The End of Elizabeth Woodville


elizabeth woodville

Henry VII’s year didn’t get off to a good start in 1487.  A priest from Oxford turned up in Dublin with a young lad in tow.  Depending upon the source you read the lad, Lambert Simnel, was to be passed off either as Richard, Duke of York – the younger of the two princes in the tower or as Edward, Earl of Warwick who was very much alive and well but in Henry’s custody.  Unsurprsingly Henry VII summoned a council meeting.  What happened next so far as Elizabeth Woodville, dowager queen of England, mother-in-law of Henry VII and mother of Elizabeth of York, Edward V and Richard of York  is open to debate.  Its a certainty that she was deprived of her dower lands which were given to Elizabeth of York.  Elizabeth Woodville was packed up and sent off to the Abbey at Bermondsey where she remained for the next five years until she died.

Polydore Vergil in his official history said that she was sent there by Henry VII as punishment for having made her peace with Richard III in 1484 – when she came out of sanctuary having received written guarantees that no harm would come either to her or to her daughters.  If this is the case then Henry must have found out something about Elizabeth Woodville that made him very cross indeed to have delivered such a belated relegation to the ‘naughty step’.  Certainly there hadn’t been any problem when the doting granny was allowed to be Prince Arthur’s godmother in September 1486.

Franics Bacon, taking his lead from Vergil, writing in 1622 suggested that she was up to her neck in the Lambert Simnel conspiracy arguing that Simond, the priest, couldn’t have known how to train the young impostor.  Therefore someone must have been in the background pulling the necessary strings.

So it cannot be, but that some great person, that knew particularly and familiarly, Edward Plantagenet, had a hand in the business, from whom the priest might take aim. That which is most probable, out of the precedent and subsequent acts, is, that it was the Queen Dowager from whom this action principally originated. For, certain it is that she was a busy, negotiating woman, and in her withdrawing chamber had the fortunate conspiracy for the king against King Richard III. been batched, which the king knew, and remembered perhaps but too well, and was at this time extremely discontent with the king, thinking her daughter, as the king handled the matter, not advanced, but depressed; and none could hold the book so well to prompt and instruct this stage play as she could.


Bacon may have had a point but he does ignore the fact that if Elizabeth was plotting against her son-in-law then she was also plotting to turf her daughter off the throne and endanger her new grandson.  This then, surely, would raise the question that maybe she believed that rather than Edward, Earl of Warwick that she thought that the young man was her son Richard of York – the chronicles of the time can’t make their mind up about which Plantagenet sprig Simnel started off as which further muddies the water.  Of course, all that aside, may be Henry didn’t trust Elizabeth’s son from her first marriage Lord Grey.  In any event since there’s no evidence its all rather circumstantial.

Henry VII had good cause for his paranoia whether Elizabeth Woodville was innocent or not. John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln was in London by Henry’s side at the beginning of 1487.  It was he who met with Edward, Earl of Warwick when he was paraded through London and then fetched to Sheen.  He stated categorically that the unfortunate young man was the son of George, Duke of Clarence.  It didn’t stop him sneaking away a few days later in order to join the Yorkists.  By the time of the Battle of Stoke in June that year Henry was demanding that John be taken alive as he wanted to know who else had been conspiring against him.  Perhaps unsurprisingly John de la Pole did not survive the battle.

As for Elizabeth Woodville,  she appeared at court from time to time and she was allowed visitors in Bermondsey. In 1490 she received an annuity and at Christmas 1491 she received a prettily worded Christmas gift of 50 marks from Henry VII. She was even considered as a bride for King James III of Scotland (d. 1488), an unlikely match for Henry VII to make if he believed that Elizabeth had been plotting against him. Henry wasn’t that silly – but there again Elizabeth Woodville didn’t end her days having been queen of two countries either.

We are left with a further option that Elizabeth chose, voluntarily or with a hefty shove from Margaret Beaufort perhaps (but that’s another story), to end her days at Bermondsey, a perfectly respectable decision for a dowager queen in her twilight years.  Historians have observed that she’d rented a house in the precincts of Westminster Abbey in 1486 so perhaps she simply chose to retreat further from the heart of politics; perhaps Westminster held too many memories.

She died in June 1492 and was buried without fanfare next to Edward IV in Windsor having left a will that reflected how far she’d moved away from the world she’d once inhabited,  “I have no wordely goodes to do the Quene’s Grace, my derest doughter, a pleaser with, nether to reward any of my children, according to my hart and mynde, I besech Almyghty Gode to blisse here Grace, with all her noble issue, and with as good hart and mynde as is to me possible, I geve her Grace my blessing, and all the forsaide my children.”  She goes on to request that her “small stuff” and other goods be used to settle any outstanding debts.

So ended the life of the woman who’d created chaos when Edward IV married for love, broke with convention and irritated the Kingmaker.  Before him, the only other monarch or royal heir to marry for love was the Black Prince; after Edward IV and rather more frequently – Henry VIII.  The Stuarts all married diplomatically but not necessarily with any more success.

Elizabeth Woodville was not of a suitable status, she was not a diplomatic asset and when she arrived at court she also come with a huge extended family who upset the balance of power and snaffled all the best marriages but she remains the consort that anyone with an interest in English History can name – apart from those unfortunate ladies of her grandson’s choosing.


Baldwin David, (2002) Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower.  Stroud: The History Press


24 thoughts on “The End of Elizabeth Woodville

  1. Yes indeed my theory exact. One previsor being that The Duchess of Ormond over in Dublin at that time and well connected to King Edwards family may too have had more than a hand in training the imposter. Now if that is so it certainly points to a wide belief in the death of both Princes in the minds of the plot makers. Yet not one word of this was mentioned ever by their sister Henrys Queen nor the King himself? We have no proof that the two corpses that turned up in Charles 11 reign had any connection to the missing princes. Now they have found velvet cloth under the bodies.The would place the deaths to around 1440 at least.Then no mention was made in the first six examinations to date.
    What is left of the bones could not help one bit in tracing whom the bones truly belonged to. We then have Mores statement on hear say of Mortons words telling that the princes lay under a stairs and under a great pile of stones. How did Morton know unless he had been present at that time? More weaves us a tangled mess with little pointers but no tangible way in to what happened. For a solicitor his words are more childlike than worthy. Woodvilles never brought up the case of murder on Richards part. Not a word from even their mother,Elizabeth Woodville unto the hour of her death. My God father Sir Winston Churchill had it that only Richard could have killed them. Not to contradict so great a mind but why did he stoop to murder when the boys had been bastardised?
    Only through his kindly Uncles eyes did they stay as Civil War puppets making his new Kingdom shake all over again in war. We have such evidence that at Sheriff Hutton Christmas time he made such fuss of the children in the family.Soon his own son would would lay dead in his arms. A tragedy and then the death of his brother whom Richard had served so well. I still think he was not the real plotter of the princes murder but have no further facts to wholly support any my claim as yet. Good well placed and interesting story from you yet again.Thank you as I do love reading history. I did write a book about injustice called The Time Detective which is on Kindle and did deal with many periods from Henry Fieldings time at Bow Street to the theft of the Royal Jewels on a Royals insurance fraud.

  2. There is no doubt that Simnel impersonated Warwick. Documents in Ireland record he was crowned Edward VI. It is the actions of the conspirators that most clearly indicate that they believed the traditional theory about the Princes.

    It was not unusual for dowagers to seek a contemplative life. Elizabeth’s own aunt – the third wife of Arthur de Richemont of Brittany – lived many years at Nantes. She was so politically inactive that the family connection between the Woodvilles and the Duchy seems to have been forgotten.

    • Yes indeed, Catherine de Luxembourg-Saint-Pol (who, like her niece, died in 1492) was a younger sister of Jacquetta’s.

      Brittany is usually viewed as not even a bit player in the action of the Middle Ages, whereas in fact its contribution has often been central and decisive.

      Arthur de Richemont, step-brother of Henry V of England, it should be remembered, was the author of all the woes of the House of Plantagenet, because of his obdurate character and strategic genius.

      The Honour of Richmond, it has to be said, was the prize on which England’s fortunes turned. Arthur’s allegiance depended on his receiving it, but in 1414 it had been given by Henry V as a reward to John, Duke of Bedford, Jacquetta’s first husband (she was John’s second wife).

      Arthur’s demands for the Earldom being spurned, he returned to supporting the French crown. His successes, which culminated in the permanent ejection of the English from their most valued possessions on the Continent, caused the recriminations in England that led to the War of the Roses.

      The Tudors held the Earldom, on and off, during the vagaries of those times.

      Arthur’s unfortunate nephew Duke Francis II of Brittany, supported Henry Tudor, despite their rival claims to the Earldom.

      The Battle of Bosworth Field pitched a claimant to Richmond against the Lord of Middleham.

      (In all of this, we can see that Alan Rufus had very long arms.)

  3. The notion that Elizabeth of Woodville had too lowly a status to marry a King is rather propagandistic. Her mother Jacquetta of Luxembourg was erudite and the daughter of Duke Peter I of Luxembourg, who was descended from a long line of wealthy, originally Breton, aristocrats who comprised a branch of the sovereign house. In other words, Elizabeth Woodville was entitled to wear ermine by right of descent, something not all monarchs (for instance Capets, Plantagenets and Tudors) could claim – unless their mothers were of a line consanguineous with hers.

    • I’m with Jasmine on this one. Although Jacquetta of Luxembourg was definitely of appropriate status – the daughter of a Duke and then the wife of John, Duke of Bedford her second husband, and Elizabeth Woodville’s father was Richard Woodville – who was not of her rank – a mere knight in Bedford’s household. Clearly during the reign of Henry VI Jacquetta held significant courtesy status in Henry’s court as well as being his aunt by marriage I think she’s also related to Margaret of Anjou. However, Elizabeth Woodville is not the same status as her mother, her father was a knight and she married a knight. It’s the same rule, is it not, for all noble females e.g. princesses; the daughter of a king or a prince is a princess. However, it does not follow that the daughter of a princess is also a princess – she will hold the rank of her father and then her husband unless the monarch states otherwise. Jacquetta’s courtesy status reverted to knight’s wife when the Lancastrians fell from power. I don’t think I’ve succumbed to propaganda in my post, fair or not, Elizabeth Woodville’s was not sufficiently high ranking to marry a Yorkist king.

      • Since status depended on the father, why did it matter whom Edward IV married? And if that was an issue, why didn’t he grant her an appropriate aristocratic title before marrying her? He seems the sort of king to pay little heed to advisers. Or social niceties, given his reckless behaviour in Warwick’s household.

        Re promotions: I recall that when Orwen, wet-nurse to the infant Alan Rufus, sailed to England after Hastings to ask him for a reward, he made her the Lady of the Manor of Sibton, with its own Abbey! Her status was now rather higher than his Chamberlain, the venerable Mainard, who subsequently asked Alan for permission to marry Orwen, and this was readily granted.

        Of course Alan, Orwen and Mainard used proper procedure. Perhaps Edward IV’s secrecy when marrying was the largest part of the problem. I imagine there would have been at least as much of an uproar if he’d secretly married Warwick’s daughter.

      • I’m sure you’re right – the fact that Warwick was negotiating for a royal marriage with a french bride when the news of Edward’s marriage was finally broken left him with huge amounts of ‘creme Anglais’ on his face and an abiding dislike of the Woodvilles.

      • Creating a special rank for her prior to marriage would simply have drawn attention to the disparity in status between them. What vacant title would he have used and how would this have gone down with his nobles? If he used a royal possession, that too would have caused trouble.

        Perhaps Edward did not intend to continue with this marriage (after all it was secret and he kept quiet about it for around six months) but the lady had other ideas and he as he had made his bed, he had to lie in it.

      • Titles of rank aren’t like land titles: the Duchess of Cambridge has a title named after her alma mater, but she doesn’t own the university or its town. Most created titles are nominal like this.

        Edward IV could have made Elizabeth Woodville the Baroness of Iona, Charing Cross, the Scilly Isles or Stepney, without subtracting from anyone else: it’s just a name.

  4. In this period, your status depended on your father, rather than your mother. Elizabeth Woodville was the daughter of a knight and the widow of another knight. The fact that her mother had royal blood, but had chosen a second marriage significantly out of her class, was not all that relevant.

    • Seems to me like Edward and Elizabeth should have just remarried at the palace. That seems like it would have took care of all of the problems of the secret marriage

      • Of course this is easy in hindsight to say, but during their marriage there was no confusion of status or of legitimacy, it was only after Edwards death that the validity of their marriage was questioned at which point it was too late to do anything about it. Warwick didn’t even make an issue of the legitimacy of the marriage, and he was trying to arrange a marriage with a foreign princess. Richard brought this out of the closet only after the death of his brother, and his point of contention was not the secrecy, but of bigamy, Edward had a habit of promising himself to women in order to get under their skirts, and a precontract to marry, even a verbal one was considered as binding as a full marriage. In many cases betrothals of princes and princesses required papal dispensation to be broken even though no consummation or officiation had taken place.
        At this point in time a ceremony wasn’t even a requirement, and the precontract would technically not have bastardized the issue of Edward and Elizabeth as they acted as man and wife and put themselves forward as such, and were acting in good faith (at least on the part of Elizabeth, and I believe Edward thought so as well) that they had a true and valid marriage. That didn’t change until the many marital crises of their grandson Henry VIII.

  5. In the medieval period, titles came with land and resources, unlike the modern era. Any creation without land and resources would have been regarded as a sham title, so I am not sure that Edward IV creating one for EW would have served to increase her status.

    • Count Alan Rufus’s was a courtesy title, and he had no other, even when he became the most powerful baron in England, ranking with Prince Henry on William II’s Royal charters.

      • I have just googled him and it seems he had lands in France which provided him with income and he was granted the Honour of Richmond in England where he began building a castle – again providing him with land and status, so he wasn’t exactly a nobody.

      • My point is that Alan was a Count of nowhere. His title wasn’t from his lands, it was a courtesy title that he and his brothers were born with, because of his father’s rank.

        Yes, this is different from Elizabeth’s case, but it’s also different from being Earl of Kent. There’s more than one meaning to a title.

        Orwen going overnight from retired wetnurse to a lordship was a pretty dramatic rise, don’t you think? (Incidentally Henry V had an interest in Sibton for some reason.)

        But I suppose we should search for 15th century examples where the daughter of a noblewoman and a knight receives a title.

  6. In fact Wiki says: ‘Alan Rufus began construction on Richmond Castle in 1071, to be the principal manor and center of his honor.[17],,, Alan’s properties extended over the entire length of Earningas Street, the old Roman road from London to the North, heading to Edinburgh; this road was renamed Ermine Street

    • Alan Rufus was French. The French had (indeed still have) a different procedure for titles than the English (and now British). The male children of French nobles are called the same – Count, Viscount etc. If you read current death notices for French nobles, you will see all the children of the deceased Count, for example, are all called Count followed by their Christian name. This never applied in England where only the heir inherited the title and that was after the death of their father.

      However, as you say grdtobin, this is not quite the same as Edward IV trying to give EW a ‘leg up’ in the status game by granting her a ‘courtesy’ title.

      • Jasmine, you make an interesting point about French titles, though Alan Rufus was Breton, not French.

        Brittany had its own legal system (no Salic law, less disparity between men and women in marriage and inheritance, trial by jury, practical equality of socio-economic classes under law).

        After 1066 English aristocratic inheritance adhered to customs imported from Normandy and Brittany. For instance, historians often wonder why William the Conqueror gave England to his second son but Normandy to his eldest. Yet his barons did the same: for example Alan’s brother Count Stephen of Tregor, who inherited their father’s lands as well as Alans, gave his Breton lands to his eldest son Geoffrey Boterel II and his English lands to his second or third son Alan. Consequently, Geoffrey as Count of Lamballe and Alan as 1st Earl of Richmond fought on opposite sides during the Anarchy: Count Geoffrey helping Geoffrey Plantagenet conquer Normandy, while Earl Alan fought for King Stephen in England.

        In Norman, Angevin and Plantagenet times the same regime, of Continental origin, often controlled extensive territory on both sides of the Channel. So when did English and Continental customs regarding titles diverge?

  7. It is of interest that about the same time Elizabeth was relegated to Bermondsey her son, Dorset, was thrown into the Tower as a security risk. What a remarkable coincidence! Of course, he may simply have asked Henry VII to send him somewhere where he could say his prayers in peace.

  8. Hello, I came upon this blog post because of your use of the image of the portrait of Elizabeth Woodville. I am working on a blog post with the subject high foreheads being a sign of beauty during this time in history. I am happy I came upon your blog, I quite enjoy reading about history, especially this time period in English history. I have a distant kinship to Elizabeth Woodville, but much closer to her husbands. 1st cousin to both. On my maternal side, 1st cousin, 18 times removed of King Edward VI, sharing Neville ancestors. And on my paternal side 1st cousin to Sir John Grey, of Groby, sharing Grey ancestors. I will be sure to check out your other blog posts. 🙂

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