The Woodvilles of Grafton Regis

Finding out about people in the 15th century: The Woodvilles of Grafton Regis
Continuing our series on medieval people we will look this time at a whole family, the Woodvilles. It has been suggested that Edward IV’s elevation of the family so alienated the other peers that it was one of the main causes of the downfall of the Yorkist dynasty. It may have been Edward’s intention to curb the power of the old nobility by creating a new power group who would be loyal to him only as they had received all their patronage from him.

The Woodvilles of Grafton Regis were a monor Northamptonshire family with few estates. Sir Richard Woodville was a member of the household of the Duke of Bedford, Henry VI’s uncle. Not long after the death of his master in 1435, he married the widowed Duchess of Bedford, Jacquetta, daughter of Peter, Duke of Luxembourg and Count of St. Pol. The marriage did not meet with universal approval and the young couple had to pay a fine of £1000 for marrying without the King’s permission. Woodville was a loyal servant of King Henry and was rewarded with the Rivers Barony in 1448. His wife was high in Queen Margaret’s favour. So it was natural for their eldest daughter Elizabeth to become one of Queen Margaret’s ladies and to be married while still in her teens to Sir John Grey, heir of Lord Ferrers of Groby, a strong supporter of the House of Lancaster. Two sons were born of this marriage: Thomas (later Marquis of Dorset) and Richard. Sir John was killed fighting for Lancaster at the second Battle of St. Albans. Elizabeth returned to her family home with her two young sons. The romantic story relates that Elizabeth waylaid Edward in the forest to plead for the protection of her widows’ jointure and the rights of her sons and he was so ensnared by her feminine wiles that he wanted her to become his mistress but she refused anything except marriage. Whether this is true or not they were certainly secretly married in May 1464. The marriage was not made public for several months, during which time Warwick continued to press Edward to cement an alliance with France by marrying the sister-in-law of the French king. The seeds were thus sown of the rift which eventually led to the fall of the House of York.

Perhaps things would have been different if Elizabeth had not had so many relatives or had not been so determined to help them all. Edward was induced to provide grants of land and office for her father and her brothers and her sisters nearly all made advantageous marriages, three of them to minors. The eldest, Margaret, was married to the heir of the Earl of Arundel, and nephew of the Earl of Warwick. Anne the next sister was first married to William Bourchier, the heir of the Earl of Essex. She married secondly George, eventually Earl of Kent and brother of her sister Joan’s husband Anthony, Lord Grey of Ruthyn and eldest son of the Earl of Kent. Catherine married firstly the eleven year old Duke of Buckingham, secondly Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford and thirdly Sir Richard Wingfield. Mary married William Herbert, second Earl of Pembroke. Only one of Elizabeth Woodville’s brothers made a marriage at all out of the ordinary and that was brother John (aged 20) to Katherine, dowager Duchess of Norfolk (aged about 65). Such a marriage was not totally unheard of, but it offended Warwick’s ally the Duke of Norfolk, (Katherine was a Neville). Several others of the marriages were really only offensive to the Nevilles and their allies.

It is only fair to say that Martha, one of the daughters, married Sir John Bromley a minor Shropshire gentleman and another, Jacquetta, was married to John, Lord Strange of Knockyn, before her sister married the King.

If you want to find out more about the Woodvilles the Library has two full-length biographies of Elizabeth: the standard one is Elizabeth Woodville 1437-1492: her life and times by David MacGibbon, 1938; The First Queen Elizabethby Katherine Davies, 1937 is more old-fashioned and traditional in tone. The Coronation of Elizabeth Wydeville, Queen Consort of Edwward IV on May 26th 1465, edited by George Smith, 1935 is a transcription of a contemporary account of the ceremony with biographical notes on the participants, the longest entries being devoted to Elizabeth herself and to her mother Jacquetta. A junior library book The Knight and the Merchant by Grant Uden, 1965, is a study of the contrasting careers of Anthony Woodville, Elizabeth’s talented brother, and William Caxton. There is an illuminating essay by Michael Hicks on ‘The Changing Role of the Wydevilles in Yorkist Politics’ in the book Patronage Pedigree and Power in Later Medieval England, edited by C.D. Ross, 1979, and a number of articles in periodicals, including ‘Marriage and Politics in the Fifteenth Century: the Nevilles and the Wydvilles’ by J.R. Lander (from Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, Vol. 36, No. 94, 1963) which examines the marriage alliances of the two families and their effect on policy, ‘Edward Woodville, knight errant’ by R.B. Merriman (from Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 1903 and ‘A Local Dispute and the Politics of 1483: Roger Townshend, Earl Rivers and the Duke of Gloucester’ by C.E. Moreton (from The Ricardian, Vol. 8, No. 107, December 1989, with follow-up in No. 109) on the relations between Rivers and Gloucester in early 1483. Other articles on the family are listed in Part One of the Catalogue of Papers in the Library. — HCH