From Commoner to Queen
The marriage of Elizabeth’s parents created a scandal at the Lancastrian court. Her mother, Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of St Pol, had been the second wife of John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, and she was thus aunt to King Henry VI. Widowed young, she secretly married a member of the duke’s household, Sir Richard Woodville, and bore a large family, of which Elizabeth was the eldest.
The family lived at Grafton in Northamptonshire, and, as tensions rose at court between Henry VI’s circle, including his wife, Queen Marguerite of Anjou, the Woodvilles remained loyal to their Lancastrian connections.
In 1453, aged about sixteen, Elizabeth married Sir John Grey of Groby. Sir John was the son of Elizabeth Ferrars, Baroness Groby, who ruled the household that Elizabeth now joined, at Groby Hall, near Leicester. Nothing is known of Elizabeth and John’s personal relationship, but she bore two sons, Thomas and Richard. It has been suggested that Elizabeth was a maid-of-honour to Marguerite of Anjou - there is a record of an Isabel Grey (Isabel and Elizabeth were often used interchangeably) amongst her ladies, but there is no certainty, and the age of Elizabeth renders it unlikely.
The Grey family, like the Woodvilles, was Lancastrian, and John Grey fought, and was killed at the 2nd Battle of St Albans, in February 1461. Although this battle was a Lancastrian victory, the city of London refused to allow the victorious Lancastrians to enter the city, and instead, Edward, Earl of March, leader of the House of York, entered London to be crowned as Edward IV. Edward followed this up with an overwhelming victory at Towton.
Elizabeth was now widowed, with two sons. For unknown reasons, but probably based on an uneasy relationship with her mother-in-law, Elizabeth returned to her parental home, rather than remaining in her marital home – as would have been more usual for a woman with children. With the Lancastrian defeat, her sons’ inheritance was now at risk, so, according to the legend, she decided to waylay King Edward whilst he was hunting nearby, and plead in person for them. Edward, always susceptible to feminine charm, suggested that the widow might like to become his mistress. Elizabeth refused.
Elizabeth showed every sign later of genuine piety, and her refusal may well have been inspired by her faith – or it may have been a ploy to encourage Edward to marry her. Given that no King of England before had ever married a subject it seems unlikely that she thought Edward would make an exception, it was his duty to make an advantageous foreign marriage.
Edward, however, was genuinely smitten, and the two were married on 1st May 1464, with her mother, Duchess Jacquetta, as a witness. The marriage was kept secret, whilst Edward’s nobles, led by his cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (Warwick the Kingmaker) negotiated on the King’s behalf for a European wife. The most likely candidate was Bona of Savoy, sister of the Queen of France.
At Michaelmas (29th September) 1464, Edward announced that he was married and Elizabeth was presented to the court, and prayed for as queen in the royal chapel at Reading. The King’s Neville relatives (themselves not of the highest blood) considered themselves insulted, and there was bad blood between the Nevilles and the Woodvilles (both equally rapacious) thereafter.
Elizabeth, like all dutiful mediaeval people, sought the advancement of her family. Her father was promoted to an earldom, and her numerous brothers and sisters were married to as many unwed nobles as could be found – adding to the chagrin of the Nevilles, who had hoped to scoop up all the rich spouses available. Particularly outrageous to the nobility was the marriage of Elizabeth’s brother John, to the King’s aunt, Katherine Neville, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk – a lady some forty years John’s senior. Professor David Loades, however, has established that the Woodvilles did not receive nearly so many grants or offices as the Neville family, and Edward’s other friends received.
Despite her unpopularity with her husband’s family, Elizabeth was recognised as exceptionally beautiful, and as presiding over a court of great dignity and magnificence. In the first five years of her marriage, she bore three daughters – Elizabeth, Mary and Cicely. Edward was not a faithful husband, but he seems to have loved his wife, and he was certainly generous to her family, particularly her Grey sons - the eldest was married to the King’s niece, Anne Holland, heiress to the lands of the Duchy of Exeter, in 1466.
Frustration with Edward’s refusal to be dominated, led to rebellion by Warwick, aided and abetted by Edward’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence, who hoped to marry Warwick’s daughter, Isabel, and was angered by Edward’s refusal to sanction either that match, or an alternative, even more prestigious union, to Mary, Duchess of Burgundy. Edward clearly suspected his brother of being less loyal than he ought to be. Warwick fomented rebellion, and, in a breathtaking change of loyalties, in 1469, was reconciled with Marguerite of Anjou, in exile in France with her son, Edward of Lancaster.
The Lancastrians returned, Edward was forced to flee, and the pregnant Elizabeth withdrew to sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her daughters. Whilst she was there, Henry VI was restored to the throne. Always kind, Henry sent supplies for Elizabeth’s childbirth. She was delivered of a son, Edward. Elizabeth’s father and her brother, John, were executed by Warwick, following the Battle of Edgecote.
Queen of England
By May 1471, Edward IV had re-established himself on the throne. Prince Edward of Lancaster had been killed at, or after, the battle of Tewkesbury, and King Henry died (probably on Edward’s orders) in the Tower of London. Elizabeth emerged from sanctuary, and for the next thirteen years continued to produce children – in all, six daughters and three sons, of whom Mary and George both died young.
Despite the apparent reconciliation between Edward and his brother George, the House of York was not at ease with itself. George and Elizabeth’s other brother-in-law, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, quarrelled over the inheritances of their wives – Warwick’s daughters, Isabel and Anne, whom they had respectively married. By 1478, George had tried his brother’s patience long enough. He was arraigned in Parliament, and Edward himself gave the case against him. Sentenced to death for treason, he died in the Tower of London – allegedly drowned in a butt of malmsey wine.
Whilst contemporary sources are clear that Elizabeth and George were on bad terms and that she probably encouraged her husband’s anger against George, there is nothing in the records about her relationship with Richard of Gloucester, who spent most of his time in the North of England, as Edward’s lieutenant there.
Similarly, Elizabeth’s eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales, was sent to the Marches of Wales to preside over the newly instituted Council for Wales and the Marches. He was only a child, so a governor was appointed – Elizabeth’s brother, Anthony. Anthony (known as Lord Scales in right of his wife) was more popular than their other siblings – a renowned jouster and a man of learning and culture. As a governor for his nephew, he was ideal. The Prince also had his half-brother, Sir Richard Grey, in his retinue.
Elizabeth was a careful manager of her income as queen – being far more thrifty and careful a manager than Marguerite of Anjou had been. She continued that queen’s patronage of the college at Cambridge which commemorates them both – Queens’ College. Although she did not have the level of political influence her predecessor had enjoyed, she was appointed Governor of the Realm during Edward’s absence in France in 1475.
By 1483, King Edward, once a handsome, athletic, vigorous young man, had become a corpulent and rather gluttonous man of forty. He died unexpectedly, on 9th April 1483, just before his 41st birthday. Before his death, he had sought reconciliation between his friend, Lord Hastings and Elizabeth’s oldest son, Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, but he did not make clear provision for the government of the realm during his son’s minority, other than stipulating that his brother, Richard, should be Protector, although whether that meant until Edward’s majority, or merely until his coronation and the institution of a full regency council was not clear.
The new king, Elizabeth’s son, Edward, was 12 years old. The age of majority was not clearly set out – men routinely went to war at the age of 16, and Edward IV had been crowned at 18, whilst other inheritance had to wait until the age of 21. So Edward, although young, would have been able to take a hand in government himself within around four years. It was an unfortunate position, but nowhere near so catastrophic as the death of Henry V, leaving a baby as his heir.
The events that followed have been told and retold by different partisans. Elizabeth and Dorset took control of the treasury, whilst her brother, Sir Edward Woodville, commanded the fleet. The young king was summoned to London, and Elizabeth urged the council to arrange a large armed escort for him. This was refused. Edward had his uncle, Lord Rivers, and his half-brother, Sir Richard Grey, and around 2,000 men in his retinue.
Meanwhile, Hastings had informed Richard of the death of his brother. The Duke sent Elizabeth the proper condolences, and set out for London, arranging to meet Henry, Duke of Buckingham, en route. Buckingham was from a Lancastrian family, but was married to Elizabeth’s sister, Katherine – a marriage which he was said to resent. He offered to support Richard in his role as Protector.
The king’s party rested at Stony Stratford and Lord Rivers, rode north to meet Richard and Buckingham in Northampton. The three men enjoyed dinner together, with Rivers going to bed first. The next morning, Rivers was arrested, and Richard and Buckingham rode on to meet Edward. Richard informed him that his uncle had been arrested, and also apprehended Sir Richard Grey, and Edward’s chamberlain, Sir Thomas Vaughan.
Edward showed himself unimpressed. He was attached to his uncle Rivers, and his half-brother and barely knew Gloucester. He pointed out that he had been served by men appointed by his father. Nevertheless, he had little choice but to accept Gloucester’s actions, and hear Buckingham utter his loathing for Elizabeth and all her family.
Hearing the news, Elizabeth immediately requested sanctuary at Westminster Abbey for a second time, entering with her daughters and her younger son, Richard of Shrewsbury. Dorset fled to France. Whilst in sanctuary, Elizabeth received news that her son had arrived in London, and was in the Tower, awaiting his coronation, as was customary. A date of 10th June was set for the crowning, whilst the Privy Council confirmed Gloucester as Protector.
Elizabeth was asked to release Richard of Shrewsbury to be a companion to his brother. She refused. Edward and Richard could hardly have known each other, and, so long as Elizabeth had control of her younger son, her eldest was safe.
London was full of preparations for the coronation, but Elizabeth refused to emerge from sanctuary. On 9th June, Gloucester wrote to the city of York, requesting troops to protect him against ‘the Queen, her blood, and her affinity’. Orders were despatched for the execution of Elizabeth’s brother, Earl Rivers, her son, Richard Grey, and Vaughan, being held by Gloucester’s men in Pontefract Castle.
On 13th June, at a council meeting, Gloucester leapt up from his chair and denounced Lord Hastings as a traitor. The former friend of Edward IV, and the man to whom Gloucester owed his knowledge of the death of Edward IV, was bundled into the yard and executed, without even being granted a priest for him to make his last confession. Three days later, Elizabeth was persuaded, or coerced, into allowing Richard of Shrewsbury to join his brother, King Edward, in the Tower. She and her daughters remained in sanctuary, awaiting news of the coronation.
Edward was due to be crowned on 22nd June, but the ceremony never took place. Instead, Dr Ralph Shaa preached at St Paul’s Cross. There are various accounts of what he said, either that Edward IV himself had been illegitimate, or that Elizabeth and Edward IV’s marriage had been invalid, as he was already betrothed to Lady Eleanor Butler, née Talbot. It was this latter accusation that was taken up, and two days later, Buckingham led a delegation, consisting of the Lord Mayor and others, to Crosby Place, where Gloucester was lodged with his mother, Cicely, Dowager Duchess of York, to request him to take the throne.
The request was repeated by a Parliamentary delegation, and Gloucester swore the coronation oath on 29th June, being crowned as Richard III, alongside his wife, Anne Neville, on 9th July. Elizabeth and her daughters, still in sanctuary, would have heard the procession.
Elizabeth remained in sanctuary. She would have heard of the rebellion of the Duke of Buckingham that autumn (a rebellion whose motives are not clear – whether to promote the distant claims of the exiled Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, or Buckingham’s own Lancastrian claim), and it is possible she was already in communication with Richmond’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, now the wife of Lord Thomas Stanley. Lady Margaret had been punished for her part in Buckingham’s rebellion, by the transfer of her lands to her husband – a fairly lenient step on Richard III’s part, but he recognised that antagonising Stanley would be unwise.
Whatever the exact timings, Elizabeth and Lady Margaret appear to have come to an arrangement whereby they would endeavor to place Richmond on the throne, with one of Elizabeth’s daughters (preferably the eldest, Elizabeth of York) as his queen.
In January 1484, Parliament passed the Act of Titulus Regius, which stated that Elizabeth’s marriage had been invalid, and that she was no more than ‘Dame Grey’. With Richard’s title to the crown enshrined in law, and her sons not having been seen since the previous June, Elizabeth made the decision to emerge from sanctuary – although not until Richard had sworn a public oath to treat her daughters with respect, and not force them to make degrading marriages.
With no realistic prospect of Richmond obtaining the throne, Elizabeth sent a message to her son, Dorset, requesting him to return, and repudiating the idea of a marriage between Richmond and Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth’s whereabouts for the next year is unknown. At Christmas 1484, Elizabeth of York was at court, but there is no certainty about Elizabeth’s location.
In August 1485, to the surprise of everyone, probably not least Richmond himself, Richmond overcame Richard III at the battle of Bosworth and became Henry VII. In accordance with his oath, he married Elizabeth of York in January 1486. On 5th March, her dower lands were restored and her title and rank as Queen Dowager acknowledged – giving her precedence even over Lady Margaret Beaufort. She stood as godmother to her first grandchild, Prince Arthur, in September 1486, and shortly after was mooted as a bride for the widowed James III of Scotland.
It has been suggested that Henry VII suspected his mother-in-law of involvement in the Lambert Simnel rebellion, but that seems far-fetched, as Simnel apparently claimed to be Edward of Warwick, son of her old enemy, George, Duke of Clarence. It can hardly be supposed that she would have wished to see Edward of Warwick oust her own daughter and grandson.
In February 1487, Elizabeth’s dower was transferred to her daughter, and she retired to the Abbey of Bermondsey. She may have felt pressured to do this by Henry or his rather domineering mother, or she may genuinely have decided to retire to a religious life – many women did. She certainly was not ousted from the royal family. Henry sent her money in March 1488, referring to her as ‘right dear and right well-beloved Queen Elizabeth, late wife unto the noble prince of famous memory, King Edward IV and mother unto our dearest wife the Queen.’ He sent her other gifts of money over the years, and arranged the marriages of her younger daughters – Anne to Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey (a match that had been mooted originally during Richard III’s reign), Katherine to the Earl of Devon, and Cicely to his mother’s half-brother, Viscount Welles. These were not the grand royal marriages their father would have sought for them, but they were not dishonourable. The youngest daughter, Bridget, became a nun.
Elizabeth died at Bermondsey Abbey in June 1492, and was buried with her husband in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.