8 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Woodvilles

In 1464, England's most eligible bachelor, King Edward IV, shocked the nation by announcing that he had taken a bride: Elizabeth Woodville, an impoverished widow with two young sons. The match brought his queen’s family into the thick of the Wars of the Roses...

One of 12 surviving siblings, Elizabeth herself was the product of a runaway match between Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, and a knight, Sir Richard Woodville. Here, Susan Higginbotham, author of The Woodvilles: The War of the Roses and England's Most Infamous Family, reveals eight things you might not have known about Edward IV's in-laws…

 

1) Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, could have become queen

When Henry V died in 1422, he left his infant son, Henry VI, as king. During the royal minority, Henry V's younger brothers, John, Duke of Bedford, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, governed the kingdom – Bedford was in charge of the crown's French possessions, while Gloucester handled affairs at home.

In 1433, the widowed Bedford took as his second wife Jacquetta de Luxembourg, the 17-year-old niece of the Bishop of Thérouanne. Had little Henry VI died, under the usual order of succession Bedford would have become king of England, and Jacquetta his queen.

This, of course, did not happen. Instead, Bedford died after just two years of marriage, leaving Henry VI to grow up to rule disastrously on his own, and Jacquetta to make a shocking, secret marriage to Sir Richard Woodville, the son of Bedford's chamberlain. But although Jacquetta never wore a crown, her daughter Elizabeth would, through making her own clandestine marriage to Edward IV.

 

2) Elizabeth Woodville founded Queens' College – again

Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI's queen, founded a college at Cambridge in 1448. When Henry VI lost his crown to Edward IV, the college fell on hard times. Enter Elizabeth, Edward's queen. In 1465 she refounded the college, and gave it its first statutes 10 years later.

It is often said that the placement of the apostrophe in Queens' reflects the fact that two queens founded the college, but the college disputes that story. Even if Elizabeth can't claim credit for the placement of an apostrophe, her portrait hangs in the college.

 

3) Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, was accused of witchcraft

In 1469, Edward had a falling-out with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, over foreign policy and over what Warwick believed was the undue influence Edward gave to upstarts such as the Woodvilles.

Relations between the two deteriorated to the point where Warwick revolted against Edward, taking him prisoner and killing Elizabeth Woodville's father and her brother John.

During this period of upheaval, a follower of Warwick produced some lead images that he claimed Jacquetta had made for the purposes of witchcraft and sorcery. Despite the shock of her recent bereavement, Jacquetta refused to be cowed by the accusations, and wrote to the mayor and the aldermen of London for their assistance, which they granted.

Further intervention proved unnecessary, however, for Warwick found it decidedly awkward to keep holding the king captive, and released him. With Edward back in charge, the king’s council cleared Jacquetta of the charges against her. The accusations of witchcraft did not die, however, but were revived by Richard III in 1484, when his parliament declared that Jacquetta had used witchcraft to procure her daughter's marriage to the king.


Elizabeth Woodville with Edward IV in 1464. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

 

4) Anthony Woodville helped save London from a Lancastrian attack

Warwick reconciled with Edward IV, but the amity was short-lived. In 1470, Warwick allied with the exiled Margaret of Anjou to put the now imprisoned Henry VI back on the throne. Having been forced to flee the country, Edward IV returned to reclaim the throne and defeated the Lancastrians at the battles of Barnet (14 April 1471) and Tewkesbury (4 May 1471).

The Yorkist victory at Tewkesbury, however, did not end the conflict. Although Warwick was killed at Barnet, and Henry VI's teenage son was killed at Tewkesbury, Henry VI remained alive inside the Tower of London. With the thought of freeing him, a Neville relation known as the Bastard of Fauconberg launched an attack on London, which Edward had left in the charge of the Earl of Essex and Anthony, Earl Rivers, Elizabeth Woodville's brother.

As Fauconberg's men attacked Aldgate, Anthony drove them back, thus helping save London for the Yorkists – a feat his contemporaries would remember in verse: "Through his enemies that day did he pass / The mariners were killed, they cried "Alas!"

 

5) While abroad, Anthony Woodville was robbed

The most cultivated of the Woodville family, Anthony went on pilgrimage to Italy in 1476. The 2nd Earl Rivers did not travel light, and in Venice he was robbed of his jewels and plate, which were worth at least 1,000 marks.

It helps a traveller, however, to be the brother-in-law of the king of England. The Venetians promptly set about searching for the criminals and restoring to Anthony his jewels – which had been purchased by local citizens – while arranging to reimburse those who had bought the purloined goods in good faith. When Anthony finally resumed his travels, the Venetians were probably happy to see the last of him, as he had been a rather expensive visitor.

 

6) Anthony Woodville was a ‘techie’

In late 1475 or early 1476, William Caxton brought a newfangled device to England – the printing press. Soon he had produced the first book printed in England: an edition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ever-popular Canterbury Tales.

The nobility, however, were slow to embrace this new technology, with Edward IV himself preferring to amass illuminated manuscripts. One nobleman, however, seized upon this new opportunity to disseminate knowledge to the masses: Anthony Woodville. He translated three books for Caxton to print, and may have been responsible for sending several others to press as well.

Caxton even made a joke about Anthony's love life. In his epilogue to Anthony's translation of The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers (a book which, sadly, has not withstood the test of time), Caxton noted that Anthony had omitted some of Socrates' unflattering observations about women. He surmised: “But I suppose that some fair lady hath desired him to leave it out of his book. Or else he was amorous on some noble lady…”


c1800: Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers. Engraved by Gerimia from the book A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors published 1806. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

 

7) The Woodvilles didn't rob the treasury

In 1483, Edward IV suddenly died, leaving a 12-year-old heir, Edward. By the time the dust settled, Edward IV's younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was king (Richard III), and Prince Edward and his younger brother had been taken to the Tower of London, never to be seen again.

For reasons that remain debatable, Gloucester arrested Anthony Woodville and several others after Edward IV's death, and Elizabeth Woodville fled into sanctuary. Legend has it she took with her part of the royal treasury, which she supposedly divvied up between one of her brothers and her oldest son from her first marriage. But did this really happen?

The sole source for the story is an Italian observer, Dominic Mancini, who reported the treasury story only as a rumour he had heard, not as an established fact. Richard III never accused Elizabeth or her family of stealing royal treasure, nor is there is any evidence that he believed any treasure was missing. In fact, as historian Rosemary Horrox has shown, excursions against the Scots had left the treasury seriously depleted by the time Edward IV died, and defending the realm against French pirates left England even poorer.

One Woodville, however, did acquire a very large sum during this time: Sir Edward Woodville, Elizabeth Woodville's youngest brother, who was busy patrolling the seas when Anthony was captured. In mid-May 1483 he seized some £10,250 in English gold from a vessel, claiming it for the crown. Soon afterward, learning that Gloucester had ordered his arrest, Edward sailed to Brittany – presumably taking his gold with him, for it was never heard of again.

 

8) Sir Edward Woodville lost his teeth for Ferdinand and Isabella

Having helped Henry Tudor defeat Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, Edward went to Spain the following year to fight the ‘infidels’, possibly in fulfillment of a vow. Having joined forces led by Ferdinand and Isabella to fight the Moors, Edward was mounting a scaling ladder when he was struck by a stone that knocked him unconscious and cost him his two front teeth.

Visited later by Henry VII and his queen, Edward quipped of his missing teeth: “Our Lord, who reared this fabric, has only opened a window in order to discern the more readily what passes within.”

When Edward finally returned to England, he did not go empty-handed: Queen Isabella sent him away with 12 Andalusian horses, two beds with rich hangings, and other valuables. But Edward's next foreign adventure proved to be his last: in 1488, he was killed while fighting for Brittany against France.

 

Susan Higginbotham is the author of The Woodvilles: The War of the Roses and England's Most Infamous Family (The History Press, March 2015), the first non-fiction book on the Woodville family. To find out more, click here.

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