The marriage of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV

Edward IV and Elizabeth in portraits and in the White Queen (2013) played by Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson.
Edward IV and Elizabeth in portraits and in the White Queen (2013) played by Max Irons and Rebecca Ferguson.

1 MAY 1464: The traditional date given to Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV’s union.
The day better known as “Love Day” was famous for juxtaposing gender and status roles. It was a day of mayhem and fun that has its roots in pagan religions and pre-Christian traditions. In all honesty though, there is no concrete evidence that the marriage took place that day. What is known is it must have taken place before August of that year when Lord Hastings was given the wardship of Elizabeth’s eldest son by her first marriage, Thomas Grey.

Several chroniclers that place the marriage on this day are Antonio Cornazzano, an Italian writing four years after the event took place. He writes that Elizabeth threatened Edward with a dagger after he offered her to become his mistress. Angry, Dominic Mancini writing nearly twenty years later adds that Edward attempted to make her submit but “she remained unperturbed and determined to die rather than live unchastely with the king. Whereupon Edward coveted her much the more, and he judged the lady worthy to be a royal spouse”. Thomas More writing nearly a century later omits the dagger but the end result is all the same: “She showed him plain that as she wist herself too simple to be his wife, so thought she herself too good to be his concubine. The king much marvelling of her constance … he set her virtue in the stead of possession and riches”.

Other historians believe there was more to this match than simply love or lust. Dan Jones in his recent book on the wars of the roses and the rise of the Tudors, points out that by this time, people were pointing out how much power his cousin [Richard Neville the Earl of Warwick] had. There were some that stated that he was the real ruler. Edward IV did not want to become a puppet like his predecessor, Henry VI. Henry VI had started his rule when he was just a baby and barely two years old. He had been ruled by indecision and fear. Edward was his complete opposite. Handsome, impulsive, he was not willing to let others decide for him. While the match that Warwick proposed with the King of France’s relative would have benefit him more; his match with Elizabeth sent a powerful statement that he was his own man. No one was going to rule for him, and  the fact that she was a Lancastrian fitted perfectly with his plans of reconciliation. Edward wanted an end to the bloodshed. He pardoned many Lancastrians after he took the crown in 1461, including Elizabeth’s family. It is very probable he knew her or had some vague recollection of her from her days serving Queen Marguerite of Anjou, or through her mother who had been very close to the Queen. Her mother had been married to a Lancastrian -the former King’s late uncle, John Duke of Bedford and Elizabeth’s husband had fought for Henry VI. In marrying her, it is possible that Edward intended to show a union of both houses, something that wasn’t as symbolic as his future daughter’s marriage to Henry Tudor two decades later, since Elizabeth had no blood ties to that House. But her affiliation with it, made her somewhat Lancastrian. And there was another reason. Elizabeth had a large family. He could marry off her cousins, sisters, brothers and other family members to the most important noble houses in England, including former Lancastrians, tying them and enforcing their loyalty to him.

Regardless of his reasons, they backfired on him in the end.

The marriage was kept a secret until Edward was forced to admit to it at the Reading Council in September. The fact that the bride was not royal, noble (her mother was a member of the House of St. Pol of Luxemborg, but that wasn’t enough when her father was only a Baron), and brought no foreign alliance to the marriage, shocked and outraged many members of court and his family. As for the common man, they could care less who this woman was and where she came from. Six years later when she was pregnant with their first son she fled into sanctuary in Westminster taking along with her, her daughters. She asked the mayor of London and others to submit to Warwick and the Lancaster Readeption to save themselves. Something they saw as a great contrast to her predecessor who had taken up arms against her enemies. After the Lancastrian forces were defeated the following year, the people were more welcoming to their Queen. She had not brought a foreign alliance, riches, or anything else, but she had lived up to the medieval expectations of women of the day.

She had continued her predecessor’s work and endowed universities, shown patronage to learned men and artists and shown herself subservient to her husband and to the church. This last one is less remarked in fiction but it should be, because the real Elizabeth was far from being the scheming witch she is shown in portrayals such as in the White Queen or romantic fiction. Queen Elizabeth was a very pious woman who belonged to some of the most famous religious fraternities at the time, her brothers were able soldiers and administrators. Her brother Anthony is perhaps the most famous, but her others brothers also served the Yorkist regime under her husband then under her son-in-law (Henry VII) in every capacity.
She was also ambitious. During Richard III’s reign, she conspired with Margaret Beaufort to bring about the marriage between her eldest daughter and Henry Tudor (then) Earl of Richmond after the disappearance of her sons. She spent the last days of her life leading an ascetic life. Her last wishes to be buried with little pomp and a few valuables were carried out.

Sources:

  • The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family by Susan Higginbotham
  • Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood
  • Cecily Neville: Mother of Kings by Amy Licence
  • The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
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