Third Earl Rivers

Last Earl childless or just smart?

RICHARD WOODVILLE. 3rd Earl Rivers (birth unknown, died March 6, 1491) succeeded his brother, Anthony Woodville, as the 3rd Earl Rivers. He was the 11th of 16 children of Richard Woodville, 1st Earl Rivers and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, and was the brother of Elizabeth Woodville, wife and queen consort of King Edward IV of England.

Richard Woodville was the last of his family to hold the title of Earl Rivers. In 1465, Richard was made a Knight of the Bath, along with his brother John, as part of the festivities preceding Elizabeth’s coronation. In 1467, Edward IV attempted to have him appointed Prior of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, though he was not a member of the order; the royal intervention failed, however, when the order elected its own chosen candidate.

In 1469, the Earl of Warwick, taking advantage of unrest in the country, issued a manifesto condemning “the deceitful, covetous rule and guiding of certain seditious persons,” including the elder Richard Woodville, Anthony Woodville, and “Sir John Woodville and his brothers.” The elder Richard and John were seized and executed, and Anthony appears to have either eluded capture or to have been captured by men who were reluctant to execute him. Richard must have been in danger himself during this time, but nothing indicates his whereabouts. 

In November 1470, however, during the readeption of Henry VI, he was issued a pardon by the Warwick-controlled government.  Richard owned Wymington in Bedfordshire, where he served as a justice of the peace. Wymington was a manor that had been in his family. Was he considered ineffectual or incompetent, or was he simply a man who preferred the life of a country gentleman to a public role? Perhaps after having witnessed the strife of the previous decades, including the violent deaths of his father and his brother, he was content to live an existence of relative obscurity. Following Edward IV’s death, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, having seized and imprisoned Richard Woodville’s brother Anthony at Northampton, confiscated Anthony’s land.

The soon-to-be king (Richard III) then seized Richard Woodville’s manor of Wymington as well on May 19, 1483, despite the fact that Richard Woodville stood accused of no crime.  Given this high-handedness and the subsequent executions of Anthony and of Elizabeth Woodville’s son Richard Grey, it is not surprising that Richard Woodville, along with his brother Lionel Woodville, joined the interconnected series of ill-fated uprisings against Richard III in 1483 known as Buckingham’s rebellion. Richard Woodville, along with many other rebels, was attainted in the Parliament of 1484. As Richard III had executed his own brother-in-law, Thomas St. Leger, for his role in the uprising, as well as sundry other rebels, one wonders why Richard Woodville was spared.  He does not seem to have fled abroad. Perhaps he went into sanctuary like his brother Lionel who became a Catholic  priest and was eventually made Bishop of Salisbury.

In any case, by 1485, Richard III was trying to win over some of his former opponents. He pardoned Richard Woodville in March 1485 in exchange for a bond and a pledge of good behavior. Following Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth by Henry Tudor, Richard Woodville was restored to his estates, including those of his father, and became the 3rd Earl Rivers. He took part in some of the ceremonial occasions of Henry VII’s reign, participating in the coronation of his niece Elizabeth of York and apparently at the christening of her first child, Arthur.  During the reign, he served on commissions of the peace in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire and was among those commissioned to take musters of archers. Richard was also commissioned to investigate treasons, felonies, and conspiracies in Hereford in 1486 and to try petitions presented to Parliament in 1487. 

Though his mother Elizabeth Woodville is generally condemned for using her queenly status to enrich her grasping family, Richard’s case illustrates how exaggerated this accusation is. Richard acquired neither great wealth nor power while his sister was queen; his lands came from his own family. His younger brother Edward, also gained little materially from his royal connection.  Richard died on March 6, 1491, officially without issue. He was the last of the Woodville brothers.

Some historians and genealogists believe that Richard secretly married and had a least one son, also named Richard, who was raised as a commoner in order to protect him from the fate that had befallen many in his family. This child was passed off as the son of another Richard Rivers, steward in the household of the Dukes of Buckingham, and was raised as a servant by the dowager Duchess of Buckingham, sister to Richard Woodville. As a servant, the child had no claim to the Woodville inheritance and hence of no interest to King Henry VII, who was impatient to inherit the remainder of the Woodville money and estates he had not already confiscated. This Richard Rivers had a son called John (1510-1583). Born in Penshurst, Kent, he married Elizabeth Barne and succeeded her father as Lord Mayor of London (1573/74). His attempt to prove he was the grandson of the 3rd Earl Rivers failed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

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