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21.02.11 Ashdown-Hill, Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey

The Medieval Review

21.02.11 Ashdown-Hill, Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey


The last ten years have seen a plethora of publications on Elizabeth Woodville, from biographies (and re-releases of older biographies), to works that focus on the Woodville family more generally, to historical fiction. Most famous are Philippa Gregory's novels and the resulting limited-run television shows.

Fighting against this, the late medieval historian John Ashdown-Hill has produced several monographs on members of the House of York. However, he is best known for his part in discovering the lost remains of Richard III in 2012, as well as the mitochondrial DNA of Richard and his siblings. In this, his final book, it is clear from the outset that Ashdown-Hill takes issue with most studies of Elizabeth Woodville, especially the popular portrayals of her. Comprised of 21 chapters, an introduction, a conclusion, and a brief biography, Ashdown-Hill's study of Elizabeth sets out to debunk what he considers falsehoods about her, while at the same time continuing to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard III.

Ashdown-Hill's study is not a biography of Elizabeth, though he offers many biographical details, such as early chapters on her Imperial and Anglo-Norman ancestry and the myth that the Luxembourgs descended from a water fairy. Rather, his entire book is an effort at myth-busting popular perceptions of her. He sets out to tackle every point that he thinks is false or misunderstood. These range from his larger conclusions regarding Elizabeth's dubious queenship to smaller misunderstandings of dates and birthplaces. For instance, he suggests that the actual spelling of Elizabeth's mother's name is Jacquette, with Jacquetta being a Latin derivation. Ashdown-Hill also speculates that Elizabeth and her next four siblings were all born in France, contrary to other historians who suggest their birthplace to be Grafton, Northamptonshire. To support this supposition, Ashdown-Hill notes that Jacquette (and her family) escorted Margaret of Anjou to England in 1444.

Ashdown-Hill's biggest contention is that, "it was and is definitely questionable whether Elizabeth Widville should really be accepted as a genuine queen" (vii, his emphasis). As Ashdown-Hill makes clear, he does not think Elizabeth should be considered a true queen, but if she was, she should be seen as "pink" and not "white," based on her own pink carnation emblem. Edward IV appears to have met Lady Eleanor Talbot in 1460, and secretly married her on 8 June 1461. The relationship remained a secret. It is obvious that Ashdown-Hill has studied this subject/period for several years. His notes on these major points, such as Edward's secret marriage, often simply refer to one of his earlier books. In the present study, Ashdown-Hill argues that the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth was not a real marriage because Edward was already secretly married to Eleanor, but that Elizabeth did not find out for several years. Edward and Elizabeth were likely married on 1 May 1464, at Grafton-Regis, the family house of Elizabeth. Edward was forced to acknowledge Elizabeth publicly in September 1464 at a meeting of his council in Reading because Elizabeth was pregnant and the Earl of Warwick was in talks to make Edward a foreign match. Yet Elizabeth would have heard rumors that she was not the true queen by 1469, as their union was contested by the king's own mother (Cecily Neville), the Earl of Warwicke, the Duke of Clarence, the Earl of Desmond, and many others at court.

Besides Elizabeth's own false queenship, Ashdown-Hill claims that Elizabeth was so unsure of her own position as queen that she could have been involved in several executions and the deaths of those who threatened her position, such as the Duke of Clarence, his wife and a child, Eleanor Talbot, and the Earl of Desmond. Moreover, he suggests that Elizabeth "obviously cannot have been virtuous, faithful or well-behaved from a religious point of view" (111). To reach this conclusion, he looks at Elizabeth's sanctuary in Westminster Abbey from September 1470-March 1471, when Edward was in exile. During that sanctuary, Elizabeth was pregnant and had meat delivered to the Abbey.

In addition to disputing her queenship, Ashdown-Hill also takes issue with how her surname should be appropriately spelled (though the former seems more important to him than the latter). As for Elizabeth's surname, he argues that no early sources exist that support the modern, commonly accepted, "Woodville" spelling; this seems to have come from the seventeenth-century. Ashdown-Hill has chosen "Widville" as a mix of the earliest recording of the surname "de Widvill" and the prevalence of i/y in various forms of the name used in the fifteenth century. He believes that his rendering, with modern pronunciation, produces the most accurate sound of Elizabeth's maiden name in the fifteenth century.

Not only does Ashdown-Hill attempt to tear down Elizabeth's popular reputation, but he also suggests that Edward IV and Richard III do not deserve their bad reputations. For Edward, Ashdown-Hill asserts that he was largely faithful to Elizabeth, even if this caused issues with his relatives. He finds them to be caring partners, even if bigamous. He claims that Richard did not want the throne, but at Edward V's accession the priest who married Edward IV and Eleanor Talbot came forward and declared the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth invalid. In this interpretation, as Elizabeth knew this was inevitable, she gladly handed over her children and right as queen. Ashdown-Hill suggests that Elizabeth trusted Richard completely; Elizabeth would not have handed over her sons and daughters into his care if she had thought that Richard had ill intentions. If Richard and Elizabeth did argue, it was over who should have been Edward V's regent when he was acknowledged as King.

Ashdown-Hill concludes that it is not possible to give a complete life story of Elizabeth Widville. He acknowledges what he gives here to be largely hypothesis, but he offers it to question evidence that has been taken as fact by other historians. Not only does he challenge modern perceptions of Elizabeth, but he also takes on older accounts, such as Thomas More's History of King Richard III and that of Polydor Vergil, from which so much information about Elizabeth is derived.

It is very clear that Ashdown-Hill sees Eleanor Talbot as Edward's legal wife, and he spends several chapters explaining why that is so. But he never explains why Edward sought to marry Elizabeth if he was already married. Nor does he offer why Elizabeth and Edward never sought to legalize their own union, which perhaps negates some of his hypotheses. It seems that his goal is to debunk the idea that Elizabeth was a legitimate queen instead. It is not clear that he achieves this goal, but his study will certainly offer food for thought about Elizabeth's popular representation.