Monday, 29 April 2019

Elizabeth Woodville as Plague Victim


Queens' College Cambridge Portrait 88 

There were several newspaper headlines last week along the lines of ‘White Queen died of plague, claims letter found in National Archives’. Their authors are drawing on an article in this month’s issue of Social History of Medicine by Euan Roger, who is a historian at The National Archives.[1] The newspaper articles online seem to have caused some confusion and scepticism on social media. So, having read Roger’s fascinating article, here’s what I think it might mean for understanding Elizabeth’s death and much-debated funeral.

The focus of Roger’s research was an early-sixteenth century codex from St George’s College, Windsor, containing regulations about quarantine for plague (really interesting stuff – but you’ll have to read the article if you want to know more!). In the course of this, he investigated Henry VIII’s exceptional anxiety about the plague. He picked up on an intriguing letter written by the Venetian ambassador, Andrea Badoer, in July 1511. The ambassador observed ‘the Queen-Widow, mother of the late King Edward, had died of plague, and the King was troubled’.[2]

No one who might answer the description of ‘queen-widow’ had died in 1511, or even remotely near that date. Hitherto, scholars who came across the curious reference seem not to have been interested in trying to unravel its mystery, until now. Euan Roger persuasively concluded that the ambassador’s remark was meant as an explanation for Henry VIII’s particular fear of the plague – the king knew (or, at least, believed) that a close relative had died of it. (Do check out the sources and logic for this in his article).

Elizabeth Woodville was not the only mother of a king Edward to have died within living memory. The most recent was Edward IV’s mother, Cecily duchess of York, whom some on Twitter have suggested might have been the subject of the ambassador’s remark. Cecily was indeed the woman most commonly referred to as the ‘mother of King Edward’. She died when Henry VIII was four, so he is unlikely to have remembered her in person. However, she must have been part of his sense of his family because she bequeathed him three Arras tapestries and many of her lands had passed into his possession as duke of York (which was his title before his elder brother’s death). At first sight Cecily seems a possible candidate, except that she was never a queen.

Cecily’s status was contentious. Her husband, Richard duke of York, had claimed that his right to the throne was superior to Henry VI’s. During the reigns of her sons Edward IV and Richard III, Cecily called herself ‘king’s mother and wife of the rightful heir to the thrones of England and France and lord of Ireland’. In Henry VII’s reign, however, it appears that she tactfully dropped much of this claim. She usually described her husband only as ‘the right noble prince Richard duke of York’. In so far as Henry VII had any blood right to the throne, it came from his relationship to Henry VI. Consequently, suggesting that Henry VI’s claim was false would not have played well with the Tudor family. So, it would make no sense for anyone at Henry VIII’s court to call Cecily ‘queen-widow’.

Moreover, what we know of Cecily’s death does not suggest that she was a plague victim. She was living in rural Berkhamsted which was a much less likely site for plague to strike than the congested capital. She was already 80 years old and the long preparation for her death reveals that it was not a hurried affair. On 1st April 1495 she began making her last testament. She did not finish it until 31st May, the very day of her death. On that day she sealed and signed the document. After her death, a papal indulgence was tied around her neck with a silk ribbon and her body was transported 60 miles for burial at Fotheringhay College.[3] This would have caused a serious contagion risk if she had died of plague.

The only other relevant mother of a king Edward was Elizabeth Woodville, mother of Edward V and wife of Edward IV. She had very definitely been a queen-widow. We might have expected the ambassador to call her the king (Henry VIII)’s grandmother, rather than the mother of his uncle. Nonetheless, the description was entirely accurate for Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth had died three years before Cecily. She was only in her early fifties and lived at Bermondsey Abbey, near the Thames in Southwark. This was a much more vulnerable location for the plague. Crucially, as Roger argues, her exceptionally low-key funeral has long been a matter of speculation.  If her hasty burial was a consequence of fears about plague infection, this would offer a new perspective on the event.

Elizabeth Woodville had composed her last testament on 10 April 1492, exactly nine years and one day after her husband, Edward IV’s, sudden death, ‘seeing the world so transitory and no creature certain when they shall depart from hence’ (TNA PROB 11/9). It seems from this line that she had no specific reason to expect that two months later she would be dead. In this testament, she requested that she be buried with Edward IV at Windsor, ‘without pomp entering or costly expenses done thereabout’.

A description of Elizabeth Woodville’s funeral has been preserved in a sixteenth-century herald’s book that is now in the British Library.[4] The author drew attention to the use of ‘old torches and torch ends’, tapers ‘of no great weight’, and a ‘low hearse, such as they use for the common people’. He also noted that several of the traditional solemn services were omitted and that the poor men holding torches had not been provided with black mourning wear. It is impossible to be sure whether the author’s emphasis on the minimal ceremony was meant as a criticism of her executors, a lament on her poverty or praise for her austere piety. However, his opening explanation suggests that it was the last. He had recorded that the queen wished to be taken by river to be buried at Windsor ‘in all goodly haste, without any worldly pomp’. Euan Roger’s investigation suggests that some elements of this simplicity were actually a result of anxious, rather than ‘goodly’, haste.

One of the most surprising aspects of the funeral is the fact that the body did not lie on the hearse throughout the ceremonies but was buried immediately on arrival at the castle ‘privily about 11 of the clock in the night’. Only one priest and one clerk had greeted the tiny party accompanying the body ‘privily through the little park’. This would entirely fit with a desire to avoid contagion from the plague. Intriguingly, however, there is no hint that the author of the description was himself aware of the cause of death which may suggest that, if she did die of plague, it was not entirely public knowledge at the time.

It is also worth noting that we do not seem to have any records of plague in London in 1492. Nonetheless, plague was endemic by this period to the extent that many sources seem not have considered it worth noting every small outbreak. Records for Oxford University indicate that the students would be evacuated each time plague struck, but sometimes only a couple of students were affected. Such evacuations occurred in both 1491 and 1493.[5] It is not improbable that a small outbreak occurred in London between these years.

Last week’s newspaper reports implied that the letter at the heart of the revelations had only just been discovered. The truth is actually more impressive – records that have been publicly available for decades can still yield surprising new information when examined by a historian who is asking new questions in the context of the appropriate background knowledge. An investigation into why a sixteenth-century king was so concerned about plague has indicated that Elizabeth Woodville’s family believed that she had died of that disease in 1492.

J L Laynesmith

[1] Euan C Roger , “‘To Be Shut Up’: New Evidence for the Development of Quarantine Regulations in Early-Tudor England”, Social History of Medicine,
Published: 11 April 2019
[2] Item come la Raina Vedova, fò madre dil Re Edoardo, erra morta da peste, et il Re era fastidiato. See
[3] Her will stated a preference for burial at Fotheringhay but acknowledged that this would be an expensive undertaking and allowed that the king might recommend she be buried elsewhere. Her relationship with her local church in Berkhamsted was close – in her will she left gifts to three incumbents as well as to the church itself – so it would have been the sensible alternative if she had actually died of plague. J. L. Laynesmith, Cecily duchess of York (Bloomsbury, 2017).
[4] Transcribed and discussed in Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs with R. A. Griffiths, The Royal Funerals of the House of York at Windsor (Richard III Society, 2005).
[5] Charles Creighton, A History of Epidemics in Britain (CUP, 1891), I:283.
Image from Wikmedia Commons,