Elizabeth Woodville was the oldest of fifteen children of whom thirteen survived to adulthood. Their father was Richard Woodville of Grafton in Northamptonshire. The Woodvilles were gentry rather than aristocracy and served the house of Lancaster. Richard Woodville and his father both served in the duke of Bedford’s household.
It was there that Richard met Elizabeth’s mother – Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Her father was the Count of St Pol and the family were not only aristocratic but had been around long enough to claim to be descended from Melusine a serpent/witch. A glance at the family tree reveals that the bloodlines of King John and King Henry III of England were in her ancestry. Jacquetta was the young bride of the duke of Bedford and as with is first marriage to Anne of Burgundy, Bedford’s marriage was a matter of international diplomacy. When Bedford died in 1435 the pair had been married for two years.
Jacquetta was descended from an ancient line and the aunt of Henry VI by marriage. She should not have remarried without royal permission and she certainly shouldn’t have married a household knight but that is exactly what the young widow did.
There was a price to be paid for the pair’s love match. The fine was £1000. The cash was provided by Cardinal Beaufort but it was not a generous gift. Jacquetta had to part with lucrative dower lands- she had inherited one third of Bedford’s estates. More of the lands were confiscated by the Crown. The Woodvilles were noted afterwards for their swiftly growing family and for Richard Woodville’s links with the House of Lancaster – in particular the Beauforts. Richard served in France under the dukes of Somerset in a variety of capacities.
It was not England’s finest hour so far as the Hundred Years War were concerned. It was a sensible decision to sue for peace. In 1445 Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou. It was not a decision that met with popular acclaim. The bride came with no dowry and the English had to part with Anjou and Maine. Margaret, along with her personal symbol of the daisy, was met with hostility. William de la Pole who had orchestrated the truce and the marriage was reviled. Yet, a new faction formed in English politics. De la Pole and the young french bride bonded on their journey to England, Margaret was only sixteen and she must have welcomed Jacquetta Woodville who joined the bridal party as a friendly face. Margaret and Jacquetta became friends. Margaret swiftly learned the ropes of English politics and set about neutralising the duke of York who she regarded as a threat.
Jacquetta’s position in society was an ambiguous one. She might have been descended from royalty and as the dowager duchess of Bedfordshire she might have had no superior other than the new queen but she had relinquished that particular position by marrying down – a woman’s rank came from her father and when she married from her husband. This was complicated by the fact that having been married to a duke she kept the title duchess. It was perhaps in part to relieve this anomaly that plain Sir Richard became Baron Rivers in 1448. The Woodvilles were on the rise at a time when English society and politics was undergoing a bit of a shakedown.
In 1447 Good Duke Humphrey, Henry VI’s remaining uncle found himself being toppled form power when his wife Eleanor Cobham was hauled before the courts on charges of witchcraft and plotting against the king’s life. He died soon afterwards followed by Cardinal Beaufort the king’s great uncle. William de la Pole appeared to be in the ascendant. The king’s cousin, Richard of York, had been sidelined by a posting to Ireland. The Peace Party, the duke of Suffolk and the Woodvilles were doing very nicely thank you. When Elizabeth Woodville was old enough she came to court as one of Margaret of Anjou’s maid’s of honour.
Elizabeth Woodville was from a gentry family – that was her father’s rank irrespective of who her mother might have been before she married. Her marriage to Sir John Grey, heir of Edward Grey of Groby was a good match. Thomas Grey, Elizabeth’s first child, had arrived within two years of the first battle of St Albans. Unsurprisingly the Greys were a Lancastrian family in terms of their politics.
Fortune’s Wheel was about to make a turn. The war in France continued to go badly. Parliament was called – the duke of Suffolk was blamed for the military disasters and banished. He was murdered en route to his banishment. His death was one of the triggers to Cade’s Rebellion of 1450.
Meanwhile the Woodville’s continued to rise – Richard became a member of the Order of the Garter as well as a privy councillor. He became Lieutenant of Calais. He was still in Calais in May 1455 when the red rose and the white rose took to the field against one another. Woodville’s “sponsor”, Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset was killed – Richard Neville took charge of Calais and Richard Woodville returned home.
In 1461 Elizabeth Woodville’s husband was killed at the second battle of St Albans fighting on the Lancastrian side – the wrong side as it happened. Elizabeth was left widowed with two young sons and at loggerheads with her husband’s family over her dower. She had no alternative other than to petition the Yorkist king Edward IV – the result would see the Woodville’s turn from Lancastrians into Yorkists.