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Her Highness, the Traitor

Excerpts from The Woodvilles

 


 

On 19 January 1460, Richard Woodville and his wife were rudely awakened in their lodgings at Sandwich. Their caller, John Denham, roused them and their eldest son, Anthony, from their beds, bundled the father and son aboard a ship, and hauled the men to Calais, where they were greeted by their Yorkist enemies: Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury; his son Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick; and their kinsman, the 17-year-old Edward, Earl of March. By torchlight, the three earls ‘rated’ the hapless Woodville men. Richard Woodville was a ‘knave’, a man ‘made by marriage’, whose father was but a squire.

 

 Whether the Woodvilles replied to this barrage of insults is unrecorded, but in September 1464, the former Earl of March, now King Edward IV, made a surprise announcement to his council at Reading. He had chosen a bride. His new wife, he informed the stunned councillors, was not a foreign princess, but Dame Elizabeth Grey, a widow who happened to be the daughter of Richard Woodville.

 

It had taken over four years, but the Woodvilles had finally got in the last word.

 

* * *

 

Wherever and however the couple met, both the king and Elizabeth would have liked what they saw. Dominic Mancini describes Edward as captivated by Elizabeth’s ‘beauty of person and charm of manner’, while Hearne’s Fragment wrote of her ‘constant womanhood, wisdom and beauty’.  Her portraits, even if all copies of an original, amply bear out contemporary descriptions of her good looks, although no more than broad generalisations about her appearance were recorded by her contemporaries. Even her hair colour is uncertain. The chronicler, Hall, writing years after her death, refers in passing to her ‘fair hair’, which is difficult to confirm from the sliver of hair visible in Elizabeth’s portraits. Manuscript illustrations invariably show Elizabeth as a golden blonde, but as J.L. Laynesmith has noted, queens were generally depicted in this manner. What can be dismissed is the famed description of Elizabeth’s ‘silver-gilt’ hair: this appears to be the invention of the novelist Josephine Tey, whose fanciful description was picked up by subsequent novelists and even by popular historians.

 

 For her part, Elizabeth saw a young man ‘in the flower of his age, tall of stature, [and] elegant of person’. In 1789, a measurement of his skeleton found Edward IV to be 6 ft 3 inches; the hair found by his skull was brown, as it is in contemporary portraits. Even if the tall, handsome 22-year-old in question was not the most powerful man in England, a woman might have found it difficult to resist the lure of his bed.

 

Yet Elizabeth, if two accounts written during her lifetime can be believed, did just that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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