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