Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kings and Stony Stratford - 5 King Edward IV

Up to the 15th century references to kings and Stony Stratford have been only the briefest mentions in official documents. In the reign of the Yorkist king, Edward IV, we can discover a full blown story which was a sensation in its day.

On April 30th 1464 King Edward IV and his party stopped overnight at Stony Stratford. We don't know which Inn the king himself stayed at but it is likely that the king's entourage was a large one and they probably used up all the inn space at Stony Stratford between them. So far nothing remarkable, but the following day Edward quietly slipped away and rode out to Grafton where the Woodvilles or Wydvilles had a house. His objective was the beautiful widow Elizabeth de Grey (formerly Woodville) and apparently that day they were secretly married. The King returned to Stony Stratford and said he had been hunting, that he was tired and went to sleep. The following day he returned to Grafton for three days and each night he and Elizabeth came together for a secret assignation.

This is about the only fact we have although as one would expect there is a great deal of legend. It has been said that he first encountered her at the "Queens Oak" in Whittlewood forest while hunting. It is also said that she had resolved to approach the king over the forfeited estates of her previous husband. There may be some gain of truth here but it leaves room for questions. Had the king encountered Elizabeth Woodville while hunting it would have happened in a very public environment with the likelihood of other observers and reporters on the meeting. There are however none, and the marriage itself was kept secret for 6 months. It is of course possible, given Edwards established womanizing reputation, that his courtiers paid no especial attention to his apparent fling with the de Grey widow.

On balance I am inclined to take this view. Kings led very public lives and were rarely out of sight of anybody. Any dalliance with Elizabeth de Grey would have been noticed. However if it were thought no more of than an affair nobody would have paid much mind to what was going on. The announcement on October 4th that he was married must have been a sensational revelation.

These details come from a contemporary chronicler, Robert Fabyan.

It was a marriage that astonished his contemporaries and historians have generally been at a loss to explain Edward's choice other than sheer impetuousness. It is not even clear when Edward first met Elizabeth Woodville and became enamoured of her. He did spend three days in Stony Stratford in 1461 when he pardoned Lord Rivers and this has been suggested as a time for a first meeting, but if so one wonders why it took three years for Edward's passion  to incubate.

The point is that Edward could have, should have made a marriage which was more dynastically important. In fact, even after the secret marriage negotiations continued for a French marriage. Edward must have been conscious that his marriage would cause dismay, to put it at its mildest, amongst the English nobility, because he kept his secret until October when the French marriage plans had reached a point of decision.

And what of Elizabeth Woodville? She was a beautiful woman and at the time of here marriage to Edward a 27 year-old widow with two young sons. Her fist husband was Sir john Grey of Groby who had been killed at the Battle of St Albans in 1461 fighting on the Lancastrian side. As a widow she was relatively impoverished which might in part explain why men were not lining up to marry her. The usual tale that is told of the whirlwind pursuit by Edward is that she virtuously resisted his advances and the only way of breaking don her resistance was to propose marriage. This may be so, although we simply have no way of knowing.

Elizabeth Woodville brought with her a set of difficult problems for the monarch, partly through her own rather icy personality and partly through the preferment of her very large family. Elizabet, although beautiful, lacked warmth and generosity of spirit. She bore grudges for a very long time and worked tirelessly and often unscrupulously to enrich her own family. And that family was very large. She had 11 brothers and sisters and waged a constant campaign to see that they married into money or were given honours that brought in great wealth. A certain amount of self help in this area was to be expected and tolerated, but the Woodvilles were greedy and resentment gradually increased to the point where the Yorkist regime was fatally undermned. It was as much the prospect of Elizabeth Woodville and her family running the monarchy that shifted significant support to Edward's brother Richard of York. It can be argued that were it not for the Woodvilles sudden rise to power, the Yorkist dynasty may well have continued and the Tudor name would not have come into our history.

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