Death of a Dowager: Elizabeth Woodville

Death of a Dowager: Elizabeth Woodville

By Peggy M. Baker

On 8 June 1492, Elizabeth Woodville, widow of King Edward IV and dowager queen of England, died at Bermondsey Abbey. She was buried four days later at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Elizabeth Woodville left a short and simple will, which was as basic and uncomplicated as her funeral services had been.

This was in stark contrast to the majestic state funeral of Elizabeth Woodville’s royal husband.

Edward IV had died at Westminster Palace in London on 9 April 1483. His magnificently solemn funeral observances were spread over the next eleven days. His casket, topped by a life-size effigy, was carried into Westminster Abbey, accompanied by a procession of clerics and nobles. Edward then lay in royal state, amid silken banners and tall burning candles. An honor guard, composed of his household knights and esquires, stood around his coffin day and night.

On 18 April, Edward’s body was carried to Windsor Castle. A decade earlier, Edward IV had begun construction on the castle grounds of a new free-standing chapel dedicated to St. George. There, on 20 April, after a series of requiem masses celebrated by high-ranking clergy, Edward’s body was finally interred. The entire funeral cost over £1400.

Rather unexpectedly, Edward IV did not leave an up-to-date will. Or did he? Two different chronicles report two different stories.

Polydore Vergil claimed that Edward had, in fact, written a will, naming his sons as his heirs and “…making them wards of his brother Duke Richard of Gloucester, and piously distributing much of his goods.” (Dana F. Sutton’s translation)

No such document, however, has ever been found.

The Croyland Chronicle, in contrast, reported that Edward had made a detailed will “long before his illness,” and “On his death-bed he added some codicils thereto…” (online at the website of The Richard III Society).

Edward IV’s 1475 Will

The early will is the only written will that survives. Edward composed it in 1475 when he was planning a potentially hazardous invasion of France. If written codicils were added, they were lost or destroyed.

In the 1475 will, Edward went on, for paragraph after paragraph after paragraph, with specific instructions about the collection of his debts and exactly how those debts should be determined. This section of the will also included Edward’s acknowledgment that he expected his young son to inherit his throne. He referred to “… our son Edward the Prince or such as shall please almighty God to ordain to be our heirs and to succeed us in the Crown of England” (all quotes from Excerpta Historica, p. 366).

Edward IVEdward IV.
Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection

Edward then turned his attention towards the other members of his young family. He made provisions for his second son, and set out dowries for his daughters based on their individual circumstances and tailored to the plans already made for their betrothals. In 1475, his oldest daughter Elizabeth, the future wife of Henry VII, was only 9 years old. She had two sisters, Mary and Cecily, ages 7 and 6; and two brothers, Edward and Richard, 4 and less than a year old. Edward’s two youngest girls, Katherine and Brigid, had not yet even been born.

Edward’s will, whether a new document written during his final illness in 1483 or this earlier document with codicils, was disregarded when he died. None of his daughters received their intended dowries. Neither of his two sons succeeded him on the throne. And, although Edward was buried at St. George’s Chapel, his tomb had no “figure of Death with an escutcheon of our Armor,” and no effigy of silver and gilt, “or at least copper and gilt.”

After Edward’s Death

Instead, within months, Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was declared invalid and his children illegitimate. Both of his sons disappeared. Edward’s brother was crowned as Richard III.

In 1485, Richard’s grasp on England’s throne was challenged by Henry Tudor. Henry won the day and took the crown as Henry VII. Not long thereafter, he married Edward IV’s oldest daughter Elizabeth.

The relationship between Henry VII and his new mother-in-law was not straightforward or easy. After Edward IV’s death, Elizabeth Woodville had plotted with Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor’s mother, to arrange the marriage between Henry and her daughter Elizabeth.

She had then, however, seemingly made her peace with Richard III. She brought her daughters out of sanctuary and allowed them to grace Richard’s court. She even encouraged her son, Thomas Gray, offspring of her first and nonroyal marriage, to desert Henry Tudor and renew his allegiance to Richard III.

Henry was victorious nonetheless. He immediately had many of Richard III’s actions reversed. He and his mother were no longer to be considered “rebels.” In preparation for his wedding to Elizabeth of York, the marriage of her parents was declared valid. Elizabeth Woodville regained, thereby, her title and position as dowager queen.

She was present when, several months later, her daughter married Henry VII. She was asked to stand as godmother to her first grandchild, the Prince Arthur. Her dower lands and manors were restored to her. In July 1486, she took out a 40-year-lease on a mansion inside the Westminster Abbey precinct

The Dowager Loses Her Lands

At first, Henry VII restored Elizabeth’s propertiesAt first, Henry VII restored Elizabeth’s properties.
Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Less than a year later, however, in February 1487, a great council deprived Elizabeth Woodville of her dower lands. She was given, in their stead, a paltry pension of 400 marks (valued at some £267). Elizabeth immediately retired to Bermondsey Abbey, just south of London.


Historians have argued the point for centuries.

Could it be that Elizabeth Woodville voluntarily decided to retire from public life and live in seclusion? That would be an extremely abrupt turn-about for a woman who had just signed a lengthy lease for a magnificent house, close to the center of action. Bermondsey may have been a bucolic and peaceful establishment that had frequently, in the past, hosted royal visitors. Its glory days were, however, long gone. In the late 15th century, Bermondsey was isolated, poorly managed and run down.

And, while Elizabeth was probably as pious as any other medieval woman, she did not enter a convent or take the veil. Bermondsey was a male establishment. Its attraction undoubtedly was that it was required by charter to provide complimentary lodgings to the widows of men who were descended from the abbey’s original founders. Elizabeth’s status as the widow of Edward IV, in other words, entitled her to live there at no cost.

Or could it be that Elizabeth Woodville had been, once again, engaged in behind-the-scenes political maneuvering? The very same council that took away Elizabeth Woodville’s possessions also took steps to deal with a conspiracy aimed at toppling Henry VII from his throne. A “pretender,” now known as Lambert Simnel, had arisen. Could Elizabeth have been actively involved in this plot to overthrow her son-in-law and, by extension, her own daughter and grandson? It seems unlikely.

In the late 1400s, the crown was in peril.

In the late 1400s, the crown was in peril.
Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Or, should we believe the reason given by Edward Hall’s 1532 chronicle? Was this retribution for the actions taken three years earlier? After first agreeing that her daughter would marry Henry Tudor when he took the throne from Richard, Elizabeth Woodville “… had voluntarily submitted herself and her daughters wholly to the hands of king Richard, contrary to the promise made to [Henry Tudor]” (all Chronicle quotes from Hall’s Chronicle, London, 1809, p. 431).

In breaking her agreement with Henry, Elizabeth Woodville could have lessened Henry’s chances of successfully winning the crown.

Even Hall seems dubious that Henry would have waited three long years, if vengeance had been the motivation. After all, although this had been “a grievous offence and a heinous crime,” Elizabeth’s actions had been ineffective and caused no lasting harm to Henry’s cause.

Edward Hall then proceeded, however, to pinpoint what was probably the true reason for the action taken against Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth was deprived of her lands, and thereby her ability to operate independently, not because of what she had done but because of what Henry VII was afraid she might do. Henry could not forget Elizabeth’s history of “folly and inconstancy.” In this time of extreme uncertainty and peril, he could not trust that she would remain loyal.

Once Elizabeth was at Bermondsey, away from court and no longer a danger, Henry could afford to occasionally be gracious. He referred to her, in writing at least, as the “right dere and right well beloved Quene Elizabeth, late wif unto the noble prince of famous memory King Edward the Ivth, and moder unto oure derrest wif the quene.” She was not completely cut off from court life, and was present when her daughter’s second child, the Princess Margaret, was born. Elizabeth Woodville was, however, notably absent when her daughter was crowned queen of England.

Death of a Dowager

Elizabeth Woodville lived at Bermondsey Abbey for only five years. She died there, at age 55, on 8 June 1492. She had written her will two months earlier. In it, she asked that she be buried with her husband at Windsor, as they both had planned, but “without pompous entering or costly expenses done thereabout” (all quotes from Elizabeth’s will from Elizabeth, England’s Slandered Queen, by Arlene Okerlund, p. 256-57).

The request for a simple burial was not, as Okerlund points out, unusual. Many pious people made such a request. Very few such requests, however, were actually honored.

Elizabeth Woodville’s burial passed with almost no notice and very little ceremony. Her casket was carried by barge from Bermondsey to Windsor. It was accompanied by a party of five, one of whom was “Mistress Grace,” an otherwise unidentified illegitimate daughter of Edward IV.

Elizabeth’s funeral escort was very small.

Elizabeth’s funeral escort was very small.
Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

No religious procession met the barge at water’s edge, to escort the dowager queen’s body to its final resting place. There were no bells, no candles, no acknowledgment of her status, no funeral mass. She was buried in Edward IV’s tomb in St. George’s Chapel at 11:00 at night.

Several days later, services were held at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, for Elizabeth Woodville. Her oldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, was not present. She was in seclusion, awaiting the imminent birth of her fourth child. Elizabeth Woodville’s other surviving daughters, Anne, Cecily, Katherine and Bridget, were present, as were several noblemen, and a Requiem Mass was said.

The daughters received none of the usual bequests given by aristocratic mothers. Elizabeth Woodville had no jewels, or richly-bound and ornamented prayer books, to give. Since, as she said in her will, “I have no worldly goods to do the Queen’s Grace, my dearest daughter, a pleasure with, neither to reward any of my children, according to my heart and mind,” all she could leave was her blessing, “with as good heart and mind as is to me possible.”

Suggested reading

Blood Sisters: The Hidden Lives of the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses, by Sarah Gristwood

Edward IV, by Charles Ross

Elizabeth, England’s Slandered Queen, by Arlene Okerlund

Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World, by Alison Weir

Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower, by David Baldwin

The Women of the Cousins’ War, by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones