Between 1464 and 1483, the Woodvilles, the family of EDWARD IV’s queen, comprised the most favored and resented political grouping in England. Jealousy over their rapid rise to power at the Yorkist COURT, coupled with hatred caused by their greed, ambition, and arrogance, made the Woodvilles a disruptive political influence that was partially responsible for the USURPATION OF 1483 and the eventual fall of the house of YORK.
The Woodvilles’ social rise was based on two spectacular mésalliances. The first, in 1436, was the secret marriage of Richard WOODVILLE, a Northamptonshire gentleman, to JACQUETTA OF LUXEMBOURG, the widowed duchess of Bedford and a descendent of European nobility. The second, in 1464, was the secret marriage of their eldest daughter, Elizabeth WOODVILLE, to Edward IV. Prior to 1461, Woodville, then Lord Rivers, had been a Lancastrian; he and his eldest son Anthony WOODVILLE, Lord Scales, had fought for HENRY VI at the Battle of TOWTON, while Elizabeth’s first husband, Sir John Grey of Groby, died fighting for the house of LANCASTER at the Battle of ST.ALBANS in 1461. After Towton, Rivers submitted, and by 1463 he was a member of Edward IV’s COUNCIL. However, the family’s political and social advancement became unprecedented in speed and scope after the king’s marriage to Elizabeth.
Other than her beauty, the new queen brought her husband no political advantages and a host of problems, not the least of which was providing for her large family, which, besides her parents, included five brothers, seven sisters, and two sons by Grey. Between 1464 and 1466, Edward and the queen obtained numerous highborn spouses for unmarried Woodvilles. Several of these marriages angered Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, the king’s chief advisor. For instance, in 1464, Margaret Woodville married Warwick’s nephew, the son of the earl of Arundel. In 1465, the court was shocked by the marriage of twenty-year-old John Woodville to Warwick’s kinswoman, Katherine Neville, the sixty-five-year-old dowager duchess of Norfolk. The marriages of Anne Woodville to the son of Henry BOURCHIER, earl of Essex; of Eleanor Woodville to the son of Edmund GREY, earl of Kent; and of Katherine Woodville to Henry STAFFORD, duke of Buckingham, deprived Warwick’s daughters, Isabel and Anne NEVILLE, of prospective husbands. The marriage of the queen’s son, Thomas GREY, to the daughter of Henry HOLLAND, duke of Exeter, claimed the bride who had been promised to the son of Warwick’s brother, John NEVILLE, Lord Montagu. Nor was Warwick happy with the marriage of Mary Woodville to the son of William HERBERT, the earl’s rival for lands and influence in WALES.
Although Warwick ascribed his declining influence with the king to the Woodvilles, most of the English nobility accepted the family and sought to exploit their favor at court. Nonetheless, the Woodvilles were highly unpopular. With the exception of Scales, who became head of the family as Earl Rivers after Warwick executed his father in 1469, contemporary observers characterized the Woodvilles as greedy, ambitious, overbearing, and a malign influence on the king. For instance, in 1468, the family’s ill-treatment of Sir Thomas COOK was said to have cost that LONDON merchant his fortune and turned him into a convinced Lancastrian, and in the 1480s, the Grey brothers and Edward Woodville were condemned for encouraging the king’s drinking and womanizing. Although Warwick’s desertion of the house of York in 1470 was a result of the king’s independence and the earl’s ambition,Warwick’s hatred for the Woodvilles was a contributing factor. In the 1470s, Woodville influence seemed even more sinister as it increased while the competition disappeared— the NEVILLE FAMILY was destroyed in 1471; the king’s one brother, George PLANTAGENET, duke of Clarence, was executed in 1478; and his other brother, Richard, duke of Gloucester, withdrew from court to govern the north.
At Edward IV’s death in 1483, the reign of EDWARD V seemed likely to open with a Woodville-dominated regency, a prospect that frightened many noblemen, including Gloucester and William HASTINGS, Lord Hastings, a close friend of the late king and a rival of both Rivers and of the queen’s son, Thomas Grey, marquis of Dorset. As governor of the prince after 1473, Rivers controlled the person of the new king and exercised great power in Wales, where he could quickly recruit large numbers of men. In London, the queen and Dorset controlled the TOWER OF LONDON, the royal treasure, and the young king’s brother, Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, while Sir Edward Woodville controlled the fleet. Gloucester probably had good cause to fear for his future in a Woodville-dominated government. By playing on the family’s unpopularity, Gloucester was able to mask his own ambitions and to convince men like Hastings to support his initial moves to control the regency. Unable to generate much support from other nobles, the Woodville influence was in ruins by the end of 1483. Rivers and Sir Richard Grey were executed, Dorset and Bishop Lionel WOODVILLE were in exile, the queen was in SANCTUARY, and Gloucester was king as Richard III. The usurpation of Edward V’s throne and the subsequent disappearance and probable murder of the young king and his brother were in some part made possible by the actions and unpopularity of the Woodville family.
Further Reading: Hicks, Michael, “The Changing Role of the Wydevilles in Yorkist Politics to 1483,” in Charles Ross, ed., Patronage, Pedigree and Power in Later Medieval England (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Alan Sutton, 1979), pp. 60–86; MacGibbon, David, Elizabeth Woodville: Her Life and Times (London: A. Barker, 1938); Ross, Charles, Edward IV (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).