The Queen’s Blood: A Study of Family Ties during the Wars of the Roses
By Helen Shears
University of Puget Sound Research Paper (2010)
Introduction: As mother and daughter, Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York endured together some of the most dangerous and uncertain phases of the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485). However, the posthumous images of these women couldn’t be more different. Elizabeth Woodville is remembered as a haughty, greedy queen who recklessly elevated her huge family to the detriment of the realm. Although recently there has been a wave of historical study aimed at exonerating the entire Woodville clan, including Elizabeth, from the accusations of unbridled greed, their reputation as acquisitive parvenus still remains. Meanwhile, historians have immortalized Elizabeth of York as the beautiful and benevolent queen of Henry VII (king from 1485 to 1509) and the foundress of the Tudor Dynasty. This difference in their images, however, may be partly because there are significantly fewer extant sources available that concern Elizabeth of York, particularly regarding any political action she undertook as queen. As a result, the majority of work that has been done on her emphasizes the social aspects of her life as queen of England, not her political power, while historians have been able to make more definitive statements about her mother‘s political influence using the sources available for her career as queen of Edward IV (king from 1461 to 1470, and 1471 to 1483).
Although Elizabeth of York was much less politically active than her mother, she was always a theoretically more politically powerful woman. While Elizabeth Woodville came from the lowest ranks of the English nobility, Elizabeth of York was the daughter of Edward IV and a princess in her own right. Her ancestry alone held significant implications for Henry VII, as a challenger to Richard III and as king of England. Elizabeth of York, therefore, despite being less politically active than her mother, did provide certain political ramifications for her husband. In this sense, Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York are similar; both of these queen‘s families and their familial connections wrought significant political consequences for their husbands. Elizabeth Woodville and her family‘s unpopularity ultimately contributed to Richard III‘s usurpation of the throne, while Elizabeth of York‘s royal lineage considerably strengthened Henry VII‘s claim to the English throne and his early years as king.
The study of queenship has expanded significantly in the last few decades, particularly regarding the role of the queen to complement the king, and the potential benefits and burdens—political and familial—that a queen brought to her husband. While late medieval queens were chosen based on a series of criteria, a potential bride‘s family was always implicitly considered, since the choice was one of the most sensitive diplomatic nature. The implications of this family differed depending on if a queen was foreign or not. A foreign queen could bring potential alliances to her husband‘s country, while a native born queen might further elevate an already powerful family and link them more closely to the throne which might threaten the security of the king and the succession of his chosen heir.