The White Queen
Elizabeth Woodville was born in the sleepy village of Grafton in Northamptonshire, somewhere between 1437 and 1440. The eldest daughter of Richard Woodville and his wife, Jacquetta, she was the eldest girl in a family of at least eleven children. Although Elizabeth's mother was the Duchess of Bedford, a title acquired from her first marriage to the king's uncle, John Duke of Bedford, after the Duke's death she had married for love; a lowly soldier by the name of Richard Woodville. In the late 1430s when Elizabeth was born, the family were minor gentry and could never have seen the future that was in store for their eldest daughter.
By the early 1450s, Elizabeth had married. Her husband was Sir John Grey and during the 1450s she bore him two sons, Thomas and Richard Grey. But with their family life set against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, her marriage would come to an end with John Grey's death on the battlefield at St Albans in February 1461, fighting on the side of the Lancastrians. Elizabeth and her two sons returned to her family home at Grafton. She was in now her mid-twenties and a single parent to two young boys.
But then something extraordinary happened that would change the course of Elizabeth and her family’s life forever. Legend tells us that Elizabeth Woodville met her second husband under an oak tree (underthemedievaloak). The date of their first meeting has never been determined, but at some point, Elizabeth crossed paths with the king. Edward IV, the Yorkist king who had defeated the Lancastrian King Henry on the snowy battlefield at Towton in 1461, was young, charismatic and handsome. The most well-known and accepted version of how they met is that Elizabeth, knowing that the king was due to pass by, waited under an oak tree with her two boys so she could catch his attention and request his help with her boys’ inheritance. The oak tree, now known as The Queen’s Oak, was situated in a field which is today in the parish of Potterspury, just east of Potterspury Lodge off the A5; it survived all the way to 1994 when it sadly burnt down in a fire. The king, riding by with his men, was said to have stopped when he caught sight of a beautiful young woman on the side of the road, and this was their first encounter.
What happened next, according to the chronicler Edward Hall writing over half a century later, is that the king became so enchanted with Elizabeth, that he wanted her to become his lover. But she, unwilling to risk her reputation, refused. Hall believed that their meeting was written in the stars and asks the reader to consider ‘that if one considers the old proverb to be true then marriage is destiny’. According to Hall, the king was hunting in the nearby forest when he arrived at Grafton. He tells us that Elizabeth pleaded her suit to the king and that the king not only favoured her suit but was enamoured with her person, for she was lovely looking with a feminine smile. He found her to be eloquent with a great wit and womanly demeanour and was determined that she should become his lover and mistress. But Elizabeth withheld from him, refusing to enter into a romantic engagement with him as anything other than his wife. According to Hall, her refusal made Edward even keener to have her, and struck as he was by the ‘darte of Cupido’, he determined that he would marry her. However they met, the one certainty is that they did meet and not only that, before too long, Elizabeth was Edward’s wife and the new Queen of England.
You might have seen, in those days, the royal court presenting no other appearance than such as fully befits a most mighty kingdom, filled with riches and with people of almost all nations, and (a point in which it excelled all others) boasting of those most sweet and beautiful children, the issue of his marriage, which has been previously mentioned, with queen Elizabeth. (Croyland Chronicle)
During their 19-year marriage, Elizabeth and Edward had ten children together. Edward IV reigned from 1461-1470 and then 1471- 1483 and throughout most of that time, Elizabeth was by his side. During the restoration of the Lancastrian King Henry to the throne (1470-71) Elizabeth took sanctuary whilst her husband fled to the safety of the continent. It was here, in the sanctuary precincts, that she gave birth to their first son, a prince named Edward after his father. But perhaps the biggest trial Elizabeth had to face would be after Edward IV's death in 1483 when circumstances prevailed that would see her two surviving sons become forever known to history as 'The Princes in the Tower'. Their disappearance and eventual fate was, and still is, one of the greatest mysteries. As her brother-in-law, Richard, took the throne from her son, crowning himself King Richard III, Elizabeth would once again have to flee to safety taking her daughters with her. She would eventually see her eldest daughter succeed as the first Tudor queen, after the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth by the Lancastrian Henry Tudor. Mother of the Princes in the Tower, Grandmother to Henry VIII, the first English-born queen for 400 years, who married for love, Elizabeth Woodville's story is both fascinating and inspiring.
Grafton Regis - the birthplace of the White Queen
The small yet perfectly formed manor of Grafton lies just ten miles south of Northampton and four miles north-west of Stony Stratford. Situated high at the top of the hill overlooking a river valley, in 1086 only one household was recorded there, and by 1301 there were still only sixty-two people assessed to the lay subsidy. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Grafton belonged to the Abbey of Grestain in France. The Woodville family leased the manor house there for many years but Elizabeth's parents bought the manor house from the Pole family in the early 1440s. In 1464, Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville in secret in Grafton, probably at the Hermitage, the remains of which can be seen buried in a field to the west of the A508. After the Woodvilles, the house was acquired by king Henry VIII, Elizabeth Woodville's grandson, who expanded it and spent many summers there. It was Henry’s decision to call the village Grafton Regis. On its passing to Elizabeth I, the house had a series of famous tenants, including William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s Lord Treasurer and right-hand man, and the Queen’s favourites Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Today the village is rightly proud of its royal heritage and runs regular events and talks. The manor house is a private building (and not the original house that Elizabeth and her family lived in) but the beautiful church at Grafton that the family would have known is open to visitors. The village also has an amazing and informative website.
Other books featuring Elizabeth Woodville:
The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance by Amy Licence
The Woodvilles by Susan Higginbotham
Elizabeth Woodville, Mother of the Princes in the Tower by David Baldwin
Elizabeth Woodville: A Life by David Macgibbon
Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen by Arelen Okerlund
Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey by John Ashdown Hill
Royal Witches by Gemma Hollman
The Women of the Wars of the Roses by Alicia Carter
The Woodville Chronicle by Brian Dunleavy