A document has been uncovered in the National Archives which may have solved one of history’s mysteries – how did the ‘White Queen’ Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV die.
Her marriage, to Edward IV, was a cause célèbre of the day, thanks to Elizabeth’s great beauty and lack of great estates. Edward was the first king of England since the Norman Conquest to marry one of his subjects, and Elizabeth was the first such consort to be crowned queen.
When Elizabeth died in June 1492, no cause of death was recorded and no contemporary accounts are known.
However, evidence in a letter from the Venetian ambassador in London some nineteen years later, that has only now been studied in depth, gives an insight into how the White Queen died and hints at a hypochondriac young monarch: Henry VIII.
The letter, dated July 1511, states that ‘the Queen-Widow, mother of King Edward, has died of plague, and the King is disturbed.’
Euan Roger, Records Specialist at The National Archives who made the discovery, said: “This entry can only refer to Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV, mother of Edward V, and Henry VIII’s maternal grandmother. It was written in the context of Henry’s own deep-seated fear of disease, in particular the Black Death, which had claimed his grandmother’s life.
“In the late fifteenth century and the first two decades of the sixteenth century, England was increasingly hit by outbreaks of infectious disease, with almost annual epidemics of plague and sweating sickness. The Venetians had a long experience of managing plague outbreaks through an effective system of quarantine, and regularly commented on English outbreaks. It was in this context that ambassador Andrea Badoer made his cryptic remark.”
Accounts of Elizabeth’s funeral depict a modest event, a fact often explained by her will, which was brief and written in her last few months, requesting no pomp or costly expenses.
However, this discovery offers an alternative explanation.
Rather than simply enacting the Queen’s requests for modesty, there would have been the further difficulty of a contagious body to deal with. Once Elizabeth’s body had been buried, and the dangers of miasmatic air which was believed to carry infection contained, the funeral could continue as usual.
While the original diaries recording the ambassador’s correspondence are held by archives in Venice, the discovery was made among transcripts and translations of Venetian documents relating to England, compiled in the early nineteenth century by editors in the Public Record Office. These transcriptions are held at The National Archives.
The full research behind this article can be found in Social History of Medicine, 2019. This month, the Oxford journal will feature a peer-reviewed academic article on the discovery.
The White Queen was featured in the BBC historical-drama a few years ago that showed the years of the Wars of the Roses.