Elizabeth Woodville: The Queen Dowager
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.
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.
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.
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.
wars of the roses heating up in the candy aisle
Ha, I just spotted a water bottle in this scene on S01E06.
Real Life Flemish Portraits by Sacha Goldberger
Taking a cue from Rembrandt, Sacha enlisted a small army of costume, hair, and make-up designers to assist his human and live animal models. My personal photo would have been with a mongoose. Aint no cobras coming after me.
I would rather scoop my eyeballs out with a rusty spoon.
So my historical costuming resources list from 2011 was less than a page long- I’m not saying that I’ve learned a lot in the past three years, but this list is now sitting pretty at a solid nine pages. Whew. And people wonder why I want to redo this damn series.
This list is by no means an exhaustive one- it’s a list of (primarily western) historical fashion resources, both online and offline, that is limited to what I know, own, or use! It’s a work in progress, and I’m definitely hoping to expand on it as my knowledge base grows. First things first, how about a little:
ADVICE FOR RESEARCHING HISTORICAL FASHION
- Read, and read about more than just costuming. Allowing yourself to understand the cultural and historical context surrounding the clothing of a particular region/period can be invaluable in sussing out good costume design. Looking at pictures is all well and good, but reading about societal pressures, about construction techniques, daily routines, local symbolism, whatever else will really help you understand the rhyme and reason behind costuming from any given context.
- Expand your costume vocabulary. When you’re delving into a new topic, costuming or otherwise, picking up new terminology is essential to proper understanding and furthering your research. Write down or take note of terms as you come across them- google them, look up synonyms, and use those words as a jumping off point for more research. What’s a wire rebato? How does it differ from a supportasse? Inquiring minds want to know.
- Double-check your sources. Especially on the internet, and double especially on tumblr. I love it, but it’s ground zero for rapidly spreading misinformation. Books are usually your safest bet, but also take into account their date of publication, who’s writing them- an author’s biases can severely mangle their original source material.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Do everything you can to find out information on your own, but feel free to reach out to people with more specialized areas of knowledge for help! Be considerate about it- the people you’re asking are busy as well- but a specific line of questioning that proves you’re passionate and that you respect their subject matter expertise can work wonders.
Okay, onto the links!
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of getting off the internet and looking into books! God bless the internet, but books are (generally, this isn’t a rule) better-researched and better-sourced. Bibliographies also mean each individual books can be a jumping off point for further research, which is always a fantastic thing.
Remember- owning books is awesome and you should absolutely assemble your own library of resources, but LIBRARIES. Libraries. You’ll be surprised to find what books are available to you at your local library.
GENERAL / SURVEYS
- British Costume from Earliest Times to 1820
Fine book with lots of first hand sources, but be wary of the photography in the book- reproduction costumes and thus somewhat less reliable. Though hilarious.
- Corsets and Crinolines
Norah Waugh’s invaluable survey of corsetry and corset patterns- used the world ‘round by modern corsetieres.
- Costume in Detail: Women’s Dress 1730-1930
Elaborate line drawings/diagrams of extant period garments! A fantastic survey.
- Cut of Men’s Clothes
PDF available online! Patterns for men’s period garments.
- Cut of Women’s Clothes
Patterns for women’s period garments.
- Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History
This is a library find, unless you have a pretty three hundred bucks lying around- a great, general resource.
- A History of Costume
A lot of good text and info, to be taken with a grain of salt. Be wary of any reconstructions and or “supposed” patterns that aren’t directly based on extant garments or firsthand accounts.
- Fashion (Taschen 25th Anniversary)
A survey of the Kyoto Costume Institute’s fashion collection- broad but beautiful. On every fashion student’s bookcase.
- Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style
Great overview of fashion history from the Smithsonian and DK publishing.
- The History of Costume: From the Ancient Mesopotamians Through the Twentieth Century
Broad costume survey, second edition.
- What People Wore: 1,800 Illustrations from Ancient Times to the Early Twentieth Century
this is one of those “I am putting this here because I used it a ton when I was younger” but man, mixed bag. Really cool survey to browse through, but also work that is a copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy in most instances and thus not necessarily trustworthy as a resource.
- What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costume from Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century for Every Level of Society
A collection of Racinet and Hottentoth’s costume plates from the 19th century. A beautiful survey but, since these are later illustrations, to be taken with a grain of salt.
Patterns fo Fashion books
Detailed, hand-drawn diagrams of historical fashion, inside and out. Pretty amazing stuff.
- Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, C.1560-1620
- Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s Dresses & Their Construction C. 1660-1860
- Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen’s Dresses & Their Construction C. 1860-1940
- Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear and Accessories for Men and Women C. 1540-1660
Fashion in Detail books
Not what you want if you’re looking for photos of entire costumes- note the “in detail” bit up there. Just a beautiful series, and great reference for all the little things you might miss otherwise. The V&A has an amazing fashion collection, and it’s great to see them share it with the world.
- Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail
- Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail
- Underwear: Fashion in Detail
- World Dress: Fashion in Detail
The one non-western entry in the series.
- Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 - 1915
LACMA’s response to the V&A’s series mentioned above, also an invaluable resource for historical fashion detail.
Tbh I want to see a Machiavellian disney princess
8th of June 1492 ~ Elizabeth Woodville dies at Bermondsey Abbey
The river gleams like silver in the moonlight, and still I hear the sweet clear noise like plainsong, soaring into the vault of the sky like a choir in a church. For a moment only I am bewildered, then I recognise the sound, I remember the song. This is the noise that we heard when we were in sanctuary and my brothers disappeared from the Tower. My mother told me then that this is the song the women of our family hear when there is to be a death of one they love very dearly, one of the family. It is the banshee calling her child home, it is the goddess Melusina, the founder of our family, singing a lament for one of her children. As soon as I hear it, as soon as I understand it, I know that my mother, my beloved, beautiful, mischievous mother, is dead.