Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage was the first time that an English king had married a commoner without a foreign wife first. Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt, had married Katherine Swynford but they already had children before their marriage, who were legitimised after the marriage. The descendents of this marriage became the Tudors, and it was these complicated marriage alliance which led to the Wars of the Roses, into which Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV were key players because of their marriage, and their many offspring. Their eldest daughter, Elizabeth, married the future Henry VII, and their two eldest sons, Edward and Richard, became the ill-fated Princes in the Tower.
The Mystery of the Princes in the Tower
The mystery of the Princes in the Tower has dogged historians for centuries. When two small skeletons were found under a Tower staircase it was assumed these were their bones but no evidence has actually been found and no DNA testing was conducted. Without the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth this mystery wouldn’t have existed and excited historians for so long. The Princes obviously did die, but what is not known is whether it was accidental, through illness, or whether it was murder. If it was the latter, when did it happen and who was responsible for it? There are a variety of suspects including Richard III, Henry VII, the Duke of Buckingham and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. It is generally understood that they died sometime between the end of 1483 and the end of 1485.
Illegitimate Children and the Accession of Richard III
When Edward IV died it was suggested that the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville wasn’t real because Edward had already been through a form of marriage with another woman. Richard III took advantage and deposed Edward’s son, Edward V, and took the throne himself. It has been suggested that Richard always wanted the throne for himself, though that doesn’t really seem possible. I think that Richard took an advantage when he saw it. It’s possible that he did truly believe that Edward V would be ruled by his Woodville relatives and that wasn’t what was best for the country. Many people believed that a young King would bring the country down unless he had the right Protector.
The Advent of the Tudor Age
Without the debatable marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville then the Tudors may not have been able to grab their chance to take the throne. It was the suspicious claim of Richard III over the possible illegitimacy of Edward and Elizabeth’s children which meant that Henry VII could assemble an army to take the throne from Richard (at the Battle of Bosworth Field). The Yorkists would have probably continued to rule for many more years had Richard III not taken the throne from Edward V. Richard III’s actions gave Elizabeth Woodville the push she needed to join with Margaret Beaufort and the Tudors to punish Richard for the disappearance of her sons, the Princes in the Tower.
The Wars of the Roses and the Kingmaker
The alienation of Richard ‘Kingmaker’ Neville, Earl of Warwick, and George, Duke of Clarence (brother of Edward IV and Richard III) was a direct result of the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville because Neville and Clarence didn’t want to accept Elizabeth as queen and her family were becoming too close to the queen, and marrying all of the eligible nobles. The marriage led to the deaths of both Warwick and Clarence. As a result of the marriage, the Woodvilles were put in a position of power which alienated the Nevilles, who were until this point, the most important family in the country.
The Raising of a Family
It was the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville that gave rise to the idea that a commoner could marry a King. Katherine Swynford had married Edward III as his third wife, but it was this which led to the Wars of the Roses in the first place. Swynford’s children were legitimised after the marriage but barred from acceding to the throne (the line from which the Tudors are descended). It also gave rise to the idea that a family could be raised up if their daughter married into the royal family. This was the idea from which the likes of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour managed to rise up from ladies-in-waiting to Queens.
Marrying for Love & Succession Issues
The Tudor idea of securing the succession really came to the forefront because of the debatable marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The confusion over whether Edward V or Richard III was king, and the Wars of the Roses (red rose (Lancastrian) vs. white rose (Yorkist)) made Henry VII and Henry VIII very paranoid about it, leading to the latter’s famous six wives in his quest to get a legitimate heir and a ‘spare’. Eric Ives claims that “monarchs and heirs to the throne have never had the freedom of choice which their subjects enjoy”. To marry a foreigner meant that internal politics wouldn’t be disturbed, as happened when Henry VIII was pursuing Anne Boleyn. Love was rarely a part of the equation in diplomatic marriages, and succession would be more likely to be contested if a king takes a domestic bride, as happened with the children of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. It opened up a new world of diplomatic negotiation and courtly romance.
* Sarah Gristwood, Blood Sisters: the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2013)
* Eric Ives, Marrying for Love: the Experience of Edward IV and Henry VIII [http://www.historytoday.com/eric-ives/marrying-love-experience-edward-iv-and-henry-viii]
* Alison Weir, The Princes in the Tower (London: Vintage, 2008)