Another Woodville Myth

While updating my website this morning, I added the myth that Elizabeth Woodville concealed Edward IV’s death from Richard, Duke of Gloucester to the Myths About Elizabeth Woodville page. It’s a revised version of a blog post I did some time ago, but as some new readers have come to my blog since then (and since the myth keeps popping up), I thought I’d add it here as well.

Among the modern myths that have grown up around Elizabeth Woodville, one of the most pervasive is that when Edward IV died, the queen either attempted to conceal the news from his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, or deliberately delayed in notifying him. This myth has made it into nonfiction as well as fiction, giving it a certain respectability and staying power. Elizabeth Jenkins in The Princes in the Tower twice states that no one told Richard of the king’s death until William, Lord Hastings broke the news, and Paul Murray Kendall (naturally) writes that no official word ever came from Westminster to Richard. Bertram Fields in his book Royal Blood likewise accuses the queen and her kin of intentional delay, and a quick surf on the Internet produces several Ricardian sites that make similar allegations.

But is there truth to the story that Elizabeth Woodville and her family deliberately failed to let Richard know of his brother’s death? No contemporary chronicler makes this claim. The Crowland Chronicler, who most historians agree was a person highly placed at court, reports the controversy that arose after the king’s death over the size of the escort that Edward V was to take to London, notes that Richard wrote cordial, reassuring letters to the queen after he learned of Edward’s death, and states that Richard traveled to York to publicly mourn his brother. In all of this, he doesn’t indicate who told Richard of his brother’s death or when he learned of it. At no time, however, does he suggest that anyone had been derelict in giving Gloucester the news or that it had come from an unexpected quarter. Dominic Mancini reports that there were conflicting opinions among the new king’s councilors as to what role Gloucester was to play in the minority government, and he writes that Hastings reported these deliberations to Richard via letters and messengers and urged him to come to London quickly to assert his right to control the government. As with Crowland, however, nothing in Mancini’s account gives the impression that there had been any delay in notifying Richard of his brother’s death or any impropriety in the way he was notified.

Based on these sources, the logical conclusion is that whether or not Elizabeth Woodville personally sent Richard the news (and it’s not at all clear that she, as opposed to someone from the late king’s household like Hastings, the king’s chamberlain, would have been expected to do so), Richard learned of his brother’s death via conventional means and within a reasonable time. Indeed, in their chronology of events in The Coronation of Richard III: The Extant Documents, Anne F. Sutton and P. W. Hammond estimate, based on Mancinci, Crowland, and other contemporary sources, that Richard in Yorkshire probably received the news of Edward IV’s death at about the same time—April 14—that Edward V and his household, which of course included Elizabeth’s brother Anthony Woodville, received the news in Wales.

Moreover, even if the Woodvilles wanted to conceal the king’s death from Richard (and again, there’s no contemporary evidence that this was their desire), they would have been hard-pressed to manage such a feat. Though Richard spent most of his time in the North, away from Edward IV’s court, he was an essential part of Edward IV’s government and wielded great power. He would have had agents at court to transact his business with the king and to keep him informed of current events there; he would have also had attorneys in London to mind his legal affairs. As Edward IV’s death on April 9, 1483, was made publicly known within hours—the late king’s body was displayed at Westminster for the mayor and the leading citizens of London to view, and the news arrived at Calais via a servant of Hastings on April 10—any of Richard’s connections at court and in London, not to mention his relations and his acquaintances, could have communicated with Richard about his brother’s death, thereby thwarting any attempt to keep the news from him. The most likely scenario, however, is Richard didn’t need to rely on such sources; rather, it’s most logical to conclude that William Hastings, as part of his duties as chamberlain of the late king’s household, sent an official messenger to Richard to inform him of his brother’s death just as he sent a messenger to Calais. Later, when dissent arose on the council, Hastings sent private communications—those mentioned by Mancini—to Richard, but there is no reason to think that these confidential communications were the first news Richard had of his brother’s death.

14 thoughts on “Another Woodville Myth”

  1. I'm enjoying all these Woodeville posts – thanks! I'm currently snowed in and have been up to my loft to find some of myYorkist books after reading your blog the last couple of days. Have you come across a book called 'Richard III and the murder in the Tower', which seems to be a defence of Richard's slaughter of Lord Hastings. How on earth he can be defended against that, I don't know! I have ordered it and should have it within the week.

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Anerje! I've seen the book but haven't read it straight through. The author's theory is that Richard killed Hastings because Hastings had found out about the supposed precontract and failed to reveal it to Richard. Interesting argument, but I don't buy it.

  3. Antonia Woodville

    thank goodness for common sense in this matter, Susan! Of course that is the way it was … all else is anti Woodville slander and libel (again and makes me mad! Thank you for a considered well argued case here, which should shut up all those 'historians' who haven't done their research properly and think otherwise!

  4. Hastings killed because he knew about the pre-contract and didn’t reveal it? I’ll grant you that he probably knew better than anyone else about Edward’s love life but what if what he knew would be to gainsay Stillington who quite apart from the fact that he didn’t come up with his story until two months after Edward died had been present at that all important meeting on May 7th 1483 yet apparently had kept schtum.

    And what if the arrest of Stanley – quickly restored to royal favour – Morton and Rotherham was actually a smokescreen to deflect suspicion of a more sinister motive along the lines of that old Roman story of all the dinner party guests falling ill but only one dying?

    As they say ‘there’s more than one way of skinning a cat’ and I’m getting good at skinning certain cats with more to follow including the one who started all the myths in the first place Warwick aka Kingmaker for whom the Wydevilles had become his least liked bête noire and that before Edward became King.


    Didn’t earn my nickname ‘Trish the Tigress’ for nothing!

  5. Really interesting post! I've often wondered why some people think (or choose to think) that it was the queen's duty to inform her brother-in-law of the king's death.

    I'd like to read the book Anerje mentions, too! The author's theory sounds, ahem, rather less than plausible, IMHO.

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, ladies!

    I think the notion that Elizabeth had a duty to notify Richard of the king's death comes from people assuming that the medieval royal family worked like a modern nuclear family, and forgetting that both the king and queen had their own households with officials with sharply delineated duties. Sort of the same mindset that makes people wail about mean Edward II depriving Isabella of her children by giving them their own households!

  7. well, I have ordered that book from Amazon, so it's on its way. When I put in a Woodville search, Amazon flagged up your book 'The Stolen Crwon' for pre-order – so I have:>

  8. Read Peter Hancock's book.

    Another piece of contentious rubbish like everything I've read so far.

    If he had worked in the City as long as I have he might have realised along with Helen Maurer that one can't gain access to the Tower without gaining access to the City first

    Time they all do what I've done; rearrange who to how.

  9. Susan, I'm learning so much about the later Plantagenets from your informative, entertaining posts-I can't thank you enough.
    Thanks again for clarifying why we fortunate dwellers of the 21st century can't always judge medieval humans (especially royal ones) using modern social/moral standards.
    I've become more sympathetic to EW the more I've read about her- at first I believed she was lacking as a wife because she wasn't with EIV when he died. Now I know that it wasn't expected that she would attend her husband-the King had an army of physicians and servants to help him and EW nursing him would be considered beneath "Queenly" dignity.
    I've also become more sympathetic to HVII- I've read a lot of jibes written by Ricardians about how cold he was for not attending EoY's coronation, without knowing that at the time it wasn't customary for English kings to be at their Queen's coronations if they were crowned separately.

  10. Michele at Reader's Respite

    I appreciate your point about whether Elizabeth would even have been expected to send the news to Richard herself. As the grieving widow (and a queen, no less) I have never been able to believe that this was her responsibility. The entire myth always seemed a bit stinky…how on earth were the Woodvilles supposed to keep the news from Richard? It's not as if the Woodvilles were the sole (or indeed, any)conduit of information. Even had a Woodville sent news of Edward's death, I find it unbelievable that Richard wouldn't have known the facts before any official message reached him.

  11. Susan Higginbotham

    Cmc, glad you're liking the posts!

    Michelle, exactly! Richard simply wasn't the outsider his worshippers depict him as, helplessly dependent upon the queen to send him news.

    And I would bet the mortgage that if a document ever came to light showing that Elizabeth had sent him Richard letter notifying him of Edward's death, her detractors would find some sinister motive for her doing so. There's a new book–nonfiction, alas–that accuses her of deliberately insulting John Howard because in a list of people assigned to commissions, he's called "knight" instead of "baron." As if Elizabeth personally drafted such routine correspondence. What the writer doesn't bother to mention is that every man in the list below the rank of earl is named as "sir" and not as "lord" and that the list mistakenly identifies Anthony Woodville as Edward V's brother–not a very likely mistake for Elizabeth to make if she were indeed bending over the clerk's shoulder! But this nonsense does sell books.

  12. Susan Higginbotham

    Should have said "routine documents" instead of "routine correspondence." That's what I get for ranting too early in the morning!

  13. Great post! Thank goodness that you are able to put forward the facts in such an accessible manner so that those of us who don't know much about this period can understand tha arguments without having to wade through lots of books first!

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