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Myths About Elizabeth Woodville



1. Elizabeth Woodville, enraged when the Earl of Desmond, visiting England, told Edward IV that he thought he had been unwise to marry her, stole Edward IV's privy seal to sign a death warrant for the hapless Desmond and transmitted it to Ireland, resulting in the execution of Desmond and his two young sons.

Desmond was indeed executed in 1468 by John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, on charges of treason, which may well have been unjustified. (There's considerable question about whether his sons were executed with him; certainly at least one son survived Desmond.) His death, however, probably had everything to do with the brutal Irish politics of the time and nothing to do with Edward IV's choice of a wife. The story connecting Elizabeth with his death doesn't appear until the mid-sixteenth century in a letter by Desmond's grandson, which tells a rather unlikely tale of Edward pressing Desmond for the latest gossip about him, Edward reacting good-naturedly when told by Desmond that his marriage was "agreeable to your lusts, yet not so much to the security of your realm and subjects," and Edward proceeding to tell Elizabeth this after a tiff between the royal couple, causing Elizabeth to swear to revenge herself upon the earl, then finally getting her chance upon Desmond's arrest years later. (How the Desmonds in Ireland learned of this conversation between the king and queen that no one in England managed to hear, or how they learned of Elizabeth's sneaking off with the king's privy seal when no one in England witnessed the incident, is not explained by the grandson or by Elizabeth's modern-day detractors.)


No contemporary source associates Elizabeth with the earl's death, which occurred four years after his visit to England. The closest is a note of instruction to an envoy by Richard III in 1484, when Richard orders the envoy to tell Desmond's son that Richard believes the execution to have been unlawful, expresses fellow feeling in that he has suffered the loss of his brother Clarence and other relations, and authorizes the younger Desmond to take proceedings against those responsible for the elder Desmond's execution:


Also he shalle shewe that albeit the Fadre of the said Erle the king than being of yong Age was extorciously slayne & murdered by colour of the lawes within Irland by certain persones than havyng the governaunce and Rule there ayenst alle manhode Reason & good conscience / Yet notwithstanding that /the semblable chaunce was & hapned sithen within this Royaulme of England / aswele of his Brother the duc of Clarence As other his nighe kynnesmen and gret Frendes / the kinges grace alweys contynuethe and hathe inward compassion of the dethe of his said Fadre And is content that (is) his said Cousyne now Erle by alle ordinate meanes and due course of the lawes when it shalle lust him at any tyme hereafter to sue or atempt for the punysshement thereof [British Library Harleian Manuscript 433, ed. by Rosemary Horrox and P. W. Hammond, vol. 3, p. 108]


Writers like Paul Murray Kendall have interpreted the words "semblance chance" to mean that the same people who were responsible for Desmond's execution were responsible for Clarence's, and since Kendall and his ilk assume that Clarence's execution was done at the bidding of Elizabeth Woodville, they move smoothly to the conclusion that Richard is saying that Elizabeth was responsible for Desmond's as well. This interpretation wreaks violence upon the English language: "semblance chance" simply cannot be reasonably interpreted to mean "same people"; the common meaning of the phrase is "like chance." Moreover, Richard unequivocally states that Desmond was murdered "by colour of the lawes within Irland by certain persones than havyng the governaunce and Rule there." Elizabeth Woodville did not have the governance and rule of Ireland, or of anyplace else.


The younger Desmond never did proceed against Elizabeth for his father's death, although there was nothing stopping him from doing so during Richard III's reign had he believed her to be the responsible party.


Richard III wasn't given to mincing words when it came to Elizabeth; it's likely that had he believed her to be complicit in the Desmond matter, he would have said so outright. It is also notable that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, an enemy of both the Woodvilles and John Tiptoft, never alleged that Elizabeth was tied to Desmond's execution or otherwise in league with Tiptoft—not even when Warwick ordered Tiptoft's execution in 1470, a time when Edward IV was in exile and Elizabeth highly vulnerable. Given Tiptoft's great unpopularity in England—his London execution was well attended and highly applauded—it would have been of the greatest advantage to Warwick to be able to link Tiptoft and Elizabeth together in the minds of the general populace. That he did not suggests that he had no grounds to do so.


It is also significant that the Earl of Desmond's execution provoked a violent reaction in Ireland, during which there would surely have been an outcry against Elizabeth had she been deemed responsible. Incidentally, Desmond's brother-in-law, the Earl of Kildare, was also attainted and arrested, and probably would have been executed himself had it not been for the furor resulting from Desmond's death. No one has suggested that Elizabeth was linked to the arrest of Kildare.

2. Elizabeth's siblings were all greedy vipers who reaped huge financial rewards from their sister's reign.

Elizabeth's unmarried sisters made very good marriages after she became queen, in one case to a duke, in the other cases to boys or young men who were expected to inherit earldoms. But other than these marriages (which were reasonable given the sisters' new status as royal in-laws), the sisters were not showered with gifts or unduly favored. One scarcely hears of them during Edward IV's reign except for their marriages.

As for Elizabeth's brothers, Anthony did gain some offices and lands thanks to his sister's marriage, but his rewards were hardly outlandish, and he gave valuable service to the crown in return, both as a soldier and as the guardian of the Prince of Wales. (By contrast, the king's brother Clarence enjoyed great financial benefits from being the king's brother, and caused Edward IV nothing but trouble.) Twenty-year-old John married the Duchess of Norfolk, who was rich and three times his age, but nothing indicates that the elderly duchess, Edward IV's aunt, was forced into the marriage—she had been married three times before, once without license to a man below her in rank, and may have relished the annoyance of her heirs, who seem to have been waiting with ill-concealed impatience for her to die. John served as Elizabeth's Master of Horse, hardly a position of great political power or one offering the opportunity to acquire great wealth. Lionel, the third brother, became Bishop of Salisbury late in Edward IV' reign. He presumably gained his office because of his royal connections, but he had been educated appropriately for it, and there is no indication that he was incompetent or otherwise unworthy of his office. Richard and Edward, the queen's other brothers, never married. Richard played no important part in Edward IV's reign, and Edward, probably the youngest of Elizabeth's brothers, served Edward IV militarily toward the end of the reign, participating in the Scottish campaign led by Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Neither brother was a wealthy man.

3. Elizabeth was an unbearably haughty woman who forced her own mother to kneel before her for three hours straight.

Elizabeth's post-churching banquet after the birth of her first child, Elizabeth of York, was indeed a grand, mostly silent affair during which Elizabeth's mother, Jacquetta, knelt before Elizabeth, being bidden at intervals by her daughter to rise, and during which other attendants of noble birth had to kneel before the queen as well. This, however, was a special occasion celebrating a once-in-a-lifetime event, the birth of Edward IV's first child, not a typical meal with the family. (Elizabeth of York at her coronation banquet was similarly served by kneeling noble ladies, and has never been accused of conceit.) Would Elizabeth's detractors be happier had Elizabeth propped her feet upon the table, leaned back in her chair, tossed her scraps to the dogs, quaffed ale by the cupful, and encouraged her ladies to do the same? (It does make for an interesting picture.)


Elizabeth's critics studiously ignore a very different vignette of the queen: that recorded by an observer of Louis of Gruuthuyse's visit to the English court in 1472. After Gruuthuyse and his company dined with the king, they were taken to the queen's chambers, where Elizabeth and some of her ladies were playing at the morteaulx, a game resembling marbles, while other ladies were dancing or playing at ivory closheys (ninepins) or other games. The observers found the sight of the queen and her ladies at their play to be "full pleasant."

4. Elizabeth was a real meanie to her sweet little brother-in-law, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

One of the more imaginative passages in Paul Murray Kendall's biography Richard the Third is this one: "The Queen, beautiful and rapacious, would know how to show her haughtiness to the undersized lad from Yorkshire with the awkward torso and solemn face." In fact, there's not a shred of evidence that Elizabeth treated Richard with a lack of respect for his rank as the king's brother or as to what she thought of him before 1483. Unfortunately, historical novelists (and some historians) have seized upon this and similar fanciful passages from Kendall and treated them as Holy Writ.

5. Elizabeth Woodville was greedy and rapacious (see above).

This is probably the most often repeated criticism of Elizabeth, yet her critics offer few specific examples to back it up. In fact, Elizabeth's extant household records show that she managed on less money and had fewer servants than her predecessor, Margaret of Anjou. While she certainly lived in a queenly style (matching Edward IV's own taste for display), nothing indicates that she was unusually lavish for a queen or that the public regarded her lifestyle as overly extravagant or flaunting. (Henry VI, of course, had been criticized for his lack of kingly style and bearing.) Ignored by her critics are her acts of piety and charity, which compare favorably to those of other English queens.

Elizabeth was quick to snap up an heiress, Anne Holland, for her oldest son by her first marriage; she paid Edward's sister the Duchess of Exeter 4,000 marks for the girl's marriage despite the fact that Anne had been promised to young George Neville, nephew to the Earl of Warwick. But given the fierce competition for rich wards, this sort of transaction was hardly unique to Elizabeth, and George was eventually promised in marriage to the king and queen's daughter Elizabeth of York, an arrangement that was broken when George's father, John Neville, turned against Edward IV and not by any act of Elizabeth Woodville's.

6. Elizabeth Woodville procured the death of George, Duke of Clarence.

Elizabeth had every reason to hate her brother-in-law George, for he and his mentor the Earl of Warwick had caused the deaths of her father and of her brother John in 1469. She might well have thoroughly approved when Edward IV executed his brother, for reasons which were murky at the time and are even more so now. She might well have encouraged him to order the execution. But nothing suggests that Edward IV was a henpecked husband or one who would order his own brother's execution just to humor his wife. Probably Edward believed that George's execution was justified by his increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior (such as his execution of his late wife's servant Ankarette Twynho), his possible continued involvement with Lancastrians like the Earl of Oxford, and his penchant for spreading rumors that Edward IV was not the son of the Duke of York. Edward himself spoke against his brother at his trial.

7. Elizabeth Woodville was a witch.

The only evidence of this is the statement in Titulus Regius, where Richard III's claim to the throne was spelled out for Parliament in 1484, that Elizabeth and her mother had used witchcraft to procure Elizabeth's marriage to Edward IV. Earlier, in summoning troops in June 1483 shortly before Hastings' execution, Richard accused the queen and her family of forecasting his death. For some, the fact that Richard III (not exactly a disinterested party) made these accusations is quite good enough to prove their truth. It's not. (And where, pray tell, were Elizabeth's powers when she needed them most, in 1483?) Richard never brought Elizabeth to trial on witchcraft charges and never offered any proof of his allegations.


Richard III's unproven accusations aside, one reason both Elizabeth and her mother have been portrayed as witches in so many modern historical novels is the mythical descent of the Luxembourg and Lusignan families from the water-goddess Melusine. The tale of Melusine was one of a number of "ancestral romances" concerning great families (the Swan Knight, from whom the Bohun family, among others, claimed ancestry, was another popular one). There is no evidence, however, that Elizabeth herself took any special interest in this legend concerning her maternal ancestors or that she made any use of it. While her mother, Jacquetta, owned a copy of a romance named Mélusine, other high-born ladies also owned copies, the tale being a popular one in its day. To say that the association of the Melusine legend with her ancestors makes Elizabeth a witch is as nonsensical as saying that the Swan Knight legend makes the members of the Bohun family shape-shifters.


On the other hand, what is well documented is Elizabeth's acts of conventional Christian piety. These are some of them:


*Elizabeth chose as her device a gillyflower, or pink, which Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs have pointed out was closely associated with the Virgin Mary. (“The Device of Queen Elizabeth Woodville: A Gillyflower or Pink,” The Ricardian, March 1997)

*Elizabeth founded the chapel of St. Erasmus in Westminster Abbey. (Sutton and Visser-Fuchs: “A ‘Most Benevolent Queen’: Queen Elizabeth’s Reputation, Her Piety, and Her Books,” The Ricardian, June 1995)

*Elizabeth obtained a license to attend Carthusian services at those houses that had been founded by English kings or queens (Ibid.)

*On March 5, 1466, at Elizabeth’s request, the king granted a license for a chaplain and two priests to found a fraternity of sixty priests to pray for the good estate of the king, the queen, and the Archbishop of York (Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward IV, 1461-67, p. 516)

*Elizabeth joined the London Skinners’ Fraternity of the Assumption of the Virgin (a portrait of her appears in its records) (J. L. Laynesmith, The Last Medieval Queens)

*Elizabeth made pilgrimages to Canterbury Cathedral, once in the company of her four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth of York, and was a member of its fraternity (Ibid.)

*In 1481, the queen obtained a papal indulgence for those who knelt and said the Angelical Salutation, or Angelus, three times per day. The Pope explained that the queen desired “the devotion of the faithful of the realm for the said salutation to be increased.” (“’Most Benevolent Queen”)

*When Elizabeth made her will in 1492, she named as two of her executors John Ingelby, the prior of Sheen Charterhouse, and William Sutton, vicar of St. Stephen’s Walbrook and of Ashford, Kent.


These acts are of the sort expected of a medieval queen, of course, and do not in themselves indicate that Elizabeth's piety was deeply felt. They are not, however, the acts one would expect a witch to perform either. Given the total lack of evidence that Elizabeth was a witch, and the considerable evidence that she held the conventional Christian beliefs of her day, surely she should be given the benefit of the doubt.


8.    Elizabeth Woodville concealed Edward IV's death from Richard, Duke of Gloucester


Among the modern myths that have grown up around Elizabeth Woodville, one of the most pervasive is that when Edward IV died, the queen either attempted to conceal the news from his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, or deliberately delayed in notifying him. This myth has made it into nonfiction as well as fiction, giving it a certain respectability and staying power. Elizabeth Jenkins in The Princes in the Tower twice states that no one told Richard of the king's death until William, Lord Hastings broke the news, and Paul Murray Kendall (naturally) writes that no official word ever came from Westminster to Richard. Bertram Fields in his book Royal Blood likewise accuses the queen and her kin of intentional delay, and a quick surf on the Internet produces several Ricardian sites that make similar allegations.

But is there truth to the story that Elizabeth Woodville and her family deliberately failed to let Richard know of his brother's death? No contemporary chronicler makes this claim. The Crowland Chronicler, who most historians agree was a person highly placed at court, reports the controversy that arose after the king's death over the size of the escort that Edward V was to take to London, notes that Richard wrote cordial, reassuring letters to the queen after he learned of Edward's death, and states that Richard traveled to York to publicly mourn his brother. In all of this, he doesn't indicate who told Richard of his brother's death or when he learned of it. At no time, however, does he suggest that anyone had been derelict in giving Gloucester the news or that it had come from an unexpected quarter. Dominic Mancini reports that there were conflicting opinions among the new king's councilors as to what role Gloucester was to play in the minority government, and he writes that Hastings reported these deliberations to Richard via letters and messengers and urged him to come to London quickly to assert his right to control the government. As with Crowland, however, nothing in Mancini's account gives the impression that there had been any delay in notifying Richard of his brother's death or any impropriety in the way he was notified.

Based on these sources, the logical conclusion is that whether or not Elizabeth Woodville personally sent Richard the news (and it's not at all clear that she, as opposed to someone from the late king's household like Hastings, the king's chamberlain, would have been expected to do so), Richard learned of his brother's death via conventional means and within a reasonable time. Indeed, in their chronology of events in The Coronation of Richard III: The Extant Documents, Anne F. Sutton and P. W. Hammond estimate, based on Mancinci, Crowland, and other contemporary sources, that Richard in Yorkshire probably received the news of Edward IV's death at about the same time—April 14—that Edward V and his household, which of course included Elizabeth's brother Anthony Woodville, received the news in Wales.

Moreover, even if the Woodvilles wanted to conceal the king's death from Richard (and again, there's no contemporary evidence that this was their desire), they would have been hard-pressed to manage such a feat. Though Richard spent most of his time in the North, away from Edward IV's court, he was an essential part of Edward IV's government and wielded great power. He would have had agents at court to transact his business with the king and to keep him informed of current events there; he would have also had attorneys in London to mind his legal affairs. As Edward IV's death on April 9, 1483, was made publicly known within hours—the late king's body was displayed at Westminster for the mayor and the leading citizens of London to view, and the news arrived at Calais via a servant of Hastings on April 10—any of Richard's connections at court and in London, not to mention his relations and his acquaintances, could have communicated with Richard about his brother's death, thereby thwarting any attempt to keep the news from him. The most likely scenario, however, is Richard didn't need to rely on such sources; rather, it's most logical to conclude that William Hastings, as part of his duties as chamberlain of the late king's household, sent an official messenger to Richard to inform him of his brother's death just as he sent a messenger to Calais. Later, when dissent arose on the council, Hastings sent private communications—those mentioned by Mancini—to Richard, but there is no reason to think that these confidential communications were the first news Richard had of his brother's death.


9.    Elizabeth Woodville and her family stole the royal treasury after Edward IV's death.

This rumor, frequently reported as historical fact, deserves its own page.

For those wanting to get a balanced picture of Elizabeth Woodville, four sources are particularly valuable: Anne Sutton's and Livia Visser-Fuchs' article in the 1995 Ricardian, "A 'Most Benevolent Queen': Queen Elizabeth Woodville's Reputation, her Piety and her Books," J. L. Laynesmith's The Last Medieval Queens, David Baldwin's Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower, and Arlene Okerlund's Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen. Anne Crawford's The Yorkists also contains good information on Elizabeth.





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