In the next in our series on the Wars of the Roses, this article looks at the marriage between the naïve Edward IV and the very smart Elizabeth Woodville. And its very serious consequences for one of Edward’s brothers.
It follows our introduction to the Wars of the Roses available here and our article on Edward III’s descendants and the causes of the Wars of the Roses available here. Later were the battles of the war from 1455-1464 and the Kingmaker. The most recent article was on Prince George’s treachery.
Do you know those romantic love stories where boy meets girl, they fall in love, the heavens and the earth move for them, and they live happily ever after?
Well, this isn’t one of them.
Elizabeth Woodville was a twenty-seven year old widow and mother of two small boys when the lecherous Edward IV came upon her in the woods one day. There is no hard evidence to tell us what had happened to make this womanizer stop and promise marriage to this commoner. Myths about her beauty beguiling him as well as her unholy spells bewitching him have survived the centuries. Personally I think that Edward was young and silly and far too full of lust. Elizabeth, older and wiser and trained from puberty to deal with silly medieval men, used that against him. She refused to be his mistress so he had no choice but to wed her if he wanted to bed her - Anne Boleyn would pull the exact same stunt on Edward’s grandson, Henry VIII, half a century later; the men in that family never learn. Edward, therefore, married Elizabeth and crowned her his Queen in May 1465, a year after their secret wedding.
Elizabeth’s beauty and piety were known across the land – she was the commoner who had enchanted a King and now she was Queen. But just how much had she enchanted the King? In almost record time, her sisters were married off to the most eligible men in the kingdom. Her brothers and father were put in positions of power. And estates reserved for the victorious Yorkists were suddenly in Woodville control. The insult there being that the Woodvilles had, of course, fought for the Lancasters. It seemed as though Edward was not working in the favor of England, but to better the name of Woodville. It seemed as though Elizabeth had the King wrapped around her little finger. The Queen was in charge of England and doing her best to strip the land of its riches and bestow it on her siblings.
The Woodvilles created many enemies on their short ladder to the top. Most famously, the Earl of Warwick and the Duke of Clarence. A little less famously was the King’s mother, the Duchess Cecily. Everyone has mother-in-law horror stories, but Elizabeth definitely has one of the worst. Medieval historian Dominic Mancini wrote, “Even his mother fell into such a frenzy that she offered to submit to a public enquiry and asserted that Edward was not the offspring of her husband, the Duke of York, but was conceived in adultery, and therefore in no ways worthy of the honor of kingship.” The woman disapproved of Elizabeth to such a point that she was willing to debate Edward’s paternity and right to be King. Of course, Mancini was writing on hearsay so we will never know if that actually happened. But it is very clear that Elizabeth and this marriage were neither liked nor wanted.
Cecily offered even more insults years later when she formed great friendships with the wives of her other sons – Isabelle and Anne Neville. The Neville girls were the daughters of the Earl of Warwick – Elizabeth’s greatest enemy and the murderer of her father. Battle took care of Warwick; the shrewd Queen didn’t have to bother herself with him. But Warwick’s one-time ally, the Duke of Clarence, was not so easy to dispose of.
The Duke of Clarence, Prince George, was a troublemaker and most believe he deserved what he got. But his story just highlights how unbelievably powerful Elizabeth was. The trouble started with the death of George’s wife, Isabelle. As heiress to the massive Warwick fortune, her death left George one of the richest men in England. It is unknown whether that fortune caused George the belief that he was untouchable or if he truly was just a tyrant. But his first stunt after Isabelle’s death was to accuse her handmaid of poisoning the duchess. Without trial or evidence, George convicted the handmaid and executed her. He had no right to do this. He then used his fortune to present himself as a prospective husband to Mary of Burgundy. He had no right to do this. He accused Elizabeth of witchcraft. He employed soothsayers to predict the King’s death. He resurrected the rumor of Cecily’s infidelity and Edward’s questionable paternity. He even brought up a new notion of Edward being pre-contracted to another woman named Eleanor Talbot, therefore making Elizabeth a mistress instead of a wife and Queen.
This, Elizabeth could not allow.
In 1477 George was convicted of treason. Not even Edward’s council were prepared for this, nor could they understand the King’s want to execute his own brother. The youngest Plantagenet hero, Richard, a man who had always backed his beloved brother Edward in everything, was so disgusted that he refused to come to court, refused to have anything to do with Edward’s murder of George.
But did Edward really want to execute his brother or was he simply in the habit of acting on orders from his wife? After all, Edward had forgiven George for many, many betrayals in the past - why would a smear campaign from the Queen suddenly warrant the death penalty?
18 February 1478 would see the outcome of this infighting. But that’s for next time.
By M.L King, a history enthusiast and part-time blogger. You can connect with her on Facebook here.
To read part 2 of A Love Story during The Wars of the Roses, click here!
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