Tuesday, January 8, 2008

History Meme: Seven Things You Thought You Knew About Elizabeth Woodville

I was tagged for this meme a while back by Gabriele, but I was slow to respond because of my last post. So here goes!

I'm having a difficult time thinking of seven things for Richard III, so I'll spite the ol' boy and instead do a slight variation, using instead seven "facts" about Elizabeth Woodville that have been disproven or called seriously into doubt, but which nonetheless still occupy a special place in Ricardian fiction (and, sadly, in some nonfiction as well). I was reminded depressingly of this Sunday at the gym, when I tried to read a new historical novel (which shall remain nameless) that not only regurgitated every known myth about Elizabeth, but added a few of its very own. (I would have happily banged this one against the wall, except that that doing so might have caused some distress to the person walking the treadmill in front of mine.) So without further ado, here goes:

1. Elizabeth Woodville, enraged when the Earl of Desmond, visiting England, told Edward IV that he thought he had been unwise to marry her, secretly signed a death warrant for the hapless Desmond and transmitted it to Ireland, resulting in the execution of Desmond and his two young sons.

Desmond was indeed executed in 1468 on charges of treason, which may well have been unjustified. (There's considerable question about whether his sons were executed with him.) His death, however, probably had everything to do with the brutal Irish politics of the time and nothing to do with Edward IV's choice of a wife. The story connecting Elizabeth with his death doesn't appear until the mid-sixteenth century in a letter by Desmond's grandson, which tells a rather unlikely tale of Edward pressing Desmond for the latest gossip about him, Edward reacting good-naturedly when told by Desmond that his marriage was "agreeable to your lusts, yet not so much to the security of your realm and subjects," and Edward proceeding to tell Elizabeth this after a tiff between the royal couple. No contemporary source associates Elizabeth with the earl's death, which occurred four years after his visit to England; the closest is a note of instruction to an envoy by Richard III in 1484, when Richard tells the envoy to tell Desmond's son that Richard believes the execution to have been unlawful, expresses fellow feeling in that he has suffered the loss of his brother Clarence and other relations, and authorizes the younger Desmond to take proceedings against those responsible for the elder Desmond's execution. Only if one assumes, as do writers like Paul Murray Kendall, that Elizabeth was also responsible for Clarence's death can this be taken as an accusation of Elizabeth, and even then it's a stretch. The younger Desmond never did proceed against Elizabeth for his father's death, although there was nothing stopping him from doing so during Richard III's reign had he believed her to be the responsible party. Most importantly, Richard III, who wasn't given to mincing words when it came to Elizabeth, never accused her of murder.

2. Elizabeth's siblings were all greedy vipers who reaped huge financial rewards from their sister's reign.

Elizabeth's unmarried sisters made very good marriages after she became queen, in one case to a duke, in the other cases to boys or young men who were expected to inherit earldoms. But other than these marriages (which were reasonable given the sisters' new status as royal in-laws), the sisters were not showered with gifts or unduly favored. One scarcely hears of them during Edward IV's reign except for their marriages.

As for Elizabeth's brothers, Anthony did gain some offices and lands thanks to his sister's marriage, but his rewards were hardly outlandish, and he gave valuable service to the crown in return, both as a soldier and as the guardian of the Prince of Wales. (By contrast, the king's brother Clarence enjoyed great financial benefits from being the king's brother, and caused Edward IV nothing but trouble.) Twenty-year-old John married the Duchess of Norfolk, who was rich and three times his age, but nothing indicates that the elderly duchess, Edward IV's aunt, was forced into the marriage--she had been married three times before, once without license, and may have relished the annoyance of her heirs, who seem to have been waiting with ill-concealed impatience for her to die. John served as Elizabeth's Master of Horse, hardly a position of great power or one offering the opportunity to acquire great wealth. Lionel, the third brother, became Bishop of Salisbury. He presumably gained his office because of his royal connections, but he had been educated appropriately for it, and there is no indication that he was incompetent or otherwise unworthy of his office. Richard and Edward, the youngest of the queen's brothers, never married. Richard played no important part in Edward IV's reign, and Edward, probably the youngest of Elizabeth's brothers, served Edward IV militarily toward the end of the reign, participating in the Scottish campaign led by Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Neither brother was a wealthy man.

3. Elizabeth was an unbearably haughty woman who forced her own mother to kneel before her for three hours straight.

Elizabeth's post-churching banquet after the birth of her first child was indeed a grand, mostly silent affair during which Elizabeth's mother, Jacquetta, knelt before Elizabeth, being bidden at intervals by her daughter to rise, and during which other attendants of noble birth had to kneel before the queen as well. This, however, was a special occasion celebrating a once-in-a-lifetime event, the birth of Edward IV's first child, not a typical meal with the family. (Elizabeth of York at her coronation banquet was similarly served by kneeling noble ladies, and has never been accused of conceit.) Would Elizabeth's detractors be happier had Elizabeth propped her feet upon the table, leaned back in her chair, tossed her scraps to the dogs, quaffed ale by the cupful, and encouraged her ladies to do the same? (It does make for an interesting picture.)

4. Elizabeth was a real meanie to her sweet little brother-in-law, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

One of the more imaginative passages in Paul Murray Kendall's biography Richard the Third is this one: "The Queen, beautiful and rapacious, would know how to show her haughtiness to the undersized lad from Yorkshire with the awkward torso and solemn face." In fact, there's not a shred of evidence that Elizabeth treated Richard with a lack of respect for his rank as the king's brother or as to what she thought of him before 1483. Unfortunately, historical novelists have seized upon this and similar fanciful passages from Kendall and treated them as Holy Writ.

5. Elizabeth Woodville was greedy and rapacious (see above).

Elizabeth's few household records show that she managed on less money and had fewer servants than her predecessor, Margaret of Anjou. While she certainly lived in a queenly style, nothing indicates that she was unusually lavish for a queen or that the public regarded her lifestyle as overly extravagant or flaunting. (Henry VI, of course, had been criticized for his lack of kingly style and bearing.) Ignored by her critics are her acts of piety and charity, which compare favorably to those of other English queens.

Elizabeth was quick to snap up an heiress, Anne Holland, for her oldest son by her first marriage; she paid Edward's sister the Duchess of Exeter 4,000 marks for the girl's marriage despite the fact that Anne had been promised to young George Neville, nephew to the Earl of Warwick. But given the fierce competition for rich wards, this sort of transaction was hardly unique to Elizabeth, and George was eventually promised in marriage to the king and queen's daughter Elizabeth of York, an arrangement that was broken when George's father turned against Edward IV and not by any act of Elizabeth Woodville's.

6. Elizabeth Woodville procured the death of George, Duke of Clarence.

Elizabeth had every reason to hate George, for he and his mentor the Earl of Warwick had caused the deaths of her father and of her brother John in 1469. She might well have thoroughly approved when Edward IV executed his brother, for reasons which were murky at the time and even more so now. She might well have encouraged him to order the execution. But nothing suggests that Edward IV was a henpecked husband or one who would order an execution just to humor his wife. Probably Edward believed that George's execution was justified by his increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior (such as his execution of his late wife's servant Ankarette Twynho), his possible continued involvement with Lancastrians like the Earl of Oxford, and his penchant for spreading rumors that Edward IV was not the son of the Duke of York.

7. Elizabeth Woodville was a witch.

The only evidence of this is that Richard III (not exactly a disinterested party) said so, which for some is quite good enough. It's not. (And where, pray tell, were Elizabeth's powers when she needed them most, in 1483?)

For those wanting to get a balanced picture of Elizabeth Woodville, four sources are particularly valuable: Anne Sutton's and Livia Visser-Fuchs' article in the 1995 Ricardian, "A 'Most Benevolent Queen': Queen Elizabeth Woodville's Reputation, her Piety and her Books," J. L. Laynesmith's The Last Medieval Queens, David Baldwin's Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower, and Arlene Okerlund's Elizabeth: England's Slandered Queen. Anne Crawford's The Yorkists also contains good information on Elizabeth.

10 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

But a greedy, scheming witch wo kills people left and right is so much more fun. :)

Looks like she's a bit of an anti-Isabella. Where Isy is the paragon of women's rights these days and victim of sissy boy Ed, Lizzy got the Evil Overlady card. ;)

Thanks for playing along.

Susan Higginbotham said...

LOL! If only she had tried to kill Edward IV--then people would love her as a feminist icon!

Alianore said...

*Giggles at Gabriele's 'sissy boy Ed' comment*

Great post, especially the bit about Desmond - amazing that so many historians and novelists have assumed the story to be true on such thoroughly flimsy evidence. (Can something be 'thoroughly flimsy?')

Carla said...

"John served as Elizabeth's Master of Horse, hardly a position of great power or one offering the opportunity to acquire great wealth."
Well, Robert Dudley did all right out of the same position under (ahem!) a later Elizabeth :-)

Did Richard III say Elizabeth W was a witch? What was the context? I'd always assumed that was just part of the modern idea that practically everyone in medieval Europe was a secret Wiccan.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Alianore, thanks!

Carla, hadn't thought about Dudley! Did his promotion come after or before he became a very good friend of the queen's?

Richard III accused Elizabeth and her mother of witchcraft in Titulus Regius, where his claim to the throne was spelled out for Parliament in 1484. It was one of the grounds on which he claimed that the marriage between her and Edward IV was invalid. Presumably, the 1484 language echoed the claims he had made when he took the throne in 1483. "And here alfo we confidre, howe that the feid pretenfed Mariage bitwixt the above named King Edward and Elizabeth Grey, was made of grete prefumption, without the knowyng and affent of the Lords of this Lond, and alfo by Sorcerie and Wichecrafte, committed by the faid Elizabeth, and her Moder Jaquett Ducheffe of Bedford, as the comon opinion of the people, and the publique voice and fame is thorough all this Land; and herafter, if and as the caas fhall require, fhall bee proved fufficiently in tyme and place convenient."

Carla said...

Robert and Elizabeth were good friends from childhood. He was appointed Master of Horse about a day after she became queen, and gained a steady stream of further promotions after that.

Thanks for the quote! It doesn't put Richard in a very good light, does it? It's reminiscent of the accusations against Anne Boleyn half a century later.

ilya said...

well it is said that anne boleyn's model when she went after the queenship was elizabeth woodville. only fitting that they're both accused of witchcraft for succeeding :D

Anonymous said...

Titulus regius was an act of Parliament, not a direct quotation of Richard III's language. It was based on evidence given by Stillington, the bishop who had witnessed Edward IV's betrothal to Eleanor Butler.

"Presumably, the 1484 language echoed the claims he had made when he took the throne in 1483."

"Presumably" is unfair, whether applied to Elizabeth Woodville or Richard III.

Also, witchcraft may sound silly and Disney-ish to us, but it was a seriously and virtually universally held belief (and in fact the Catholic Church still believes in exorcisms).

Susan Higginbotham said...

Well, of course witchcraft was taken seriously. So were It doesn't follow that either accusation was true.

I believe only one source, Philippe de Commines, attributes the precontract story to Stillington and states that he witnessed the betrothal. One can believe what one wants, but I think that if Edward IV's only aim was to get Eleanor in his bed, he would have found a less prominent witness for their betrothal than the keeper of the privy seal.

It's been argued that Stillington's arrest in 1478 and Clarence's execution is evidence of their knowledge of a precontract, but I find this argument unconvincing. Stillington's stay in prison was a short one. Had Edward IV regarded him as possessing knowledge that threatened the succession, I doubt Stillington would have been let out alive.

Finally, Richard III never took the issue of the precontract to the papal courts, where it belonged (as the Croyland chronicler noted). It's been argued that this could be dispensed with because of the notoriety of the precontract, but it's a least equally likely that Richard didn't take the matter to the papal courts because he knew he lacked the proof to make a case there. His case in 1483, of course, was probably helped a great deal by the fear factor--the executions of Hastings, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan, the rumors of massive numbers of troops coming from the North, and the impressive numbers of retainers wearing his and Buckingham's livery.

Susan Higginbotham said...

That first paragraph should read:

Well, of course witchcraft was taken seriously. So were precontracts. It doesn't follow that either accusation was true.