Elizabeth Woodville is frequently, almost always in fact, described as a commoner. But how ‘common’ was she?
Her father Richard Woodville came from a family that had gradually improved its position over the course of several generations.
His grand-father was Sheriff of Northamptonshire three times.
His father was Chamberlain (or Steward) to the Duke of Bedford. An important role given that the Duke of Bedford was Regent to the young King Henry VI. He was also Constable of the Tower of London, Sheriff of Kent and Captain of Calais.
He, Richard, before Elizabeth his daughter married Edward IV, had fought in France for more than twelve years, been created Baron Rivers by Henry VI in 1448 and had been invested as a Knight of the Garter in 1450. He was then, through service rather than blood, a minor noble. As far as I can see he had no royal descent.
Elizabeth’s mother, on the other hand, came from European nobility. Jacquetta of Luxembourg, widow of John, Duke of Bedford, Regent (brother of King Henry V, uncle to King Henry VI), was descended from a number of English and Norman Kings:
- Her 2 x Great Grandfather Guy of Luxembourg, I Count Saint-Pol, I Count Ligny was 8 x Great Grandson of William I “Conqueror”
- Her 2 x Great Grandmother Mathilde Châtillon was 2 x Great Grand-daughter of King Henry III
- Her 3 x Great Grandmother Jeanne Fiennes was 5 x Great Granddaughter of Kinf Henry II
- Her 3 x Great Grandfather Roberto Orsini Count of Nola was 2 x Great Grandson King John I
It is also worth noting that Elizabeth’s mother was a Dowager Duchess, her grandfather Peter of Luxembourg was Count of Saint-Pol , her Great Grandfather Francesco Baux was 1st Duke Andria and her Great Great Grandfather Nicholas Orsini was Count of Nola.
Its difficult to see, therefore, why she, Elizabeth, should be described as a commoner since her royal and noble descent is clear. The definition of ‘commoner’ is ‘one of the ordinary or common people, as opposed to the aristocracy or to royalty’. Clearly that doesn’t describe Elizabeth Woodville.
Perhaps it should be read as ‘more common’ than Edward IV ie not being of the same level of royalty or nobility.
Looking at other medieval royal spouses in most cases there is a degree of parity between the King and his Queen Consorts descent:
- Isabella of Angoulême, second wife of King John, was Great Grand-daughter to Louis VI of France,
- Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, was Great Great Grand-daughter of King Alfonso VII of Castile,
- Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, was daughter of King Ferdinand III of Castile,
- Isabella of France, wife of Edward II, was daughter of King Philip IV of France, and
- Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III, was Great Great Grand-daughter of King Louis IX of France.
So perhaps Elizabeth Woodville wasn’t a commoner but was commoner, or more common, than King Edward IV.
We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Edward’s royal descent was based on his being a Great Great Grandson of Edward III through both his parents Richard 3rd Duke York and Cecily “Rose of Raby” Neville.