In 2013, the BBC screened The White Queen, a serial based on the novel by Philippa Gregory. It dramatised the Wars of the Roses, focusing on the story of the ‘devilishly handsome’ King Edward IV and the ‘beautiful young widow,’ Elizabeth Woodville, who became his wife. Edward and Elizabeth met, apparently by chance, under an oak tree in Potterspury, and, arguably, their love affair and subsequent marriage changed the course of British history.
Their meeting may not have been a complete accident. The Woodvilles were an ambitious noble family whose manor of Grafton bordered Whittlewood Forest, a royal hunting ground. Moreover, with the death of her husband Sir John Grey at the Battle of St Albans, and even worse, his position on the losing Lancastrian side, Elizabeth found herself an impoverished single mother of two children. It was well known that Edward hunted in the area and she may well have deliberately planned to meet him in order to plead for her sons’ inheritance.
Legend has it that they met under a tree now known as the Queen’s Oak in the parish of Potterspury. The remains of the tree survive in a field just east of Potterspury Lodge off the A5.
A great beauty, but no fool, Elizabeth firmly withstood Edward’s advances, accepting nothing less from him than than marriage. Clearly entranced, Edward secretly married Elizabeth at Grafton Manor on 1 May 1464.
Edward had won the throne just three years earlier aged only 19, and his advisors, notably Warwick ‘the Kingmaker’, were keen that he should forge a marital alliance with France. Edward realized the enormity of his decision, and kept his marriage to a mere commoner secret for five months.
For the Woodvilles, Elizabeth’s marriage was wonderful news as they immediately acquired lands and power, marrying into the nobility and gaining enormous influence.
Edward and Elizabeth went on to have 10 children, but in 15th century England, riven by the Wars of the Roses, there were many rival claims to the English throne. When Edward IV died in 1483 his brother Richard Duke of Gloucester obtained the crown over Edward’s sons, the ‘princes in the tower’, capturing his nephew Edward V in Stony Stratford, just five miles from their mother’s home at Grafton.
Richard III declared that his elder brother’s marriage was invalid, and that his children were therefore illegitimate. Elizabeth sought sanctuary with her daughters in Westminster Abbey and was suspected of witchcraft. It is hard to imagine the turmoil and distress that the murder of her two sons and the sudden change in fortune must have caused her, but Elizabeth allied herself with the Lancastrian cause in the form of Lady Margaret Beaufort. Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor, was victorious at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and assumed the throne as Henry VII after Richard’s death in battle. The family fortunes recovered as Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, married Henry Tudor, uniting the warring houses of Lancaster and York.
Elizabeth was a pivotal individual in the turmoil of 15th century England, but until recently her name has not been well known, even though she is the ancestor of every monarch from Henry VIII to Elizabeth II.
The White Queen traces the rise to power of a woman dependent on her wits and beauty. That she survived her husband, and the brutal deaths of her sons and brothers to die peacefully in her bed in 1492 during the reign of her son-in-law Henry VII, is perhaps testimony to her resilience.
Not only was this steely survivor of the Wars of the Roses the grandmother of Henry VIII, but arguably, the foundations of the Tudor dynasty all began in a field in Potterspury.