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The Woodvilles: Were they as bad as history states?


From 1437, when Richard Woodville, a mere knight, made a shocking match to the widowed Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, to 1492, when Queen Elizabeth Woodville breathed her last at Bermondsey Abbey, the Woodvilles trod the boards of the great theatre of fifteenth-century history.

Their members married into the greatest houses of England, crossed lances with the finest jousters in Europe, patronised the industry that made it possible for you to read books today, fought battles at home and abroad, and helped bring down an entire dynasty. Without them, the history of fifteenth-century England would have been very different.

In 1464, Edward IV, England’s most eligible bachelor, made a shocking disclosure to his council: he had married not a foreign princess, but an English commoner – Elizabeth Woodville, a widow with two children. Their marriage would help to rekindle the dynastic struggle that we know as the Wars of the Roses – a struggle that would lead to the death of the last Plantagenet king at the Battle of Bosworth Field and that would place a new dynasty, the Tudors, on the throne. The Woodvilles tells the story of the notorious – and much maligned – family that bred one of history’s most unlikely queen consorts.

I first encountered the Woodville family when I began to read historical fiction set during the Wars of the Roses. The portrayal of the Woodvilles was overwhelmingly negative and I began to ask myself, ‘Were they really that bad?’ Soon I started researching the family and, as I did, I realised how many myths, half-truths and unsubstantiated stories had collected around the Woodvilles: the tale that Jacquetta Woodville, the matriarch of the family, arranged to have Sir Thomas Cook arrested on trumped-up charges simply because she coveted his tapestry; the story that Elizabeth Woodville orchestrated the murder of the hapless Earl of Desmond; and the claim that the Woodvilles ran off with the royal treasury during the crisis that brought Richard III to the throne. In reality, Cook, who may well have been guilty of concealing a Lancastrian plot against Edward IV, got off relatively lightly; the story for Elizabeth’s complicity in Desmond’s execution rests upon an unlikely sixteenth-century tale that contains glaring historical errors; and the tale of the Woodvilles stealing the treasury is based solely on a rumour that stands up poorly under scrutiny. As I kept seeing these stories regurgitated uncritically, I began to long for a book geared toward a popular audience that would set the record straight.

But I wanted to do more than that: I wanted to share the stories of the individual members of the large family who followed Elizabeth Woodville to court. There is her mother, Jacquetta, who, as the widowed Duchess of Bedford, married Richard Woodville, a knight in her husband’s household, and who would later be accused of witchcraft. There is Richard Woodville, whose daughter’s marriage brought him high office and an earldom – and which cost him his head and that of one of his sons. There is Elizabeth herself, the beauty who ensnared a king, and whose royal sons, the Princes in the Tower, are at the centre of one of history’s greatest mysteries. There is Anthony Woodville, the jouster, soldier and religious pilgrim whose translations were among the first books to be printed in England, and who was destroyed in Richard III’s quest for the throne. And there was Edward Woodville, the gallant young knight who charmed Ferdinand and Isabella, and whose sense of loyalty would lead him to fight – and to die – for a cause not his own.

Too often these men and women have been lumped together as a stereotyped, greedy, social-climbing mass, their individual stories overlooked in favour of lazy generalisations. If through writing The Woodvilles I have allowed you to see them and the rest of the Woodville family, without whom English history would be so very different, in a fresh light, I will be most satisfied.

By Susan Higginbotham

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