Henry VIII tends to be the monarch who gets frequently cited for breaking the royal marital mould by choosing his own wives from among his subjects. In particular, the narrative arcs of his relations with cousins Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard continue to fascinate, five centuries after his passion turned to hatred and he sent both of them to their deaths. However, Henry was only following the example set by Edward IV, the Yorkist grandfather whom he resembled in both looks and appetite. Edward may not have had as many wives as Henry, but his liaisons with women were just as complex and, perhaps, equally destructive on a national scale. Instead of following the traditional kingly route and negotiating for an influential foreign bride, Edward followed his heart and chose his wife for her personal qualities. Despite the scandal this created, the marriage proved successful and lasted until his death.
“An unlikely queen”
Five years older than her royal husband, Elizabeth Woodville was an unlikely queen. Her legendary blonde beauty entranced the young king to the extent that he married her in spite of tradition, in spite of advice, perhaps even in spite of himself. While none could fault her personal charms, Elizabeth was considered an unacceptable choice for an English queen by most of Edward’s advisors. She was a widow, a mother already, born and married into Lancastrian families, the daughter of a mere knight, a man whom Edward had formerly held in contempt. She brought no dowry or international connections, no territories or promise of diplomatic support. What she did bring was her fertility, bearing the king 10 children in addition to the two sons from her first husband, Sir John Grey. Elizabeth also brought in a model of queenship that differed vastly from that of the woman she replaced, the Lancastrian Margaret of Anjou. Elizabeth may have begun her reign as unsuitable and unpopular but in fact, she was the perfect embodiment of the beautiful, submissive, fertile queen – an archetype of medieval literature.
Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of King Edward IV. The young king was entranced by her legendary blonde beauty. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Exactly when Elizabeth and Edward first met is unclear. They may well have been thrown together in the small, elite world of the English aristocracy, at court or some important event in the 1450s. The pair may even have known each other as children, as Elizabeth’s parents appear to have served in Rouen while Edward’s father was resident there as Lieutenant of Normandy. However, for much of Edward’s youth, Elizabeth was married and unavailable, a situation which only changed shortly before he became king. It is possible that he admired her before this point but, even if they had never previously seen one another, their attraction was quickly and decisively established. Edward’s victory at Towton in 1461 put the Woodvilles in a difficult position – the family had fought on the ‘wrong’ side and survived. Yet in June 1461, Edward stayed at their home at Groby, Leicestershire, and granted a pardon to Elizabeth’s father, heralding a new relationship between the family and the Yorkists. The newly-widowed Elizabeth is almost certain to have sought shelter under her parents’ roof, so this may well have been a critical moment in their relationship.
Elizabeth’s first clear contact with Edward’s court came on 13 April 1464, only a few months before the suggested date of their marriage. She appealed to William, Lord Hastings, probably in his role as overseer of the Yorkist Midlands, for his assistance in a dispute arising with her mother-in-law. Legend has Elizabeth waiting for Edward under an oak in Whittlebury Forest, a helpless widow, hoping to plead for the inheritances of her sons. Perhaps he did come riding by, hear her problems and fall in love. When she became aware of his intentions and agreed to become his wife, knowing his position, she cannot have known what lay ahead, but she must have agreed to collude in his veil of secrecy. Her decision to marry the king cannot have been one she would have taken lightly.
Elizabeth married Edward in secret, some time before September 1464. The exact date and circumstances of this event are still hotly debated among historians, especially because the choices Edward made were later used to undermine his dynastic line. The ceremony appears to have taken place in the chapel at Groby, with the collusion of Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, Countess Rivers, although it was kept secret from her father at that point. This choice was hardly surprising, given the reaction Edward could anticipate to the match, but there is also the possibility that the ritual was intended as a means of seduction rather than a lasting commitment.
Some historians have suggested that the king was, in fact, already married at this point. Almost 20 years later, after Edward’s death, the question of his children’s legitimacy turned upon a statement made by Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, who asserted that a prior arrangement between Edward and Eleanor Butler, née Talbot, invalidated his marriage to Elizabeth. This argument was used to depose Edward’s eldest son Edward V and replace him with Edward’s brother, Richard III. Eleanor was already conveniently long-dead by this time, as were any other witnesses, so the plausibility of the claim rested upon what was known of Edward’s character. His contemporary reputation as a womaniser did little to allay this possibility, and the secret marriage to Elizabeth only added to the doubts. At the time, there was no way that Edward could have predicted his early death, or his brother’s actions, although by rejecting the usual practice of conducting a royal marriage in public, he called his motives into question.
King Edward IV by an unknown artist, late 16th century. There is no question that Edward was a great catch for a knight’s widow. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
A desire to be together
Edward and Elizabeth were married for 19 years. Their relationship spanned a turbulent period, during which Edward lost and regained the throne, faced rebellion and was forced into exile. This meant that there were periods when the couple were separated, unsure whether or not they would see each other again. Edward also had mistresses, especially towards the end of his life, when he famously loved the company of Jane Shore. However, this was by no means unusual at the time, so would not necessarily have been a cause for conflict in the way that modern, post-Romantic sensibilities might anticipate. It was almost expected, for reasons of health and safety, that men would abstain from sleeping with their pregnant wives, but required sexual outlets elsewhere. While Edward might share another woman’s bed, he had made Elizabeth his queen and, unlike his grandson Henry VIII, he never intended to dislodge her from that position. Sex with other women would have been a diversion and a physical outlet, rather than an attempt to replace Elizabeth; it was advised by physicians as essential to health and might even have been welcomed by the queen later in life, or while she was indisposed. In spite of these issues, the marriage never appears to have foundered or weakened. Despite these difficulties and the opposition to their union, both were united in their desire to be together.
Today, it is difficult to recover the intimate details of a private life that was not committed to letters or a diary. Yet, it is possible to look at the indications that suggest the marriage did work, on a personal level, and Edward’s ability to maintain the union in the wake of the contemporary dislike of Elizabeth’s family. In defying expectations that he had a duty to use marriage as a diplomatic tool, Edward prioritised love, perhaps lust, in a way that exposed his own feelings. There was no question that he desired Elizabeth and was prepared to take considerable risks to make her his queen.
Yet amid all the controversy, Elizabeth’s own feelings are less transparent. A few of the chroniclers mention her initial resistance to Edward’s advances on moral grounds, refusing to become his mistress in a way that made him determined to make her his wife. However, this does not appear to have been as conscious a policy as that which Anne Boleyn would use six decades later. There is no question that Edward was a great catch for a knight’s widow. Apart from his considerable personal charms, to bag a king was the ultimate achievement as a career marriage, and brought unprecedented advantages to the Woodville family, something which Elizabeth must have been acutely aware of. But this may have been a realistic move, not a cynical one. It was the happy union of attraction and advantage that would have made the match so unique.
Elizabeth bore Edward 10 children, with their youngest arriving just three years before the king’s death. Of their seven girls and three boys, only five daughters reached adulthood, the others falling victim to illness, or disappearing inside the Tower of London, as was the case with the two elder boys, Edward V and his brother Richard. The provision for the young Prince Edward’s education and establishment at Ludlow Castle in the 1470s show that his parents cared deeply about the way his learning was imparted, his leisure hours and the influences upon him. He was to be allowed time to play, to enjoy his dogs and horses, and to be well fed, well slept and preserved from the influence of those who might be uncouth, ill, or of evil intent. The royal family appears to have been a close, warm unit, which retained a sense of loyalty and mutual support throughout Edward’s reign and afterwards. Their household accounts and the glimpses offered by eyewitnesses capture their mutual investment in the life they had created together and fought to protect. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, continued to help her sisters and their offspring after she had married Henry VII and become queen.
'The Young Princes in the Tower', 1831. Of the 10 children of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, only five reached adulthood, the others falling victim to illness, or disappearing inside the Tower of London, as was the case with the two elder boys, Edward V and his brother Richard. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
A productive partnership
As 1483 dawned, Edward and Elizabeth might still have anticipated many years together. They had been married almost 19 years, the country was at peace and Edward himself was approaching his 41st birthday. He was middle-aged by contemporary standards, and although not as active and fit as his earlier years, had contemplated personally leading an army against the Scots just one year previously. The marriage had been placed under considerable pressure by Edward’s conflicts with his nobility, as rivalry was created by jealousy at the new-found wealth of the Woodvilles. Yet there are no surviving anecdotes that relate to conflict between the couple, or any lessening of affection. None of the gossipy stories that relate to the wives of Henry VIII, or those of Henry VI, Richard III and Henry VII, emerge about Edward and Elizabeth. Their partnership appeared complementary, harmonious and enduring, with Edward adopting a martial style of leadership, ruling by merit of his larger-than-life personality and Elizabeth taking the typically feminine role of the supportive and fertile but essentially apolitical queen.
Edward’s premature death in April 1483 ended a productive partnership before it had fully come to fruition, before their eldest son was of age. Having been the ‘glue’ that bound the disparate elements of his court together, Edward’s absence proved to be the catalyst that precipitated civil chaos. Losing control of power, and of her sons, Elizabeth witnessed the deaths of her friends and relatives before peace was restored under her son-in-law, Henry VII. She retired to Bermondsey Abbey, spending her final days in seclusion before being laid to rest in a humble grave, at her own request, alongside Edward in St George’s Chapel at Windsor. They lie there today, permanently united in death, their marriage standing as a symbol of the strong rule they embodied in life.
Amy Licence is the author of Edward IV & Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance (Amberley Publishing 2016)