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The Marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville with Susan Higginbotham

Decades before his grandson King Henry VIII scandalised Europe with his six marriages, King Edward IV made his own controversial match. Defying convention, the York king took a beautiful Lancastrian widow as his bride. The love-match between Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville outraged the nobility, it would prove fatal to his relationship with his uncle the “Kingmaker”, the earl of Warwick and arguably led George Duke of Clarence on his path of self-destruction. The scandal left Elizabeth vulnerable after Edward’s death, even after two decades of a happy marriage.

To get behind the many myths that surround Elizabeth Wydeville, one of England’s most slandered Queen consorts, we firstly need to examine the catalyst. Susan Higginbotham, author of The Woodvilles, joins us today to discuss the marriage of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville.

The date of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville’s secret marriage is often alleged to be May 1st, May Day. Do you think dating the marriage to May Day is more of a romantic tradition and has perhaps helped reinforce allegations of witchcraft against Elizabeth?

It’s difficult to say, because contemporary sources do give the May Day date and no other, and the May date is certainly logistically possible. But Elizabeth’s dealings with William Hastings later that year suggest that she had not yet married the king, so I’m inclined to believe that the marriage took place in late August or early September, and that the date reflects romantic tradition. Certainly the May date has been used to bolster the notion that Elizabeth used witchcraft to snare her man–one particularly imaginative modern writer, who purports to be writing nonfiction, posits that the wedding took place after a wild night of bacchanalian Walpurgisnacht reveling in the woods, although not even Elizabeth’s contemporary enemies came up with such an accusation against her.

What about the idea that Elizabeth refused to sleep with Edward unless he made her his wife? The contemporary stories seem to allude to her simply refusing to become his mistress, do you think that the idea she was ‘making a play’ for the crown is a modern one?

I don’t think Elizabeth could have ever anticipated that Edward would act so unorthodoxly by making her his queen. I believe the notion that she set out to become queen probably reflects the later relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who did indeed at some point reject the idea of being Henry’s mistress in favor of being the queen. But of course there were factors at play such as Henry’s frustrated desire for a male heir that weren’t there in the case of Edward, and there was precedent at that point for a commoner becoming queen–that precedent being Elizabeth herself.

So while the nobility made much of Elizabeth’s alleged commoner roots, did Edward’s subjects voice much objection to the marriage?

Not that’s recorded. I suspect that after the unpopular Margaret of Anjou, whose marriage was associated with the English reversals in France, that many people might have even been relieved at the king’s choosing an English bride.

Is there really any evidence that Edward may have been tiring of Elizabeth as they both aged and she would have lost her influence over him in place of a mistress?

Not that I know of. It’s been claimed that Edward omitted her from the list of his executors in his 1483 will (which hasn’t itself survived) and that this is shown by the fact that she’s not listed in the executors who met at Cecily, Duchess of York’s residence in May 1483. This is a good example, unfortunately, of how evidence has been misread to make a case against Elizabeth, because the account of the meeting doesn’t purport to be a complete list of the executors from the 1483 will, and Elizabeth in any case was in sanctuary at the time and wouldn’t have been at the meeting anyway.

What about Edward’s own reputation for licentiousness? It seems we’ve little actual evidence of illegitimate children and mistresses and one of those illegitimate children Grace seems to have formed a relationship with Elizabeth and attended her funeral. Do you think that perhaps even Edward’s reputation has been subject to some exaggeration?

I think it has been. Some contemporary sources did comment on his licentiousness, but they’re all rather vague on specifics. If Edward had truly been the playboy on the epic scale that some claim, one would think his exploits would have made more of an impression in the historical record, as have those of Charles II, for instance. In a way, the accusations against him remind me of H. L. Mencken’s famous definition of Puritanism: “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
It’s interesting that only two illegitimate children for Edward, Arthur and Grace, have been soundly documented–the same number that can be documented for his younger brother Richard, who nonetheless has acquired a reputation as something of a prude.

Their marriage is famed as a love-match, what is your opinion on their long and seemingly stable relationship?

Sadly, for a love-match, we know very little of the couple’s personal relationship–we have few glimpses of their private life, as we do for Henry VIII and his queens. There’s certainly no evidence, though, that Edward ever became disenchanted with Elizabeth.

It’s difficult to say, because contemporary sources do give the May Day date and no other, and the May date is certainly logistically possible. But Elizabeth’s dealings with William Hastings later that year suggest that she had not yet married the king, so I’m inclined to believe that the marriage took place in late August or early September, and that the date reflects romantic tradition. Certainly the May date has been used to bolster the notion that Elizabeth used witchcraft to snare her man–one particularly imaginative modern writer, who purports to be writing nonfiction, posits that the wedding took place after a wild night of bacchanalian Walpurgisnacht reveling in the woods, although not even Elizabeth’s contemporary enemies came up with such an accusation against her.

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A beginner's guide to music of the late 60s

  • The Beatles: love happiness drugs
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