The White Queen or the Ice Queen?

With the TV series The White Queen coming up on TV tonight I am minded to review Stony Stratford’s moment in the sunlight of Plantagenet history.

HEdward IV was the eldest son of Richard, Duke of York, who was actually the first to style himslef with the surname Plantagenet. While historians have conventionally labelled the dynasty that began with Henry II in 1154 as “Plantagenet”, the name was not actually used before the last two kings of that long line. The choice of the name was political. Richard of York claimed descent from Edward III’s second surviving son Lionel, Duke of Clarence, and was able to advance a superior claim to the throne than his cousin Henry VI, who descended from the third son, known as John of Gaunt. None of this would have mattered much if Henry VI had been competent and had he put the talents of Richard (who was undoubtedly very able) to good use. In the end it came to war and Richard was killed at the Battle of Wakefield on December 30th 1460.

Edward succeeded to his titles on that day and continued the cause. He had better luck than his father and after the very bloody battle of Towton on March 29th 1461 emerged triumphant. He was quickly proclaimed king by Parliament after the deposition of Henry and was crowned on June 28th 1461. He was just 19 years old.

The throne was not yet secure but Edward had some things going for him: he was a tall and commanding figure, he had proved himself on the field of battle, he was personally charming, and he proved himself to be a god administrator. Over the next decade he introduced measures to translate the country’s finances from a parlous deficit to a healthy surplus. He modernised government by introducing able and educated officials into the various offices of state and he introduced policies that enabled and encouraged foreign trade. The merchant adventurers, who spearheaded the growth of English trade in the succeeding centuries, owe their origin to Edward IV.

With all this in his favour and being increasingly secure on the throne by 1464, his impulsive marriage to Elizabeth Woodville is difficult to explain in any terms other than it was a headstrong act. Even Edward himself knew it because he kept the marriage secret for several months while negotiations proceeded for his potential marriage to a foreign princess until the very last minute when, essentially the game was up. His contemporaries were astonished and some were very resentful indeed. It could be argued, with the benefit of historical hindsight, that this marriage fatally undermined the Plantagenet dynasty. Were it not for the Woodville party, which the Queen had built up over the years, and the countervailing anti-Woodville party, it may have been less likely that Richard of Gloucester could have assumed power and Henry Tudor would have got nowhere near the throne. But this is idle speculation. The marriage did happen and there were consequences.

Elizabeth Woodville was born at Grafton circa 1437, the daughter of Richard Woodville and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the widow of John, Duke of Bedford. John was the second son of Henry IV. Jacquetta could claim a high lineage for herself, even descent from Charlemagne. This was not true of her second husband. One can only conclude that this was a love match. Woodville was the son of the Duke of Bedford’s chamberlain and the widowed Ducchess, although expected to remarry according to the conventions of the time, would certainly have been presented with a good selection from those higher up the social scale. However, remarrying at the age of 19 she went on to bear 12 healthy children, the eldest of whom was Elizabeth.

Elizabeth’s first marriage at the age of 15 to Sir John Grey of Groby was quite a good match; at that time the Greys were related to many of the most prominent families in England. She bore two sons before she was widowed on February 17th 1461 when Sir John Grey was killed at the Battle of St Albans. He was on the Lancastrian side.

So by the time she came under the roving eye of Edward she had been widowed for four years and had shown no inclination to remarry. We don’t know, but must assume that various members of the Northamptonshire gentry had tried their luck without success.

The chance that brought them together does feature Stony Stratford. Edward and his entourage were heading north to deal with a small uprising and stopped overnight at Stony Stratford on April 30th 1464. Early the following morning he saddled his horse and rode the few miles north to Grafton, presumably with the intention of trying his luck with the beautiful widow, who, it is suspected, he had met before. It should be noted here that Edward already had a reputation for chasing women. Writers of the period, such as Dominic Mancini, who was an Italian envoy or perhaps a spy, made this comment:

he was licentious in the extreme. He pursued with no discrimination the married and the unmarried, the noble and the lowly; however, he took none by force.

The outcome of this visit was that Edward and Elizabeth were married that day in the presence of Jacquetta and four or five other witnesses. They then went to bed and Edward later returned to Stony Stratford and pretended that he had been hunting. He was now no longer in a hurry to continue his journey north and for the next three days he trotted out to Grafton to spend time with his new wife.

As I mentioned earlier, contemporaries were astonished when the news did emerge in October that year. It could not be explained in political and social terms and nobody was pleased except the Woodville family. The story that was current at the time and was first committed to paper in 1468 was that Elizabeth would in no way yield to his advances before marriage. With his blood up Edward cast aside diplomatic considerations and yielded to her demand. Youthful impetuosity overcame rational judgement. Knowing the queen’s personality and observing that Edward waited months before eventually admitting openly the fact of the marriage this seems to be the most plausible explanation.

After the news came out in October the two were at last able to live together as man and wife. Edward also had to provide for the Woodville and Grey clans, who both had plenty of members. The men were ennobled, manors were acquired, jobs with perquisites were handed out and marriages were made to men of wealth and status. Some of these arrangements stretched credulity. In 1465 the Queen arranged for her 20 year old brother John to marry Katherine Nevill, the wealthy dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Katherine Nevill was probably happy enough with the arrangement – she was 65 years old!

There is no escape from the fact that Edward’s queen was a steely and flinty personality. Her superficial beauty covered a hard and unforgiving nature. Personal slights were remembered for a long time and vengeance was often taken as a dish served cold.

The earl of Desmond, Deputy Lieutenant for Ireland, appears to have been one victim. In May 1465 while on a visit to the mainland he was in a hunting party with the king. Edward asked him frankly what he thought of his marriage to Elizabeth, and Desmond, equally frankly, because he was an intelligent and cultivated man who got on well with the king, replied that although he esteemed the Queen’s beauty and virtues he felt that the king could have done better by marrying a princess who may have brought a foreign alliance. The king acknowledged this and took it in good part, not feeling slighted at all, and later mentioned this to the Queen. Elizabeth quietly absorbed this and waited for her moment.

This came two years later when the Earl of Worcester became Deputy Lieutenant in Ireland and agreed on behalf of the queen to bring Desmond to court on trumped-up charges. It was said that the Queen used the king’s signet to seal the death warrant. Some time later the earl’s two young sons were murdered in mysterious circumstances.

Another unfortunate was Sir Thomas Cook, a very wealthy merchant and Lord Mayor of London. The vendetta against him may have originated in his refusal to sell a valuable arras to Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta “at her pleasure and her price”. He was subsequently accused of treason and imprisoned. Whilst in prison the servants of Lord Rivers and Sir John Fogge (a kinsman of the Queen) raided Sir Thomas Cook’s house and too away the arras together with valuables worth a further £700. While they were there they also helped themselves to a large quantity of wine.

This was only the beginning for Cook who at his trial was found guilty, not of treason, but of the lesser charge of misprision of treason, that is he was aware of treason but failed to report it. This was not the verdict the Queen wanted and she turned her fury on the judge, Chief Justice John Markham. He was dismissed from his post for securing the wrong verdict. Nor had they finished with Cook who was ordered to pay a monumental fine of 8,000 marks and the Queen, under some ancient right of “queen’s gold” secured a further 800 marks for herself and a number of gifts for members of the council, many of them her relatives.

It is also said that Queen Elizabeth was also instrumental in persuading her husband to execute his brother George, Duke of Clarence. She certainly bore a grudge against George, but it may be that Edward needed no special prompting to remove his wayward and unreliable brother.

I don’t know what Philippa Gregory’s portrayal of Elizabeth Woodville will be like, but I suspect that the events I have related above will not make for a good romantic tale of love at first sight under a tree at Potterspury. She was only the white queen in that she represented the white rose of York. In her personality she was more, in my view, the ice queen.