The Death of Queen Dowager Elizabeth Woodville

Elizabeth Woodville portrait

On the 8th of June 1492, Elizabeth Woodville, Queen Dowager of England and mother of Elizabeth of York, the first Tudor Consort, died at Bermondsey Abbey. She had retired to be at peace with her thoughts and true to her religiosity, she asked for a moderate funeral.

Bermondsey_Abbey
Illustration of Bermondsey Abbey.

Some historians and novelists speculate as to why she decided to retire to an Abbey, with the former making assumptions that it was due to her son’s cruelty or his mother’s jealousy, while the latter say that it had to do with her possible involvement in the Lambert Simnel rebellion. Lambert Simnel was an impostor who pretended to be the captive Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick. His rebellion failed and he was relegated to the kitchens with many of the main plotters dying in the field.

Elizabeth’s role in this plot has long been debated and while there is a possibility of her involvement, the more likely explanation (while simple) is probably the correct one. As I’ve mentioned, it had to do with her religiosity -which was a key component of her life.

 

EW Twq and twp
Elizabeth Woodville played by Rebecca Ferguson & Essie Davis respective in the White Queen and the White Princess, which are based on Philippa Gregory’s books of the same name. The series present a ruthless, ambitious, self-righteous and at times, murderous version of the first Yorkist Consort in an effort to make her more appealing to modern audiences.

Elizabeth was discreet, strict with her ladies (when she was queen), and moderate in her spending which is a big contrast to her predecessor -Marguerite of Anjou who often exceeded her royal income- and on top of that, she was very observant of religious doctrine. Her brother, Anthony Woodville, expressed an interest in joining the Catholic Kings in their crusade against the Moors and one of her surviving brothers, following the end of Richard III’s reign and the start of her son-in-law Henry Tudor’s, went ahead and did that.

That religiosity was inherited by her daughters, most notably her eldest and youngest, Elizabeth and Bridget of York. The latter became a nun at the Dartford Priory and it is possible that this was her intended fate since she was a child. After Elizabeth died, Bridget asked permission to leave so she could attend her mother’s funeral.

Her wishes were honored and Elizabeth’s funeral was a modest one. She was interred in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, next to her second husband, Edward IV. Fun fact, this is the place where her grandson, Henry VIII and granddaughter-in-law, Jane Seymour, were also interred, and so were some of her later descendants, including Anne I of the United Kingdom and one of her infant offspring.

EW hollow crown wars of the roses
Keeley Hawes as Elizabeth Woodville in the Hollow Crown: Wars of the roses based off Shakespeare’s history plays “Henry VI parts 1 and 2” and “Richard III”. Unlike recent portrayals of her in popular media, Shakespeare offered a more sympathetic portrayal of her where she uses her soft power, via her love and domesticity, to gain the upper hand, while still delving into the dark side and launching curses at her enemy (Richard) at the end.

The best way to honor Elizabeth Woodville is by remembering who she was. Besides being a religious matron, devoted mother and wife, she was also a survivor of one of the most turbulent periods in English history.

She was the first Yorkist, married to Edward IV and Sir John Grey before him. Her eldest daughter Elizabeth of York married Henry VII in 1486. Less than nine months later she gave birth to Prince Arthur. On his christening, her family held a special place, ahead of other nobles. Elizabeth Woodville stood as the infant’s godmother, presenting her grandson with a “rich up of gold”.

As previously mentioned, Elizabeth was highly religious. During her time as Queen, Elizabeth Woodville would make special pilgrimages to churches, and stop whenever she could to make a special offering. Her humility during the Lancastrian Readeption earned her the common people’s approval. Queens were supposed to be passive and religious, Elizabeth fit this model very well unlike her predecessor, the Lancastrian Queen, Marguerite of Anjou who was every bit of independent as her female relatives. During her first time in sanctuary, she gave birth to her firstborn royal son, Prince Edward. Baptized in a humble ceremony, she received bread and other provisions from the people who soon heard of her plight. During the reign of Richard III, Elizabeth and her daughters came out of sanctuary after he promised he wouldn’t harm them. To this day historians can’t make up their minds as to what happened to her sons, the princes in the tower. Probably they never will. One thing is for certain though. There was more to Elizabeth Woodville than met the eye. As a consort she fulfilled her duties and obligations by giving the King two male heirs and adhering to the gender norms of the day.

Sources:

  • Higginbotham, Susan. The Woodvilles:  The Wars of the Roses and England’s most infamous family. History Press. 2013.
  • Licence,  Amy. Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen. Amberley. 2013.
  • Okerlund, Arlene. Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen. Tempus. 2005.
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