When Was Elizabeth Woodville Born?

Nearly every biography of Elizabeth Woodville gives her birth date as being some time in 1437, the same year her parents, Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford and her husband Sir Richard Woodville, were pardoned for their secret marriage. But where does the 1437 birthdate come from? From only one source–this portrait.

The portrait in question is labeled “1463” (or at least, that’s the date I’m told it says; I can’t read it) and gives Elizabeth’s age as twenty-six (again, I can’t make it out myself)–hence the 1437 birth year. In a 1934 article in Burlington Magazine entitled, “The Early English School of Portraiture,” John Shaw suggested that it was done by John Stratford, who on July 8, 1461 was appointed as “the king’s painter.” Shaw described the veil in the portrait as a “widow’s veil” and suggested that the likeness was painted before Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth.

Based on this evidence, Elizabeth’s early biographer David MacGibbon wrote confidently, “All remaining doubts regarding the date of Elizabeth’s birth can now be said to have been finally dispelled by the inscription on the panel portrait of Elizabeth in the possession of Dr. W. A. Shaw of the Record Office. On this portrait, painted in 1463, her age is given as 26. This would make the year of her birth 1437.” More recently, David Baldwin in his biography of Elizabeth wrote, “Her date of birth is unknown, but a portrait dated 1463 indicates that she was then twenty-six.”

The label on the portrait is problematic, however. First, it is likely not contemporary. A label made in 1463 would surely identify Elizabeth as “Dame Elizabeth Grey,” her married name at the time, not as “Elizabeth Woodville.” Nor would it use the spelling “Woodville,” which is a modern spelling. A label made in 1464, after Elizabeth became queen, would likely say simply “Elizabeth” or “Elizabeth queen to Edward IV” or something of the sort.

Moreover, it is doubtful that the portrait dates from 1463.  While John Stratford was indeed made the king’s painter in 1461, it is highly unlikely he would have been sent to take Lady Elizabeth Grey’s portrait in 1463. By all accounts, Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth was a secret match that took all of the country by surprise. This is hardly consistent with a scenario of Edward IV commissioning a portrait of Elizabeth the year before he married her. Moreover,  in 1463 Elizabeth was in straitened circumstances after the death of her first husband, Sir John Grey, at the second battle of St. Albans in 1461. She was having difficulty recovering her dower and her sons’ inheritance; the following year, she would enlist William, Lord Hastings, in bringing her plight to the attention of the king. If she was on such terms with Edward IV in 1463 that he was having her portrait painted, she would have had no need of Hastings’ help in 1464.

The other possibility is that Edward IV had nothing to do with commissioning the portrait. But Elizabeth’s struggles over her dower indicate that she was not in a financial position to have her portrait taken in 1463. Nor were barons’ daughters in the habit of commissioning such portraits in the 1460’s, at least in England.

What about the “widow’s veil”? I am not an expert in medieval fashion by any means, but I see nothing in Elizabeth’s transparent veil to suggest that it was a mark of widowhood. Notably, Elizabeth is not wearing a barbe, the neck covering usually associated with medieval widow’s wear.

The most likely scenario, then, is that the portrait was made after Elizabeth became queen and that whoever labeled it, long after it was painted, was confused about when Elizabeth became queen. Whether Elizabeth was actually twenty-six when she sat for it is anyone’s guess.

So when was Elizabeth born? Even if the 1463 date on the portrait is discounted, it’s not impossible that she was born in 1437. According to an inquisition post mortem, Thomas Grey, Elizabeth’s oldest child, was born around 1455. Her youngest child, Bridget, was born on November 10, 1480.  If Elizabeth was born in 1437, she would have been around 18 at the time of Thomas’s birth and 43 at the time of Bridget’s birth. Both dates are  consistent with a 1437 year of birth. While 43 might seem a tad old for childbearing, Elizabeth’s own mother, Jacquetta, was recorded as being around seventeen at the time of her marriage to the Duke of Bedford in 1433, putting her birthdate at around 1416; her youngest child, Katherine, was born around 1458. Thus, she would have been about 42 when her childbearing ceased.

One source (albeit not strictly contemporary) suggests a later date of birth for Elizabeth, however. The following handwritten note by Robert Glover, Somerset Herald, on a late-fifteenth-century visitation (Visitations of the North, part 3, p. 57), which Brad Verity kindly called my attention to several years ago, may indicate the birth order of the Woodville children:

Richard Erie Ryvers and Jaquett Duchesse of Bedford hath yssue Anthony Erie Ryvers, Richard, Elizabeth first wedded to Sir John Grey, after to Kinge Edward the fourth, Lowys, Richard Erie of Riueres, Sir John Wodeuille Knight, Iaquette lady Straunge of Knokyn, Anne first maryed to the Lord Bourchier sonne and heire to the Erie of Essex, after to the Erie of Kent, Mary wyf to William Erie of Huntingdon, John Woodville, Lyonell Bisshop of Sarum, Margaret Lady Maltravers, Jane Lady Grey of Ruthin, Sir Edward Woodville, Katherine Duchesse of Buckingham

Anthony, the first child named in Glover’s list, was listed in his mother’s 1472 postmortem inquisition as being “of the age of thirty years and more,” which would put his birth date at around 1442, but the “and more” leaves plenty of hedge room and leaves open the possibility that he was born earlier than 1442. It is entirely possible, then, that he, not Elizabeth, was the oldest child. Unless new records surface, we’ll probably never know–but there are good reasons to doubt the inscription on the portrait as a source.

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21 Responses to When Was Elizabeth Woodville Born?

  1. Not to be terribly picky, but I think you have several date errors ascribing her birth to be 16th C. and not 15th. A bunch of nasty typos, I’m certain. Nice post though! LIKE <3

    • boswellbaxter says:

      Thanks, Katheryn! As I said to Fiz, my head’s been stuck in Tudor-land lately!

  2. Fiz says:

    Hi, Susan. I think you need to change the date from 1537 to 1437 🙂

  3. I am pretty sure the above portrait is another version of the better known one from Queen’s College Cambridge. These are now thought by some to be copies from a lost original by Hans Memling. The Edward IV portrait may also be a Memling copy. (The date would then be totally wrong, as is very often the case; most copies are from the 16th century anyway). This is the catalogue of a major Memling exhibition with details on the E. Woodville and Edward IV copies.

    http://www.amazon.com/Memlings-Portraits-Till-Holger-Borchert/dp/0500093261/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1342176271&sr=1-1&keywords=memling+portraits

    • I wonder if they have done any tree-ring dating of Elizabeth Woodville’s portraits. If the above one is really as early as thought in 1934, perhaps Memling made a copy after a sketch. The art historians seem to assume she was with Edward IV in the Netherlands in 1470/71, but my feeble WOTR memory tells me she remained behind in England?

      • boswellbaxter says:

        I was wondering that too. I wish some present-day art historian would take on the question of the various portraits from the Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth was definitely in England in 1470-71–she was in sanctuary, where her son Edward was born.

        • The article in that catalogue is by Lorne Campell and she bases her argument on a book by Hepburn: “Portraits of the Later Plantagenets” (1986). (Perhaps you’ve got a copy). I have no idea if there is anything more recent.

  4. Philippa says:

    A fascinating article Susan; made all the more fascinating because it raises even more interesting questions than maybe anyone will now be able to answer.
    May I suggest that we could be misled by comparing Elizabeth’s fertilty cycle to that of the modern woman. People in the 15th century had only a rudimentary knowledge of human reproduction although I believe they understood that the birth of a child was linked to sexual intercourse. The Church taught the primary purpose of marriage was the procreation of children and that any form of contraception was sinful. Until quite recently it was not uncommon for women to continue to bear children throughout their reproductive lives; my own grandmother gave birth to 13 children over a period of 31 years and her oldest grandchild was just eight months younger than her own youngest child.

    • boswellbaxter says:

      Philippa, good points, thanks!

    • Sonetka says:

      I actually thought Susan’s discussion of Elizabeth Woodville’s childbearing history was very pertinent — just because the exact nature of the menstrual cycle wasn’t understood didn’t mean that it didn’t operate in the same way. (And they certainly understood the link between sex and pregnancy — look at all of those unfortunate girls in Child ballads who have in indiscreet episode with a passing soldier or sailor and end up with a baby nine months later). A first child at eighteen and a last child at forty-three, with several in between and most of them healthy, is a very plausible childbearing history for a woman of any era who uses no contraception and is reasonably healthy and well-fed, and Elizabeth would certainly have been the latter. In fact, even if her birth year wasn’t 1437, given the dates of her children’s births it’s likely that it wasn’t too far away from that year, especially since the average age of menarche may have been higher than it is now.

  5. Esther says:

    Great article.

  6. Anerje says:

    Interesting article! Back on the Woodville trail? Just finished your book, taken me a good 10 days as this is a very busy time of year. Even though I am pro-Somerset, I really enjoyed it – the strength of it being the story being told by the 2 very different Duchesses. My heart bled for Jane Dudley.

  7. Anerje says:

    There was an exhibition at the National Portrait gallery earlier this year, showing the portraits of the Kings of England. They all dated from Tudor times, and apparently it was a popular thing to do in the late Tudor time – exhibit these sets of portraits. They were supposedly based on ‘true likenesses’. Maybe this portrait of Elizabeth dates from that time? I have to say, the portrait of Anne Boleyn I saw was a shocker – and it was based on the famous portrait, but the shape of the face, and even the colour of her hair, was different.

  8. Bryan Dunleavy says:

    I am no exert in the portrait art of the period but I can’t help but notice that all these portraits adopt the same pose. This suggests to me that they all derive from one original. Each painter has modified the jewellery and the headgear but the face and the expression (with varying degrees of competence) is the same. The portrait you posted does say “Aetat SWE 26, 1463” but my interpretation would be that the painter may well have got the age right at that date, but it must have been a later portrait and probably a copy. As you observe, there is no way such a portrait would be commissioned before 1464, and even if it were commissioned late in 1464, it would probably not have been finished until 1465. Similar portraits are inscribed “Elizabeth, Uxor Edwardus III”. I think I would go with the theory that this was a later copy by a later artist who may well have got his vital facts right, but the actual date of the original wrong. All guesswork of course.

  9. Diana Milne says:

    I have come across this Erie in many documents. Is this the olden word for Earl?

  10. Robin Walker says:

    The “Shaw” who wrote an article in the October 1934 edition of the Burlington Magazine was “William Arthur Shaw”, not “John Shaw”. (The same error occurs in the book on the Woodvilles.) He was also the owner of the portrait at that time.

    Question: where is this portrait now?

    • Susan HIgginbotham says:

      Thanks for the correction, Robin! Will have to check on the present location of the portrait.