Why Did Elizabeth Woodville Leave Sanctuary?

On March 1, 1484, Richard III swore an extraordinary oath. In front of “lords spiritual and temporal” and the mayor and aldermen of London, he promised that if Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters came out of sanctuary at Westminster, he would see that they were in surety of their lives, that they would not be imprisoned in the Tower of London or elsewhere, that the girls would be married to “gentlemen born” and given marriage portions, and that Elizabeth would be given an annuity of seven hundred marks a year. Elizabeth would be attended by John Nesfield, one of Richard’s squires.

Elizabeth accepted the offer, much to the shock of some historians. Paul Murray Kendall, for instance, writing from the comfort of his study in mid-twentieth-century America, thunders, “That she came to terms with the man who had bastardized and deposed the Princes, driven her son the Marquess into exile, and executed her other son Grey and her brother Rivers is difficult enough to understand; but that she came to terms knowing also that he had murdered the Princes well-nigh passes belief, or is at least incomprehensible.”

But is it?

There were several options open for Elizabeth in March 1484. The first, and safest, would have been for her and her daughters to each take the veil. But that would foreclose any other alternatives if the political situation in England later changed, and it would have likely been anathema to Elizabeth’s older daughters, who had grown up expecting to make grand matches, not to immure themselves in convents. Probably, too, it would have been an admission of total defeat for Elizabeth.

The second option was to remain in sanctuary. This was an option, however, that was growing more unpalatable each day. Westminster was heavily guarded, a situation that must have been extremely irritating to the monks there, who may have also been tiring of providing sustenance for Elizabeth and her brood. Undoubtedly the abbot and his flock were eager to get back to normal and to get their relations with the crown back on a good footing. Add to that the fact that six females, two of them adolescents, were cooped up together in a small space, with little to keep them occupied, and the situation must have been a bleak one indeed. With the king a healthy man in his early thirties, and the rebellion of 1483 having failed, the women could be facing a stay of decades in sanctuary.

Nor was sanctuary a guarantee of security. Elizabeth knew well that sanctuary could be broken: her husband had done just that with the Duke of Exeter and with the Lancastrians who sought shelter after the battle of Tewkesbury in the abbey there. Had Richard chosen to violate sanctuary, Elizabeth and her daughters could have found themselves prisoners of the crown.

The third option was to accept Richard’s offer of a pension and good marriages for the girls, with guarantees, sworn under oath in front of numerous witnesses, that Richard would not harm the women or imprison them. This option, the one that Elizabeth ultimately chose, was not without risk. Whatever the fate of the Princes in the Tower, it was beyond question that Richard had executed Elizabeth’s son Richard Grey and her brother Anthony Woodville, and oaths could be broken. But the chances of the girls coming to harm were slim. Elizabeth knew that Margaret Beaufort, who was deeply involved in the 1483 rebellion, had been treated leniently, and she must have also realized that Richard was simply not in a position where he could risk the consequences of harming or being suspected of harming five innocent girls of royal blood, an act far beyond the pale of what was tolerated in his society. Even a popular king would have had the utmost difficulty in getting away with such an act, and Richard was not a popular king, save in the North. Moreover, the girls, unlike their brothers, did not pose much of a threat to Richard. Though nothing in England barred a woman from taking the throne, the idea of a female ruler had little appeal at the time. Only if they were married to the wrong men would the girls be a genuine threat—and through his compact with Elizabeth Woodville, Richard ensured that they would be married to men of his own choosing.

Richard, in fact, had every incentive to keep his part of the bargain. Having achieved the crown, he seems to have genuinely wished to rule well, and at a time when he was trying to reconcile his subjects to his reign, his conduct toward his nieces and the former queen was a display of generosity that could only improve his reputation. In the persons of Edward IV’s daughters, he also gained an opportunity to bind followers to him through marriage—a boon for a man who had only one legitimate child and two bastards of his own to offer. A king’s daughter, even a supposedly bastard daughter, was no mean catch, and Richard suddenly had five such royal offspring at his disposal. He arranged for the marriage of one daughter, Cecily, to Ralph Scrope and entered into negotiations with Portugal for the marriage of Elizabeth of York to Manuel, Duke of Beja. Had Richard survived Bosworth Field, it is likely that he would have married the younger daughters to his advantage as well.

Elizabeth’s arrangement with Richard has been cited as proof that she did not believe that he had killed her sons by Edward IV and/or as evidence that she was callously indifferent to her children’s fate. No normal mother, the argument goes, could have made such a bargain with her sons’ killer. This argument, however, fails to take account of the starkness of the choice facing Elizabeth. Barring a successful rebellion against Richard III, the chances of which must have seemed slender in March 1484 after the debacle of the previous year, she and her young daughters could spend the rest of their lives in some sort of confinement, or they could take their chances with the freedom offered to them. One wonders how many of Elizabeth’s critics would, put in her place, choose the former instead of the latter.

Others in medieval England, fighting for their political lives, had made choices not dissimilar to Elizabeth’s. Edward II had reconciled with the killers of his beloved favorite, Piers Gaveston. In the more recent past, Edward IV reconciled with Richard, Earl of Warwick, after Warwick had imprisoned him and killed two of his in-laws. Warwick in turn reconciled with his bitter enemy, Margaret of Anjou, and entrusted his adolescent daughter into her care by marrying her to Margaret’s son. Margaret, for her part, forgave a man who had cast slurs on her son’s legitimacy. Like her predecessors, Elizabeth did not have the luxury of nursing her grief and outrage. She had to look to the future, not to the past.

13 thoughts on “Why Did Elizabeth Woodville Leave Sanctuary?”

  1. Also, death was much more part of life in the Middle Ages than it is today. And considering the high infant mortality, a mother would be mentally prepared to lose some of her children before they reached adulthood. It’s not callousness but accepting a fact of life. She could not do anything for the boys, but she had five daughters to think about, as you said.

    Have you read Johan Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages? That book helps a lot to get into the mind of Medieaval people. It’s beautifully written, too, a rare thing for a non fiction book.

  2. elena maria vidal

    I am following your research with great interest, Susan. It is all quite intriguing.

  3. Very interesting and perceptive post. I also wonder how many of those outraged commentators would really have made a different decision, given the choices available.

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks, all! Gabriele, I’ll definitely look for that book.

    I think David Baldwin, one of Elizabeth’s recent biographers, made one of the most perceptive comments about Elizabeth when he noted that “Elizabeth’s critics have failed to imagine themselves in her position, and to pause for a moment to consider how they might have responded to it.”

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    I should add that as the mother of one teenage daughter, whom I love dearly, the idea of being cooped up in sanctuary with five daughters indefinitely absolutely terrifies me. I doubt I would have lasted for a month.

  6. They were probably all getting on each other’s nerves.
    Sounds like a good idea for a skit.

  7. Susan Higginbotham

    Susan, that would make a great skit!

    Gabriele, the girls had to have some way of passing the time! Elizabeth and Cecily of York are said to have been attractive girls–goodness only knows what effect their presence was having on the younger monks! 🙂

  8. “I think David Baldwin, one of Elizabeth’s recent biographers, made one of the most perceptive comments about Elizabeth when he noted that “Elizabeth’s critics have failed to imagine themselves in her position, and to pause for a moment to consider how they might have responded to it.” “

    I’d second that. It applies to a good many other historical figures as well. It’s unlikely that even the best-informed modern historian knows all Elizabeth’s circumstances, so how are they to judge better than she? Ending up on the wrong side of a political power struggle, sometimes fatally, was an occupational hazard for powerful families. Having lost, it would be sensible to make the best of a bad job and to bargain for the best deal going (revenge can always be eaten cold, if and when the political world changes again). A promise of good marriages for the girls may have been the best available in the circumstances, especially as (as you point out), it was in Richard’s interest to keep the promise. Without being too romantic about Richard, it is also still possible that he hadn’t murdered the boys and/or that Elizabeth didn’t think he had. In which case she wasn’t coming to terms with her sons’ murderer. If she did think he had murdered them, she may have thought she had a better chance of vengeance out of sanctuary than in it.

  9. Hi Susan, I’ve been a “lurker” for a while, but I just wanted to say that although I’ve yet to read your books, I’m always really impressed with your historical research and the fresh perspective you bring to your blog. Have you ever thought of publishing non-fiction, maybe a compilation of your myth-busting posts? Anyway, I really enjoy your blog, and look forward to your upcoming Wars of the Roses book.

    Also *love* the idea of a skit on the five girls and La Woodville holed up in the abbey, getting on each other’s nerves and bothering the monks!

  10. Susan Higginbotham

    Good points, Carla!

    Thanks for stopping by, Lucie, and for your kind words. I have contemplated writing nonfiction occasionally–maybe something to think about harder once I get this novel out.

    And if people want a skit, well, that’s just what they might get . . . 🙂

  11. Sorry to be slow coming back on this Susan, but I have often thought that one neglected point is that Richard *definitely* killed one of her sons, Richard Grey. Just because he wasn’t royal, it doesn’t mean she didn’t love him.

    I would *love* to know exactly what was said between Richard III and Elizabeth at this point. One *possibility* is that he was able to convince her he had not killed her boys, but it’s equally possible that she had a look at the cards in her hands and couldn’t see much, so decided to cut a deal on the best terms possible. These appear to have included a pardon for Dorset in exchange for a definite break with the Tudors. In the circumstances, right after the failure of the ‘Buckingham’ revolt, this probably looked a very good deal, at a practical level.

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