Elizabeth Woodville

Elizabeth Woodville (or Wydeville) (1437-1492) is buried with her husband King Edward IV at St George's chapel, Windsor Castle, but she took Sanctuary at Westminster Abbey on two occasions during the Wars of the Roses.

Her sons, Edward V and Richard Duke of York, were confined in the Tower of London and their supposed bones were found there during the reign of Charles II and he ordered them to be buried in the Abbey (the "Princes in the Tower"). Margaret, her nine month old daughter, died in 1472 and is buried in the chapel of St Edward the Confessor where there is a small altar tomb, now without inscription. Her daughter Elizabeth married King Henry VII and is buried with him in the Abbey's Lady Chapel. Richard's child bride, Anne Mowbray Duchess of York, is also now buried in the Abbey.

Her life

Elizabeth Woodville was the eldest daughter of Richard, 1st Earl Rivers (executed 1469) and Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Duchess of Bedford (her brothers Anthony and John were also executed). By her first husband Sir John Grey she had sons Thomas and Richard and was a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Margaret, wife of Henry VI. After her husband was killed at the second battle of St Albans she married King Edward IV (reigned 1461-1470 and 1471-1483) secretly at Grafton in Northamptonshire on 1st May 1464. The marriage was finally announced the following year and she had a lavish coronation at the Abbey on 26th May 1465.

Their children were Elizabeth (who married Henry VII), Mary (died unmarried), Cecily who married John, Viscount Welles and secondly Thomas Kyme, Edward V, Margaret, Richard, Anne who married Thomas, duke of Norfolk, George, Catherine who married William, Earl of Devon, and Bridget who became a nun.

Edward IV was forced to flee the country and left Elizabeth and their three daughters at the Tower of London. She left there secretly by night with her family and her mother and claimed Sanctuary on 1st October 1470 at the Abbey. The Abbey was a chartered sanctuary which gave immunity from justice to traitors, felons and debtors and important political figures within its walls and in designated houses nearby, under certain strict conditions. The Abbot of Westminster, Thomas Millyng, took care of the royal family and Edward V was born and baptised while in Sanctuary. It is thought that she occupied rooms in Cheyneygates, within the Abbot's house complex, on this occasion. She left on 11th April 1471 when her husband once again gained the throne.

She built the small chapel of St Erasmus adjoining the Lady Chapel but this was swept away in 1502 when Henry VII built the present Lady Chapel. Abbot Islip saved the tabernacle work of the altar in this chapel and set it up in the main Abbey above the entrance to the chapel of Our Lady of the Pew.

On her second stay in Sanctuary she came from the Palace of Westminster on 31st April 1483 with her family and her brother Lionel, bishop of Salisbury. Her servants broke down the Abbey walls in order to get her furniture, chests and other items through. John Esteney was then Abbot and it is thought that she used College Hall, the abbot's dining hall, when she stayed this time. She was forced to give up her son the Duke of York to Richard Duke of Gloucester (Richard III) to join his brother Edward V in the Tower of London. Once Henry VII came to the throne after the battle of Bosworth in 1483 she was restored as Queen Dowager. She leased the manor of Cheyneygates on 10th July 1486, where she lived for a time before withdrawing to the abbey at Bermondsey in early 1487, where she later died on 8th June 1492.

The Abbot's house, later the Deanery, and  Cheyneygates were both gutted by bombs in 1941 but College Hall survived (not open to the public).

The colour image of the queen illustrated here is a copy taken from her portrait at Queens' College, Cambridge.

Further reading

Queens Consort of Westminster Abbey

"Elizabeth Woodville. Her life and times" by D. MacGibbon, 1938

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004

"Elizabeth Woodville and the chapel of St Erasmus at Westminster Abbey" by M.Payne and J.Goodall, in Journal of the British Archaeological Association 175, 2022

"Coronation of Elizabeth Woodville" by G. Smith, 1935 (from a contemporary account)

Chronicle by Robert Fabyan, edited by H. Ellis, 1811 (description of the marriage)

Chronicle by Edward Hall, edited by H. Ellis, 1809

British Museum Arundel MS.26 - eyewitness account of her funeral

"The royal funerals of the House of York at Windsor" by A. Sutton & L. Visser-Fuchs, 2005

A portrait of the Queen in coronation robes is at the Worshipful Company of Skinners in London

A stained glass window showing her and her daughters is at Canterbury Cathedral

"Edward IV" by Charles Ross, 1964


8th June 1492

Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2024 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Elizabeth Woodville
Sculpture from St Erasmus' chapel

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2024 Dean and Chapter of Westminster