Katherine Woodville: Cradle-Robber?

OK, OK, I admit it, having been on a research binge lately, I’ve been slacking off in the blog department. So I’m posting this both here and on the Unromantic Richard III blog.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been working on a novel about Katherine Woodville, wife of Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham who was Richard III’s ally and then his enemy. I do most of my research in the library, but I do a fair amount of Googling also to see if any leads turn up online.

In doing so, I was perturbed to find this Wikipedia entry about the Duke of Buckingham, in which it’s confidently stated that the young duke was forced to marry Katherine when he was 12 and she was 24, thereby causing Buckingham to resent the entire Woodville clan. Wikipedia, fortunately, can be corrected, but several Ricardian sites and publications, like this one (scroll down to the sentence past the reference to note 25), repeat the same story. It brings to mind a rather unpleasant picture of Katherine, no doubt with the grinning approval of Nasty Elizabeth, sending her little husband to bed without his supper if he refused to let her have her way with him.

Fortunately for Katherine (and the Duke), the story, at least as far as Katherine’s age goes, is, like so many other anti-Woodville stories, utter nonsense. Katherine’s marriage to Buckingham was indeed arranged when Buckingham was a royal ward, and Buckingham, like any other royal ward, didn’t have a say in the matter. But Katherine, far from being in her 20’s at the time, was younger than her husband when the couple married, sometime between September 1464, when Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s secret marriage was disclosed, and May 1465, when Henry Stafford and Katherine attended the queen’s coronation, where they are named as the Duke and the younger Duchess of Buckingham. (The elder Duchess, Henry Stafford’s grandmother, was also present at the coronation.)

Katherine’s age is given in a 1492 post-mortem inquisition of her brother, Richard, where she is described as “aged 34 or more.” This puts Katherine’s birthdate at around 1458, making her a child of around seven at the time of her marriage. Henry Stafford, born on September 4, 1455, would have been only nine at the time of the coronation. (Brad Verity, who kindly brought the IPM and other Woodville genealogical information to my attention, has posted about this and other Woodville genealogical matters here.)

Of course, IPMs are not infallible. Katherine’s youth at her marriage, however, is attested by two other primary sources. First, a detailed account of Elizabeth Woodville’s coronation exists, in which the major participants and the roles they played are listed. As mentioned earlier, both the Duke of Buckingham and his Duchess were present, and both are mentioned as being carried upon squires’ shoulders. No other duke or duchess was given similar treatment, so it’s safe to assume (in the absence of evidence that either or both parties sprained their ankles immediately before the coronation) that the Buckinghams were carried because they were children, presumably so they could see and be seen and/or so they wouldn’t tire out during the lengthy ceremony, dressed as they were in heavy ceremonial robes. (No mention is made of how the squires fared; one hopes for their sakes that the duke and duchess weren’t hefty youngsters.)

Katherine also appears in her sister Elizabeth’s household records for 1466-67, where payments were given to three people for attending upon her. Similar payments were made for the Duke of Buckingham and his younger brother, Humphrey, who were in Elizabeth’s care at the time. It seems apparent that Katherine, like her young husband and brother-in-law, was being brought up in her sister’s household.

So while it’s possible that Henry may have come to resent his marriage because he was his wife’s social superior (though it’s far more likely that his resentment arose because he was never given an active role to play in Edward IV’s reign), it’s certainly not the case that his wife was an older woman scheming with her sister the queen to exploit her wealthy little husband. She was a mere child, with no more control over her marriage than her young husband had over his.

Katherine’s second and third marriages, however, did involve large age gaps; perhaps it is the third marriage that has led to the misinformation about her first. Katherine’s second husband was none other than Jasper Tudor, uncle to Henry VII; the match was made by November 7, 1485. Tudor was 55, over twice the age of the 27-year-old Katherine. The benefit to both parties seems to have been purely material: Katherine got the jointure and dower she had been denied in Richard III’s reign due to Buckingham’s treason and execution; Jasper got a wealthy, landed bride.

Jasper died on December 21, 1495. Just over eight weeks later, Katherine remarried without a license, thereby following the grand tradition of runaway matches made by her mother and her sister Elizabeth. Her third husband, Richard Wingfield, was twelve years younger than Katherine; he was the eleventh son out of twelve and presumably had very limited material assets, so it was likely his personal charms that appealed to the newly widowed Katherine. A mere squire at the time, Richard may have been a member of Katherine’s household. (After coming into his inheritance, Katherine’s eldest son by Buckingham, Edward Stafford, eventually ended up having to pay the fine for his mother’s unsanctioned third marriage, much to his disgust.)

Katherine and Richard’s short-lived marriage—Katherine died in 1497—-probably paved the way to Richard’s eventual success in Henry VIII’s court. Wingfield remarried and had children by his second wife, but did not forget Katherine, directing in his will that prayers be said for her soul. Dying on an embassy to Toledo in 1525, he was undoubtedly fortunate to miss the later downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, to whom he attributed his own success at court.

9 thoughts on “Katherine Woodville: Cradle-Robber?”

  1. Great post! So Katherine must have been a good twenty years younger than her sister Elizabeth, then? I didn’t know that.

    I see that second site you link to gives the age of the duchess of Norfolk as 80 in 1465. That would put her date of birth as 1385, when her mother Joan Beaufort was about six!

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Alianore! Quite an accomplishment for Joan Beaufort, wasn’t it?

    It’s been pointed out quite often that the Duchess of Norfolk wasn’t 80 at her marriage, but in her sixties (which granted may seem like a distinction without a difference). The 80-year-old figure is one of those Woodville Myths that keeps getting repeated, though. Most commentators focus on the supposed insult to the duchess, but the little I know about her suggests that she was a formidable old lady who probably wouldn’t have allowed herself to be dragged into a marriage she didn’t want. What no one asks is what her husband thought of being married to a woman with whom he couldn’t possibly sire a heir–depends, I guess, on how much running around on the side he was able to do.

  3. Interesting. Isn’t it curious how some statements take on the status of facts through repetition and turn out to be surprisingly flimsy when traced back to source?

  4. Carla, that happens a lot. There’s a wrong statement about a chanson de geste all over the literature, so I was very suprised when I read the original text of the chanson to find it wrong. I then traced the little devil down all the way to Gaston Paris’ important, if outdated, book about the literary history of Charlemagne (1865). Looks like everyone else just copied his summary and no one bothered to read the original text. 🙂

    I don’t know why an older woman and a younger man are such a matter anyway. It never has been a problem the other way round.

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    It’s sort of like the “Edward II abandoning Isabella at Tynemouth” myth that Alianore posted about at her blog, isn’t it? One person makes a misstatement of fact, and then it’s picked up by other writers until it’s acquired a nasty little life of its own.

  6. Second everyone’s comments on how statements take on a life of their own, until you examine them and realise there’s little if any basis in actual fact. Wish people (especially the ones who should know better, i.e., professional historians) wouldn’t mindlessly repeat them.

    [Rant] Another example would be how Ed II supposedly ‘stole’ his and Isabella’s children away from her by setting up their own households – entirely normal and expected for royal children in the Middle Ages. Just about every non-fiction book and novel I’ve read on Ed lately repeats this as a fact and as evidence of his ‘cruelty’, as though Isa never saw her kids again and as though a 14c queen would have raised her own kids anyway. They weren’t a modern nuclear family, people!!! [/rant]

  7. I love The Stolen Crown! SUCH a great portrayal of the Woodvilles . . . I love them, and you’re a really great writer. The Queen of Last Hopes was amazing, too. You’re definitely one of my very favorite historical fiction writers!

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