Saturday, 1 May 2021

Hero or villain? The woman who took a throne unnoticed on May Day


A beautiful, ambitious, clever and successful woman who started wars and made kingdoms should really be a little bit more famous than Elizabeth Woodville. Her royal story began in earnest on May 1st 1464 when she married Edward IV in secret. In recent years her tale has become a little better known thanks, in part, to novels that have centred on her life. But they tend to veer between angelic consort and manipulative scheme. Who was the real Elizabeth Woodville?

The modern version of her tends towards the whitewashed, thanks in part to The White Queen. Philippa Gregory's 2009 epic novel puts its protagonist in the right at every turn. Here we meet a pretty woman who charmed a king and fought for what was right. Her family, famous for their ruthless ambition even in her own day, all get the same, sanitised treatment. This herstory is all about a heroine. 

However, for many historians before then, Elizabeth Woodville was the very opposite of that. The woman who won the heart of the notoriously lusty Edward IV has, for some writers and especially Victorian ones, been nothing more than a strutting strumpet who became queen by charm alone. But both these depictions seem to mask some of the power that England's first Queen Elizabeth wielded.

For there is little doubt that the rapid rise to power that was cemented on May 1st 1464 as the sun rose is remarkable. Elizabeth had no royal dynasty to promote her cause. She married a king at a time when they only married princesses. Her wedding took place as her new husband's closest adviser, the Earl of Warwick, was negotiating a diplomatic match with a daughter of a European dynasty. Women like Elizabeth made very good mistresses but they didn't make it to the altar. More than that, once she was queen and acknowledged as such she built a huge power base that saw her family entwined with some of the most important people in England. Elizabeth was far from a baby making adornment. We see in her the beginnings of the pattern of consorts that would mark the Tudor dynasty and change royal dynamics forever.

That is perhaps where her problems start. Her story might well have the lost - murder, mystery, jealousy, intrigue and buckets of sex - but it was put on paper by those who'd rather she'd just kept quiet.  The fact that Elizabeth is so neglected by history and novelists alike is testament to the power of Tudor propaganda.  You either loved Elizabeth or you hated her, a proper marmite queen.

England's first Queen Elizabeth may have been integral to the Tudor success story - she was the mother of Henry VII's consort and grandmother of Henry VIII - but her determination won her enough enemies to make her an uncomfortable reminder of the bloody War of the Roses that had given birth to the new royal house.  And quickly, effortlessly, silently, she was relegated to a bit part in the dynasty's story.

To her supporters she is the beautiful woman with sense and strength enough to win a King's heart and a share in his realm.  To her detractors she is a social climbing gold digger determined to carve up England for her grasping family.  As the spotlight falls again on the first commoner to be Queen of England, it's time to ask...who was Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen?

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