The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England's Most Infamous Family

BOOK: The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England's Most Infamous Family
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Title Page


1.   The Duchess and the Knight

2.   The King and the Widow

3.   The Black Legend of the Woodvilles

4.   Murder at Coventry

5.   Witchcraft and Sorcery

6.   Exile and Sanctuary

7.   A Woodville Abroad

8.   Pomp and Printing

9.   The Downfall of a Duke

10.   Before the Storm

11.   Welcome Fortune!

12.   Under the Hog

13.   Won and Lost Causes

14.   The Last of the Blood

Appendix: The Wills of the Woodvilles



Plate Section



From 1437, when Richard Woodville, a mere knight, made a shocking match to the widowed Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, to 1492, when Queen Elizabeth Woodville breathed her last at Bermondsey Abbey, the Woodvilles trod the boards of the great theatre of fifteenth-century history. Their members married into the greatest houses of England, crossed lances with the finest jousters in Europe, patronised the industry that made it possible for you to hold this book today, fought battles at home and abroad, and helped bring down an entire dynasty. Without them, the history of fifteenth-century England would have been very different.

While individual Woodville family members, particularly Elizabeth Woodville, have been the subjects of popular and academic non-fiction, there has not been (to the best of my knowledge) a non-fiction book that takes in all of the family, save for a self-published book that is largely hostile toward the Woodvilles. Due in part to this situation, myths and unsubstantiated rumours about the Woodville family have flourished virtually unchecked. Readers of historical fiction in particular ‘know’, for instance, that Elizabeth Woodville orchestrated the murder of the hapless Earl of Desmond, that Jacquetta and her daughter Elizabeth openly practised witchcraft, and that the Woodvilles ran off with the royal treasury during the crisis in 1483 that brought Richard III to the throne. While many of these myths and rumours have been addressed, and demolished, by academic historians, popular non-fiction and fiction has lagged behind, ensuring that for general readers, the impression of the Woodville family remains largely negative. After waiting in vain for a book that would help to set the record straight, I decided to write one myself.

Although the Woodvilles were a numerous family, the reality of researching the fifteenth century means that I have focused on the historically (as opposed to genealogically) best-documented members of the family: Richard and Jacquetta, and their children Anthony, Elizabeth, Richard, John, Lionel, Edward, and Katherine. As numerous books and articles have been devoted to the subject, I have also given short shrift to the great historical mystery of the fifteenth century: the fate of Elizabeth Woodville’s two sons by Edward IV.

Because many of the printed primary sources I have relied upon use modern spellings, I have, for the sake of consistency, used modern spelling in all of my quotations here when possible. Likewise, instead of adhering to fifteenth-century spellings of proper names (which in any case were inconsistent, with the surname of the family here rendered as ‘Wydeville’ and ‘Wodeville’, among other variations), I have used the spellings most familiar to us today, in general following those used by the
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
. The new year in fifteenth-century England began officially on 25 March, meaning that a letter dated 24 March 1460, say, would have been written, by our reckoning, in 1461; I have followed the example of most modern writers by giving dates using a 1 January new year. A mark was equivalent to two-thirds of a pound.

I would like to thank the many people who have given me assistance and encouragement in connection with this book, particularly Simon Neal for his transcriptions and translations; Hannah Kilpatrick and Kathryn Warner for their translations; Darlene Elizabeth Williams for proofreading; and Karen Clark, Kathryn Warner, and Geanine Teramani-Cruz for their comments on the early draft of the manuscript. As ever, I thank my family for putting up with me. Finally, I owe my deepest gratitude to the latest addition to my household, Dudley, who kindly refrained from chewing up my research materials.

The Duchess and the Knight


On 19 January 1460, Richard Woodville and his wife were rudely awakened in their lodgings at Sandwich. Their caller, John Dynham, roused them and their eldest son, Anthony, from their beds, bundled the father and son aboard a ship, and hauled the men to Calais, where they were greeted by their Yorkist enemies: Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury; his son Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick; and their kinsman, the 17-year-old Edward, Earl of March. By torchlight, the three earls ‘rated’ the hapless Woodville men. Richard Woodville was a ‘knave’, a man ‘made by marriage’, whose father was but a squire.

Whether the Woodvilles replied to this barrage of insults is unrecorded, but in September 1464, the former Earl of March, now King Edward IV, made a surprise announcement to his council at Reading. He had chosen a bride. His new wife, he informed the stunned councillors, was not a foreign princess, but Dame Elizabeth Grey, a widow who happened to be the daughter of Richard Woodville.

It had taken over four years, but the Woodvilles had finally got in the last word.

Elizabeth Grey was no stranger to unequal matches. She was, in fact, the product of one, that between Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, and Richard Woodville, a knight.

The story of Jacquetta’s marriage has its origins, as do so many aspects of the Wars of the Roses, in the English occupation of France. Since 1422, John, Duke of Bedford, a younger brother of the late King Henry V, had served as regent of France for Henry VI, Henry V’s infant son. Bedford made a strategic marriage to Anne, the sister of Philip ‘the Good’, Duke of Burgundy, in 1423. The marriage, though happy, was childless, and when Anne fell ill and died in 1432, Bedford felt the need to remarry quickly. His bride was Jacquetta de Luxembourg, the daughter of Pierre de Luxembourg, Count of St Pol. The groom was a few weeks short of his 44th birthday; the bride was 17. She was, the chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet recorded, lively (
), beautiful and gracious.

Bedford and Jacquetta married on 20 April 1433 at the cathedral in Thérouanne, destroyed in the sixteenth century. In honour of the occasion, Bedford presented the Church of Notre Dame of Thérouanne with a peal of five bells, sent from England.
The marriage was performed by the bride’s uncle, Louis, Bishop of Thérouanne, who served as chancellor for the English in France and who had made the match. Not for the last time when Jacquetta was concerned, the match was a controversial one, the offended party being Philip, Duke of Burgundy, Bedford’s former brother-in-law. Not only had the Duke of Bedford remarried in unseemly haste, the bride’s father, a vassal of the Duke of Burgundy, had neglected to ask permission for the marriage. The Duke of Bedford was to remain estranged from the Duke of Burgundy, which happened to suit the interests of the latter at the time.

The Duke and Duchess of Bedford sailed to England on 18 June 1433. Jacquetta’s new country was ruled by the 11-year-old Henry VI, who had been king since he was nine months old. While his uncle the Duke of Bedford was regent of France, his other uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, was the king’s lieutenant and keeper of England. The relationship between Bedford and Gloucester, his younger brother, had long been an uneasy one, and Bedford’s journey to England with his bride was no honeymoon or pleasure trip. He had come to answer charges of negligence, likely emanating from Gloucester, and to obtain more funds for the war in France.

Jacquetta settled down to life in her new country. On 8 July 1433, she requested denization, the rights of English citizenship, which Parliament granted her.
Unfortunately for the new Duchess of Bedford, her father fell sick and died later in 1433. A funeral service for the duchess’s father was held on 9 November 1533 at St Paul’s.
The following year, the citizens of Coventry presented the duchess with 50 marks and a silver-gilt cup while she and the duke were residing at his manor of Fulbrook,
and Jacquetta was made a Lady of the Garter, probably to put her on the same level as Gloucester’s duchess, who also sported Garter robes.

BOOK: The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England's Most Infamous Family
11.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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