There are many myths that surround Elizabeth Wydeville’s reputation, but perhaps one of the most obstinate is the image of the arrogant, greedy and manipulative Ice Queen. She has been accused of witchcraft, of avarice, of murder and even of plotting against her own daughter’s husband and children. The nobility may have disputed her being a suitable bride for King Edward IV but was Elizabeth’s actual tenure really so controversial? Historian David Baldwin, author of Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower, joins us today to discuss Elizabeth’s role as Queen consort.
Can you tell us about Elizabeth Wydeville’s lineage and how her low birth is exaggerated?
Elizabeth’s father was a Northamptonshire county knight, but her mother, Jacquetta, was the daughter of the Count of Luxembourg and St Pol and the widow of John, Duke of Bedford. Her real disadvantage was that she was one of King Edward IV’s subjects, and he forfeited the twin benefits of a foreign dowry and an overseas alliance when he married her in 1464.
You discussed that perhaps some of the objections to Edward IV arranging advantageous marriages for members of Elizabeth’s family was due to the size of her family. So do you think if she only had one or two siblings to take care of there may have been less objection to the Wydeville family?
Yes. It was thought that Elizabeth’s position in society, her Lancastrian antecedents, and the fact that she had been married before she met Edward all made her an unsuitable bride for the reigning king of England, but perhaps a greater problem was that her many brothers and sisters and the sons of her first marriage all had to be provided for now that they were part of the royal family. The older noble houses were bound to resent the Woodvilles’ acquisition of lands, offices and marriages which, in other circumstances, would have come to them.
How do you think Elizabeth adjusted to becoming Queen Consort considering she had not really spent her life preparing for that sort of position?
None of Elizabeth’s critics ever accused her of lacking competence or of failing in her duty – something they would surely have seized upon if she had given them cause.
Elizabeth seems to have a rather unfounded reputation for greed and extravagance. You’ve examined the household accounts and contemporary records that are available, is there really any truth to this?
The evidence suggests that Elizabeth lived within her means and on a considerably smaller budget than her Lancastrian predecessor Margaret of Anjou. We should remember that magnificence and generosity were qualities expected of royalty, and no self-respecting king or queen would have demeaned his/her position by trying to live ‘on the cheap’.
What about the charges that Elizabeth herself was overly influential with Edward IV?
One of the queen’s roles was to intercede with the king on behalf of petitioners, and Elizabeth would undoubtedly have discussed these and other matters of concern with Edward. The key factor is that all such advice was given privately and was subject to Edward’s own final decision – no medieval king ever said he did something because his wife had told him to!
So is Elizabeth’s actual role in politics exaggerated?
Historians still disagree over the extent of Elizabeth’s involvement in the Simnel conspiracy, for example – it all turns on how the surviving evidence is interpreted. Contemporaries may have exaggerated her influence on occasion – if they disapproved of some royal decisions it was clearly easier to blame Elizabeth than Edward himself.
What is your opinion on Elizabeth’s career as Queen Consort?
Elizabeth displayed a remarkable ability to fulfil a demanding role for which she had received no formal training.
What do you think her conduct during some of the tragic periods of her life tells us about her character?
She was commended for her stoicism while Edward was in exile in 1470-71, and seems to have adopted a similarly pragmatic attitude towards Richard III. Richard had executed her brother and the younger son of her first marriage (whatever had, or had not, happened to the ‘Princes in the Tower’), but she was still prepared to negotiate with him to obtain the best possible outcome for her daughters and others.
Join us for an in-depth look at Elizabeth Wydeville this week
Monday 29th September: Susan Higginbotham discusses the marriage of Elizabeth Wydeville and Edward IV
Wednesday 1st October: Arlene Okerlund discusses Elizabeth’s life after the death of Edward IV
Thursday 2nd October: David, Susan and Arlene all return for a special history salon on Elizabeth Wydeville and her reputation.
We have an eBook to give away courtesy of The History Press. To win a copy of Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower by David Baldwin just leave a comment below by Sunday the 5th of October.
David Baldwin is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society who devised and taught courses for adults at the Universities of Leicester and Nottingham for more than twenty years. His 2002 biography of Queen Elizabeth Woodville (Elizabeth Woodville, Mother of the Princes in the Tower) has been reprinted many times, and his other books include Stoke Field. The Last Battle of the Wars of the Roses (Pen & Sword, 2006), The Lost Prince, The Survival of Richard of York (The History Press, 2007), The Kingmaker’s Sisters, Six Women in the Wars of the Roses (The History Press, 2009), The Women of the Cousins’ War [with Philippa Gregory and Michael Jones] (Simon & Schuster, 2011), Richard III (Amberley, 2012), and Richard III, The Leicester Connection (Pitkin, 2013).
Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower
By David Baldwin, Published by History Press
Elizabeth Woodville is a historical character whose life no novelist would ever have dared invent. She has been portrayed as an enchantress, as an unprincipled advancer of her family’s fortunes and a plucky but pitiful queen in Shakespeare’s histories. She has been alternatively championed and vilified by her contemporaries and five centuries of historians, dramatists and novelists, but what was she really like? In this revealing account of Elizabeth’s life David Baldwin sets out to tell the story of this complex and intriguing woman. Was she the malign influence many of her critics held her to be? Was she a sorceress who bewitched Edward IV? What was the fate of her two sons, the ‘Princes in the Tower’? What did she, of all people, think had become of them, and why did Richard III mount a campaign of vilification against her? David Baldwin traces Elizabeth’s career and her influence on the major events of her husband Edward IV’s reign, and in doing so he brings to life the personal and domestic politics of Yorkist England and the elaborate ritual of court life.