The Will of Elizabeth Woodville

Last night as I was going to bed, it occurred to me that I have never done a blog post about the last will of Elizabeth Woodville. So here it is!

Elizabeth died at Bermondsey Abbey on June 8, 1492, aged about 55. By this time, all of her eleven brothers and sisters were dead except for her youngest sister, Katherine, Duchess of Bedford and Buckingham. Only one of her four sons is known to have survived her: Richard Grey had been executed by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in 1483, and her two royal sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, disappeared that same year.

Elizabeth had been living at Bermondsey since around March 1487. Why she lived there has been fiercely debated. Vergil claims that she was sent there by Henry VII as punishment for having made her peace with Richard III in 1484, but this seems like a rather delayed reaction on Henry VII’s part, especially since Elizabeth had already been allowed to serve as godmother to Prince Arthur in 1486. Later historians, beginning with Francis Bacon and recently David Baldwin, have argued that she was forced to go to Bermondsey because she had been involved in Lambert Simnel’s 1487 rebellion. Others have rejected this story as unlikely. Elizabeth had leased the abbot’s house at Westminster on July 10, 1486, which as David MacGibbon notes already shows an intention to live away from court and her own estates. Although she was deprived of her dower lands, which were transferred to her daughter Queen Elizabeth in 1487, Michael Hicks has pointed out that “no late medieval English king permitted dower to two queens simultaneously.” She was given an annuity of 400 marks, increased to 400 pounds in 1490. Henry VII occasionally gave her grants, including a gift of 50 marks in December 1491, and she appeared at court from time to time. She was even considered as a bride for King James III of Scotland (d. 1488), an unlikely match for Henry VII to make if he believed that Elizabeth had been plotting against him. The more likely scenario, then, appears to be that Elizabeth chose voluntarily to end her days at Bermondsey, a perfectly respectable lodging for a dowager queen.

Like her predecessor Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth apparently had little of value to leave at her death (in contrast to the royal mothers Cecily, Duchess of York, and Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, whose wills go on for pages). We do not, however, know what comprised the “smale stufe and goodes” Elizabeth refers to; perhaps she had more comforts around her than is generally assumed.

IN Dei nomine, Amen. The xth daie of Aprill, the yere of our Lord Gode Mcccclxxxxii. I Elisabeth by the grace of God Quene of England, late wif to the most victoroiuse Prince of blessed memorie Edward the Fourth, being of hole mynde, seying the worlde so traunsitorie, and no creature certayne whanne they shall departe frome hence, havyng Almyghty Gode fressh in mynde, in whome is all mercy and grace, bequeath my sowle into his handes, beseechyng him, of the same mercy, to accept it graciously, and oure blessed Lady Quene of comforte, and all the holy company of hevyn, to be good meanes for me. It’m, I bequeith my body to be buried with the bodie of my Lord at Windessore, according to the will of my saide Lorde and myne, without pompes entreing or costlie expensis donne thereabought. It’m, where I have no wordely goodes to do the Quene’s Grace, my derest doughter, a pleaser with, nether to reward any of my children, according to my hart and mynde, I besech Almyghty Gode to blisse here Grace, with all her noble issue, and with as good hart and mynde as is to me possible, I geve her Grace my blessing, and all the forsaide my children. It’m, I will that suche smale stufe and goodes that I have be disposed truly in the contentac’on of my dettes and for the helth of my sowle, as farre as they will extende. It’m, yf any of my bloode wille any of my saide stufe or goodes to me perteyning, I will that they have the prefermente before any other. And of this my present testament I make and ordeyne myne Executores, that is to sey, John Ingilby, Priour of the Chartour-house of Shene, William Sutton and Thomas Brente, Doctors. And I besech my said derest doughter, the Queue’s grace, and my sone Thomas, Marques Dorsett, to putte there good willes and help for the performans of this my testamente. In witnesse wherof, to this my present testament I have sett my seale, these witnesses, John Abbot of the monastry of Sainte Saviour of Bermondefley, and Benedictus Cun, Doctor of Fyfyk. Yeven the day and yere abovesaid.

Elizabeth’s funeral, as she requested, was a modest one, deserving of its own blog post.


David Baldwin, Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower. Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2004 (paperback edition).

Michael Hicks, ‘Elizabeth (c.1437–1492)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2008 [, accessed 23 July 2010]

J. L. Laynesmith, The Last Medieval Queens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005 (paperback edition).

David MacGibbon, Elizabeth Woodville: Her Life and Times. London: Arthur Baker, Ltd., 1938.

J. Nichols, A Collection of all the Wills, now known to be extant, of the Kings and Queens of England . . . . London: J. Nichols, 1780. (Available on Google Books.)

Arlene Okerlund, Elizabeth: England’s Slandered Queen. Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2006 (paperback edition).

17 thoughts on “The Will of Elizabeth Woodville”

  1. Nice post, Susan. Do you know the cause of her death? I must admit I don't, but I was thinking if she was already ill she might not have had the ability to focus on details. Hopefully her executors, Elizabeth and Thomas got things sorted for her in the fairest possible way.

  2. In a BBC production hosted by David Starkey, I had the impression that Henry VII's mother and Elizabeth Woodville did not rub along well together once Henry had assumed the throne. Perhaps I misinterpreted what he was saying, but I can imagine Elizabeth not wanting to hang around court where it would remind her of obviously better days and where things had changed quite a bit.

  3. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, RS! I don't believe her cause of death is known. None of the Woodville sisters were notable for longevity–Elizabeth at around 55 was the longest-lived. (Katherine, the only sister who survived her, was around 38 at the time of her death.)

    I find in reading wills that there are generally two schools of testators: those who go into great detail about how their material goods are distributed, and those who leave most of this to their executors' discretion. Perhaps Elizabeth simply trusted that her goods could be distributed without any unseemly family arguments, or perhaps there was an informal understanding as to who would get what.

    Elizabeth: I think that's quite possible–or perhaps after the events of 1483, Elizabeth Woodville just wasn't in the mood for court life. I don't think that much is known about the relationship between Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville, but it's generally assumed that Margaret was the dominant party in her relationship with Elizabeth of York, which might in turn have led to some testiness between the two mothers-in-law. On the other hand, the relationship between Margaret and Elizabeth of York may have been more cordial than we give it credit for, so who knows?

  4. Thank you for another great post, Susan. I've been skeptical of claims by history/historical fiction writers that HVII was hostile to EW. The fact that HVII approved of EW being Prince Arthur's godmother, allowed her to occasionally visit court and increased her allowance shows at least respect, if not affection. I wonder if EW chose to live at Bermondsey because of health problems-I once read (I can't remember where) that Bermondsey was considered something like a royal nursing home, Catherine of Valois having died there also.

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, Caroline! I think it's quite possible that she had health problems when she retired to Bermondsey–if not enough to make her an invalid, enough perhaps to make her prefer a quiet life.

  6. Interesting to see Elizabeth's will! I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was her own decision to retire to Bermondsey, rather than being forced to do so by her son-in-law, as I often seem to have read.

  7. I think it's understandable that Elizabeth might have chosen to retire from court life, considering the loss of her family members. Her daughter was queen, and had borne a healthy son who should have succeeded his father (although she didn't live to see the second son inherit). The marriage of her daughter to Henry VII ensured her blood would flow through the royal family. I can't see why she would want to be part of any plots against Henry VII.

  8. EW might have asked for a modest funeral but such things as royal convention and protocol would normally have precluded that. As a former queen and acclaimed queen dowager EW had the right to some pomp and ceremony but to judge by the contemporary reports and Yorkist mumblings it was more a pauper’s funeral than that of a former queen. And why? Because to have acknowledged her former state would mean a tacit acknowledgement that her husband had been the legitimate king. Moreover I wonder whether EOY’s absence on the grounds of imminent birth was a legitimate one or an excuse to keep the funeral as minimal as possible given that if EOY had been able to be chief mourner, I rather doubt it would have been such a sorry and shabby spectacle.

    I don’t buy and never have that Elizabeth was shunted off to Bermondsey because she had been part
    of the Lambert Simnel plot and even less the Ricardian thesis that she knew H7 had murdered her sons already dismissed on both logical and logistical grounds. Trouble with the Ricardians they both want their cake and eat it.

    I don’t buy either the view that EOY and her mother-in-law Margaret Beaufort had a cordial relationship; how on earth does one have a cordial relationship with the mother-in-law from hell? In my opinion EOY had it even worse than the late Princess Diana. As a result of picking up on a report on EOY by a Spanish ambassador a chord of memory twanged which led me to make a comparison between EOY and the late Princess Diana which threw up twelve uncanny parallels one of which was that of the other woman who had more influence with their husbands then they did.

    Another uncanny parallel was the fact that both ladies were far more popular than their royal spouses a matter that would have hardly gone down well
    with the Lancastrian contingent such as John Morton. If EOY didn’t rock the boat as Diana did well for a start what take would Morton have taken if she did? Secondly there was no media around at the time to support her if she had. Last but not least she may well have felt she had a dual responsibility to uphold; one to ensure the peace, unity and stability of the kingdom after so much fragmentation and secondly to ensure her father’s grandson became the next king. It is my belief that Elizabeth undoubtedly more maligned than her more famous or should that be infamous uncle was a lot more feistier and certainly more important than suggested by the iffy ‘biographer’ who dismisses her as one of the least important queens. What if she’d done as Isabella or MoA would have been the outcome for English and consequently British history?

    As for Bacon & Baldwin they’re in the sin bin along with such exalted company as Buck, Walpole, PMK, Starkey, Hicks, Weir, etc, etc. Poor Horace! If he had known about the felicitous comments to be made by Ashdown–Hill, Carson and Hancock I dare say he would have bitten his tongue rather than pronounce the s-word.

    Apropos Carson here is a little tit-bit for an ardent Wodvillian and lover of royal mysteries to chew on, Anthony’s missing patent mentioned by both Annette (35/6)and Arlene who gives a date 27th February 1483 (1st Page 1483 begins). There’s something missing alright which I discovered or rather didn’t discover when I went to check up on the CPR volume 1477-85 – this was the original 1891 edition with indexes for both people and places – no corresponding CPR entry. So how come both patent and CPR copy went missing? And why? HW must have really been rocking in his grave when I did pick up on the one the dated nearly 9 months earlier!!

    Tempus has changed to The History Press – same address – and EW is not only commemorated by Queens’ College Cambridge but in the name of a primary (elementary school) in Groby, home of her 1st husband Sir John Grey.

  9. I'm sorry, but I don't think Margaret Beaufort was the 'mother-in-law' from hell. That possibly deserves a post in itself. And neither do I think Queen Elizabeth II was/is the 'mother-in-law from hell' either. From what's been written about her relationship with Diana, they seem to have had a cordial relationship. I've seen the 'Diana/Elizabeth of York' comparison before – and I think Starky was responsible for it. I've also seen Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire compared to Diana. I think if someone wants to make a case for comparative history, they will always find similarities.

  10. Margaret Beaufort wanted to see her son establish the Tudor dynasty, and if that meant a marriage to a Yorkist princess, than so be it – but both Henry and his mother saw the crown as Henry's by right, not to be shared with a Yorkist Queen. Of course they would have taken any opportunity to show the superiority of the Tudor claim over the Yorkist claim. Establishing the Tudor dynasty doesn't make Margaret Beaufort the 'mother-in-law from hell' – it just shows her as a woman of her time.

  11. In the matter of whether MB was a MILFH or not depends on interpretation but according to M K Jones and other biographers there were a number of instances when MB rode roughshod over EOY and the reports of the Spanish ambassadors hardly suggest a cordial relationship either. Indeed how would any daughter-in-law regard a situation where her husband spends more time with his mother than with her, puts his mother in charge of the upbringing of the offspring and allows her certain privileges which are the sole prerogative of a queen consort? And if I am sounding uncharitable one should read PMK’s take on MB – uncharitable would be an understatement.

    Furthermore if certain suggestions are correct that it was MB who was instrumental in bring about EW’s ‘exile’ it would hardly have gone done well with EOY and EW would certainly not have liked to see her daughter’s prerogatives abrogated by another. If certain unwarranted suspicions about H7’s role in the matter have arisen, that is probably due to the talk that his unfortunate grandmother’s ‘retirement’ to the same abbey was instigated by her less than cordial brother-in-law Humphrey of Gloucester and certain disaffected people with axes to grind putting their own spin on the coincidence of a second queen dowager retiring for health reasons to the same abbey.

    I made no comparison between HM and MB which would have been improper given that everybody knows the real fly in the ointment was HRH Prince Philip.

    Regarding the succession the next in line after Richard II was Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, not Henry IV who put a bar on the Beauforts in respect of the same. The only right H7 had was right of conquest.

    I don’t know about any comparison Starkey may have made but this is the guy who amongst a number of withering comments about Diana opined she would end her days as a third-rate jetsetter residing on Malibu Beach.

    Finally while there are no suspicions about EW’s death it’s more than can be said about MB. Left the Palace in the middle of the coronation celebrations apparently suffering from some kind of stomach disorder after eating a roast cygnet only to die across the road in Westminster Abbey in a fit of weeping and recriminations just 24 hours after she had ceased to be regent. Like why the Abbey and not her prestigious London home just a fifteen minute boat journey away. She may well have retired to the Abbey for ‘health reasons’ but not I fear for the same reasons as CV or EW.

  12. Anerje and Trish, I think that EoY's treatment at the hands of HVII and MB was due to the political circumstances of the time. HVII married her primarily unite Lancaster and York- while it appears that he grew more fond of her over the years, she was still the daughter of a Yorkist King, a King that once tried to lure him back to England under false pretenses in order to murder him. HVII believed (quite rightly) that he could trust very few people, and giving his mother priviledges usually accorded to a consort was a way of showing that the Tudor dynasty was legitimate and now in charge- and a way of effectively locking the Yorkists out of power for good.
    I also think that HVII spent much time with his mother because she was a experienced intriguer who could advise him in political matters-knowledge that EoY lacked, at least in the beginning.
    It does mean something that HVII appears not to have taken any mistresses during his marriage or fathered any illegitimate children. Also, how can one not fail to be touched by the accounts Henry and Elizabeth's comforting each other following Arthur's death? Or Henry wanting to be alone after his wife died and not making any real serious effort to remarry?

  13. I don’t want people to think I’m knocking H7 especially after discovering why Bacon wrote his thoroughly unsympathetic version. Bacon might have been an extremely well educated man with access to then restricted sources but there can be no doubt as in the case of Buck his contemporary and fellow royal employee it was written for political motives.

    In my view H7 has been even more maligned than R3 and maligning him to make R3 look lily white is long past its sell-by date. Neither were saints and both had a hard time in the matter of survival. To be honest I can’t think of one major person living during this period who hasn’t been maligned at some time or another and I think part of the problem is what I term tribal loyalty then and now. Separating the wheat from the chaff has been extremely problematic and it comes down to what the motive has been for writing such and such a book/article/thesis; the more partisan the author the easier it is to catch them out. I’m sorry to report that the 50 ‘reasons’ for defending R3 arose not out of doubt but spite and Walpole’s attempt to malign H7 falls flat on its face through the mere logical observance that there cannot be a confrontation between two people if one of them is already dead

    Of them all it is undoubtedly the Wydevilles who have been maligned worst of all, one of the worst cases of the pot calling the kettle black and the casting of stones by the sinful. If EW decided to retire to somewhere like Bermondsey it could have well been a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’; as we all know when mud gets thrown some of it sticks and the mud is still being thrown. Time to bring in the historical hydrojet/water cannon; nothing like a blast of cold water for cooling one’s ardour and some are too ardent for their own good.

  14. Caroline – I agree with what you are saying. There's no doubt that Henry VII and Elizabeth of York were able to build an affectionate relationship. Just as there is no doubt their marriage was for political purposes. You are right to bring up the incident of their re-action to their son Arthur's tragic death – where they could only find comfort in each other. I agree that Margaret Beaufort was a skilled politician – or intriguer. Like most strong women in history, she has been criticised for being precisely that – a strong woman. I just don't see her as 'the mother-in-law from hell.'

    Henry did claim the crown by defeating Richard III in battle – but he was also keen to show he had a claim to the throne – bastardised or not. Bastardy never stopped William the Conquorer or Elizabeth 1st, and any act of bastardisation can easily be repealed. In 1485, Henry Tudor was the best claimant from the House of Lancaster. Edward IV certainly recognised him as a threat.

  15. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! Personally, I agree that the marriage of Elizabeth and Henry was a reasonably happy one–in addition to the couple turning to each other for comfort after Arthur's death and Henry's deep mourning for Elizabeth, Henry's negative traits seem to have come more to the fore after his wife's death.

    I can't agree either that Margaret was the mother-in-law from hell–I just don't think we know enough about the relationship between the women to say that. Perhaps Elizabeth did not aspire to influence her husband politically, but preferred the traditional role of a queen consort.

    Trish, where do you get the information that Margaret was regent for Henry VIII? Starkey describes her as "virtual regent," and Jones and Underwood state that she might have chosen the members of Henry's council, but they don't describe her as regent. In any case, I don't see anything sinister in her death at Cheyneygates, within the precincts of Westminster, given her age and the excitement she had recently undergone. I suspect she moved there so she could be on the spot to give Henry VIII advice.

  16. You asked me Sue where I came by the information that MB had acted as regent. It’s mentioned not once but twice in the Wikipedia take. I know WP is not sacrosanct or error-free but it’s the first port of call not only given brief but substantial sysnopses but references and data sources which does help to cut down on further research if it’s case of a particular issue one wishes to research. It was through WP that I made the Bacon-Buck connect ion and where I picked up on the Wydeville royal genes. Other Internet sources and biographies in the BL also mention it.

    I don’t go a bundle on either Starkey or MJK. Starkey is hardly flavour of the month at the moment and if HM had the same power as H8 he’d probably be sitting in the Tower right now having insulted not only HM but half her subjects as well – he does seem to be having something of a foot and mouth problem at the moment like putting one inside the other. As for MJK this is the same MJK who thinks Pontoise was several days’ march away from Rouen despite being a mere 55 miles along an old Roman road and doesn’t seem to know much about emergency christening for premature babies either . Incidentally while researching on Charles Comte de Maine MoA’s uncle I found out he had taken part in the siege of Pontoise which led me to discover Michael D. Miller and the Internet publication of his 75 chapter WOTR starting with the death of E3 definitely worth a look. MJK takes the view that ROY was not around when E4 was conceived – July 1441 – but he didn’t arrive at Pontoise until mid-July and by the end of the month had apparently given up Pontoise as a lost cause retreating back to Rouen.

    I’m not going into all that I’ve picked up or researched on post WP and MJK including a field trip to the Abbey as I’m still checking out Cardinal Pole and Bishop Fisher whose death bed accounts are in such contrast to each other but why did she leave the Palace before her term as regent expired, why Cheyneygates and not her London home Coldharbour House only a mile away down river and the comfort of her own bed, was it really eating a cygnet – it’s actually roast cygnet not roast swan – that brought on the last and fatal illness and how and why did the most power woman in England at the time come to die in such cramped and confined conditions and in such a pitiful state? In the meantime I’d love to know your take on the MB and EW funerals again in such stark contrast and MB’s will which by the looks of it even beggars that of CN by comparison. Property and lands in 25 out of what was then 40 counties. H8 must have been whooping it up on30th June especially as Dad was already out of the frame.

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