The Woodville Brides: Women of the Woodville Marriages Under Edward IV

When Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville in around May 1464, there was shock around the royal court. First, she was a commoner, and kings were expected not to wed from the heart but for the political and financial advantage of his realm. Second, she was the widow of a man who had fought against the House of York. There was no public wedding; Edward was said to have married her in secret, near the Woodville home of Grafton (now Grafton Regis). 

The fact that Edward had married (an admittedly young and beautiful) Elizabeth was one thing, but another thing the lords found hard to swallow was the keenness in which members of her family assumed positions of power in their new brother-in-law's government. The Woodvilles seemed to launch a campaign to snap up all the eligible brides and bachelors of the realm, elevating their position in society and securing their influence and success at court. The Tudor historian Hall commented that these marriages were ‘joyous to the queen and profitable to her blood’ but made enemies of the nobility. They ‘more marvelled than allowed this sudden rising and swift elevation’, he wrote.

Elizabeth’s sister Margaret was one of the first to walk down the aisle. Her husband, Thomas FitzAlan Lord Maltravers, was heir to the Earl of Arundel. He would succeed to the title in 1487.(1)  Margaret stood at the altar of Reading’s Abbey Church, not far from Reading's Medieval market place and secured her place as a future Countess. The Paston Letters date the wedding before 17 February 1465, but Agnes Strickland offered the date of  October 1464, just weeks after her sister’s appearance as Edward’s wife.(2)   If so, Edward and Elizabeth may have been secretly negotiating the match with Arundel before Elizabeth’s introduction to the court at the end of September. 

One marriage caused some controversy. Katherine Neville, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, was married to Elizabeth’s brother John Woodville. William Worcester called it ‘a diabolical marriage’, Strickland seeing it as a grasp for Katherine’s ‘great jointure’, recording that the duchess was, at the time, in her eightieth year. However Sarah Gristwood finds she was more likely in her sixties and may have also been motivated to wed the young bridegroom who in turn, made her a legitimate member of the royal family.(3)

One man in particular bristled at these Woodville marriages. The Earl of Warwick Richard Neville had been negotiating a politically matched bridge for the king, before he discovered Edward had wed without consulting his Council. But the unions added insult to Warwick in other ways: Thomas FitzAlan’s mother was Warwick’s sister Joan, while Katherine the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk was his aunt. We can imagine the indignant earl learning that the 20-year old Richard Woodville was now, after his marriage, Warwick's uncle.(4) Strickland also claims that the marriage of Mary Woodville to William Herbert, heir to the Earldom of Pembroke angered Warwick and ‘interfered with his interests’ after Herbert was promoted to offices close to the king.(5) The reduction in the number of wealthy, eligible bachelors, thanks to these marriages involving the Woodville sisters also narrowed the betrothal prospects for Warwick’s own two daughters, Isabel and Anne.

One marriage could not be blamed by Warwick or anyone else on Elizabeth’s rise. The queen’s brother Anthony Woodville had already married Elizabeth, the daughter of Thomas Lord Scales, who was murdered by rebels during riots of the Wars of the Roses in 1460. Cokayne places the date of their wedding in around 1461-2, at least two years before Edward’s association with Anthony’s sister.(6)

There were other marriages, too. Catherine Woodville married Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham in a betrothal arranged in their childhood while other ceremonies joined more brothers and sisters to lords, earls and dukes. If we take a step back we can see how some of these 'old' nobility felt at the Woodvilles snatching up eligible brides and grooms with rich inheritances and substantial titles. Some had titles that had been bestowed upon their ancestors by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century and felt threatened by the Woodvilles’ new 'nouveau riche' status. They were not elevated for their rank or service in battle but simply because they were related to the queen. 

On the other hand, wealthy spouses also benefited from their links to the Woodvilles. Now members of the royal family, they had access to the king as well as his courtiers and earned the respect of their neighbours, rubbing shoulders with the royals. 

Elizabeth and the Woodvilles have been seen as a power-grabbing family, relentlessly grasping at titles, influence and power and profiting from their sister's royal marriage and status. But surely it is natural that Elizabeth would lift her family to positions reflecting her own role as queen, especially if they were expected to take on roles and services in government. It was arguably more the disdain over the family's humbler origins that angered the nobility, and the feeling that they were outsiders that didn't 'belong'. This distrust and jealousy would endure after Edward’s death and continue into the reign of Richard III. ‘After this wedding known’, wrote Stow of Edward’s secret bride, ‘the Earl of Warwick and King Edward were never friends’.(7) 

I explore some of the women of the Woodville family in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. Order your copy here. 

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1. Cokayne, The Complete Peerage, vol 1, p149-50
2. Fenn, The Paston Letters, 1840. volume 1, p195 and Strickland, Agnes. Lives of the Queens of England, volume 2, p11
3. Strickland, vol 2, p11 and Sarah Gristwood, Blood Sisters. p100. 
4. Cokayne, vol 1, p149 and Cokayne, vol 6, p42-43
5. Strickland, vol2 p11
6.  Cokayne, vol 7 p73
7. John Stow, Annals of England, p695