on May 1, 1464, but Edward had other things to consider before making his marriage public.  Most importantly, he was worried about the reaction of his mentor and chief supporter, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who was at the same time negotiating an advantageous French marriage for the young monarch.  Finally, Edward was forced to admit that he was already married, humiliating the great earl and ultimately sending him into rebellion as members of Elizabeth’s large family gained ever more patronage and prestige at his expense.

In The Protector, Elizabeth Woodville is not a sympathetic character.  She and her brother-in-law, Richard of Gloucester, were ever at odds with one another, and I am telling Richard’s story, not hers.  Above all, she was both a protective mother and a very shrewd, remarkably intelligent woman, who did all she could after her husband’s death to maintain her grasp on power through the new king, her 12-year-old son, Edward V.   Lord Hastings, another of her old enemies, begrudgingly reflects that if she were a man, she might have made a worthy foe.

As it was, she was foe enough.  Even after fleeing into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey after Richard took custody of the king, she conspired with her dead husband’s mistress, Jane Shore, to gain control over her son and the country once again.  The disappearance and likely deaths of both of her sons by Edward IV may have ended such schemes, but did not keep her from furthering a new plot—marrying off her oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, to Henry Tudor and promoting his overthrow of Richard III.

Elizabeth Woodville outlived her old adversary and lived to see her daughter crowned Queen of England as Henry Tudor’s bride.    Of course, she was never able to exercise the same influence she had wielded during her husband’s reign and seems to have fallen in and out of favor with the Tudor court as young Yorkist pretenders made Henry’s rule uncertain.  She died in 1492 at the age of 54 or 55, possibly of the plague.

Yet her legacy is clear.  All the monarchs of England who came after Henry VII are descended from her through her daughter Elizabeth.  In the sixteenth century, her great-granddaughter of the same name became a queen-regnant and one of England’s mightiest monarchs.  She is also a fourteen-times-great-grandmother of the much-beloved current monarch as well as the original “Queen Elizabeth.”

Categories: History

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