Jacquetta Woodville was the daughter of Pierre of Luxembourg, Count of St. Pol (d. 1433), and Marguerite de Baux of Andria. Her uncle, Louis de Luxembourg, was bishop of Thérouanne and chancellor of France during the time that John, Duke of Bedford, was serving as Regent of France for the government of the youthful Henry VI. Another uncle, Jean de Luxembourg, is known for having held Joan of Arc in captivity before she was handed over to the English.
The Duke of Bedford, a younger brother of Henry V, was widowed from Anne of Burgundy in 1432. At Thérouanne on April 20, 1433, just five months after the death of his first wife, the forty-three-year-old John married the seventeen-year-old Jacquetta of Luxembourg. In honor of the occasion, Bedford presented the Church of Notre Dame in Thérouanne with a peal of bells. Not for the last time when Jacquetta was concerned, the match was a controversial one, the offended party being Philip, Duke of Burgundy, Bedford’s former brother-in-law. Not only had the Duke of Bedford (whose first marriage was childless) remarried in unseemly haste, he had married Jacquetta, one of his vassals, without Burgundy’s permission. Bedford was to remain estranged from Burgundy for the rest of Bedford’s short life.
Jacquetta first came to England in June 1433 in the company of her husband. George Smith notes that the citizens of Coventry presented her with fifty marks and a cup of silver and over-gilt. The Duke and Duchess of Bedford made a grand entry into London, a city where Jacquetta was to find favor in later life.
Bedford and Jacquetta returned to France in July 1434. Though Bedford was only in his forties, his health was failing, possibly from the stress of dealing with difficulties in both England and France. He died on September 14, 1435 at Rouen Castle. His marriage to young Jacquetta had been childless, though Bedford had sired two out-of-wedlock children earlier in life and Jacquetta’s second marriage would produce a dozen children who lived to adulthood.
By all accounts, Bedford had had great affection for his first wife, Anne of Burgundy. What he and the much younger Jacquetta felt about each other is unknown, but Bedford certainly tried to take good care of his young bride upon his death. He left Jacquetta a life interest in all of his lands in England, France, and Normandy, except for one estate that went to his bastard son, Richard. (Henry VI held the remainder interest.) Partly because of the requirements of English inheritance law, partly because of the claims of Bedford’s brother Humphrey, partly because of English losses in France and Normandy, Jacquetta received only some of what her husband had left to her.
On February 6, 1436, Jacquetta was granted dower in England, Jersey, Guernsey, and Calais. The grant was conditioned on Jacquetta’s not marrying without royal license—a condition that Jacquetta soon broke, and spectacularly so. She married one Richard Woodville, the son of her husband’s chamberlain. Richard had been knighted by Henry VI ten years earlier, having been in royal service in France since 1433. From Northampshire gentry, he was hardly Jacquetta’s social equal. The unsanctioned match infuriated Jacquetta’s Luxembourg relations, and Henry VI fined her 1,000 pounds. The couple paid the fine before March 23, 1437, apparently with funds gained from the grant of certain lands to Cardinal Beaufort.
Despite their controversial marriage, Jacquetta and her husband found favor in the court of Henry VI. When the king married Margaret of Anjou, Jacquetta and Richard Woodville were among those who escorted her to England. Jacquetta often received New Year’s presents from the queen, and in 1457 she and Woodville are named as being present with the queen at a Corpus Christi pageant. Jacquetta’s chief occupation during this time, however, was bearing children: twelve survived to adulthood, with Elizabeth, probably the eldest, being born around 1437 and Katherine, probably the youngest, being born around 1458.
In 1459, Richard Woodville, who had taken the side of Lancaster against the Duke of York, was captured at Sandwich and taken to Calais, where according to William Paston he was “rated” by the Earls of Salisbury, Warwick, and March for his low birth. According to Gregory’s Chronicle, Jacquetta was captured along with her husband; thus, she may have been a witness to this humiliating scene. If she was, she must have enjoyed the irony five years later when the Earl of March, who had become King Edward IV, made her and her low-born husband’s daughter Elizabeth his queen.
Jacquetta performed a service for the city of London in February 1461 when its aldermen, fearing devastation at the hands of Margaret of Anjou’s forces, sent a delegation to the queen, in the words of the Great Chronicle, to “entreat for grace for the City.” The delegation included “divers Clerks and Curates” and three women: the widowed Duchess of Buckingham, whose grandson would marry Jacquetta’s youngest daughter; Lady Scales, whose son-in-law was Jacquetta’s son Anthony; and Jacquetta herself. All had ties with Margaret of Anjou. The delegation returned with the news that no pillaging would take place but that the king and queen would punish evildoers, after which a second delegation, again including the three ladies, was sent to Barnet. Ultimately, it was Yorkist troops who entered the city, while Margaret withdrew to the north.
Edward IV became king soon after these events, on March 4, 1461. Jacquetta and her family, who had been supporters of the House of Lancaster, soon made their peace with the new reign. Jacquetta’s husband Richard Woodville eventually became one of the young king’s councilors. Sometime in 1464, however, a much stronger tie was forged: Jacquetta and Richard’s daughter Elizabeth married Edward IV.
The royal marriage is usually supposed to have taken place at Grafton on May 4, 1464, although there is some evidence that it could have taken place as late as September 1464, shortly before Edward IV announced it to his councilors. Whatever the date of the ceremony, Jacquetta is described by the chronicler Fabian in 1516 as having had a prominent role in the secret marriage. She is said to have been one of the witnesses to the marriage, after which Elizabeth over a four-day period “nightly to [Edward’s] bed was brought in so secret manner that almost none but her mother was of counsel.”
Following Edward IV’s announcement of his marriage, he arranged for a grand coronation for his bride, which took place on May 26, 1465. Jacquetta was prominent among the ladies who followed Elizabeth in the procession. At the banquet following the ceremony, she sat at the middle table on the left hand of the queen.
Also present for the festivities was Jacquetta’s youngest brother, Jacques de Luxembourg, representing Philip, Duke of Burgundy. The current Wikipedia entry on Elizabeth Woodville claims, without giving a source, that Jacquetta’s relations appeared for the coronation “carrying shields painted with the figure of Melusine, a ‘water-witch’ (actually a medieval version of the old pagan goddess) described variously as a mermaid or possibly as a female figure depicted as a snake from the waist down, but with the face clearly that of the young Queen. This immediately caused whispers of witchcraft to circulate throughout the Abbey, as it was indeed the intention of the Luxembourgers to suggest an accusation of witchcraft thereby.” This story probably comes from historical fiction, not history. Such an incident is not mentioned in any contemporary source that I have seen, nor is it discussed by Elizabeth Woodville’s modern biographers or by historians hostile to the Woodvilles like Paul Murray Kendall, who could certainly be counted upon to make the most of such an episode. Jacquetta’s relations would hardly gain from implying that either Jacquetta or Elizabeth was involved with witchcraft, especially as her older relations had seen the consequences of such allegations firsthand when Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
Elizabeth Woodville gave birth to her first royal child, Elizabeth, on February 11, 1466. Jacquetta was one of the baby’s godmothers, the other being the king’s mother, Cecily of York. Cecily had been none too happy about her son’s marriage; how the two new grandmothers got along on this occasion is sadly not recorded.
Following childbirth, it was customary for a medieval woman to seclude herself for a period, after which she would attend church for a ceremony of purification. A celebration often followed. At the banquet following Elizabeth Woodville’s "churching," a Bohemian observer noted that Jacquetta knelt before her daughter, being bidden at times to rise. This has been taken as proof of Elizabeth Woodville’s insufferable haughtiness—even her own mother had to kneel before her!—but there is no indication that Jacquetta found this demeaning or that this highly formal occasion was typical of the daily interaction between mother and daughter. For all we know—and we don’t—Jacquetta might have insisted that her daughter observe all the formalities of what was her first churching as queen.
Perhaps the most damaging incident associated with Jacquetta is one which occurred in 1468: the arrest of Thomas Cook for treason. The original story has been distorted to suggest that the treason charges against Cook were concocted to allow Jacquetta to lay her hands on an expensive tapestry that Cook had refused to sell her, but reality, as usual, is more complicated. According to the Great Chronicle, Jacquetta did indeed dislike Cook for his refusal to sell her the arras, but Cook’s arrest was only one of many in a time when Edward IV genuinely feared that Lancastrian plots were afoot, and he was implicated by one John Hawkins, a Lancastrian agent. Cook’s house was searched and agents of Jacquetta’s husband Richard Woodville (who had been created Earl Rivers and made the treasurer of England) seized Cook’s goods, including the infamous tapestry. Ultimately, Cook was convicted by a jury of misprision. As Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs note, Fabian never says in the Great Chronicle that Jacquetta actually acquired the coveted arras; rather, he implies that it was used to set off Cook’s fine for misprision. Fabian also does not state that Cook was innocent of the charges on which he was convicted, only that Jacquetta and her husband (and the king) were displeased by the verdict. Whatever the fate of the arras, Cook was not ruined by the episode, but was still a wealthy man when he died ten years later. He was back in Edward IV’s good graces at the time, having been pardoned for his Lancastrian activities in 1472 and appointed to a royal commission in 1475.
The year after the Cook incident, 1469, was without doubt the worst in Jacquetta’s life. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as the “Kingmaker” for his role in helping Edward IV to the throne, had become disaffected from the crown for a number of reasons, including the rise of the Woodvilles, Edward IV’s growing independence from him, and differences over foreign policy. Meanwhile, the honeymoon Edward IV had enjoyed with his subjects was ending, thanks to taxation, growing lawlessness, and the diehard Lancastrians still within and without England. Warwick joined forces with Edward IV’s younger brother George, Duke of Clarence, and the two men issued a manifesto blaming the Woodvilles and other royal favorites for the country’s ills. Jacquetta, her husband, and her sons Anthony and John were among those accused of “deceitful, covetous rule.” In the upheaval that followed, Edward IV was briefly taken prisoner by Warwick. Jacquetta’s husband, Earl Rivers, and one of her sons, John, were seized by Warwick’s troops and murdered. (According to Michael Hicks, who cites a King’s Bench record, Jacquetta later brought proceedings against 34 men in connection with her husband’s murder, but he does not report the outcome.)
Jacquetta had risked her reputation and her livelihood to marry Richard Woodville over thirty years before. Her agony at his violent death, coupled with that of one of her sons, can only be imagined. Her son Anthony’s life was in danger as well. It was then that Thomas Wake, a follower of Warwick’s, accused her of witchcraft.
Wake brought to Warwick Castle a lead image “made like a man of arms . . . broken in the middle and made fast with a wire,“ and alleged that Jacquetta had fashioned it to use for witchcraft and sorcery. He claimed that John Daunger, a parish clerk in Northampton, could attest that Jacquetta had made two other images, one for the king and one for the queen.
As an accused witch, Jacquetta faced imprisonment at best, burning at the stake at worst. With this accusation coming on top of the deaths of her husband and son, she must have been devastated, but Jacquetta was not a woman who was easily cowed. According to Cora Scofield, who cites the London Journal, the Duchess of Bedford appealed to the mayor and aldermen of London, who remembered the service Jacquetta had done for the city by interceding with Margaret of Anjou in 1461. They agreed to intercede on Jacquetta’s behalf with the king’s council, which at the time was essentially Warwick’s council, as Edward IV was still a prisoner in the North.
By October 1469, Edward IV was once again at liberty, Warwick having found that his own popularity was not so great as to allow him to govern through an imprisoned king. As a result, the witchcraft charges against Jacquetta fell apart. Neither Thomas Wake nor John Daunger, summoned before men appointed by Edward IV who could be counted upon to be friendly toward the king’s mother-in-law, produced any images, and Daunger, who stated that “he heard no witchcraft of the lady of Bedford,” refused to say that there were any images of the king and queen. As a result, Jacquetta was cleared by the king’s great council of the charges on January 19, 1470. For good measure, she obtained letters of exemplification from the king in February 1470, taking the opportunity to have it recorded as well that she was a believer “on God according to the truth of Holy Church.” (See the link below for the text of the document exonerating Jacquetta.)
Other than the accusations of her enemies, there is no reason to disbelieve Jacquetta. It should be noted that Jacquetta did own a copy of an “ancestral romance” entitled Mélusine, featuring a legendary figure who was associated both with the houses of Luxembourg and Lusignan, but as noted by Anne Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs, the romance was a popular one at the time, and copies were found among the inventories of other high-born ladies.
Edward IV’s recovery of his throne was brief, and when he was forced to flee England in late September 1470 to avoid capture by Warwick, a heavily pregnant Elizabeth Woodville went into sanctuary, accompanied by her daughters and Jacquetta. With Henry VI restored to the throne, neither Warwick nor his followers attempted to revive the allegations of witchcraft against Jacquetta, although the government admittedly had more pressing concerns. Indeed, Warwick had been a member of the great council that recommended that letters of exemplification be made to Jacquetta.
His enemies vanquished at Barnet and Tewkesbury, Edward IV regained his throne in May 1471. With Warwick killed at Barnet, the king the proud father of a son born to his queen while in sanctuary, and Jacquetta’s son Anthony carrying on his father’s title, Jacquetta must have felt at peace, but she did not have long to enjoy it. She died on May 30, 1472. I have not found any mention of her will or her funeral, though the latter must surely have been conducted with all due ceremony.
In 1484, Richard III in Titulus Regius, the document spelling out to Parliament his claim to the throne, revived the old accusations of witchcraft against Jacquetta. He—or, more accurately, those presenting the petition, which certainly had to have had his wholehearted approval—stated that the marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was invalid because, among other reasons, it was made “by sorcerie and wichecrafte, committed by the said Elizabeth and her moder, Jaquett Duchess of Bedford, as the common opinion of the people and the publique voice and fame is through all this land.” The drafters of the petition added that if the case required it, the allegations of witchcraft would be proved sufficiently “in tyme and place convenient.” No such proof was ever offered by Richard III or his government, and Elizabeth was hardly in a position to defy the king and attempt to clear her and her deceased mother’s names. Sadly, the unproven charges, elaborated upon in lurid detail by historical fiction writers and even by some nonfiction writers, continue to blacken both women’s reputations today.