Queen Elizabeth Wydeville, Wife of Edward IV, mother of Elizabeth of York, Grandmother of Henry VIII
Phillip Mould: This rare and important portrait depicts Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward VI, and Queen of England between 1464 and 1483. Hitherto unknown, it dates from the 1540s, and is one of the earliest derivations of the original likeness in the Royal Collection, which has been dated to the 1470s. The present example would almost certainly have been commissioned as part of a set of corridor portraits celebrating the Tudor succession during the reign of Henry VIII, whose grandmother Elizabeth was.
Elizabeth Woodville is one of the most enigmatic Queens of England. She was an unlikely consort, being both of low rank and a widow, with two children, when she married Edward IV secretly in 1464. She was viewed with hostility by the court and Edward’s supporters, including the powerful Earl of Warwick, the ‘Kingmaker’, who were astounded at his poor choice of bride. Edward, the Yorkist claimant to the throne during the Wars of the Roses, had only recently defeated the Lancastrian Henry VI at the Battle of Towton in 1461. Marriage, to an important European royal family, was the best way of securing his grip on the throne through a diplomatic alliance. But Edward, whose voracious sexual appetite was well known, simply chose the woman he loved, or at least lusted.
As a result, Elizabeth was never popular, and was frequently the target of rumour and intrigue. The marriage caused Edward significant political problems, for Elizabeth’s family was primarily Lancastrian, and, as the Woodvilles gained increasingly prominent places at court, Edward risked political isolation from those who felt he owed his place to their support. The Earl of Warwick, ‘the Kingmaker’ was one such figure, and in 1470 led a series of rebellions that overthrew Edward.
The Yorkist abeyance was brief, however, and while Edward was in exile in France, Elizabeth demonstrated that in the primary function of a Queen, the production of heirs, she was unequalled. In all, she gave birth to ten children, three of whom were boys, Edward (the future Edward V), Richard (Duke of York), and the short-lived George. Unfortunately, Edward IV’s premature death in 1483 left Elizabeth and her young children isolated. Although she acted swiftly to secure possession of her two eldest sons, and planned a swift coronation of Edward V as King, she was simply not strong enough politically to prevent Richard of Gloucester’s usurpation.
Elizabeth’s surrender of her two sons to Richard, while she was in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, and their subsequent incarceration and murder in the Tower, has led to speculation that she was involved in some form of conspiracy with Richard. While it is true that she eventually accepted Richard’s rule, even after the murder of her two sons, she had in effect no other choice. One rebellion, Buckingham’s, had already failed, and Richard had eliminated almost every other member of her family. The only surviving Lancastrian rival, Henry Tudor, seemed a most unlikely hope, even if he had promised to marry Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. Stripped of her title, and with no possessions or money, it was all she could do to secure the safety of her remaining daughters by concluding an agreement with Richard.
As a result, Elizabeth was inevitably viewed with some suspicion after Henry VII’s surprise victory at Bosworth in 1485. But she was restored to her title as Queen generously provided for as mother of the new Queen, and made Godmother to the new Tudor heir, Prince Arthur. It is, however, worth noting that although the present portrait follows the Windsor likeness closely, it appears to have been historically updated by a later artist with an eye on the politics of the time. Here, Elizabeth is shown wearing a widow’s veil, but is not in the Windsor picture. At the time this picture was painted, it seems, it was safer, politically, to present Elizabeth not as the wife of a Yorkist King, but as the Dower Queen, or mother, of her daughter Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII.