Richard Woodville, First Earl Rivers

As I come along with my novel in progress, I’m going to be adding short biographies of members of the Woodville family to my website. Here’s the starting entry:

Richard Woodville’s father, also Richard, had been chamberlain to John, Duke of Bedford, a younger son of Henry IV. The younger Richard was knighted in 1426. Like his father, he served the Duke of Bedford, who in 1433 married the seventeen-year-old Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Bedford died two years later. Sometime in 1436 or 1437, Richard Woodville, a mere knight, shocked the court by marrying the widowed Duchess of Bedford.

Henry VI fined the couple ₤1,000 for the match, but they were soon forgiven. Richard served Henry VI militarily and administratively and became a knight banneret in 1442, Baron Rivers in 1448, and a Knight of the Garter in 1450. Like his eldest son, Anthony, he was an accomplished jouster, taking part in a 1440 tournament at Smithfield where he fought Pedro de Vasquez, a Spanish knight.

When hostilities broke out between the houses of Lancaster and York, Richard sided with the Lancastrians. He and Anthony were taken captive at Sandwich in 1460; at that time, the two Woodvilles underwent the humiliating experience of being “rated” for their low birth by the Earl of Salisbury, the Earl of Warwick, and the Earl of March—the latter being the man who would marry his daughter four years later. Sometime after this dressing down, Richard and Anthony were released. They returned to fight at the Battle of Towton in March 1461, where the Lancastrians were soundly defeated. With the Lancastrian cause appearing hopeless, Richard and his son made their peace with the new king, Edward IV. He was pardoned in June 1461. From thereon to his murder nine years later, Richard served Edward IV loyally. By 1463, he had become a member of the king’s council.

Richard might have continued as a minor courtier had it not been for the extraordinary event of May 1464—the secret marriage of his widowed daughter, Elizabeth, to Edward IV. Whether Richard had any role in bringing the couple together is unknown; later sources credit only his wife, Jacquetta, with promoting the match, and Richard III later claimed that Jacquetta and Elizabeth had procured it by witchcraft.

In September 1464, Edward announced the marriage to his council, and in May 1465, Elizabeth was crowned. Richard soon reaped the rewards of being father-in-law to the king. He was made treasurer of England in March 1466 and raised to an earldom in May of that year. In 1467, he became constable of England. His income from his offices was ₤1,586

Though Richard seems to have filled his positions competently and the favor shown to him was not grossly disproportionate, his success and the gains made by other Woodville family members aroused the resentment of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known as “The Kingmaker” for his role in bringing Edward IV to the throne. Warwick’s formerly all-encompassing influence with the king was waning just as the Woodvilles’ was growing. The earl had other grievances besides the Woodvilles—Edward’s foreign policy and his refusal to allow Warwick’s daughters to marry Edward’s younger brothers among them—but they and other men who had risen high in the king’s service as royal favorites were easy targets. As Warwick began to plot with the king’s maladroit younger brother, George, the Duke of Clarence, discontent in the North over taxes and the dispossession of Henry Percy from his family’s earldom created a volatile situation of which Warwick and Clarence took full advantage. In Calais on July 12, 1469, they issued a proclamation complaining of “the deceitful, covetous rule and guiding of certain seditious persons,” naming Richard Woodville, his wife, his sons Anthony and John and their brothers, and several other men.

Warwick returned to England and began to raise men. Edward IV, evidently underestimating the seriousness of the situation, had left William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, and Humphrey Stafford, the Earl of Devon—two of the men named in Warwick and Clarence’s manifesto—to deal with the rebel army. Herbert’s army met Warwick’s army at Edgecote on July 26, 1469. Outnumbered, Herbert’s Welsh troops were defeated and Herbert captured and beheaded by Warwick’s men. Humphrey Stafford was captured and executed by a mob some weeks later.

Richard Woodville, in the meantime, had gone on pilgrimage with Edward early in June. By July, Edward IV, fearing all too correctly that his in-laws might be a rebel target, sent them away for their safety. Richard and his son John, however, were captured by Warwick’s men. On August 12, 1469, they were beheaded near Coventry without trial. It was an act that has rightly been described as one of private revenge on Warwick’s part rather than one justified by charges of treason. Richard’s burial site is unknown. Interestingly, Walter Blount, who had given up the treasury to Woodville in exchange for a barony, an annuity, and 1,000 marks, seems to have borne no grudge against his replacement; he asked in his will several years later that masses be said for the souls of Richard and John.

Though Richard Woodville, along with other members of his family, has been described as greedy and grasping, the hard evidence for this is somewhat lacking. Richard does appear in a bad light if one believes the story that he and Jacquetta schemed to ruin Sir Thomas Cook based on charges of treason simply because he refused to sell them a tapestry Jacquetta coveted. Recent scholarship, however, has cast doubts on aspects of this story, which I’ll be posting on later.

1 thought on “Richard Woodville, First Earl Rivers”

  1. Pretty well everybody was ‘greedy and grasping’ in the 15th-C aristocracy, no? Grab what you can and get your retaliation in first. Playing off the various factions against each other was arguably the king’s most vital skill.

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