Post-classical history

The Last of the Blood

Book title

On 31 October 1489, Queen Elizabeth went into confinement to await her coming child (Margaret, born on 29 November). Normally, once a pregnant queen ‘took to her chambers’, men would be barred until the child was born, but in this case, four ambassadors from France, one of whom, Francois of Luxembourg, was related to the queen, managed to be admitted into this all-female sanctum. When the men saw the queen, she was with not only the king’s mother, but with her own mother as well.1

This rare glimpse of Elizabeth Woodville belies Bacon’s later claim that she had been ‘banished [from] the world into a nunnery; where it was almost thought dangerous to visit her or see her’.2 Clearly, she had not been shut off from all contact with her family, although the extant records furnish no clue as to how often she saw or heard from them. Elizabeth of York’s privy purse expenses, which would give us an idea as to whether messages or visits were exchanged between mother and daughter, do not survive for this period (or indeed for any other period other than the last year of the queen’s life), and heraldic accounts by their very nature were concerned only with court ceremonies, not day-to-day interactions.

But there were fewer members of the Woodville family for the dowager queen to see. With Edward’s death in battle, only one of Elizabeth’s brothers, Richard, Earl Rivers, survived. Two Woodville sisters, Jacquetta, Lady Strange, and Mary Herbert, had died some years before.3 Anne, who had married George Grey after the death of her first husband, Sir William Bourchier, died on 30 July 1489 and was buried at Warden Abbey in Bedfordshire.4 Margaret, Lady Maltravers, died some time before 6 March 1491.5Joan, Lady Grey of Ruthin, was alive as of 24 September 1485, when Edward Woodville mentioned her as one of his heirs, but had died by 4 August 1492, when a post-mortem inquisition on her brother Richard was taken.6

It is possible, however, that Elizabeth Woodville had another brother living – an illegitimate one. Anthony Woodville’s surviving papers show payments of wages to a Richard Woodville.7 This is unlikely to be his legitimate brother Richard, who had his own estates to occupy his time; illegitimate sons, by contrast, could often be found in the service of their legitimate brothers. Moreover, a Richard Woodville attended Prince Arthur’s christening in 1486 as an esquire for the king’s body.8 This again would not be the legitimate Richard Woodville, who had become Earl Rivers after Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth and thus would have been referred to as such. The surname could be coincidence, of course, but given the prominence of the queen’s relations at Arthur’s christening, it seems far more likely that there was a family connection between them and this esquire. Finally, following the death of Edward Woodville, Henry VII had continued to send English forces to assist the Bretons. One of the commanders he sent was a Sir Richard Woodville, who was killed at Nantes in 1490.9 Taken together, these references strongly suggest that before his marriage to Jacquetta, or even during it – perhaps during one of Jacquetta’s many pregnancies – the elder Richard Woodville fathered an illegitimate son, who took up his brother Edward’s Breton cause and died in it.

As for Richard, 3rd Earl Rivers, he had lived as quietly as an earl as he had as a knight. He played his part at court ceremonies, and had joined the king on his northern progress of early 1486.10 During Henry VII’s reign, he served on commissions of the peace in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire and was among those commissioned to take musters of archers. Richard was also commissioned to investigate treasons, felonies, and conspiracies in Hereford in 1486 and to try petitions presented to Parliament in 1487.11Even as an earl, he seems to have made no effort to look for a wife.

The third Earl Rivers died on either 6 March 1491 or 25 April 1491; as he had made his will on 20 February 1491, the earlier date appears more likely.12 He named his nephew the Marquis of Dorset as his heir and ordered that he be buried at St James at Northampton in a place made ready. Rivers asked that Dorset be a good lord to one William Hartwell, apparently Rivers’s deputy as keeper of Sawcey (Sausy) Forest, ‘for he had never none advantage by me but ever labour and pain’.13 Finally, he asked that Dorset sell as much underwood at Grafton as was needed to purchase a bell ‘for a remembrance of the last of the blood’.

On 28 June 1491, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York’s second son, Henry, was born. The arrival of the future Henry VIII into the world did not excite much comment, and it is not known whether Elizabeth Woodville attended his birth. He would never come to know his maternal grandmother, for her own eventful life was drawing to a close.

The dowager queen wrote her will on 10 April 1492.14 Styling herself as ‘by the grace of God Queen of England, late wife to the most victorious Prince of blessed memory Edward the Fourth’, she asked that she be buried next to the king at Windsor, ‘without pompous entering or costly expenses’. Elizabeth requested that her ‘small stuff and goods’ be disposed to satisfy her debts and to provide for the welfare of her soul. Having ‘no worldly goods to do the Queen’s grace, my dearest daughter, a pleasure with, neither to reward any of my children, according to my heart and mind’, she left Queen Elizabeth, and her other children, her blessing.

Elizabeth died at Bermondsey on 8 June 1492.15 Two days later, her body was taken by water to Windsor, in accordance with her wishes; according to the herald’s report, the late queen was buried immediately. The late queen was accompanied by two of her executors, John Ingleby, the Prior of the Charterhouse at Sheen, and Dr Thomas Brent, her chaplain; by her cousin, Edward Haute; by an unnamed gentlewoman; and by Grace, described as an illegitimate daughter of Edward IV. Nothing is known about Grace other than this single mention of her in the account of Elizabeth’s funeral, but her presence suggests that Elizabeth did not greatly resent the products of her husband’s extramarital flings.

The next day, workers constructed a hearse – a structure built around a coffin (or, here, a burial site) which could hold candles and banners as well as accommodate the most important mourners. Elizabeth’s hearse, the herald noted, was:

    such as they use for the common people, with four wooden candlesticks above it and a cloth of black cloth of gold over it, with four wooden candlesticks of silver and gilt every each having a taper of no great weight, and two escutcheons of her arms pinned on that cloth.

Elizabeth’s three unmarried daughters, Anne, Katherine, and Bridget, arrived at Windsor on 12 June. Anne would later marry Thomas Howard, then Earl of Surrey, while Katherine would marry William Courtenay, the heir to the earldom of Devon. Bridget was a nun at Dartford Priory. Queen Elizabeth, who would bear a short-lived daughter, Elizabeth, on 2 July 1492, had already taken to her chamber and could not attend the funeral. Also absent from the funeral was the queen’s second daughter, Cecily, who was married to John, Viscount Welles, a half-brother of Margaret, Countess of Richmond. Perhaps the viscountess was attending the pregnant queen. The Duchess of Bedford and Buckingham did not attend but was represented by one of her two daughters. The dowager queen’s daughter-in-law, Cecily, Marchioness of Dorset, was present, as was her niece Elizabeth Herbert, daughter of her sister Mary.

On 13 June, Anne, Katherine, and Bridget attended a requiem mass for their mother. That same day, the men arrived. They included Dorset; Henry Bourchier, Earl of Essex, the dowager queen’s nephew by her late sister Anne; Viscount Welles; and Charles Somerset, the illegitimate son of Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (and the new husband of Elizabeth Herbert). That night, a dirge was sung. The herald who recorded the funeral ceremonies grumbled that there were no new torches or poor men in black gowns, only ‘a dozen divers old men holding old torches and torches’ ends’. Elizabeth Woodville’s wishes of a simple funeral were being followed, apparently too well for the herald’s taste.

The next day, John Vaughan, a canon at Windsor, sang the mass of our Lady, at which Dorset offered a gold piece. A ceremony of offering followed, at which the Lady Anne, acting in lieu of her sister, the queen, offered the mass penny. Lady Katherine Grey bore Anne’s train. The other daughters, carrying their own trains, offered pieces of gold, after which Dorset offered his own piece of gold, followed by the rest of the company. The ceremony concluded with the giving of alms.

Of Jacquetta and Richard Woodville’s children, only the youngest, Katherine, now remained. Little is known about her life with Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford. In his study of Bedford, R.S. Thomas notes that the duke spent most of his last years at Thornley and Sudeley in Gloucestershire and at Minster Lovell in Gloucestershire. In January 1494, the king visited and was treated to ginger, oranges, lemons, and marmalade; sadly, whether the duchess was present is unknown.16 Probably Katherine enjoyed taking possession of Minster Lovell, the former home of Richard III’s vanished ally Francis, Viscount Lovell.

Jasper died on 21 December 1497 at Thornbury, having made his will on 15 December, and was buried at his request in Keynsham Abbey.17 His businesslike will makes only one mention of Katherine, in the form of a request to his executors that ‘my Lady my wife and all other persons have such dues as shall be thought to them appertaining by right law and conscience’. He did not name Katherine as an executor. Whether he thought she was not suited to the task, or whether he simply preferred men for the job, is unknown. Katherine in any event might have had her mind on something else, because by 25 February 1496, just two months after Jasper’s death, she married her third husband, Richard Wingfield, who was about twelve years younger than the duchess, then in her late 30s.18 The eleventh of the twelve sons of Sir John Wingfield of Leatheringham, Suffolk, and his wife, Elizabeth, he could have hardly had great material prospects, so presumably it was either personal attraction or a desire to forestall a political marriage that brought the duchess so precipitately into his bed. Henry VII fined the impetuous couple £2,000 for marrying without royal licence, although ultimately it was Katherine’s oldest son, Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who had to come up with the fine once he entered into his inheritance.19 Katherine would have probably known Richard for some time, as there were already ties between the Wingfields and the Woodvilles. Richard’s mother, Elizabeth FitzLewis, was connected to Mary FitzLewis, Anthony Woodville’s second wife.20 Two of Richard’s brothers, and perhaps Richard himself, had served in Katherine’s household, and some family members had rebelled against Richard in 1483 and fought for Henry VII at Bosworth.21

Katherine did not enjoy her youthful husband for long; she died just over a year later on 18 May 1497.22 It is tempting to speculate that she died from the effects of a late-life pregnancy, but there is no evidence that either of her last two marriages produced children. Her burial place is unknown. In his will made many years later, Wingfield, who remarried and was to enjoy a distinguished career in Henry VIII’s diplomatic service, remembered to order masses for the soul of his ‘singular good Lady Dame Katherine’.23

For all the turmoil and carnage of the fifteenth century, it was not violence that finished off the Woodville family, but an accident of biology: the failure of Jacquetta and Richard’s five adult sons to beget legitimate male heirs. Thus, with the death of Katherine, the story of the Woodvilles became absorbed into the stories of the noble families into which Jacquetta’s and Richard’s daughters married – indeed, into the story of England itself.

As their blood became diluted over the years, so too did the sense of the Woodvilles as individuals. They became an amorphous mass, and an unsympathetic one at that as political propaganda, unsubstantiated legend, and myth collected about them. Yet although the Woodvilles, like our own families, shared collective triumphs and tragedies, they were as individual as we are. Even with the blurring effect of time, we can still pick out distinct personalities amid the whole of the Woodvilles: the knight who dared marry a duchess, the widow who captivated a king, the jouster who went to his death wearing a hairshirt, the young knight who charmed Ferdinand and Isabella and who died fighting for a cause not his own, the men and women who quietly went about their daily duties. We should not do them the disservice of forgetting them.

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