The period between 1483 and her death on 1492 must have encompassed the bleakest moments in Elizabeth Wydeville’s life, yet empathy has given way to controversy. Slanderous accusations of poisoning her own husband, of placing her daughters in King Richard III’s care to sate her ambition and heavy-handed judgements against her for sending her youngest son to join his brother in the Tower of London are not enough to satisfy Elizabeth’s detractors. After doing everything she could to ensure her daughters’ survival she is accused of trying to destroy her eldest Elizabeth of York’s family in a failed plot that saw her banished from court. Was Elizabeth Wydeville truly so ruthless, ambitious and self-destructive?

Professor Arlene Okerlund, author of Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen, joins us today to discuss the final tragic years of Queen Dowager Elizabeth Wydeville’s life.

I think in the general negative assessments of Elizabeth Wydeville and Richard III’s charges of witchcraft and bigamy, we lose sight of what she endured after her husband Edward IV’s death. How difficult was Elizabeth’s position?

Historical assessments have completely ignored the psychological reality that Queen Dowager Elizabeth faced during 1483. In just three months, she experienced the following personal losses:

-Unexpected death of her husband, Edward IV, at age 40.
-Disappearance of her two sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, into the Tower of London, never to be seen again.
-Execution of her son, Sir Richard Grey, by Richard III.
-Execution of her brother, Anthony Wydeville, Earl Rivers, by Richard III.
-Pronouncement in a sermon at St. Paul’s that her 19-year marriage to Edward IV was adulterous and her children “Bastards,” a proclamation that Parliament made the law of the land in January 1484.
-Sequestration of Edward IV’s personal property, which his Will had conferred on Elizabeth. She and their five daughters were thus rendered paupers.

Elizabeth was left with nothing: no money, no power, no means of survival. Unusual courage, intelligence, and fortitude enabled her to seek Sanctuary, arrange the marriage of Elizabeth of York to Henry, Earl of Richmond, and negotiate with Richard III regarding the well-being of her daughters.

Giovanni Battista Cipriani

Richard, Duke of York, taking leave of his Mother, Elizabeth Wydeville, in Sanctuary, Westminster – Giovanni Battista Cipriani

Despite her earlier resistance Elizabeth eventually had to come to terms with Richard III. Amazingly this is often attributed to alleged greed and ambition, was it not in fact a case of her looking to her daughters’ safety and well-being?

Queen Dowager Elizabeth had no choice but to negotiate with Richard III. The Sanctuary at Westminster Abbey was surrounded by Richard III’s troops, and the Abbot was increasingly threatened for protecting Elizabeth and her five daughters. After 11 months in Sanctuary and the failure of Buckingham’s rebellion, Elizabeth clearly saw that her daughters had no future unless their situation changed.

Richard III’s public oath explicitly denied Elizabeth the title “Queen of England” and referred to her as “dame Elizabeth Grey.” How, then, can she be accused of ambition? Richard also promised, however, to protect her daughters, marry them to “gentlemen born,” and give each a dowry of 200 marks annually for life. “Dame Elizabeth Grey” also received an annual stipend of 700 marks. The terms of Richard III’s oath provide the best evidence of Elizabeth’s intent to provide for her daughters at the cost of her own eminence.

Elizabeth seems to disappear between leaving sanctuary and Richard III’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth. Despite her earlier plot with Margaret Beaufort can we say it is likely she didn’t have a hand in politics during those two years?

We know only that Elizabeth was under the custody of John Nesfield, one of Richard III’s esquires, after leaving Sanctuary. Nesfield would have kept her under close guard, but we do not know if she managed to communicate with her supporters during that time.

Do you think Elizabeth, after seeing her daughters safely settled and her eldest Elizabeth become Henry Tudor’s Queen Consort, may have been content to now step out of public life?

Contemporary evidence indicates that Elizabeth was planning to retreat from public life within ten months of Henry VII’s victory at Bosworth. On July 10, 1486, she signed a 40-year lease with the Abbot of Westminster for Cheneygate mansion within Westminster Close. Presumably, she planned to live at Westminster Abbey, which had sheltered her during two Sanctuaries, rather than stay with the Court. At this point in her life, she was especially esteemed by Henry VII, who designated her godmother to his first-born son, Arthur, on September 20, 1486. The lease indicates that Elizabeth was seeking a religious retreat away from the swirling, murderous world of politics that had characterized her years as Queen.

An illustration of Lambert Simnel from a children's history book

An illustration of Lambert Simnel from a children’s history book

What is your opinion on her alleged involvement in the Lambert Simnel rebellion?

Elizabeth played no role in the Lambert Simnel rebellion. Why would she? Her daughter was Queen of England. The Simnel rebellion aimed to replace her daughter and Henry VII with the earl of Warwick, son of Clarence, whose 1469 rebellion against Edward IV had contributed to the murders of the Queen Dowager’s father, Lord Rivers, and her brother, Sir John Wydeville.
Also complicit in the Simnel rebellion was Bishop Robert Stillington, the very man who had declared Elizabeth’s marriage to Edward IV to be adulterous and her children illegitimate. It is inconceivable to think that Elizabeth would support such enemies in their efforts to replace her daughter as Queen of England.
No contemporary evidence connects Queen Dowager Elizabeth to the Simnel plot.

Do you think Elizabeth was really forced to retire to Bermondsey Abbey by Henry VII or was it more likely a case of Elizabeth wanting to retire quietly?

The July 1486 lease with Westminster Abbey indicates that Elizabeth’s retreat into religious seclusion was her choice. Her move to the secluded rural monastery at Bermondsey, rather than to Westminster, may have reflected a desire to live farther away from the politics of the court at Westminster Palace. Bermondsey Abbey would have welcomed Elizabeth to its royal apartments as the widow of its founder’s descendant. It should be noted that during Elizabeth’s residence at Bermondsey Abbey, her annuity was increased and supplemented by occasional gifts from the king: £6 for a “ton of wine” in 1488 and 50 marks for the feast of Christmas 1490—small tokens that indicated Henry VII was not punishing her.

A contemplative, religious life in a secluded convent was quite consistent with the piety Elizabeth had exhibited as Queen. Throughout her political years, Elizabeth had contributed generously to the Carthusian charterhouse and the Bridgettine Abbey of Syon near her palace at Sheen. She named her youngest daughter after the Swedish nun St. Bridget. She obtained a special license to worship with the solitary, ascetic Carthusian monks at their monasteries. She also obtained a papal indulgence for the general populace in which the Pope cites her “singular devotion for the feast of the Visitation [of] St Mary the virgin to St Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth saved religious institutions that had been founded by Henry VI, but dismantled during Edward IV’s early regal years. Queens’ College, Cambridge (established by Margaret of Anjou) credits Elizabeth as its “co-founder” for her contributions and “completion of this college.” One Cambridge historian credits Elizabeth’s “piety and natural reason” for making her “specially solicitous…[for] the safety of souls and the public good.” Similarly, Eton College, whose endowments were revoked by Edward IV in 1461 and charter abolished by the Pope in 1463, had its lands restored in 1467. Provost Henry Bost credits “the abundant generosity of the wife of the anointed Edward IV” for the subsequent wealth showered on his college.

The piety displayed during Elizabeth’s years as queen makes her retirement into religious seclusion (a preference shared with other noble women such as Cecily Neville and Margaret Beaufort) quite understandable.

One of the portratis of Elizabeth in Queens' College, University of Cambridge

One of the portraits of Elizabeth in Queens’ College, University of Cambridge

Elizabeth was not actually excluded from court life after she retired to Bermondsey Abbey was she?

Elizabeth rejoined the court for her daughter’s second confinement and the birth of her granddaughter, Margaret, in November 1489. Amazingly, the Queen Dowager’s presence during her daughter’s confinement caused critics to accuse her of being a social-climbing opportunist who wished to display her relationship to her cousin François de Luxembourg, who was visiting England with several French ambassadors.

What do you think her final years were like for her, considering everything she had been through?

At Bermondsey Abbey, Elizabeth Wydeville finally found peace in her contemplative, prayerful devotion to her God. Her Will recognizes a “world so transitory” in bequeathing her soul into God’s hands. She had “no worldly goods” and only “small stuff and goods” to disperse, but her lifetime of caring for husband, children, and family had exceeded what anyone could expect.


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

Tuesday 30th September: David Baldwin discusses Elizabeth’s role as Queen consort.

Thursday 2nd October: David, Susan and Arlene all return for a special history salon on Elizabeth Wydeville and her reputation.

Win a copy of Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen!

We have an eBook to give away courtesy of The History Press. To win a copy of Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen by Arlene Okerlund just leave a comment below by Sunday the 5th of October.

Arlene-OkerlundArlene Okerlund has written Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen, published by The History Press, and Elizabeth of York published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Visit Arlene at San Jose State University.

Arlene Okerlund, Professor Emerita of English, retired after a career of teaching Renaissance literature at San José State University in California. After several years in the classroom, she served six years as Dean, College of Humanities and the Arts, and seven years as Academic Vice President before returning to her first loves of teaching and research. The author of scholarly articles on Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe, Donne, and Dryden, Professor Okerlund also writes for popular audiences, including the newsletter of the Peninsula Banjo Band with which she plays tenor banjo.
Currently, she teaches at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Santa Clara University and lectures at The Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in California.


Arlene-Okerlund-Elizabeth-Woodville-smallElizabeth: England’s Slandered Queen by Arlene Okerlund, Published by The History Press.

Buy Elizabeth: England’s Slandered Queen

Elizabeth Wydeville, Queen consort to Edward IV, has traditionally been portrayed as a scheming opportunist. But was she a cunning vixen or a tragic wife and mother? As this extraordinary biography shows, the first queen to bear the name Elizabeth lived a tragedy, love, and loss that no other queen has since endured. This shocking revelation about the survival of one woman through vilification and adversity shows Elizabeth as a beautiful and adored wife, distraught mother of the two lost Princes in the Tower, and an innocent queen slandered by politicians.



35 Responses

  1. Lisa M

    Elizabeth Woodville was a interesting figure in history. I really like her story of sorts.

  2. Bradley T.

    I love the story of Elizabeth Wydeville. How she came to be, and how she continued to live her life.

  3. crystal

    I love reading about this time in history. I watched the white queen last year. and have read the cousin series

  4. Debbie

    I adored the BBC series The White Queen and would love to read non-fiction about this strong, interesting woman.

  5. Jennifer


    I never knew she was so pious! I’ve also wondered if she did the hair-plucking fashion since her forehead is so prominent in her portrait. Did she attend the christening of Arthur (since she was asked to be his godmother)?

    • Olga Hughes

      I am pretty sure she would have plucked her forehead Jennifer, it was all the rage in her time 🙂 Yes she was at Arthur’s christening, she was godmother.

      • Vicky II

        Perhaps she just had a very high forehead. If I were to pull my hair back, my forehead would be just as high without pulling any hair out. Us gals with high foreheads do exist, though, today, most of us wouldn’t accentuate our high foreheads by pulling our hair severely back, nor do some, like me, try to hide it with bangs that would have to be long and thus uncontrollable, thus I’ve learned to accept my high forehead. And do please tell me is there actual evidence of them pulling out their hair above their forehead? Or just a hypothesis based upon the viewing of paintings of women with very high forehead by those with low foreheads? I can see they may have plucked their eyebrows, it seems to be a tradition in my family to have slim brows, but never plucked any forehead hair. I feel like I may sound a bit snippy in my response, sorry about that. Though I will say, any snippy attitude on my part, probably relates back to the many negative comments about my high forehead that I’ve heard all my life. Love reading about about this era in history. It wasn’t Elizabeth or Edward, who were the problem, it was the rest of the Yorks and Waricks. If her daughters had been sons and her sons had been daughters, it would have been different.

  6. Lucy Straw

    I have mixed feelings about Elizabeth Wydeville, to say the least. Non-royal queen consorts are rare, which makes her exceptional. The fact that her numerous family were so involved in court life is another factor in making her a figure of controversy.

    • Olga Hughes

      Not so rare in Tudor times though. I think Edward set a precedent there. Elizabeth had plenty of noble blood on her mother’s side however and her father was on Edward’s council well before Edward married her. Richard and Jacquetta were not quite country bumpkins…

  7. Diane Elizabeth Highton

    Sometimes in this God-fearing era, it seems that the more aware and intelligent the woman, the more likely she was to have an eye to her afterlife. After a near lifetime of fear, court intrigue, vilification for her more ‘lowly’ status than some great ladies, Elizabeth Woodville may well have welcomed the comparative joy of a quietly pious and simple life!

  8. aurora m

    Oh my! this is like candy to me….loved every moment of it. Keep these wonderful stories/information coming. Great article.

  9. Jamie Adair

    I already own Dr. Okerlund’s fantastic book, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this interview and how I can’t wait for Thursday’s instalment. Thank you Olga and Dr. Okerlund for such a great interview!

  10. Veronica

    Its very interesting to learn about Elizabeth Woodville’s life. Thanks.

  11. Sarah M

    Elizabeth Wydeville’s reputation does seem rather poor considering how much she went through in her life. This article is a fascinating insight into this lady.

  12. Angela

    This week focusing on Elizabeth Woodville has been fascinating. I would love to win a copy of this book and continue reading about her.

  13. Sheilah

    Prof. Okerlund spoke at a joint AGM of the Richard III Society of Canada & the U.S. It was fascinating and I’d love to get furthur details by reading the book the talk was based upon.

  14. Donna McLean

    Such a fascinating woman and interesting time in history. Looks like a great book

  15. Underdogge

    As someone who lived and worked for a time in London, the fact that Bermondsey, which is very much urbanised now, was a rural retreat in the times of Elizabeth Woodville brings home how much the population has grown in the intervening centuries. The trend seems to be continuing today because I live on the outskirts of my hometown and down the road some farmland is ear-marked to disappear under housing development, and the same sort of thing has been going on all my life. I’ve gone off on a tangent from Elizabeth Woodville…sorry.

    Elizabeth Woodville wasn’t that low born. Her mother was the daughter of a Count, and a relation, albeit rather distant, of the then Holy Roman Emperor. EW’s father was a nobleman albeit not of the highest rank (though he was of course “promoted” after EW married Edward IV). But she was not born in a slum.

  16. jasmine

    It is interesting that Richard III granted Elizabeth an annuity of 700 marks. However her son-in-law, Henry VII could only manage 400 marks.

    Interesting though Prof Okerlund’s views are, she still doesn’t really answer the question as to why Elizabeth came to such an accommodation with Richard III if she knew he was the murderer of her sons. There is also the small mystery of where Elizabeth was between leaving Sanctuary and the Battle of Bosworth. She left her daughters to the king’s care and vanished from the records.

    There is , of course, the story handed down in the Tyrrell family, that the princes were moved to Gipping Hall from the Tower and Elizabeth is supposed to have spent time with them there. From Gipping Hall, they were transported abroad.

    It is an interesting local legend and if true, would explain where Elizabeth was for some of the time she vanished from the records. Also, the boys still being alive, and Elizabeth knowing that fact, would explain her decision to come out of Sanctuary with her daughters.

    • Olga Hughes

      Well Jasmine measuring the annuities against each other is certainly useful propaganda for the anti-Henry Tudor campaign – but I know you’re not doing that 🙂 However it is a general perception that she was much poorer under Tudor. I couldn’t agree less. Richard certainly did provide Elizabeth with 700 marks after stripping her of all of her possessions, lands and titles in parliament and declaring her five daughters illegitimate. Some of that may have gone to John Nesfield for her keep, I am not 100% sure if Richard contributed to her keep for her house arrest.
      Henry’s first parliament restored all of her possessions, titles, and granted her some lands, as well as an annuity. The lands stripped from the unassuming Richard Wydeville were restored to him – after being stripped from him by Richard III for no other reason that being a Wydeville, along with Edward Wydeville receiving new grants. Dorset only had his lands that were his by marriage restored. The Dowager Duchess of Buckingham Katherine, however, had her annuity increased from 200 pounds to the 1000 marks left to her by her husband in his will and her dower lands restored. And a new husband and Duchess-hood.

      I think Arlene has answered that question Jasmine. Richard *had* murdered one of her sons, Richard Grey, let’s not neglect him.

      She left two (I think) of her daughters in Richard and Anne’s care, the younger ones went with her. And I haven’t addressed the other issues as we’ve addressed them in our Princes in the Tower salon, and we’re concentrating on Elizabeth. Even were her sons alive her situation was not an easy one, even if Edward had a pre-contract she was not to blame for what befell her.

      • jasmine

        Firstly, I agree with you that Elizabeth was not to blame for the pre-contract issues. I believe that she did not find out for some time.

        With regard to Richard stripping her of all her possessions, given that he believed she was not validly married to his brother the king, then to leave her in possession of lands, etc which were to support the queen’s household and her duties, would seem to be rather at odds with that belief. His grant to her reflected her status, in his eyes, as the widow of Grey and the mother of the king’s illegitimate children.

        There was a practical side to this decision too, Elizabeth as queen would have been due her dower lands – but if she were not queen, then those lands belonged to the rightful queen (Anne) and would have been needed to support her in her widowhood.

        It may be unfortunate, but it was common practice to remove lands from people deemed to be traitors or the close relations of traitors (the idea being they would be prevented from funding their traitorous relatives) – hence the decision regarding Richard Woodville.

        Henry Tudor had form in restoring lands to people associated with the previous regime and then getting them back – eg Anne Beauchamp, the widow of Warwick, was granted her lands by him (which had been taken from her after Edward IV’s decision to declare her legally dead) but only on the understanding that she would give them back to him again.

        With Elizabeth Woodville, her lands etc granted by Henry VII reverted to Elizabeth of York on her retirement (voluntary or otherwise) to the convent.

        There is a distinction between murder and execution. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, Richard Grey was executed, after a trial presided over by Northumberland. At this time, there probably wasn’t a noble family in England which had not had someone executed by one side or the other. In a way it was an occupational hazard of civil war between the ruling elite. I doubt that Elizabeth would have regarded it as murder. Even Antony Woodville, executed at the same time, didn’t not seem to think he was about to be murdered, he made Richard III the executor of his will – not the sort of thing you would expect a victim of murder to do.

      • Olga Hughes

        My reply was not due to a lack of understanding of why Richard would have to strip Elizabeth of her lands after he had declared she was not the wife of the late king but merely his mistress. It was a reply to the idea that Richard was somehow more benevolent than Elizabeth’s new son-in-law because he gave her an extra 300 marks annuity after destroying her family.

        There is *no* distinction between murder and execution in my eyes. There is no evidence Anthony and Richard were plotting to do anything but bring the young king to London to be crowned. If we start using the excuse that mock trials were held then when would have to exonerate Henry VIII for murdering two of his wives.

  17. sher

    I have found these articles fascinating and would love to read more about her and her children

  18. sher

    I have found these articles fascinating and would love to read more about her and her children Together with Richard 111.

  19. jasmine

    Well, there’s no escaping the fact that Richard’s annuity was worth 700 marks and Henry’s 400 marks – so there is a monetary difference, whichever way you want to look after it, Olga. I merely stated a fact, without comment.

    There is a distinction between murder and execution – we must not look at 15th and 16th century actions with 21st century perspectives. We may comment on the evidence submitted (as with Anne Boleyn) and query it, but she herself accepted her fate – hence her speech from the scaffold. If you look at most recorded speeches, there is always an element of acceptance of the verdict. We can make assumptions about the pressures the condemned were under, but the fact remains that in the minds of the people who lived then, there was a clear distinction between execution and murder.

    • Olga Hughes

      Again that is incorrect Jasmine. Henry granted her all of her dower lands which gave her income on top of her annuity. You may view the list of lands and incomes granted to her online here – from page 347 if it doesn’t link there immediately

      And I am sure that the restoration of her marriage as valid, rather than being branded a harlot and a witch -an unnecessary and nasty slur against her character that has dogged her memory for centuries – was also of the utmost importance.

      Execution speeches are not indications of how people felt about their deaths. Execution speeches were standard, in most cases keeping in mind the loved ones left behind.

      • jasmine

        I read the list on the page you quoted. The additional income is in lieu of her dowry – so in effect, all Henry, having repealed TR which deprived Elizabeth of her dower as queen, has had to reinstate some other properties to provide her with something approaching a queen’s income. It is hardly surprising as he had married her daughter.

        However, all this, he took back again on her retirement to Bermondsey. Why? She was not taking the veil and could have used the income for charitable purposes.

        As far as I know, Elizabeth was not branded a harlot – she was free to marry – the fault was Edward’s. The witchcraft accusation was a standard charge against women. It is modern novelists who have given this a high profile.

        It is interesting that Elizabeth never commented on her marriage, either when it was invalidated or later, when TR was repealed.

      • Olga Hughes

        No it’s not surprising he reinstated all – not some – of her dower lands as she was the Dowager Queen and entitled to them. That doesn’t change the fact that he did *not* give her less money than Richard III did. Every time we insinuate Henry Tudor treated her badly we give more credence to rumours she was unsatisfied and plotted against her own son-in-law and her own daughter and tried to destroy her own family to put a stranger pretending to be the son of a man she despised on the throne. It defies logic.

        Elizabeth didn’t need the income as Bermondsey, she was retiring to an abbey where she was entitled to stay rent-free. She and Henry agreed to give her lands to Elizabeth of York, her heir, to supplement her household income. Elizabeth of York also gave gifts of money to her sisters for the remainder of her life so it stands to reason that as Queen she was now head of the family and therefore should hold the bulk of the income. And she gave plenty of money to religious houses.

        Would adulteress be a better word? It is the same thing, and just because witchcraft had been used before it doesn’t actually mean Richard needed to use the charge, that was to garner malice to ward off sympathy. If he truly believed she was guilty of sorcery he would have had to put her on trial. If he had not made the slur in the first place then there would be nothing for historical novelists to use against her. In fact it is probably the accusation that she used witchcraft to trick Edward into marrying her that has created much of the femme fatale myth that surrounds her.

        When TR was repealed then she had no need to mention it again. I don’t blame her. As for beforehand I don’t imagine she had any sort of power to try and contest an act of parliament.

  20. jasmine

    No, Elizabeth was not an adulteress. She was a widow and free to marry – it was Edward who was the adulterer (if, as I do, one accepts the pre-contract). Elizabeth married in good faith and I am sure she did not find out the true position for many years.

    I think it was useful to Richard to use the charge of witchcraft, as you say, to ward off potential sympathy. The fact that he did not cause her to stand trial for it, shows that it was purely a political gesture, one that had been made against countless other women both before and after Elizabeth.

    At one time, her mother had been accused of using witchcraft to ensnare Edward IV and compel him to marry her daughter. Therefore the charge against Elizabeth, even though no action was taken on it, would have had an impact at the time.

    The emphasis today on Elizabeth’s supposed witchcraft dates very much to recent years. I suspect that had Richard not used this against her, it would still have reared its head in fiction because of the association of witchcraft with Jaquetta.

    • Olga Hughes

      Yes Jacquetta had been accused by Warwick so it was convenient to bring out the old rumour again. While Mantel and Gregory have used it as a fictional device very recently – and lots of magic portrayed in the White Queen tv series it is rather more alarming to see an attempt to examine the charges seriously in recent non-fiction books.

  21. Olga Hughes

    Entries have now closed. Thanks to everyone for entering. Congratulations Angela, you’ve won a copy of Arlene’s biography of Elizabeth Wydeville!


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