The Woodvilles: 3 Powerful Medieval Women

The Woodvilles – Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville, and Elizabeth of York – were three generations of medieval women who left an indelible mark on England.

Nov 3, 2021By Lauren Nitschke, BA Psychology, GradDip in Secondary Education, GradCert in History
medieval women woodvilles

 

The English monarchy was rocked to its core when the newly anointed king, Edward IV, married Elizabeth Woodville, the daughter of a lowly knight. Yet, this commoner’s descendants would sit on the English throne for centuries through her daughter, Elizabeth of York. Elizabeth Woodville herself was the daughter of a formidable woman, Jacquetta of Luxembourg. How did Jacquetta’s lineage and beliefs affect her daughter? And what values did Elizabeth Woodville instill in her own daughter that would have far-reaching consequences for their family line? Read on to learn how these three unforgettable medieval women would change England for generations to come.

 

Extraordinary Medieval Women: Jacquetta of Luxembourg

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The marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, 15th century, National Library of France, Paris

 

Jacquetta of Luxembourg was the daughter of Pierre I de Luxembourg, the Count of Saint-Pol. He died of the Black Death in 1433. Jacquetta was his eldest daughter. Via her first marriage to King Henry V’s brother, she became the Duchess of Bedford. Because of this, it was considered scandalous when she made her second marriage to a knight, after her first husband the Duke died. Given that it was short-lived, there was no issue from Jacquetta’s first marriage, but her allegiance to the House of Lancaster had been firmly established through this union.

 

Her fecundity was proven during her second union to Richard Woodville, 1st Earl Rivers, with whom she had 14 children. The value of noble medieval women lay in their ability to bear many children. The eldest of Jacquetta’s offspring was her daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, who would go on to win the heart of the English king, Edward IV, and become the Queen of England.

 

Jacquetta had defied custom by marrying a man who was beneath her station in life. She married Richard for love. This tells us something about the type of woman she was — one who knew her own heart, and who was strong-minded enough to march to the beat of her own drum. This story was destined to play out once again through her daughter, although in reverse. Elizabeth must have taken something from her parents’ marriage — the notion that love could transcend class, and the idea that medieval women could have agency in their own lives.

 

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Melusine I, bronze sculpture by Gerhard Marks, 1947, via Sotheby’s

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Jacquetta was the type of woman who naturally attracted curiosity, envy, and fear. It was rumored that she was, through her father, descended from the water spirit, Melusine. Melusine was depicted in art as half-woman, half-fish, and according to myth, she ruled over bodies of fresh water. The fact that Jacquetta’s second husband was the 1st Earl Rivers, making her Countess Rivers, would have further fuelled this rumor.

 

It was, therefore, no surprise when she was posthumously accused of witchcraft by her daughter’s brother-in-law, Richard, for conspiring to ensnare the heart of his brother the king. However, all of the accusations in the world could not change the fact that Jacquetta of Luxembourg was to become the ancestor of generations of extraordinary medieval women.

 

Elizabeth Woodville: An Uncommon Beauty

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Elizabeth Woodville in her Sanctuary, Westminster, by Edward Matthew Ward, ca 1855, via the Royal Academy of Art, London

 

This article is not meant to explain the politics of the Wars of the Roses, nor the tragic circumstances around the Princes in the Tower, nor whether Richard III was the evil megalomaniac that William Shakespeare portrayed him as — these are topics far too vast for the scope of this article. Instead, we will examine how Elizabeth weathered the storms of her life as a royal wife and mother.

 

The beauty standard for medieval women included long, fair hair, a high forehead, and a slender figure. Elizabeth Woodville was endowed with all of the attributes of a classic medieval beauty. Portraits and stained glass windows featuring her likeness show pale hazel eyes, heavy eyelids, an oval-shaped face, and fine bone structure. Her hair must have been her crowning glory, for it is repeatedly depicted as being a fine yellow-gold color.

 

To add to her physical features, Elizabeth must have had nerves of steel, if the story of her waiting for the king beneath an oak tree is true. It must have taken a singular type of woman to claim her sons’ inheritance, as she is said to have done, from the new Yorkist king. Her first husband, Sir John Grey, was a staunch Lancastrian, and after Edward IV usurped the throne from the feeble-minded Lancastrian King Henry VI, it must have taken real mettle for Elizabeth to plead the case for her young boys, Thomas and Richard Grey.

 

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Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV, parting with her younger son, the Duke of York when Elizabeth learned that the Prince of York had fallen into the power of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, by Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1893, via the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art

 

Favor smiled upon this singular woman, who not only won the king’s ear but the king’s heart. Elizabeth Woodville was, in many ways, not an obvious choice for queen — she was older than the king by five years, and at the age of 28, hardly young by the standards of the day. She was far from virginal, being a widow, and a mother twice over. She was a Lancastrian. Worst of all, she was the daughter of a knight and thus no better than a commoner. Yet Edward IV made Elizabeth his queen in a secret wedding at her parents’ home in Northamptonshire sometime in May 1464, with only her mother and two other ladies in attendance. Elizabeth Woodville was crowned on May 26th, 1465.

 

Despite being an unlikely choice of bride for Edward, who was expected to make a political match with a foreign princess, she embodied the virtues of an exemplary medieval queen in other ways. Elizabeth was beautiful, fertile, and apolitical, and it appears that Edward genuinely loved her and viewed her as a worthy queen, otherwise he would never have risked the ire of the court, including his cousin, Warwick the Kingmaker, who put him on the throne in the first place. It is reasonable to assume that Elizabeth took after her mother in this regard. At her own first wedding, the 17-year-old Jacquetta of Luxembourg was described by her contemporaries as “lively, beautiful, and gracious.”

 

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Edward IV, by unknown artist (1597-1618), via the National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Yet for all of the gifts which she inherited from her mother, and in spite of the initial fortune this bestowed upon Elizabeth, what she was destined to suffer in the years to follow must have made her wonder if it had all been worth it.

 

Elizabeth was Edward’s loyal wife for 19 years, and their marriage weathered numerous storms. The nobility looked down upon her, her relatives were accused of being avaricious and grasping, her husband had numerous mistresses, and lost his crown during their marriage, forcing her into exile. Elizabeth gave birth to her son in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, while her husband battled for the throne at Barnet and Tewkesbury. Yet, she stayed loyally by his side until he died prematurely, some say from his extravagant lifestyle of wine, women, and song.

 

When Edward died, this left Elizabeth, now the mother of seven surviving children, out on a limb once again, without the protection of a husband. The wolves began to circle around Elizabeth and her offspring almost immediately. She did the absolute best that she could to protect her children, particularly her two boys, including Edward, who was now Edward V of England and awaiting his coronation.

 

Unfortunately, Elizabeth did not have the political acumen nor the noble allies required to help her save her sons from their fate. Despite accusations that both she and her mother were witches, there is no way that she could have foreseen which way the wind would blow, and she once again embodied the characteristic virtues of a medieval queen, by deferring to the judgment of the senior men in her life — a decision that would cost her dearly.

 

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The Roiail Progenei of our Most Sacred King James, by Benjamin Wright, 1619, via National Portrait Gallery, London

 

In terms of political transience, Elizabeth Woodville learned from the best. Jacquetta of Luxembourg had endured her own share of trials as a noblewoman living in a man’s world, where she had use as a political pawn. Jacquetta grew up during the Hundred Years War, and after her first marriage left her a widow at the age of 19, her brother-in-law Henry V of England sent for her to come to England from France in order to pursue another advantageous match.

 

Jacquetta’s daughter would grow up to be even more resilient in the face of change. There was no way that Elizabeth would have survived the tumultuous War of the Roses years, nor the seizing and subsequent disappearance of her two sons, Prince Edward and Prince Richard, if she had not been flexible in her loyalties. The fact that she could stand to see her daughter, Elizabeth of York, wed to Henry VII, a man who was suspected of doing away with the so-called Princes in the Tower, tells us that she must have been like a willow tree — this most extraordinary of medieval women would bend, but she would not break.

 

Elizabeth was a Lancaster by birth, a York by marriage, and then eventually an ally of the Tudors via her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. She managed to keep her head in the face of adversity and shifting alliances and lived until the age of around 56 years, which for medieval women was remarkable.

 

Elizabeth of York: An Impossible Position

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Elizabeth of York, Unknown artist, late 16th century, via the National Portrait Gallery, London

 

One must feel pity for Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter, Elizabeth of York. In many ways, she endured an even more difficult journey than her own mother, when she was married to Henry VII. Especially if the rumors that Henry was responsible for the disappearance of her two younger brothers, the Princes Edward and Richard, were true. Elizabeth of York had to endure even more rumors, that she and her uncle, Richard III, were lovers, and she had to see her mother go through the loss of her sons.

 

Yet, she too exemplified all of the things that a medieval queen should be. Elizabeth of York was a loyal wife and a loving mother. She proved to be fertile, bearing Henry eight children, and most importantly, she never meddled in politics, which was strictly the domain of men. She focused instead on the family sphere, and religious devotion. Elizabeth of York, like her own mother, came to know the despair of losing a son and heir to the English throne, when her eldest son Arthur succumbed to illness and died at the age of 15.

 

Her marriage to Henry VII appears to have blossomed into a true love relationship, so much so that when she died of a postpartum infection after the birth of a daughter, he supposedly ordered that the Queen of Hearts in every set of playing cards should henceforth be made in her likeness.

 

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Portrait of Henry VIII of England, by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1537, via Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

 

There is also evidence to suggest that she was a much-loved mother, in the Vaux Passional manuscript that is housed at the National Library of Wales. One of the miniatures therein depicts an 11-year-old Henry crying on his mother’s empty bed after her death. This child would go on to become the infamous Tudor king, Henry VIII (depicted in the portrait by Hans Holbein above). Elizabeth truly stood head and shoulders above other medieval women of her time.

 

Three Enduring Medieval Women

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Queen Elizabeth I, associated with Nicholas Hilliard, ca. 1575, via the National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth Woodville, and Elizabeth of York were all incredible medieval women. Jacquetta’s legacy to her daughter Elizabeth was teaching her to walk her own path in life. In turn, Elizabeth taught her own daughter that to survive she must flow with events, like the waters from which their ancestor Melusine emerged. And let the world never forget that these three medieval women, each unforgettable in their own way, were the forebears of the most memorable English queen of all — Elizabeth I.



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By Lauren NitschkeBA Psychology, GradDip in Secondary Education, GradCert in HistoryLauren is a past teacher of English and History. She holds a Bachelor of Arts, a teaching diploma, and post-graduate qualifications in History. Lauren is a Graduate Historian with the Professional Historians Association of Victoria and Tasmania (Australia). Her areas of special interest include Medieval History and Victorian England. She resides in rural Australia with her family and a multitude of furry friends.