The Pious–Yes, That’s Right, Pious–Elizabeth Woodville

Any Ricardian novel worthy of its genre contains a scene where Elizabeth Woodville and/or her mother dabble in witchcraft, though in both women’s cases, the allegations of witchcraft are utterly unsubstantiated. What you won’t get if you read one of these novels is any indication of Elizabeth’s acts of Christian piety and of her actions that reflect her conventional Christian beliefs, though they, unlike her supposed witchcraft, are well documented. Here are some of them:

*Elizabeth’s device was a gillyflower, or pink, which Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs have pointed out was closely associated with the Virgin Mary. (“The Device of Queen Elizabeth Woodville: A Gillyflower or Pink,” The Ricardian, March 1997)

*Elizabeth founded the chapel of St. Erasmus in Westminster Abbey. (Sutton and Visser-Fuchs: “A ‘Most Benevolent Queen’: Queen Elizabeth’s Reputation, Her Piety, and Her Books,” The Ricardian, June 1995)

*Elizabeth obtained a license to attend Carthusian services at those houses that had been founded by English kings or queens (Ibid.)

*On March 5, 1466, at Elizabeth’s request, the king granted a license for a chaplain and two priests to found a fraternity of sixty priests to pray for the good estate of the king, the queen, and the Archbishop of York (Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward IV, 1461-67, p. 516)

*Elizabeth joined the London Skinners’ Fraternity of the Assumption of the Virgin (a portrait of her appears in its records) (J. L. Laynesmith, The Last Medieval Queens)

*Elizabeth was a patron of Queen’s College, Cambridge, which named her as its “true foundress” in its statutes of 1475. The portrait of Elizabeth that graces most biographies of her is from Queen’s College. (Ibid)

*Elizabeth made pilgrimages to Canterbury Cathedral, once in the company of her four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth of York, and was a member of its fraternity (Ibid.)

*In 1481, the queen obtained a papal indulgence for those who knelt and said the Angelical Salutation, or Angelus, three times per day. The Pope explained that the queen desired “the devotion of the faithful of the realm for the said salutation to be increased.” (“’Most Benevolent Queen”)

*When Elizabeth made her will in 1492, she named as her executors John Ingelby, the prior of Sheen Charterhouse; William Sutton, vicar of St. Stephen’s Walbrook and of Ashford, Kent; and Thomas Brent, who had served as her almoner when she was queen. (Ibid)

By contrast, what is the evidence that Elizabeth practiced witchcraft? We don’t have any—only the accusations by Richard III, who was hardly a disinterested party. But as a witchy Woodville sells more books than a pious one, it’s safe to say which we’ll be seeing more of in the future.

10 thoughts on “The Pious–Yes, That’s Right, Pious–Elizabeth Woodville”

  1. It’s hard to say. I doubt she practiced witchcraft, given the fact that our only evidence of it is slander. But piety, or at least a show of piety, was virtually a requirement of the nobility at this point and it’s hard to draw the line between what was expected and what was sincere in this period. Believe me, I’ve read a lot of medieval wills and practically everybody names a clergyman as an executor. Everyone wants to buy their way out of purgatory with foundations and prayer. I agree that this is an impressive list, but she’d need to be compared with nobles of a similar status at this time before we could really decide whether she was extraordinary or not. This list certainly doesn’t show us a woman who is practicing witchcraft though, because she clearly is concerned for her soul and any sensible person wishing to get out of purgatory would NOT practice witchcraft.

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    Good points! I agree, this list doesn’t show that she was extraordinarily or unusually pious, and there’s no way of knowing what was in her heart. Probably the devotional books she read would give a better indication, but from what I’ve read only one or two at best can be traced to her.

  3. Thanks Susan for shedding some light on the questionable Elizabeth…

    I love it that I just finished the Reluctant Queen, with Elizabeth fresh on my mind; , so for me your post is quite timely! Thanks:)

  4. I’ve always thought Elizabeth W. was unpoorly treated in contempory accounts.. I will always wonder how anyone can not feel pity for her when her boys were taken away from her, when she KNEW that they would not be safe without her to watch over them. You make me want to read David Baldwin’s book on her again.

  5. As I mentioned somewhere before, witchcraft accusations were standard political fare when a woman was involved. See Queen Joanna (Henry IV’s widow), Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, and of course Duchess Jacquetta.

    The question I would really love answered is whether any serious person actually believed these sort of accusations. And this is where I think the mindset is different, because I suspect at least some did.

    Warwick’s process against Jacquetta is perhaps the only surviving ‘evidence’ we have against Elizabeth, i.e. guilt by association. But as with the precontract, we don’t know what ‘evidence’ was produced at the time, all we have left is the bare accusation, which is no evidence at all.

  6. Interesting post – as usual!

    Brian – I totally agree. And in the case of men the accusation was usually heresy – with maybe a bit of sodomy or un-natural practices thrown in for good measure.

    And I think it is hard to over-estimate the relgious conviction held by the majority of people at this time. No matter how much they sinned, they were always trying to save their soul some other way (usually by giving money to the church if they were wealthy enough). I’m sure Elizabeth was no exception to her time – and I’d lay money on her not being a witch too!

  7. Great post, Susan! And don’t forget she ‘dragged’ Edward off to Walsingham on a pilgrimage in 1469 when he was supposed to be going to inspect the fleet with Warwick. The fact that he went to Walsingham instead gave Warwick the space he needed to go to Calais for Isabel’s marriage to Clarence and meant Edward was cut off from London by Robin of Redesdale’s rebellion(I simplify of course), but it shows how important their religion was to them. 🙂

  8. suburbanbeatnik

    Great post, Susan! You’ve read “The King’s Daughter,” right? The witchcraft scene with Elizabeth in the first chapter made me put the book down. Chanting in pseudo-Sumerian? Aaaargh!

  9. Ah, but Elizabeth’s piety was just a front to cover up her nefarious practices 🙂

    FWIW, I never can take a novel seriously if it starts showing actual witchcraft. I haven’t a problem with witchcraft as a political accusation, or a superstition that people believed or half-believed (especially if convenient). But as soon as the double-double-toil-and-trouble stuff starts appearing, I chalk the novel up as historical fantasy, which (IMHO) is usually much less interesting than historical fiction.

  10. Thanks for posting these contrary depictions of Elizabeth Woodville. I am about halfway through Jean Plaidy’s “The Sun In Splendor” (last in the Plantagenet series) and it’s interesting to get a different notion of the woman who held the affections of the profligate Edward IV.

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