Elizabeth Woodville

First commoner to marry a king

ELIZABETH  WOODVILLE, Elizabeth Wydeville, Elizabeth Widvile (c. 1437 – June 8, 1492) was Queen consort of Edward IV, King of England, from 1464 until his death in 1483. Elizabeth was a key figure in the series of dynastic civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses. Her first husband, Sir John Grey of Groby was killed at the Second Battle of St Albans.  Elizabeth was born at Grafton, Northamptonshire, the daughter of Richard Woodville, 1st Earl Rivers and his wife, Jacquetta of Luxembourg. In about 1452, she married Sir John Grey of Groby, who was killed at the Second Battle of St Albans in 1461, fighting for the Lancastrian cause, which would become a source of irony as Edward IV was the Yorkist claimant to the throne. Elizabeth had two sons from the marriage to Grey, Thomas (later Marquess of Dorset) and Richard.

Edward IV’s marriage to the widowed Lady Grey took place secretly and though the date is not accepted as exactly accurate is traditionally said to have taken place (with only the bride’s mother Jacquetta of Luxembourg and two ladies in attendance) at her family home in Northamptonshire on May 1, 1464, just over three years after he had taken the English throne subsequent to leading the Yorkists in an overwhelming victory over the Lancastrians at the Battle of Towton. She was the first commoner to marry an English sovereign and the wedding took place, without the knowledge of the Royal Court. At around the time of Edward’s secret marriage, Warwick was negotiating an alliance with France in an effort to thwart a similar arrangement being made by his sworn enemy Margaret of Anjou, wife of the deposed Henry VI. The plan was that Edward should marry a French Princess. When the marriage to Elizabeth, who was a commoner, became public, its concealment was the cause of considerable rancour for Edward’s former staunch ally Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick, known to history as “The Kingmaker” and he switched his allegiance to the House of Lancaster. 

Elizabeth was crowned Queen on Ascension Day, May 26, 1465. Elizabeth's children to Edward IV included the Princes in the Tower and Elizabeth of York; the latter made her the maternal grandmother of Henry VIII.  Elizabeth Woodville was called “the most beautiful woman in the Island of Britain” with “heavy-lidded eyes like those of a dragon”, suggesting a perhaps unusual criterion by which beauty in late medieval England was judged.

With the arrival on the scene of the new queen came a host of siblings who soon married into some of the most notable families in England. Elizabeth and Edward’s marriage produced 10  children. Following Edward’s sudden death in April 1483, Elizabeth briefly became Queen Mother as her son, Edward became king, with his uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester acting as Lord Protector.  Fearing the assumption of power by the Woodvilles, Richard quickly moved to take control of the young king and had Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers and Richard Grey, brother and son to Queen Elizabeth arrested and executed. 

Richard moved to take the throne himself as Richard III and on June 25, 1483, an act of parliament, the Titulus Regius declared Edward’s and Elizabeth’s children illegitimate on the grounds that Edward had made a previous promise (known as a precontract) to marry Lady Eleanor Butler, which was considered a legally binding contract that rendered any other marriage contract invalid.  In 1485, Henry Tudor made his invasion and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. As King, Henry VII married Elizabeth of York and had the Titulus Regius revoked. Elizabeth was accorded the title of Queen Dowager. Elizabeth died after years of “house arrest” at Bermondsey Abbey on June 8, 1492 and was laid to rest in the same chantry as her husband King Edward IV in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.  

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