Elizabeth Woodville, the attractive commoner who managed to enchant a king and become queen of England, has proved herself a controversial figure just for being who she was. To some she is a romantic heroine, a regular young woman who married for love and held her own against all her enemies. To others she was a ruthless social climber, a sorceress and interested only in her own advancement. Her life story has held a fascination for me for many years, and one of the things that has struck me most as I have read and researched both her and her family is the seemingly unbreakable family bond that existed between Elizabeth and her kin. Much has been written about the Woodville family as a whole; writers and historians often labelling them as ‘The Woodvilles’ as if they were a single entity. Together they are accused of being upstarts, of making a collective grab for power. Their continued support for each other throughout their lives bound them together and it this closeness, I believe, that actually gives them their strength. The York Princesses looked out for each other and supported each other. Elizabeth always had their backing and this must have been a comfort to her on many occasions throughout her life.
When Elizabeth married Edward IV, she became part of an extended family that did not have the same close relationships as she did with her own family. That is not to say Edward’s family were never close – in the early years, they certainly fought together as a whole. The Duke of York, his sons and other family members put on a united front against the Lancastrians and when the Duke was killed, Edward picked up the baton, avenging the death of his father and brother. In the early years, the loyalty shown to Edward both on and off the battlefield by his family, particularly his brothers and his cousin, Warwick, ensured his victory in claiming the throne of England. But as the years passed, Edward and Warwick became mortal enemies where only the death of one of them would, in the end, suffice. Edward would also later go on to execute his younger brother, George, Duke of Clarence. After Edward’s death, the championing of his son and heir to take his rightful place on the throne was taken on not by his blood relatives, but by his chamberlain and friend, William Hastings. Meanwhile Edward’s youngest brother, Richard of Gloucester, undeniably loyal to Edward during his lifetime, would seemingly think nothing of disposing his brother’s rightful heirs – his own nephews – removing Hastings in the process, and claiming the throne for himself. Many both then and now hold him accountable certainly for the Princes disappearance and possibly with their alleged murder too. And to clear his path to taking the throne, he publicly declared his brother Edward a bastard, thereby accusing his mother of adultery. This was not a family held together by close ties. The old adage, blood is thicker than water, was certainly not adhered to by Elizabeth’s in-laws.
But the same cannot be said of the Woodvilles. No evidence exists of any great disputes amongst them and although they undoubtably had their squabbles like any family, when it came to it, they had each other’s backs. Intrigued by their deep family ties, my first book, The Queen’s Sisters, focussed on Elizabeth’s female siblings. They are often only mentioned by name in many historical accounts and although there is only a scarce amount of information on them, my aim was to piece together as much as I could about them to allow their stories to be told. The natural follow up to that, and the subject of my latest book, was to give the same treatment to Elizabeth and Edward’s daughters. Once again, other than Princess Elizabeth of York who went on to marry Henry VII to become the first Tudor queen, the other Princesses have somewhat faded into obscurity. Their narrative disappears behind the shadows of their famous brothers, Edward and Richard, the subjects of one of our greatest historical mysteries, that of the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.
Whilst writing about the York Princesses, I noticed again that the closeness that was seen in Elizabeth’s Woodville family was also ostensibly echoed in her own family. United by the tragedy that blighted their young lives – that of the sudden death of their father, the disappearance of their brothers and the loss of their royal status – the girls remained close to each other. When the eldest, Elizabeth of York, became queen, she supported her younger sisters both emotionally and financially. Her surviving accounts from the year 1502/3 detail payments to Anne of York’s husband for her maintenance, as well as payments for the care of her sister Katherine’s children and payments to the prioress at Dartford for the upkeep of her sister, Bridget.
When Elizabeth died in 1503, her funeral procession followed the same route that she took for her coronation and behind the chariot carrying her body walked her four sisters, Katherine, Anne, Bridget and Cecily, all wearing mourning gowns with sweeping trains. A united group of women, coming together to mourn the sister they loved. Throughout their lives the York girls stayed together, supported each other and remained a tight family unit. When life took a different turn to what they been raised to expect, they navigated their way through it together, through the tumultuous years of the 1480s and eventually finding their own paths during the reign of a new dynasty and the age of the Tudors. Individually they would have inherited many traits from both their parents, their mother’s good looks for instance or their father’s personable nature. But perhaps their close bond as a family group was learnt from their mother’s family, an example from an early age of the benefits of loyalty and sticking together. This, then, could be considered their ‘Woodville Inheritance’ and it likely served them very well indeed.
Sarah Hodder is the author of The York Princesses: The Daughters of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.