Post-classical history




At twenty-three, Edward IV was the most eligible bachelor in Europe, ‘a man so vigorous and handsome that he might have been made for the pleasures of the flesh’ in Commynes’ opinion. Many princesses were considered. He rejected, among others, the King of Castile’s sister, an insult that Isabella the Catholic never forgave. (Twenty years later her ambassador told Richard III that she ‘had turned her heart from England’ because of the rejection.) The Earl of Warwick had high hopes of a match with a French princess, having set his heart on an alliance with France. Instead, the King chose an English widow who was four years his senior, and who had two sons by her previous marriage. It was a fateful choice.

This is what Robert Fabyan heard:

In most secret manner, upon the first day of May [1464], King Edward spoused Elizabeth, late the wife of Sir John Grey, knight, which before time was slain at Towton or York field, which spousals were solemnised early in the morning at a town named Grafton, near Stony Stratford; at which marriage was no persons present but the spouse, the spousess, the duchess of Bedford her mother, the priest, two gentlewomen and a young man to help the priest sing.

After hastily consummating the marriage, the King rejoined his entourage, pretending that he had gone hunting.

Lady Grey had been born in 1437, the eldest child of a courtier, Lord Rivers, and had married Sir John Grey in about 1452. Although he was the heir of Lord Ferrers of Groby, Sir John was comparatively poor and his young wife became one of Queen Margaret’s four ladies-in-waiting. Fighting for Lancaster, he had been mortally wounded at the second Battle of St Albans (not at Towton, as Fabyan says), leaving not just a widow but an impecunious widow.

From her portrait at Queen’s College, Cambridge, it is obvious that Elizabeth Woodville (her maiden name) was beautiful, despite her golden hair being shaved in front to give her a fashionably high forehead. She had refused to sleep with Edward even when he drew his dagger, telling him that while she might be too base to be a king’s wife, she was too good to be his harlot. For months he concealed the marriage, sometimes spending a few days with Elizabeth at her parents’ house at Grafton. ‘In which season she nightly to his bed was brought, in so secret manner that almost none but her mother was of counsel,’ says Fabyan.

During a Great Council held on Michaelmas Day (28 September) at Reading Abbey, according to Gregory the Lords begged the King to be ‘wedded and to live under the law of God and the Church, and they would send into some strange land to inquire [for] a queen of good birth’. Edward then admitted that he was already married, presenting his wife to them. The Duke of Clarence and the Earl of Warwick led her into the Abbey chapel where she was acclaimed as Queen of England.

Although Edward IV’s best friend might be William Hastings, the Earl of Warwick was still the most powerful man in the kingdom after the King. The Scots Bishop of St Andrews described him as ‘governor of the realm of England beneath King Edward’. He was the Crown’s richest subject, owning more than a hundred manors in twenty-one counties, and among his offices were those of Captain of Calais, Warden of the Cinque Ports, Warden of the Eastern Marches, and Admiral of England. Sometimes he took the King’s place as commander in the field and often his indentures with retainers were unmistakeably ‘indentures of war’. (In that which he signed in 1462 with Christopher Lencastre from Westmorland, for being ‘well and conveniently horsed, armed and arrayed’ and ready to ride with the Earl at all times, Lencastre was to receive five marks a year, while Warwick was to have ‘the third of all winnings of war got by the said Christopher’.1) Even if the Earl was not called ‘The Kingmaker’ until Tudor times, he may well have seen himself as one. Certainly contemporaries did; in 1461 the Milanese Prospero di Camulio had reported that ‘My lord of Warwick . . . has made a new king of the duke of York’s son.’ The Earl had been lavishly rewarded. So too had his brothers – Lord Montagu was created Earl of Northumberland and Bishop George Nevill was appointed Lord Chancellor of England.

The announcement at Reading Abbey humiliated the Earl of Warwick. Nothing could have demonstrated more publicly that he no longer enjoyed King Edward’s full confidence. Only recently he had been in France negotiating in all good faith a marriage between his master and Louis XI’s sister-in-law. His first instinct was to rebel, but he restrained himself.

Some attributed the King’s marriage to spells cast by Elizabeth and her mother. In 1469 a neighbour in Northamptonshire, Thomas Wake of Blixworth, was to accuse Duchess Jacquetta of witchcraft. He produced two small leaden figures, supposedly representing the King and Queen, together with another of a ‘man of arms’ which had been broken in the middle and fastened with wire. So seriously was the charge regarded that Edward had to investigate it personally, assisted by members of the royal council. However, the witnesses whom Wake had brought from Northamptonshire refused to bear him out. Even so, during Richard III’s reign it would be alleged in Parliament that the marriage had taken place because of witchcraft by Elizabeth and her mother.2

Contemporaries found it all too easy to credit accusations of this sort. The night before the wedding, that of 30 April, was notorious as one of the four sabbaths in the witches’ year – the night the Germans called Walpurgisnacht. Local tradition said the king first met Elizabeth under an oak tree near Grafton, and everybody knew that witches always held their sabbaths beneath oak trees.

A not very plausible source claims that King Edward’s mother, the Duchess of York, was so angry that she threatened to announce publicly that he had been a bastard. No doubt ‘Proud Cis’ was not exactly mollified by her son’s cheerful reassurance that Elizabeth was sure to bear him children since she had some already, ‘and by God’s Blessed Lady, I am a bachelor and have some too; and so each of us hath a proof that neither of us is like to be barren’.3 The Duchess argued that he was already betrothed to Elizabeth Lucy, the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter, a betrothal that invalidated the marriage.

When sent for and questioned, Elizabeth Lucy confessed that she was pregnant by the king, explaining that ‘his grace spoke so loving words unto her that she verily hoped he would have married her, and if it had not been for such kind words she would never have showed such kindness to him to let him so kindly get her with child’.

But she also admitted that there had been no betrothal.

Lord Wenlock confided to a Burgundian friend that the marriage had deeply displeased many great lords, together with the better part of the royal council. What they particularly disliked was Elizabeth Woodville’s parvenu background, although her father might be Lord Rivers and her mother Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford. When the Earl of Warwick had captured Rivers – then a Lancastrian – during a raid on Sandwich in 1460, he had reminded him scornfully that ‘his father was but a squire’, who had emerged from obscurity during Henry V’s wars in France, and that he himself had become rich and a lord through a lucky marriage. William Paston, who reports the incident, adds (with considerable irony in the light of future events), ‘And my lord of March [Edward] rated him likewise.’ They had not been exaggerating.

A gentleman from Northamptonshire, Richard Woodville had begun his career as a servant of Henry VI while his father had been chamberlain to the Duke of Bedford. Reputedly the most handsome man of his time, the younger Woodville had then made his fortune by marrying Bedford’s widow, much to the fury of her family, since Jacquetta was a daughter of one of the greatest noblemen in France, the Count of Saint-Pol.

Greedy and self-seeking, a courtier in the very worst sense, Woodville had been created a peer by Henry VI – not the best judge of character. His elevation was seen very differently from that of an amiable and much-liked hero such as William Hastings, who in any case was well connected and had a dash of royal blood. The new Lord Rivers (as he was now known) was generally regarded as an arrogant arriviste and blood-sucking parasite who lived shamelessly off his wife’s dowry. He and his disagreeable duchess had five sons and seven daughters besides Elizabeth. They could be relied on to exploit their link with the throne.

Queen Elizabeth had inherited her father’s avarice as well as his looks. A former lady of the bedchamber to Margaret of Anjou, she was accustomed to court intrigue and determined to secure rich pickings for her parents, for her brothers and sisters, and for her two sons by her first husband.

Very soon the Queen’s father was using her influence with the King to offer magnates royal lands or offices in return for marrying one of his children. In September 1464, the same month during which Elizabeth was proclaimed Queen of England, her sister Margaret married the Earl of Arundel’s heir. In January her twenty-year-old brother John married the dowager Duchess of Norfolk, who was well into her sixties but possessed a very rich jointure; the horrified author of the Annales Rerum Anglicarum called it ‘a diabolical match’. By 1467 five more Woodville sisters had made splendid marriages, their grooms being the Duke of Buckingham and four other peers.4

When Prior Botylle of St John’s – head of the Knights of Rhodes in England – died in 1468, King Edward tried to bully the Knights into electing his youthful brother-in-law Richard Woodville as the new prior, although the boy was not even a member of their order. There was uproar (‘maxima turbatio’) in the priory at Clerkenwell. However, the brethren ignored the King’s request and instead elected Fra’ John Langstrother, one of the Earl of Warwick’s affinity and henceforward no friend to Edward IV.

The Annales were only stating the obvious in recording that the marriages of the Queen’s sisters were ‘to the great displeasure of the earl of Warwick’. His own enormous family, the Nevills, owed its vast wealth and prestige to having married very rich heirs and heiresses methodically for two generations. Ironically, the Earl himself had no sons but two daughters. Now, because of the social ambitions of the Queen’s kindred, it looked as if there would be no one of suitable rank left for them to wed – nor for his nephews and nieces – even though one day his girls were going to inherit the greatest estates in England. Moreover, King Edward stubbornly refused to let them have the most desirable husbands of all, his brothers the Dukes of Clarence and Gloucester.

Still more threatening for Warwick were the dynastic ambitions of Lord Herbert (Henry Tudor’s guardian), who was another of Edward’s protégés and his principal lieutenant in South Wales. The marriage of the Queen’s sister, Mary Woodville, to Herbert’s heir in 1466 meant the emergence of a Herbert–Woodville axis; now Lord Herbert could count on Woodville support in his feud with Warwick over lands in Glamorgan, and perhaps on the Queen intervening with King Edward. At the same time it was obvious that Herbert’s ward Henry Percy, heir to the late Earl of Northumberland, was going to marry one of his daughters, in which case there was a strong possibility that Henry would be restored to his father’s confiscated earldom and the Percy estates. If this happened, then the Nevills would lose a vast chunk of what they had gained in the north. Yet another of Herbert’s son-in-laws, Lord Shrewsbury, even had a claim to the earldom of Warwick. The Earl could see a very menacing future indeed.

As an alderman, John Lambert must have attended Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in Westminster Abbey at Whitsun 1465 and the ensuing banquet in Westminster Hall. The day before the coronation, she had been lodged in the Tower of London, being taken by horse litter to the Abbey on Sunday for her crowning, escorted by nearly fifty knights of the Bath, specially created for the occasion. (Among the latter were two of the Woodvilles.) Most significantly, the Earl of Warwick was absent from the ceremony. However, her mother’s brother, Jacques de Luxembourg, Count of Richebourg, brought a delegation of Burgundian knights. Next day there was a tournament at Westminster in the presence of the Queen, Lord Stanley bearing away the prize – a ring with a ruby.

Jane Shore and her husband may well have been among the spectators since such entertainments were avidly attended by Londoners. There would be plenty of gossip about the upstart Queen with her arrogance and her greedy relations. There is no need to guess that the Shores and the Lamberts were delighted that five aldermen had been among the Knights of the Bath whom King Edward had created for her coronation, and that one of them, Hugh Wyche, was a mercer. Gregory comments proudly, ‘it is a great worship unto all the City’. It must have aroused John Lambert’s wildest ambitions, even though real gentlemen despised ‘City Knights’, however rich they might be.

In any case John was favourably inclined towards Edward IV for sound financial reasons. In May 1464 he had been granted £418 16s 2d from the Southampton Customs dues, in repayment of a loan. One is constantly surprised by his wealth and his skill at not just surviving but prospering during a severe recession.

Elizabeth Woodville had no reservations about her fitness to be Queen. In March 1466 the Lord Leo of Rozmital in Bohemia, brother-in-law to King George Podiebrad, visited the English court and was staggered by her hauteur. She dined publicly in silence and during the three-hour meal all the ladies in attendance – including her mother and King Edward’s sister Margaret – remained kneeling, though the last two were allowed to rise to their feet after the first course. Then the court danced before her in silence, Margaret curtseying to the Queen from time to time. No doubt such silence was customary at the English court in the fifteenth century and previous consorts had been served in silence, but they had been kings’ daughters. Everyone present was aware of the Queen’s ‘low extraction’ and that she had been a woman of the bedchamber.

Not merely Elizabeth’s brothers and sisters but her parents profited from her elevation. In 1466 her father was made Lord Treasurer of England and promoted to earl. Robert Fabyan, then an apprentice to the great draper Sir Thomas Cook, recalled long afterwards that in those days ‘many murmerous tales ran in the City atween th’earl of Warwick and the queen’s blood’ – tales of growing hatred.

The Queen brought problems for Lord Hastings as well as for the Earl of Warwick. In More’s words, ‘women commonly not of malice but of nature, hate such as their husbands love’. Elizabeth resented William’s influence over Edward, in particular his being ‘secretly familiar with the king in wanton company’ – a notorious boon companion in drinking and womanizing.

Moreover, when William knew Elizabeth before her marriage to Edward – as her neighbour in Leicestershire – he had not shown himself in his best light, even though he helped her do legal battle with a grasping mother-in-law over her sons’ inheritance. Less than a month before the secret wedding, ‘Dame Elizabeth Grey’ (as she then was) and Hastings had signed an indenture that made financial provision for a marriage between her son Thomas Grey and any daughter born to William or to his brother Ralph Hastings within the next five years; should Thomas Grey die or if no daughters were born, Lord Hastings must be paid 500 marks (just over £232). Although the agreement was overtaken by events, one historian suggests that such tough bargaining may partly explain the Queen’s dislike of William in future years.5

Only in retrospect would it be seen that the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville had undermined the entire structure of the Yorkist regime by creating a threat to the interests of the Earl of Warwick and the Nevill clan. Perhaps it was inevitable that the King and the Earl, his ‘over mighty subject’, would eventually fall out with each other, but Edward undoubtedly hastened the process by taking such a wife and by showing so much favour to her greedy relatives. However, despite the fragility of its foundations and the increasing dissension, the Yorkists still appeared to be totally in control of England. Across the Channel, Lancastrian exiles knew the meaning of despair.

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