A newly discovered 500-year-old letter has revealed that Elizabeth Woodville – wife of King Edward IV and mother of Elizabeth of York – may have died of the plague.
Elizabeth Woodville died in 1492 after spending the last years of her life in Bermondsey Abbey. At the time, her daughter, Elizabeth of York, was Queen of England as the wife of the Tudor King Henry VII. At the time of her death, there was no recorded cause. Euan Roger has now stumbled upon a letter from the Venetian ambassador to London, written 19 years of Elizabeth Woodville’s death.
The letter from 1511 states that “the Queen-Widow, mother of King Edward, has died of plague, and the King is disturbed.” Roger says that the ambassador could only be referring to Elizabeth Woodville and it also provides for an explanation for her very modest funeral. She had requested a funeral without pomp but the ceremonies were apparently so lacking that people were shocked. Her body was taken down the Thames with by just five people, taken in secret to Windsor Castle and buried upon arrival with none of the usual funerary rites. Roger writes, “Unless there was a specific need for haste – such as death from a contagious disease – it seems inconceivable that such a secretive and speedy journey would be necessary.”
“The death of Henry VIII’s grandmother from plague and the memory of such an event at court clearly remained in the King’s thoughts several years later – the rumours of such a fear becoming so resonant at court that they were picked up by even an alien ambassador – leaving Henry with a deep-seated fear of contagious disease,” writes Roger. “It starts to shed light on Henry’s own emotional state. He still clearly feared the disease and while he had no heir, the entire Tudor lineage was at stake.”