The Fighting Woodvilles

One of the more bizarre anti-Woodville statements I have read online is that the Woodvilles took no part in the Wars of the Roses—the implication being that they stood by and let others do the fighting. I hope this post, dealing with the military record of Richard Woodville, first Earl Rivers, and his sons, will show just how nonsensical that statement is.

Richard Woodville, first Earl Rivers
Knighted on May 19, 1426 by the young Henry VI, who also knighted Richard, Duke of York on that day, Richard Woodville spent much of his military career serving against the French. He is said to have been taken prisoner at Gerberoy in 1435, but was serving under William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, the following year. In 1439, he was among those troops coming to the relief of Meaux; in 1441, he came to the relief of Pontoise. He first played a military role on English soil in 1450, when he was among those commissioned to suppress Jack Cade’s rebellion.

Lord Rivers became Lieutenant of Calais around December 1451. When the Duke of York, then serving as Protector for the mentally ill Henry VI, appointed himself Captain of Calais in 1454 in place of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, the garrison, serving under Rivers and Lionel, Lord Welles, refused to acknowledge his authority. Only Somerset’s death at the first battle of St. Albans in 1455 enabled York’s allies to take control of Calais. Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, entered Calais as its captain in July 1456, and Rivers surrendered his post.

Following the flight of York and Warwick abroad in 1459, the new Duke of Somerset, Henry Beaufort, attempted to dislodge Warwick from Calais. Rivers, stationed at Sandwich, was in the midst of preparing a fleet to come to his aid when on 19 January 1460, John Dynham made a surprise attack. He dragged Lord Rivers, his lady, and their eldest son, Anthony, from their beds and bundled the men upon a ship bound for Calais. Upon their arrival, they were paraded by torchlight before Salisbury, Warwick, and March, who improved the occasion by taunting the men with their comparatively lowly origins.

How long Rivers and his son remained prisoners is unknown, but there is no record of them fighting again until the battle of Towton in March 1461, when they fought against the new king, Edward IV. As reported by the chronicler Waurin:

There, Edward had scarcely time to regain his position under his banner when Lord Rivers and his son with six or seven thousand Welshmen led by Andrew Trollope, and the Duke of Somerset with seven thousand men more, charged the Earl of March’s cavalry, put them to flight and chased them for eleven miles, so that it appeared to them that they had won great booty, because they thought that the Earl of Northumberland had charged at the same time on the other flank, but he failed to attack soon enough, which was a misfortune for him as he died that day. In this chase died a great number of men of worth to the Earl of March [Edward IV] who, witnessing the fate of his cavalry was much saddened and angered: at which moment he saw the Earl of Northumberland’s battle advancing, carrying King Henry’s banner; so he rode the length of his battle to where his principal supporters were gathered and remonstrated with them.

Edward IV, of course, scored a victory at Towton, after which Anthony Woodville was mistakenly reported dead and Rivers was said to have fled with Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou to Scotland. In fact, Anthony was very much alive, and if Rivers went to Scotland, he did not stay there long. Like many Lancastrians, the Woodvilles gave up on Henry VI’s cause after that battle and pledged their allegiance to Edward IV.

Towton seems to have been the last military engagement of Rivers. Following the shocking marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to the king in 1464, he was made Earl Rivers and treasurer of England. He and his son John were executed in 1469, entirely illegally, at the orders of the Earl of Warwick.

Anthony Woodville
Anthony, as noted earlier, was captured with his father at Sandwich in 1460 and fought at Towton in 1461. His first military engagement as a Yorkist was in December 1461, when he and the Earl of Kent besieged Alnwick.

In 1470, Warwick, having rebelled against Edward IV, set off for Calais and sent Sir Geoffrey Gate to Southampton to retrieve his ship, the Trinity, from its dock at Southampton. Edward, however, was ready for him and had already ordered Anthony to guard Southampton. Unlike the debacle at Sandwich years before, Anthony was ready for attack. He captured a number of their ships and many of those on board. Barred from Calais, Warwick turned to piracy and captured about forty vessels, fourteen of which were later lost to Anthony and Hans Voetken after a fight at sea where five to six hundred men were killed.

The following year, Anthony fought at Barnet. His role there is unrecorded, but P. W. Hammond suggests that he might have commanded the reserve. He certainly seems to have played an active part there, for in a newsletter, the merchant Gerhard von Wesel reported that “the duke of Gloucester and Lord Scales [Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Anthony Woodville] were severely wounded, but they had no harm from it, God be praised.”

Anthony did not accompany the king’s forces to the next battle at Tewkesbury, but remained in London, which he and the Earl of Essex defended against a Lancastrian attack by the Bastard of Fauconberg. Though Lynda Pidgeon minimizes Anthony’s role, stating that he only “helped ” defeat Fauconberg, contemporaries were not so dismissive, as Arlene Okerlund notes in her biography of Anthony’s sister. The Historie of the Arrivall of Edward IV reported:

And, so after continuing of much shot of guns and arrows a great while, upon both parties, the Earl Rivers, that was with the Queen, in the Tower of London, gathered unto him a fellowship right well chosen, and habiled, of four or five hundred men, and issued out at a postern upon them, and, even upon a point, came upon the Kentish men being about the assaulting of Aldgate, and mightily laid upon them with arrows, and upon them with hands, and so killed and took many of them, driving them from the same gate to the water side.

The Crowland chronicler also singled out Anthony for praise:

God, however, being unwilling that a city so renowned, and the capital of the whole kingdom of England, should be delivered into the hands of such wretches, to be plundered by them, gave to the Londoners stout hearts, which prompted them to offer resistance on the day of the battle. This they were especially aided in doing by a sudden and unexpected sally, which was made by Antony, earl Rivers, from the Tower of London. Falling, at the head of his horsemen, upon the rear of the enemy while they were making furious assaults upon the gate above-mentioned, he afforded the Londoners an opportunity of opening the city gates and engaging hand to hand with the foe; upon which they manfully slew or put to flight each and every of them. Then might you have seen all the remnants of this band of robbers hastening with all speed to their ships and other hiding-places.

Anthony even rated a poetic tribute in “On the Recovery of the Throne by Edward IV”:

The earl Rivers, that gentle knight,
Blessed be the time that he borne was!
By the power of God and his great might,
Through his enemies that day did he pass.
The mariners were killed, they cried “Alas!”
God would the earl Rivers there should be;
He purchased great love of the commons that season;
Lovingly the citizens and he
Pursued their enemies, it was but reason,
And killed the people for their false treason . . .

In July 1471, Anthony wanted to Portugal to fight the Saracens, a request that according to John Paston angered the king, who grumbled that when he “has most to do, then the Lord Scales will soonest ask leave to depart, and when that it is most because of cowardice.” Since Anthony would have been leaving an England at peace to fight abroad, it is hard to understand why this has been taken as proof by Pidgeon that Anthony shied away from the reality of combat.

Whether Anthony actually went to Portugal is unclear. John Paston reported that men said that he left on Christmas Eve, but that Paston himself was not certain of it. If he did go, he did not stay long, for in April 1472, Anthony and his younger brother went to Brittany—at Anthony’s own expense–with a thousand men in order to repel a French invasion. The French withdrew in August 1472.

The one battle Anthony can be said to have shirked was in 1476, when Anthony, who was traveling about Europe, visited Charles, Duke of Burgundy, in his camp. The duke was preparing to fight the Swiss. The Milanese ambassador, Giovanni Pietro Panigarola, reported on June 9 that Anthony planned to stay two or three days before returning to England. On June 11, however, he wrote, “M. de Scales, brother of the Queen of England, has been to see the duke and offered to take his place in the line of battle. But hearing the day before yesterday that the enemy were near at hand and they expected to meet them he asked leave to depart, saying he was sorry he could not stay, and so he took leave and went. This is esteemed great cowardice in him, and lack of spirit and honour. The duke laughed about it to me, saying, He has gone because he is afraid.” Whatever Anthony’s motives—it may simply be that he realized this was not his fight—his decision was a fortunate one, for at the battle of Murten that ensued on June 22, the duke lost several thousand men. He himself was killed at the battle of Nancy only six months later.

In March 1483, Antony asked his business agent, Andrew Dymmock, to send him the patent given to him by the king to “raise people, if need be, in the march of Wales.” This request has been given sinister connotations by some, who have proposed on the scantest of evidence that Anthony was paving the way to poison Edward IV and seize power through his nephew, Prince Edward. In fact, trouble was brewing with both Scotland and France, and it is more likely that Anthony was simply preparing for the eventuality that it would be necessary to raise troops. In the event, he would never get the chance, but was taken prisoner by Richard, Duke of Gloucester just weeks later when trying to bring Edward V to London to be crowned king. He was executed without proper trial on June 25, 1483.

Richard Woodville, third Earl Rivers
Very little is known about Richard Woodville, who became Earl Rivers after the death of his older brother Anthony. In 1462, he was pardoned by Edward IV for his adherence to the Lancastrian cause, so it is possible that he had fought at Towton with his father and brother Anthony. In 1469, he captured Thomas Danvers, an accused Lancastrian plotter. He is not documented as fighting at Barnet or Tewkesbury or in London beside his brother, but it is possible that he took part but was simply too insignificant to mention.

In the autumn of 1483, Richard Woodville was among the rebels against Richard III who rose at Newbury. Why he escaped execution along with other rebels is unknown; perhaps he went into sanctuary. He is not mentioned as being present at Bosworth, but he was restored to his estates by the victorious Henry VII. Nothing indicates whether he was present at Stoke. He died on March 6, 1491, the only one of the five Woodville brothers to die neither violently nor in sanctuary.

John and Lionel Woodville
John was executed alongside his father on the orders of the Earl of Warwick in 1469. Like his brother Richard, he may have fought at Towton, but there is no mention of it.

Lionel was educated for the Church and became Bishop of Salisbury in 1482. Along with his brother Richard, he joined the rebellion against Richard III in 1483: he, Walter Hungerford, Giles Daubenay, and John Cheyne planned an uprising at Salisbury. The rebellion, of course, failed, and Lionel fled to sanctuary at Beaulieu Abbey, where he died in 1484.

Edward Woodville
The youngest of the Woodville brothers, Edward, is the Woodville with the most colorful—and ultimately fatal—military career.

Edward made his first recorded military appearance in April 1472, when he accompanied Anthony to Brittany with 1,000 archers. Ten years later, when Richard, Duke of Gloucester, led an army against the Scots, Edward Woodville served as one of Richard’s lieutenants, with five hundred men in his contingent; when he passed through Coventry, the town contributed twenty pounds in lieu of men. Ironically, Richard made him a knight banneret on July 24, 1482.

In 1483, when Philippe de Crèvecoeur, known as Lord Cortes, took advantage of Edward IV’s death to raid English ships, Edward V’s council appointed Edward Woodville to deal with this French threat. On April 30, he took to sea with a fleet of ships. That same day, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Henry, Duke of Buckingham, took Anthony Woodville and others prisoner at Northampton, claiming on very dubious grounds that the Woodvilles had been plotting against them.

Edward and his fleet gathered at Southampton, where Edward seized ₤10,250 in English gold coins from a vessel there, claiming that it was forfeit to the crown. Meanwhile, having gained control of the young king, the future Richard III appointed men to seize Edward Woodville. According to Mancini, the Genoese captains of two of the ships, fearing reprisals against their countrymen in England if they disobeyed Gloucester’s orders, encouraged the English soldiers on board to drink heavily, then bound the befuddled men in with ropes and chains. With the Englishmen immobilized, the Genoese announced their intent to return to England, and all but two of the ships, those under the command of Edward Woodville himself, followed suit. Rosemary Horrox, however, suggests more prosaically that this vinous tale aside, the majority of Edward’s captains simply recognized Gloucester’s authority as protector and obeyed his orders accordingly.

Edward Woodville—perhaps with his gold coin seized at Southampton, unless he had had the misfortune to place it on one of the deserting ships—sailed on to Brittany, where he joined Henry Tudor. When Henry sailed to England in the autumn of 1483 to join the ill-fated rebellion against Richard III, it seems likely that Edward would have been with him, since his brothers Richard and Lionel were involved in the rebellion and his brother-in-law the Duke of Buckingham was the highest-ranking rebel. In the event, Henry sailed into Poole harbor but, suspecting that the friendly soldiers who urged him to disembark were supporters of Richard III, sailed back to Brittany.

Henry made a rather more successful voyage to England in 1485. The Crowland chronicler described Edward as one of his leaders at the battle of Bosworth: a “brother of Queen Elizabeth and a most courageous knight.” A few weeks after the Tudor victory at Bosworth, Edward was granted Porchester and the Captaincy of the Isle of Wight, which included the lordship of Carisbrooke Castle.

A quiet life on the English coast, however, did not appeal to Edward. In 1486, calling himself “Lord Scales,” he went to fight the Moors in Granada, serving in the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella. At Loja, he and his forces were successful in putting the Moors to flight, but the encounter cost Edward his front teeth. He is said to have said to a sympathetic Queen Isabella, “Christ, who reared this whole fabric, has merely opened a window, in order more easily to discern what goes on within.” Edward was sent home to England with a rich array of gifts, including twelve horses, two couches, and fine linen.

The next year saw Edward in battle again, this time in England against forces led by John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, in support of Lambert Simnel, a young pretender to the throne. After three days of skirmishing near Doncaster, Edward’s troops were forced to retreat through Sherwood Forest to Nottingham. At the Battle of Stoke, however, where Edward Woodville commanded the right wing, victory went to Henry VII.

In May 1488, Edward “either abhorring ease and idleness or inflamed with ardent love and affection toward the Duke of Brittany,” as Hall’s chronicle has it, asked Henry VII to allow him to assist the duke in fighting the French. Henry VII, who hoped for peace with France, refused the request, but Edward ignored this and returned to the Isle of Wight, where he raised four hundred “tall and hardy personages” and sailed to Brittany. Henry then reconsidered and decided to send Woodville reinforcements, but the French arrived in Brittany before this could be done. At St. Aubin-du-Cormier on July 27, 1488, Edward Woodville fought his last battle. Almost all of his troops perished, as did Edward himself—the last fighting Woodville.

Michael Bennett, Lambert Simnel and the Battle of Stoke.
Calendar of State Papers, Milan.
Norman Davis, ed., The Paston Letters.
English Heritage Battlefield Report: Towton 1461.
Louise Gill, Richard III and Buckingham’s Rebellion.
P. W. Hammond, The Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury.
Mary Dormer Harris, ed., The Coventry Leet Book.
Michael Hicks, Warwick the Kingmaker.
Susan Higginbotham, The Woodvilles (forthcoming).
Rosemary Horrox, Richard III: A Study in Service.
Eric Ives, “Andrew Dymmock and the Papers of Antony, Earl Rivers, 1482-3.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 1968.
Hannes Kleineke, “Gerhard von Wesel’s Newsletter from England, 17 April 1471.” The Ricardian, 2006.
Arlene Okerlund, Elizabeth, England’s Slandered Queen.
Lynda Pidgeon, “Antony Wydeville, Lord Scales and Rivers: Family, Friends and Affinity.” Parts 1 and 2. The Ricardian (2005 and 2006).
Nicholas Pronay and John Cox, eds., The Crowland Chronicle Continuations, 1459–1486.
Charles Ross, Edward IV.
Cora Scofield, The Life and Reign of Edward the Fourth.
Richard Vaughan, Charles the Bold.
Christopher Wilkins, The Last Knight Errant.
Thomas Wright, ed., Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History.

11 thoughts on “The Fighting Woodvilles”

  1. Wonderful article. I am fascinated with the Woodvilles a very close family since I first read about Elizabeth as a 12 yr. old from a book by Jan Westcott!

  2. Fascinating post. I was aware that Elizabeth Woodville’s father fought in the Wars, as some books claim that one reason the marriage to Edward was such a shock was that she was both a widow and daughter of Lancastrians, but I wasn’t that aware of the fighting by her brothers.

  3. I find it incredible that modern historians are still being seduced by the negative reputation attached to this family by their rivals. Yes, the Woodvilles were upstarts in the strictest sense and their rapid advancement annoyed the old nobility but would their enemies really have turned down titles and money had it been offered to them- it was plain jealously. The Woodvilles can’t be blamed for being ambitious- it was more down to Edward IV who was giving the rewards out. I really enjoyed this post and your defense of the family- my biog of Elizabeth is coming out in the New Year and I found myself defending them a lot of the time against modern historians accepting and re-using the kinds of adjectives like “grasping” and “greedy” that the hostile chroniclers used, instead of trying to be objective.

  4. Sue about that missing patent? Do you know what else I’ve discovered? That wasn’t the first time Master Dymmock was called upon to do something about one.

    As for that patent you”ll never guess what else I found missing too.

    Take another look at that patent Sue. I’ll give you the sinister but in qute another context. I’ll give you a clue ‘in loco parentis’.

  5. Bryan Dunleavy

    I have just started to explore the Woodville family in an effort to unpick the myths and perhaps establish a more balanced assessment. I have been surprised to discover that they were already a rising family in the 15th century and it is interesting to note that the marriages of all the older children, including Elizabeth, were not exactly insignificant unions. Obviously the chance encounter with Edward IV propelled the family from the higher echelons of society to the very top, but they were by no means insignificant before 1464. they probably had much in common with a number of other rising families of the time who came to prominence in the Tudor period. Incidentally, I grew up a few miles away from Grafton, where ill words against the Woodvilles are not taken too kindly, even today. Anyway, having just discovered your excellent work on the Woodvilles, I wanted to thank you. I shall enjoy reading the fruits of your research.

  6. Wonderful article as always. Learned a great deal as I always do from your posts.

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