The Death and Burial of Elizabeth Woodville
Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville had been queen from 1465 until 1470 and from 1471 until her husband Edward IV’s early death in April 1483. When Edward IV died, their eldest son Edward was proclaimed King but a coronation never took place. Between the summer of 1483 and 1485 Elizabeth was in sanctuary and was later sent away from court and must have lived in constant fear of what will happen to her children and herself and other family members who now found themselves being imprisoned and executed on the orders of Edward IV’s younger brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester. Richard of Gloucester was appointed as Lord Protector during his nephew’s minority and Elizabeth and Edward’s two sons, Edward and Richard of Shrewsbury, were placed in the Tower of London with the given reason to prepare for the upcoming coronation of Elizabeth’s 12-year-old son Edward V. But things went differently as planned and Elizabeth and Edward’s children were declared bastards and Uncle Richard took the throne for himself and the two princes in the Tower mysteriously disappeared.
During this time it is said that Elizabeth started negotiating with Margaret Beaufort to depose Richard and have her eldest daughter Elizabeth of York, who was now the heiress of the House of York, marry Margaret’s son Henry Tudor, who arguably had the strongest claim to the Lancastrian throne. At the start of 1484, Richard III’s first parliament deprived Elizabeth of all her lands given to her during her husband’s reign. Two months later, after being in sanctuary for over 7 months, Elizabeth and her five daughters came out of their shelter when Richard III publicly swore an oath that he would not harm or imprison Elizabeth’s daughters. He also promised to marry them off well. Elizabeth and her daughters returned to court, seemingly reconciled with Richard.
Perhaps this was simply a way to buy time for Elizabeth and play a double game in the meantime?
In March 1485 Richard III’s wife Anne Neville died and Elizabeth Woodville was sent away from court to Sheriff Hutton Castle. Negotiations were opened with King John II of Portugal for a double marriage, Richard III to marry the sister of the Portuguese King and for Elizabeth of York to marry the future Manuel I of Portugal. But after some time, negotiations stopped and rumors started to appear that Richard had in mind to marry Elizabeth of York himself.
We will never know what would have happened if the Battle of Bosworth didn’t follow in August that year. Richard III was killed and, as he had promised, Henry VII married Elizabeth’s daughter – uniting both the houses of York and Lancaster - founding the Tudor Dynasty.
As a result, Elizabeth’s titles and honors as a dowager queen were returned to her.
Elizabeth wrote her last will on 10 April 1492, in which she styled herself ‘by grace of God Queen of England, late wife to the most victorious Prince of blessed memory Edward the Fourth’. It was her wish to be buried next to the King, her second husband, ‘without any pomp or ‘costly expenses’. Having left no valuables to bestow upon her ‘dearest daughter’ (Queen Elizabeth of York) or her other children, she left them her blessing.
Elizabeth died on 8 June 1492 at Bermondsey Abbey. Bermondsey had been a place of retirement for the dowager queen since 2 February 1487. It was also the place where Dowager Queen Katherine de Valois (Henry V’s Queen) had retired when she became ill and died in 1437.
The reason of death and especially because of the haste in which her burial took place has been debated. Some believe that Henry VII forced Elizabeth to retreat from court, some say possibly due to her involvement in the 1487 Yorkist Rebellion or her being an ally of the rebels. Others say Elizabeth was already planning to life a more religious and reflective life at Bermondsey Abbey as early as the summer of 1486.
In 2019 a document was discovered, written in 1511 by the Venetian ambassador Andrea Badour, claiming that Elizabeth had died of the plaque, which would explain the haste and lack of a public burial. The letter states ‘the Queen-Widow, mother of King Edward, has died of plague, and the King is disturbed’. Especially the last part of the sentence makes one wonder.
In accordance to her wishes, Elizabeth was be buried ‘without pompes entring or costlie expensis donne thereabou’ and her body was taken by boat to Windsor. She was accompanied by her executors John Ingleby, Prior of the Charterhouse at Sheen and her chaplain Dr. Thomas Brent, her cousin Edward Haute and by Edward IV’s illegitimate daughter Grace, showing Elizabeth as a generous woman, to have a good relationship with a girl she might just as well have beared a grudge to.
The day after, a hearse was constructed to hold candles and banners and was then placed around the coffin. Elizabeth’s hearse was reported to be similar as to the ones for the common folk ‘with four wooden candle sticks above it and a cloth of black cloth of gold over it, with four wooden candle sticks of silver and gilt every each having a taper of no great weight and two escutcheons of her arm pinned in the cloth’. The ceremony so lacked any kind of pomp that it shocked the herald who documented the event, writing that ‘there were only a dozen of old men holding torches’.
The burial took place on 12 June. As Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, the Queen was not able to attend her mother’s funeral, as she had already taken to her chamber in preparation for the birth of her 4th child, who was named after Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s three unmarried daughters, Katherine, Anne, and Bridget, did attend. Another notable absence was Elizabeth’s 2nd daughter Cecily. Perhaps due to her own two pregnancies or she may have attended to her pregnant sister. The dowager’s youngest sister Katherine, Duchess of Bedford also did not attend but was represented by one of her two daughters. Her daughter-in-law Cecily Bonville, wife of her son Thomas Grey, and the daughter of her sister Mary, Elizabeth Herbert, were present.
On 13 June, a requiem mass for Elizabeth took place with Katherine, Anne, and Bridget attending. Later that day the men arrived, including her son Thomas, her son-in-law (husband of her daughter Cecily) and uncle to the King, John Viscount Welles, her nephew Henry Bourchier Earl of Essex (son of her late sister Anne) and the husband of Elizabeth Herbert, Charles Somerset.
On 14 June the funeral ceremony was concluded with a ritual of offering where Anne of York offered the mass penny in lieu of her sister the Queen. Thomas, Katherine and Bridget offered pieces of gold, followed by the giving of alms. Thomas also paid the usual money to the poor and gave 40 shilling to the heralds.
No English Queen has suffered as much as Elizabeth Woodville. She lost her two husbands, her daughters Margaret during infancy and Mary as a teenager, she had been deposed twice and as a consequence lost three of her four sons, her brothers and father and she saw her marriage being declared invalid and her children bastardized.