Elizabeth Woodville was born the eldest child of Sir Richard Woodville and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who had previously been married to John, Duke of Bedford, brother of King Henry V. She was probably born at Grafton in Northamptonshire, and she spent her early years in the nursery there. She was soon joined by plenty more siblings. She was probably sent to board with the family of her future husband sometime after her 7th birthday. The home of Sir Edward Grey and his wife Elizabeth, Lady Ferrers was relatively nearby and would have enabled Elizabeth to return home periodically. She was set to marry their eldest son, John.
There is no record of when exactly Elizabeth married John. They probably settled at the Grey’s second principal manor home at Astley, and they went on to have two sons, Thomas and Richard. The decade of Elizabeth’s first marriage is a great mystery to historians. Her daily life probably consisted of supervising the servants and overseeing the work around the house. That life came to a crashing halt when the newly knighted Sir John was killed fighting for the Lancastrians at the second Battle of St Albans, leaving Elizabeth a widow in her early twenties while Edward of York was declared King Edward IV of England. Elizabeth returned to Grafton to be with her mother, and it was likely here that she met the King by chance. Though their meeting has been romanticised by series such as the White Queen, we do not know exactly when and where they met or when the King decided to marry her to the surprise of many. She may have been the daughter of a Duchess, but she was still no match for a King.
Elizabeth was formally introduced to the court of on Michaelmas Day (29 September) when the King’s brother the Duke of Clarence and the Earl of Warwick escorted her into the chapel of Reading Abbey. Elizabeth and Edward remained there for several weeks before journeying to Windsor in November and then on to Eltham for Christmas. Her coronation was planned for 26 May 1465. It must have been a great moment for her. Her rise in status also helped her many siblings as they went on to make advantageous marriages.
On 11 February 1466, Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter also named Elizabeth. Two more daughters named Mary and Cecily were born in 1467 and 1469. The years 1469/1470 also brought new troubles and Edward was suddenly in the custody of the Earl of Warwick (who had also conveniently married his daughter Isabel to the King’s brother the Duke of Clarence). A pregnant Elizabeth fled into the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey with her three daughters. The intent was to make the Duke of Clarence King in place of Edward while King Henry VI was still at large. The plan fell through, and the disgraced Earl and Duke fled to Calais into the arms of King Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, who was waiting for her chance. The Earl of Warwick’s second daughter Anne was married to Margaret and Henry’s only son, Prince Edward.
Around 1 November 1470, Elizabeth gave birth to her fourth child by Edward, a son named for his father. The following April King Edward was successful and returned triumphantly to the capital, where he met up with Elizabeth and their new-born son. King Henry VI was captured, while the Earl of Warwick was killed at the Battle of Barnet. Queen Margaret and her son landed in England, but they were defeated at the following Battle of Tewkesbury. Prince Edward was killed in battle while Margaret was taken into custody. King Henry VI mysteriously died in the Tower not much later.
As King Edward dealt with restoring the peace in the land, he created his son Prince of Wales on 26 June 1471. By then, Elizabeth was pregnant again, but her daughter Margaret did not survive the year and died around Christmas. In May 1472, Elizabeth had also lost her mother, Jacquetta. The following year, Elizabeth gave birth to Prince Richard. In 1473, Elizabeth accompanied the Prince of Wales to Ludlow, where she was to rule Wales on his behalf for the time being. She appointed her eldest brother as part of her son’s council. By 1475, she was back in London and gave birth to a daughter named Anne later that year. She then gave birth to George in 1477, Catherine in 1479 and Bridget in 1480. Unfortunately, George died in infancy. By Christmas 1482, it was clear that King Edward’s health had begun to fail and he died on 9 April 1483. He was still only 40 years old. Elizabeth pushed her grief aside to ensure the succession of her 12-year-old son, now King Edward V.
He was accompanied from Ludlow by his uncle and half-brother. However, the late King’s brother the Duke of Gloucester (who would go on to become King Richard III) set out to meet the new King, They met up, and the Duke placed the new King’s half-brother and uncle under arrest, claiming that they meant to rule England through him. Elizabeth was furious, and she began to gather an army to free her son from the clutches of the Duke of Gloucester. However, it soon became clear that she could not win. With no other choice, Elizabeth once again fled to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey with her five daughters and son Richard. Some believed that she was overreacting, but soon the Duke of Gloucester came to obtain the surrender of her youngest son. Elizabeth had no intention of letting him go. Unfortunately, she was alone and helpless and realised there would come a point when she would be forced to comply. The Duke of Gloucester surrounded the abbey with soldiers, and she was forced to give in.
Just six days after she surrendered Richard, a sermon was preached claiming that Edward IV was a bastard and that he and Elizabeth had never been lawfully married. It also claimed that Edward had been secretly married to another woman, who had died in 1468. The Duke of Gloucester used the accusations to claim the throne as King Richard III. Elizabeth’s two sons were brought to the Tower of London and were never seen again. Elizabeth was demoted from Queen to Dame Elizabeth Grey. It is perhaps no surprise that she began plotting against the new King with Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, the leading Lancastrian claimant. Within months they agreed that if Henry married Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, then she would support his bid for the throne. Their first attempt in 1483 was put down, and Elizabeth was also finally convinced to come out of the sanctuary.
In August 1485, a second invasion was launched by Henry Tudor, and he defeated King Richard III at Bosworth, claiming the throne as King Henry VII. Soon after he became King, Elizabeth was reinstated as Dowager Queen, while he married her eldest daughter the following year. After the Lambert Simnel plot (who pretended to be King Edward IV’s nephew the Earl of Warwick), Henry seized Elizabeth’s property and sent her to Bermondsey Abbey. Elizabeth lived at the abbey until her death on 8 June 1492.
She was given a grand funeral and was buried beside King Edward IV. 1