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Who was the first commoner to be Queen of England? There has been a long debate on the matter, because the parameters for being classified as “commoner” have shifted though the centuries.
Elizabeth Woodville is considered the first commoner to be crowned as queen consort. The glittering ceremony, in 1464, came just months after her shock marriage to Edward IV. But was Elizabeth really a commoner?
Elizabeth Woodville was born around 1437 as the first of fourteen children born to Richard Woodville and Jacquetta of Luxembourg. The latter was of far superior rank than her second husband, as her first marriage to the Duke of Bedford made her an aunt-in-law to King Henry VI.
Jacquetta and Richard married in secret, as she was supposed to ask permission from the King to marry but didn’t – she knew that Woodville would not get the approval because of his low rank. The King issued a fine for the couple, but later retracted it, probably coinciding with the birth of Elizabeth.
At roughly 15, in 1452, Elizabeth Woodville married Sir John Grey of Groby, who was killed during the second battle of St Albans, in 1461, in which he was fighting for House of Lancaster. Elizabeth was left a 24-years-old widowed mother to two sons.
There is no clear record of when the story between King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville began, nor of their marriage, as it happened in secret, but common knowledge dates the union on the 1st of May 1464.
Already at the time, many were pointing out the irony of Elizabeth having married one of the people behind the cause of her first husband’s death: King Edward IV was the first King of the House of York, who had defeated and deposed the Lancastrian king, Henry VI.
Elizabeth was crowned Queen Consort on the 26th of May 1465, with many inside the Court and even the King’s inner circle opposing the move, as she was seen having too low of a rank to be a suitable Queen.
She was ostracised by the Court, with some even accusing her and her mother of witchcraft. Despite this, her marriage to King Edward IV was fruitful, as it bore them a total of 10 children who went on to play crucial roles in the later history of England.
King Edward IV died suddenly in April 1483, and the country spiralled into chaos again, with Elizabeth being stripped of her title of Queen Dowager after her late husband’s brother, Richard III, declared their marriage invalid. Elizabeth lost all her privileges and was instead styled as Dame Elizabeth Grey. But Richard’s reign was tumultuous and short. In August 1485, he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth and his crown claimed by Henry Tudor. Elizabeth and Henry’s mother played integral parts in the negotiations to end the War of the Roses by uniting the Houses of York and Lancaster through marriage. Elizabeth’s own daughter, another Elizabeth, wed the new Henry VII in 1486 and was named Queen of England.
Under King Henry VII, Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of England, led a life of contemplation for the last 5 years of her life. She retired to Bermondsey Abbey, where she was treated with the respect given to a Queen Dowager. She passed away on the 8th of June 1492, at the age of 55, and was buried on the 12th of June with all of her daughters in attendance.
Records at the time show that the funeral was extremely simple, something believed to be a wish of Woodville herself, but a discovery in 2019 of a letter written in 1511 seems to indicate that she died of plague, thus explaining the lack of public funeral and the haste in burying her.
Elizabeth Woodville’s figure is still the object of many studies by historians and Royal fans all around the world. She came from what some define as “lesser nobility”, while others plainly indicate as “gentry”, which, at the time, was considered unsuitable for a King.
But was she actually a commoner? By today’s standards, the answer is no: while her nobility came from her mother’s side, she still had “blue blood” in her veins. By 15th century standards, however, she was.