If you enjoy historical fiction as much as me, I am sure that you will be looking forward to the BBC’s new programme ‘The White Queen’, starting tonight at 9pm, as much as I am. Based on Philippa Gregory’s popular ‘cousin’ books this ten-part series follows the fortunes of three of the most influential women at the time of The War of the Roses.
So who is the White Queen? In light of the recent discovery and subsequent media interest, perhaps the best way to describe her is as Richard III’s sister-in-law and mother of the princes in the tower. Her name is Elizabeth Woodville and on her marriage to Richard’s elder brother Edward IV, Elizabeth became his ‘White Queen’ representing the white rose of Yorkshire. However, her first husband Sir John Grey, was a ‘red’ Lancastrian and died fighting for the Lancastrian cause at St. Albans in 1461. So how was it she came to marry Edward IV? Legend has it that Edward was bewitched by her beauty after she petitioned him under an oak tree with her sons. I would think this legend (while regrettably unlikely to be true) would make a great part of the story.
However they met, Edward fell in love with Elizabeth and they married in secret on 1 May 1464. When they discovered the marriage, Edward’s mother, Cecily Neville and her brother, the Earl of Warwick were horrified. They had been trying to broker a politically advantageous match with France. Instead Edward had married the widow of a Lancastrian with no connections. Elizabeth already had two sons when she married the King and also had a large family, who were given many advantages in Edward IV’s court – making them, and her, unpopular with the nobility.
Elizabeth and Edward went on to have 7 surviving children – 2 sons and 5 daughters and their marriage appears to have been a happy one. This is despite of the continuing conflict (Edward was forced into exile while Henry VI regained the crown for a short period) and Edward’s affairs, and his particular mistress Jane Shore.
After Edward’s death in 1483, Elizabeth’s fortunes changed dramatically when her son Edward V was declared King and his uncle Richard made protector. Edward and his younger brother were housed in the Tower of London, and Elizabeth sought sanctuary with her daughters. After rumours came to light that Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage had been invalid due to his earlier betrothal to another woman, Richard took the crown and the boys were never seen again. The disappearance of the princes in the tower is a mystery that still fascinates historians, and one to which we have no answer.
After Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth, Elizabeth’s daughter, also Elizabeth, married the new Tudor King Henry VII, uniting the red and white roses to make the Tudor Rose. While her daughter took her new place as the White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville retired from public life, dying at Bermondsey Abbey in 1492.
I am intrigued to see how Elizabeth will be portrayed and how much of the legend that surrounds her will be intermixed with the history we know. Her story is truly remarkable and I am keeping my fingers firmly crossed that this comes across on the screen.
If you are interested in learning more about Elizabeth Woodville, I can highly recommend David Baldwin’s book on her.