Happy Anniversary to Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville

On May 1, 1464, twenty-two-year-old Edward IV, on his way north to deal with a Lancastrian threat, combined pleasure with business. He left his camp at Stony Stratford for the nearby town of Grafton, where he married Elizabeth Woodville, a widow several years his senior with two small sons and a very large family. The marriage remained secret until September, when Edward IV announced it to his dumbfounded council.

No one knows when Edward IV and Elizabeth met or when they began courting, although Elizabeth’s father, Richard Woodville, had been a member of the king’s council for some time. Chroniclers added various embellishments over the years—that Elizabeth, in difficulty about her dower lands, waited under a tree with her young sons, then threw herself at the king’s feet when he passed by; that Edward IV, at first planning to seduce Elizabeth rather than to marry her, placed a dagger at her throat; that Elizabeth herself put a dagger to her throat—but the couple themselves kept a demure silence on the matter. Even the May 1 date has been questioned by some; Elizabeth’s biographer David Baldwin suggests that it was assigned pursuant to romantic tradition and that the couple actually married later in the summer. What is clear, though, is that as late as April 13, 1464, Elizabeth herself seems to have no idea about the impending nuptials, for on that date she entered into a financial arrangement with her neighbor William Hastings, Edward IV’s boon companion. The arrangement, under which William promised to assist Elizabeth in recovering some of her lands in return for a share of profits, would have hardly been necessary had Elizabeth known she was shortly to be queen of England.

Only one source, Fabian’s Chronicle, details the wedding itself. According to Fabian, no one was present at the early-morning wedding but the spouses, Elizabeth’s mother, the priest, two gentlewomen, and a young man who helped the priest sing. “After which spousals ended, [Edward] went to bed, and so tarried there three or four hours, and after departed and rode again to Stony Stratford, and came as though he had been hunting, and there went to bed again.”

Elizabeth’s mother was later accused by a follower of the Earl of Warwick of having brought the match about by witchcraft. Although she was acquitted of the charge in 1470, it made a reappearance in 1484 in Titulus Regius, the document spelling out Richard III’s claim to the throne, where both mother and daughter are accused of using witchcraft to lure Edward into matrimony. The accusation has provided much fodder for historical novelists and for Ricardians, who have noted with delight that April 30 was St. Walpurga’s Eve and thus a fitting day for Jacquetta to work her black arts in preparation for the marriage the next morning. One Ricardian, W. E. Hampton, in “Witchcraft and the Sons of York” (The Ricardian, March 1980), even suggests that Edward IV’s fatigue at Stony Stratford can be attributed to “the orgiastic nature of the rites to which he may have been introduced.” (More generous minds might attribute his fatigue to three or four hours in the bridal bed, perhaps not sleeping the entire time, plus a journey on horseback to and from Grafton, or one could suppose he was feigning fatigue from his nonexistent hunting trip.) Generally not noted by the Woodvilles-as-witches contingent is the conventional Christian piety Elizabeth exhibited during her time as queen.

Once Edward IV himself made the marriage public, he treated his new bride in duly royal fashion, presenting her formally before his council at Michaelmas in 1464 and giving her a grand coronation the following May. Though little is known about the private relations of the couple, Elizabeth bore the king’s children regularly, a mark of his continuing interest in her even after she had produced the needed “heir and a spare,” and played an influential role in the bringing-up of their eldest son, Edward, a mark of the king’s trust in her.

Strangely, and sadly, it was nearly nineteen years later to the day that Elizabeth’s brother Anthony, also having stopped at Stony Stratford, would leave his lodgings there to meet Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who proceeded to make Anthony and Elizabeth’s son Richard Grey his prisoners on April 30. Fearful for her own safety after these arrests, Elizabeth Woodville, recently widowed, would spend her nineteenth anniversary of May 1, 1483, in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.

4 thoughts on “Happy Anniversary to Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville”

  1. Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

    Fabulous post Susan. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Elizabeth Woodville.

  2. Witchcraft makes sense in the Mediaeval context where women were evil temptresses to begin with, but you’d think modern writers would rather attribute the marriage to Edward’s testosterones. At least, the existence of those is proven. 🙂

  3. “Generally not noted by the Woodvilles-as-witches contingent is the conventional Christian piety Elizabeth exhibited during her time as queen”
    Ah, but that would be a front to cover up their occult activities 🙂
    So Elizabeth had no inkling of her prospects two or three weeks beforehand. It must have really been a whirlwind romance. Which sort of fits with Edward’s style – carpe diem and all that.

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Elizabeth!

    Gabriele, modern novelists are sure missing an opportunity, aren’t they? (Though in all fairness, one older Ricardian novel I’ve read ignores the witchcraft bit and attributes the marriage to Elizabeth’s very amply displayed physical charms.)

    Carla, I think it was very much a whirlwind romance.

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