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Mother of the Princes in the Tower
By David Baldwin
The History PressCopyright © 2011 David Baldwin
All rights reserved.
Elizabeth's Early Life
Elizabeth Woodville, the eldest child of Sir Richard Woodville and Jacquetta, daughter of Pierre de Luxembourg, Count of St Pol (Artois), was probably born at Grafton in Northamptonshire in 1437. Sir Richard's family home was at the Mote, near Maidstone (Kent), but he may have lived at Grafton manor from shortly after the death of his father's elder brother, Thomas, in 1435, and perhaps brought his new bride there towards the end of 1436. Richard had earlier joined his father, another Richard, in the service of John, Duke of Bedford as he struggled first to extend, and then to retain, his brother Henry V's French conquests, and probably met the teenage Jacquetta in 1433 when Bedford wed her to bolster his position in Normandy. She soon came to admire the handsome young knight whose prowess and gaiety contrasted strikingly with the cares which burdened her middle-aged husband; and their relationship developed rapidly after Bedford died on 15 September 1435. They wished to marry, but were obliged to recognise that a widow who had been England's second lady and who could trace her ancestry back to Simon de Montfort and the Emperor Charlemagne, was all but inaccessible to so humble a suitor. She was part of an aristocratic society which set great store by social precedence, and a liaison with a subordinate, even a member of a dependable knightly family well-known to her, was unthinkable. The Woodvilles had been settled at Grafton since the thirteenth century and had served regularly as Commissioners of the Peace, Sheriffs, and Members of Parliament for Northamptonshire; but neither this nor the good service rendered by the elder Richard (he had been an Esquire of the Body to Henry V and had risen to become Bedford's chamberlain) could justify a union with a member of the royal family. Jacquetta, now twenty, was granted her dower on 6 February 1436 on the understanding that she did not remarry without royal permission; but within a year she was obliged to ask King Henry to pardon her for marrying Richard in contravention of this undertaking (for which, she said, they had already suffered 'right grate streitnesse') and to beg him to set the fine her action warranted at a reasonable level. The result was that she was ordered to pay the Crown £1,000 on 23 March 1437, the money being found by the wealthy Cardinal Beaufort, the King's half great-uncle, in exchange for some of her west country manors.
The Woodvilles' disgrace was short-lived, however. They were pardoned on 24 October that year (perhaps at about the time their eldest daughter was born, or shortly afterwards) and Sir Richard was soon back with the English armies in France. He took part in the Duke of Somerset's attempt to relieve Meaux in September 1439, competed in the lists with Pedro Vasque de Saavedra, the Duke of Burgundy's chamberlain, when he visited London in 1440 (clear evidence of his burgeoning military reputation), and was again in France, in the Duke of York's company, when the Duke relieved Pontoise in 1441. He became a knight banneret on 25 September 1442, and new opportunities for advancement opened when Henry VI's councillors arranged for the King to marry the French princess, Margaret of Anjou.
Sir Richard and his wife were among those chosen to escort the royal bride to England in 1444, and it was only natural that Jacquetta, whose sister, Isabel, was married to Margaret's uncle, Charles, Comte du Maine, would find favour with the new Queen. These factors probably combined to secure Richard's elevation to the peerage as Baron Rivers on 8 May 1448, although his choice of title is puzzling. Dugdale thought that he borrowed the name from the old family of Redvers, or De Ripariis, Earls of Devon, since he added an escutcheon bearing a griffin segreant which had formed part of Redvers's device to his own arms; but a casual reference to his son as Lord Anthony Angre (in a letter of 1475) may indicate a connection with the barony of Rivers or De Ripariis of Aungre (Ongar), which had been in abeyance for some time. His value to the government was again demonstrated when he played a prominent part in the suppression of Jack Cade's rebellion in June 1450; and he was admitted to the Order of the Garter on 4 August the same year.
Elizabeth's earliest years were spent in the nursery at Grafton, where she was joined by a growing number of siblings: her brothers Anthony, born about 1440, John, and Margaret, the sister nearest to her in age. Grafton (the word is a combination of 'grove' and 'tun') was, in the mid-fifteenth century, a substantial village straddling the main road between Northampton and London. The church and the manor house, the two largest buildings, stood well back from the eastern side of the thoroughfare, while the hermitage, once the cell of a solitary monk and by now, in all probability, the Woodvilles' private chapel, lay just to the west. There were two 'parks' (enclosed areas of wood and lawn [open spaces] in which deer were retained and protected), a cluster of cottages and, beyond, the great open fields (already displaying unmistakable signs of enclosure) and the forest. It was a rural, almost idyllic, setting, sometimes enlivened by the arrival of travelling players and musicians or when great men and their ladies riding between the capital and the provinces were invited to break their journey and enjoy the family's hospitality. Elizabeth would have eagerly anticipated the two great festivals of the year: Christmas, when the boar's head was carried to the high table and the 'Lord of Misrule' ushered in twelve days of feasting and entertainments, and Easter when the 'wrythe', a garland of branches, was ceremoniously brought into the manor house, and women 'hocked' men (and men hocked women), binding them with ropes until they had paid a forfeit to obtain their release.
The evidence of Elizabeth's later years suggests that she was a bright, intelligent child who was close to her parents, although convention, and their frequent absences on great matters, allowed them to play only a limited part in her upbringing. Nurses and servants, and then perhaps a master or mistress, would have been responsible for her early care and education, until, at some time after her seventh birthday, she was sent to join another landed household. The purpose of this custom was to allow children to make social contacts which would ultimately benefit their family while at the same time encouraging self-reliance; and although there is no clear evidence of where Elizabeth was boarded it was probably with Sir Edward Grey and his wife Elizabeth, Lady Ferrers, at Groby in Leicestershire. The relative nearness of Grafton would have allowed her to return home periodically; the status of the family – a knight married to a higher-born wife – perhaps appealed to the Woodvilles; and part of the arrangement was that she would marry John, the Greys' eldest son.
Her day began with mass in the family chapel, followed by breakfast (at six or seven according to the season) and then formal lessons, reading, writing (in English, with some French and Latin) and a grounding in the law and mathematics which she would find useful in managing an estate and keeping accounts in her future husband's absence. Dinner would be taken at perhaps ten or eleven, and later, if the weather was good, there might be outdoor activities, hunting and hawking, or perhaps sewing and embroidery in the company of the other ladies of the household. Supper followed at between three and four, and then there would be time to linger in the garden or alternatively play games (cards, chess and backgammon were popular), dance and listen to music. Her 'polite accomplishments', good manners and breeding complemented by her growing physical beauty, made her an ideal partner for the young heir to the family's wealth and title, but there is no evidence to support Thomas More's story that they gained her a place in the household of Queen Margaret. More was probably confusing her with Lady Isabella Grey, David MacGibbon's candidate, a married woman who had accompanied Margaret to England (when Elizabeth Woodville was only eight), or perhaps with another Elizabeth Grey who served the Queen but who is known to have been a widow and mother in 1445.
Jacquetta's dower – a third share of Bedford's manors and annuities in England, worth over £4,000 a year, and the same proportion of his considerable interests in France – meant that Elizabeth was born into the lap of luxury, but as she reached her teens the family's finances became more straitened. The French lands were lost as the Hundred Years' War drew to a close in the 1440s and early 1450s, and Henry VI's government became increasingly unable to meet the claims of those who, like Jacquetta, were entitled to regular payments from the Exchequer. This, and the fact that the dower was for life only (Jacquetta's rights would have reverted to the Crown if she had died as a consequence of one of her many pregnancies), ought to have persuaded the Woodvilles to seek an opportunity to exchange their temporary wealth for something more permanent. They could have used the income from the dower to buy land (and particularly to buy out the co-holders of those manors in which they already had a third share), and could have asked the King to convert their own temporary interest into a full title in return for surrendering some of the annuities. But little progress seems to have been made in this direction – grants made from the Bedford estates to others often included the reversion of Jacquetta's dower interest – and Baron Rivers and the dowager Duchess of Bedford owned only eight scattered manors in England in 1461.
There is no record of precisely when Elizabeth and John Grey were married, and contemporary references to the age of their eldest son, Thomas, are not very helpful. He may have been born in 1455 if the statement that he was '37 and more' (that is between 37 and 38) in 1492 is accurate, but we cannot discount the possibility that he was '13 and more' in 1464 and had entered the world in 1451. It is, perhaps, unlikely that Elizabeth was married at thirteen and a mother at fourteen; but the Lady Margaret Beaufort gave birth to the future Henry VII when she was only thirteen and this may be another instance of a family's desire to seal an agreement as quickly as possible taking precedence over the well-being of the bride. The young couple probably resided at the Greys' second principal manor house at Astley (Warkwickshire), and a second son, Richard, was born to them later in the 1450s.
This decade in Elizabeth's life is all but lost to us, although we can assume that its pattern, and her daily responsibilities, would have been similar to those of other ladies of gentle and knightly status. Her domestic round doubtless included supervising servants, overseeing the work of the brewhouse, bakehouse and dairy, making clothes, preserving and storing provisions, and, most importantly, planning ahead to ensure that everything was available when needed. While the household tried to be as self-sufficient as possible, there were still many things which had to be bought in, not least scarcer commodities such as exotic fruits and spices which could only be obtained from the larger towns. There must have been many occasions when Sir John rode to Leicester, Coventry or London on business carrying in his pocket a 'shopping list' prepared by Elizabeth detailing not only what she wanted but how much she expected to pay. It was during her husband's absences that she became his partner in a very real sense, negotiating with farmers and neighbours, arranging leases and parrying lawsuits, and taking his place in any and every matter which affected their interests. There is no evidence that she was ever obliged to hazard her person (as was her contemporary Margaret Paston, for example), but there can be little doubt that, like Margaret, she wrote regularly to her husband to acquaint him with developments and reassure him that everything was satisfactory. Their personal relationship must remain conjectural, but there is every likelihood that genuine affection grew out of the original 'arrangement' and they became firm friends.
These years spent in the Warwickshire countryside with her young family were the most settled and perhaps among the happiest Elizabeth experienced; but from time to time she would have shared her husband's anxiety as defeats in France and the loss of virtually all of Henry V's conquests led to increasingly bitter divisions among the English nobility. Henry VI was a weak ruler who proved unable to hold the ring between the jealousies and conflicting ambitions of the great lords and their retinues and fell increasingly under the influence of the faction headed by Queen Margaret and the Dukes of Somerset and Suffolk. Their rivals, the Duke of York, his brother-in-law the Earl of Salisbury, and Salisbury's son the Earl of Warwick, found themselves progressively excluded from the King's counsels, and this threatened both York's ability to recover the money he had spent trying to bolster the English position in France in the 1440s and their collective access to the royal patronage – the large number of offices and annuities which the Crown had at its disposal and which they could crucially secure for both themselves and their followers if they enjoyed the king's ear. Throughout the conflicts of the 1450s York maintained that his only aim was to rescue Henry (and himself) from this situation, and his decision to claim the crown after his victory at Northampton in July 1460 surprised everyone. It was true that his maternal great-great-grandfather, Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence (Edward III's third son) was older than John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Henry's paternal great-grandfather and King Edward's fourth son; but primogeniture was only one factor (and not necessarily the determining one) in the succession, and Henry VI, his grandfather's usurpation notwithstanding, was an anointed king. There had been four occasions between the Conquest and the end of the twelfth century – in 1087, 1100, 1135 and 1199 – when a deceased ruler had been succeeded by a claimant other than his nearest blood relative; and although the precedent that a reigning king should be succeeded by his eldest son (or, alternatively, his eldest grandson) had been established by 1400, it was still unclear what should happen if the king died childless. It is one of the ironies of the situation that if the revolution of 1399 had not taken place and Richard II had died from natural causes after reigning a year or two longer, the peers would almost certainly have turned to Gaunt's son, Henry of Derby, who was in his mid-thirties and enjoyed a reputation as a man of action, rather than York's then youthful uncle, Edmund Mortimer. A child who was nearest in blood to the late king could not expect to prevail against the claims of a more distant but potentially more able candidate, and York's argument that Edmund's right (and, by extension, his own) had been violated owed more to wishful thinking than to the realities of the situation. Henry VI's father had been king before him and his son, Prince Edward of Lancaster (born 1453), was entitled to be king after him; and the compromise agreed after York claimed the Crown – that Henry should continue to reign until his death whereupon York and his heirs would succeed him – was as devoid of legality as it was unacceptable to Queen Margaret. York was slain at the Battle of Wakefield fought on 30 December 1460 (Salisbury was executed afterwards), and Warwick was defeated at the second Battle of St Albans the following February. These were devastating blows for the Yorkist party, not least because Queen Margaret regained possession of her hapless husband at St Albans (Henry had been captured by the Yorkists at Northampton) and prevented Warwick from claiming that he was acting with royal approval. Warwick, in what were now desperate circumstances, crowned York's son, Edward, Earl of March, as his own rival monarch, and the future husband of Elizabeth Woodville was acclaimed by his supporters as Edward IV.
The first phase of this conflict, known to later generations as the Wars of the Roses, did not seriously affect the Woodville and Grey families. Lord Rivers became one of the Duke of Somerset's lieutenants at Calais in the early 1450s, an appointment which prevented him from fighting for King Henry at the first Battle of St Albans (22 May 1455), and there is no evidence that Sir Edward and John Grey, if they were present, came to any harm. The defeat of the Lancastrians, and Somerset's death, resulted in the Earl of Warwick becoming the new, Yorkist, captain of Calais; and it was to Calais that Warwick, his father Salisbury and Edward, Earl of March retired after their reversal at Ludford Bridge on 12–13 October 1459. King Henry's government ordered Lord Rivers and his eldest son Sir Anthony to muster forces at Sandwich against them, but on the night of 15 January 1460 the Yorkists attacked unexpectedly and the two Woodvilles were captured. 'They were brought to Calais' wrote William Paston, 'before the lords with eight score torches, and there my Lord of Salisbury rated him (Rivers), calling him knave's son, that he should be so rude to call him and these other lords traitors, for they shall be found the king's true liegemen when he should be found a traitor &c. And my Lord of Warwick rated him and said that his father was but a squire and brought up with King Henry V, and sithen himself made by marriage, and also made lord, and that it was not his part to have such language of lords, being of the king's blood. And my Lord of March rated him in like wise. And Sir Anthony was rated for his language of all three lords in like wise.'
Excerpted from Elizabeth Woodville by David Baldwin. Copyright © 2011 David Baldwin. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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