Did Elizabeth Woodville, England’s ‘White Queen,’ Die of the Plague?

A 500-year-old letter recently found in the National Archives suggests the queen was buried quickly and without ceremony due to fear of contagion

Elizabeth and Edward IV married in secret, attracting the ire of the king's advisors and most of the court Public domain

When Elizabeth Woodville died in 1492, she was buried with little of the pomp and circumstance befitting a woman of her rank. Despite the fact that she was Edward IV's queen consort, mother of the missing princes in the tower—Edward, Prince of Wales, and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York—and grandmother of Henry VIII, just five attendants transported her casket down the Thames River to Windsor Castle. Here, Elizabeth's arrival was met with silence rather than the typical tolling of bells. Soon after, the “White Queen” of England, so-called for her links with the royal House of York, as represented by the emblem of the white rose, was buried without receiving any of the traditional funerary rites.

As Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, a 500-year-old letter recently unearthed in England’s National Archives may hold the key to understanding the muted affair. Written by Andrea Badoer, the Venetian ambassador to London, in 1511, the missive states, “The Queen-Widow, mother of King Edward, has died of plague, and the King is disturbed.”

Based on context clues, records specialist Euan Roger tells Flood it seems likely that the queen in question was Elizabeth. If Roger’s theory is correct, as he argues in a new study published in the Social History of Medicine, the letter would account for not only the dowager queen’s simple funeral (given fear of contagion, plague victims were often buried quickly and without ceremony), but also the Tudor king’s exaggerated, lifelong fear of plague and other deadly illnesses.

Did Elizabeth Woodville, England’s ‘White Queen,’ Die of the Plague?
Elizabeth of York, oldest daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, married Henry VII, uniting the warring houses of York and Lancaster Public domain

According to Flood, Badoer’s note is the only near-contemporary record to identify Elizabeth’s cause of death. Previously, most historians had attributed the modest burial ceremony to the queen’s own wishes, as she reportedly requested a funeral “without pompes entring or costlie expensis donne thereabout.”

This explanation makes sense in light of the fact that Elizabeth spent the last years of her life in relative isolation at Bermondsey Abbey. It also provides a reason for why she was buried immediately upon her arrival at Windsor instead of being laid out in the chapel for several days.

Given the gap in time between Elizabeth’s 1492 death and Badoer’s 1511 letter, Roger suggests Badoer’s account served as a reflection on how Henry’s personal history affected his emotional state rather than a record of current events. In 1511, the Tudor king was young and hopeful of his dynasty’s future—another 20 years would pass before Henry divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in favor of the younger, and presumably more fertile, Anne Boleyn—but he still had no heir, raising concern for what would happen in the event of his untimely demise.

Fear of disease was a recurring theme in Henry’s life: As Erin Blakemore explains for History.com, the king spent his summers moving between various country houses, eager to escape the seasonal illnesses sweeping through the country’s capital. Plague was a key concern, as was the sweating sickness, a mysterious affliction that found its victims “well today and dead tomorrow,” in the words of the Conversation’s Derek Gatherer. Known to cause a cold sweat, fever, heart palpitations and dehydration, the sweat killed between 30 to 50 percent of those struck with the illness in just 3 to 18 hours. Interestingly, Gatherer points out, the sweat—widely rumored to have arrived in England with Henry VII’s band of foreign mercenaries in 1485—had died out by the late Elizabethan era and remains poorly understood to this day.

Did Elizabeth Woodville, England’s ‘White Queen,’ Die of the Plague?
Elizabeth's grandson, Henry VIII, depicted in 1509, the year of his ascension to the English throne Public domain

While Henry never contracted the plague or the sweat, thousands of his subjects were not so lucky. If Roger’s hypothesis proves true, the king’s own grandmother was among them.

According to popular legend, Elizabeth Woodville first caught Edward IV’s attention while waiting under an oak tree in hopes of convincing the passing king to restore her sons’ inheritance. Known then as Lady Elizabeth Grey, she had been widowed by the Wars of the Roses, an ongoing dynastic clash between two branches of the royal Plantagenet family. Regardless of how the pair truly met, it's clear that her renowned beauty immediately appealed to the notoriously lascivious young Yorkist. The couple wed secretly in 1464, thwarting advisors’ hopes of negotiating a diplomatically advantageous marriage and attracting the ire of virtually everyone at court aside from the newly elevated Woodville faction.

The remainder of Elizabeth’s life was marked by a series of power struggles. At one point, Edward briefly lost the throne, which was subsequently reclaimed by the Lancastrian Henry VI, and upon the Yorkist king’s death, his brother, Richard III, seized power by declaring his nephews illegitimate. During an early coup, Edward’s former ally and mentor also ordered the executions of Elizabeth’s father and brother. And, of course, at some point during Richard’s reign, her sons, the unlucky “princes in the tower,” vanished without a trace. Still, the end of the 30-year conflict found Elizabeth in a position of relative victory: She negotiated the marriage of her daughter, Elizabeth of York, to Henry VII, forging peace between the warring houses before her death by uniting the white rose of York with the red rose of Lancaster.

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