At Home with the Queen: Elizabeth Woodville – Guest Post by Susan Higginbotham

Elizabeth WoodvilleToday I welcome author Susan Higginbotham to The Anne Boleyn Files. Susan has written a few historical novels (they’re brilliant!) but her latest book is non-fiction and it focuses on the Woodville family – The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family. Thank you, Susan, for this excellent article on Elizabeth Woodville.

Elizabeth Woodville, queen to Edward IV, has acquired a reputation for pride and haughtiness, enshrined in many a historical novel. One incident in particular stands out as proof of the queen’s insufferable pride: a banquet where the queen dined in solitary splendor while her guests dined in utter silence.

Following childbirth, a medieval mother was expected to remain in her chamber for about a month, after which a purification/thanksgiving service known as a “churching” would mark her return to public life. For a medieval queen, a churching was a particularly grand event—in 1453, Elizabeth’s predecessor, Margaret of Anjou, had invited an impressive roster of duchesses, countesses, and other ladies to attend her own.

An observer from Nuremburg, Gabriel Tetzel, travelling in the suite of Leo of Rozmital, a Bohemian nobleman, visited England in 1466. Gallantly, he wrote that England bred “women and maidens of outstanding beauty,” whose dresses had trains longer than Tetzel had seen in any other country. Tetzel also found that the English were struck by the length of his hair, and he noted the English preference for kissing over handshakes: “[W]hen the guests first arrive at an inn the hostess comes out with her whole family to receive them, and they have to kiss her and all the others. For with them to offer a kiss is the same as to hold out the right hand; for they do not shake hands.”

Tetzel happened to be on hand in 1466 to witness Elizabeth’s churching, which took place a month or so after the birth of her first child by Edward IV, Elizabeth of York, on February 11, 1466. He reported:

“The Queen left her child-bed and went to church in stately order, accompanied by many priests bearing relics and by many scholars singing and carrying lights. There followed a great company of ladies and maidens from the country and from London, who had been summoned. Then came a great company of trumpeters, pipers and players of stringed instruments. The king’s choir followed, forty-two of them, who sang excellently. Then came twenty-four heralds and pursuivants, followed by sixty counts and knights. At last came the Queen escorted by two dukes. Above her was a canopy. Behind her were her mother and maidens and ladies to the number of sixty. Then the Queen heard the singing of an Office, and, having left the church, she returned to her palace in procession as before. Then all who had joined the procession remained to eat. They sat down, women and men, ecclesiastical and lay, each according to rank, and filled four great rooms.”

Rozmital and Tetzel went into a separate hall with England’s noblest lords “at the table where the King and his court are accustomed to dine.” There an unnamed earl, quite possibly Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, sat in the king’s place and was shown all of the honor customarily shown to the king. The breathless Tetzel reported, “Everything was supplied for the Earl, as representing the King, and for my lord [Rozmital] in such costly measure that it is unbelievable that it could be provided.”

medieval mealHaving finished dining, the earl conducted Rozmital and his attendants “to an unbelievably costly apartment where the Queen was preparing to eat.” There, Tetzel, watching from an alcove so that his lord “could observe the great splendour,” noted:

“The Queen sat alone at table on a costly golden chair. The Queen’s mother and the King’s sister had to stand some distance away. When the Queen spoke with her mother or the King’s sister, they knelt down before her until she had drunk water. Not until the first dish was set before the Queen could the Queen’s mother and the King’s sister be seated. The ladies and maidens and all who served the Queen at table were all of noble birth and had to kneel so long as the Queen was eating. The meal lasted for three hours. The food which was served to the Queen, the Queen’s mother, the King’s sister and the others was most costly. Much might be written of it. Everyone was silent and not a word was spoken. My lord and his attendants stood the whole time in the alcove and looked on.

After the banquet they commenced to dance. The Queen remained seated in her chair. Her mother knelt before her, but at times the Queen bade her rise. The King’s sister danced a stately dance with two dukes, and this, and the courtly reverence they paid to the Queen, was such as I have never seen elsewhere, nor have I ever seen such exceedingly beautiful maidens. Among them were eight duchesses and thirty countesses and the others were all daughters of influential men.”

For the Woodvilles’ modern detractors, this grand, silent meal, where even the queen’s mother and the king’s sister were obliged to kneel, epitomizes the queen’s vanity and the social climber’s insecurity. Tetzel’s editor, even while acknowledging that silence at meals at the time was not unusual, commented that Elizabeth’s “head must have been turned by her sudden elevation in rank.” This, however, was no ordinary family dinner but a grand occasion for the royal family, marking Elizabeth’s safe delivery of the king’s first legitimate child. Notably, nothing in Tetzel’s account suggests that he found Elizabeth’s conduct repellent; he seems to have been merely a fascinated observer, just as he was when he witnessed the unnamed earl dining in royal state. Most likely, Tetzel, who described Edward’s court as “the most splendid court that could be found in all Christendom,” regarded the meal as just another example of its magnificence.

Other glimpses of Elizabeth, moreover, paint a different picture, and even a charming one, of the queen at home. In 1465, her oldest brother Anthony, coming from mass, was kneeling before the queen when he was surrounded by her ladies, who tied a collar of gold around his right thigh and dropped a billet in Anthony’s cap, which he had removed from his head while kneeling before Elizabeth. Anthony quickly perceived that he was being charged with performing a chivalric enterprise, whereupon he dutifully issued a challenge to the Bastard of Burgundy, not through arrogance, presumption or envy, he explained, but only to obey his fair lady.

In 1472, Louis de Bruges (Lodewijk van Gruuthuse), who had assisted Edward IV and his companions during their exile in 1470-71, came to England as an honored guest of Edward IV, who created him Earl of Winchester. The King conducted Louis to Elizabeth’s chamber, “where she sat playing with her ladies at the morteaulx [a game similar to bowls] and some of her ladies and gentlewomen at the closheys of ivory [ninepins], and dancing. And some at divers other games accordingly. The which sight was full pleasant to them.” The next day, after Elizabeth hosted a banquet for Louis in her own chambers, the king, the queen, and the queen’s ladies and gentlewomen escorted Louis to his three rooms, hung with white silk and linen and carpeted throughout. Louis was to sleep in a bed “as good down as could be thought,” furnished with sheets and pillows of the queen’s own ordinance.

Plainly, then, all was not frigid silence in Elizabeth Woodville’s household. There were golden chairs and silent meals—but, we should remember, there were also games of ninepins.

Susan Higginbotham’s new book, The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family is available now from, Amazon UK or your usual bookstore.

Woodville cover

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16 thoughts on “At Home with the Queen: Elizabeth Woodville – Guest Post by Susan Higginbotham”
  1. Hello Susan,
    I have this book on order and am looking forward to reading it, especially now after this ‘taster’ of information on this remarkable family.

    I would be interested in them in any case, but am particularly so in connection with my own long-term research on the Mowbray family and various offshoots. I work on the Collection of the Epworth Old Rectory Museum (home of the Wesley family) and many a time have stood on the piece of land next to the church where the Mowbrays had one of their greatest (and it would seem, favourite) mansions. During the Wars of the Roses it was one of the major residences of Katherine (Neville) widow of the second Duke of Norfolk, and I wonder if she ever brought young Sir John Woodville here after she became his blushing bride of 67 in a ‘diabolical marriage’ that so infuriated Warwick the Kingmaker, her nephew.

    I have a book on Lady Anne Mowbray and the discovery of her remains with the printer at the moment and refer to little Anne’s marriage to Richard of Shrewsbury, where the Woodville clan and the rest are gathered in great splendour and king’s mother, Cecily Neville, is called ‘Queen by right’. For this book I have not needed to look in any detail at the Woodville family’s relationship with Cecily, nor at the style of life little Lady Anne – aged five at her marriage – led at the court of her mother-in-law, so I am looking forward tremendously to reading your book in order to fill the gaps in my knowledge, and thank you for such an interesting article.

    1. Thanks, Marilyn! Looking forward to your book about Anne Mowbray. Don’t you have another book on the earlier Mowbrays? I remember coming across it when I was researching my first novel, set in the 14th century, but I couldn’t obtain a copy at the time.

      1. Sad to say, you probably could have obtained a copy direct from me. The then printers, who stored my books in one of the major distribution warehouses, had some sort of issue with Amazon at one time, and then went down in the recession leaving me without copies for about six months in 2011/12. It’s now been fully revised and reprinted (by the excellent Fisk Printers in Hull) and I manage the distribution of this and other titles, but will probably start dealing through Amazon again before long.

        Just been reading a little piece about Anthony Woodville – will be interested to learn more about him.

  2. If Gabriel Tetzel was from Nuremburg, wouldn’t it follow that many of the other European courts (and the women) would dazzle him? After all, and perhaps this is a poor example, the ambassadors from the court of Wilhelm of Cleves were pretty dazzled by England when Anne of Cleves married Henry VIII, and Cleves was not particularly wealthy, either. In addition, the women in the German principalities were also covered up a lot more than women in England.

    Thanks so much for this article – most of the things I have read of Elizabeth Woodville have been less than flattering. This is a very interesting look at the woman herself.

  3. Great article, Susan. I, too, look forward to reading your new book! I find this woman fascinating as do so many others. It’s nice to have some of the rumors dispelled.

  4. Thanks for the article. Would there have been banquets after the “churching” following Elizabeth Woodville’s other pregnancies … probably not with the future Edward V, as she was in sanctuary at the time, but after the others, especially after the birth of young Richard? If so, It would be interesting to compare the reports of this first post-churching banquet with the reports of the others.

    1. There would have been celebrations after her other churchings, but sadly, no one bothered to record them. It’s only thanks to Tetzel’s travels that this one was recorded.

  5. i perceive these celebrations and the idea of the princesses and mother of the queen having to kneel formally as part of the way things where done at court during a royal formal occassion. There is a book of royal etiquett that was written by Richard II that made dining in court very formal and laid down the ways that the King and Queen should be served on bended knee and so on and how each lady and gentleman and royal server should behave. Many of these rules where updated and made even stricter and extended to include every part of the court by Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort during his reign and in 1512 and 1526 two new documents written at Eltham by Cardinal Wolsey wrote how people should behave towards each other and to the King and all the formal ceremonial at court.

    All of this suggests that what Queen Elizabeth Woodville was observing in this banquet and other royal banquets was royal protocol. She bids her mother to rise from time to time and the banquet as pointed out is not a family dinner but the celebration of her entry into public court life after her churching. This was followed by all royal and noble ladies. The fact that her mother had to kneel and the KIng’s sister also shows that as Queen she took presedence over them and that they had to serve her as Queen not their family member. It is noted that she is haughty by her modern day detractors because like Anne Boleyn; Elizabeth Woodville was a commoner and in strict convention, Edward should not have married her.

    Her actions may appear haughty but they are most likely the convention that as Queen all this was normal and her right. Had Elizabeth not been a commoner then this comment may not have been made. Had she for example been Isabella of France or a Princess of Spain or a royal consort, then it would have been considered her birthright to act in such a manner and perfectly normal convention. The banquet may have been in silent because it was also convention: I am not sure how such things were conducted; but I am sure they would have needed to be solomn and to have been conducted with all dignity and restraint. A less serious one may have been celebrated at Christmas for example with laughter and joy and entertainment. This one focused on the Queen and her achievement; that is why she was the centre of all the attention and attended in this manner.

    Anne Boleyn would have had a similar banquet following her very flashy coronation and so she should: as far as Henry and she knew she was pregnant with the future heir to the throne. Henry wanted to make sure that all was done correctly and all dignity and honour was shown to her. She was shown homage and she was served by many high ranking ladies. The King’s daughter and sister did not attend, but they probably should have done under normal convention. I am certain that they would not have had to make the same homage to her as Edward’s sister did, but I think that the situation was different. Another simularity can be drawn her with Elizabeth and Anne; their husband’s wanted to elevate them in such a way that no doubt about the legitimacy of their marriages was left and the ladies would have legitimate heirs without further doubts. The coronation and the birthing celebrations are only two ways in which that legitimacy of their title, honour and person was enforced.

  6. dear susan,

    hi, tony robinson produced a program concerning the fact that Edward iv was illegitimate. certainly Elizabeth of York was considered to be the rightful queen marrying henry tudor vii.

    robinson went onto allege that an Australian man who was descended from nobility, cannot remember who and that our queen was not the rightful monarch. our queen comes from sophie electress of hanover.

    this all came about from a document think it was as far as can be remembered Norwich cathedral.

    however, thought I would undertake a search into the dates for the birth of Edward iv. what robinson or whoever undertook the research did not realise was that at the time there was a date change proving that Edward was legitimate.

    just thought anyone might be interested.

    love gwyneth

    1. The idea that Edward iv was illegitimate is not a new one. His younger brother, George Duke of Clarence used this and questions over his marriage to claim he was the legitimate heir on a few occasions. The last time got him executed. The mix up comes from the fact that Edmund, his other brother was baptised is Rouen Cathedral with great pomp and ceremony and Edward was baptised in the castle chapel. The time of the conception has been much debated by historians Michael Jones who argued for his illegitimacy and Amy Lincence arguing against. The thing is that calculating backwards from birth, he would have to be born rather early or his father was 100 miles away when he was conceived. Amy Linence says you can be full time after 34 weeks and has studied birth and conception dates and possibilities. The Duke of York never questioned Edward’s birth and never treated Proud Cis ( Cecily Neville) with anything but respect. Cecily had also lost a son the year before and perhaps merely wanted to ensure he was baptised quickly just in case. While baptism in a private chapel was unusual as you were meant to greet the child publicly into the Christian community, it did happen and a midwife could also baptize a child in extreme circumstances. It was also a time of war, so it may have been an economic or security measure, especially as the Duke was away. It is a stretch to state Edward iv was definitely illegitimate due to a confusion over timing and a lack of grandeur.

      We could, of course, settle the question, but it’s unlikely that the Queen will give permission to DNA test Edward in Windsor and the custodian at Fotheringhay will not allow Richard of York and Cecily Neville to be disturbed again. We do have hair from Edward iv, but hair does not give the best DNA profile. The three parental accidents were in the male Beaufort line, not the parental line of Richard iii. Now that we know Richard was also blonde with blue eyes as a child, Edward iv being blond cannot be used to show he didn’t look like his father. For all we know both Cecily and Richard of York may have had blonde hair in their youth and the fair Plantagenet gene certainly dominated in the next generation. Of course there is always a possibility Edward may be illegitimate, but without verification, rumours don’t make it so. Personally I believe he probably was legitimate and there is a logical explanation for his played down baptism, but this is not it.

  7. Seems that I have a royal habit as I love to eat in silence. Lol

    Excluiding the joke, eat in silence seems to be a very common ettiquete at the court. If we look to Marie Antoinette’s obrigations she had to do so and was really unconfortable with this. That was one especial rule to watch the king and queen eat before the guests. I guees.
    I found her really noble and nothing rude.

  8. I only have time to dip into the book at the moment but am looking forward to an extended read soon. A tremendous amount of work has gone into this.

    Best of luck with it.


  9. Elizabeth Woodville wrote a diary for which I have the text for Thursday 10th May 1451 but I don’t know where I can find the rest of the diary. I obtained the extract from Potter’s History of Charnwood Forest.

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