For today’s post I would like to discuss the connection between the legendary figure of Guinevere and the real queen Elizabeth Woodville! This may seem a bit far fetched, but given the prevalence of Arthurian legends during the medieval period, many real royals would take inspiration from these legends. Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter and son-in-law went as far as to name their first born Arthur, and claim that he was descended from the legendary figure!
Elizabeth Woodville was an anomaly as far as becoming queen of England went. She was a commoner, but from noble blood through her mother (who was one-time Duchess of Bedford), but her father was a humble squire. Having a father who started as a knight, married to a Duchess for love, meant that the children were considered commoners by extension! Elizabeth also was an unlikely choice given that her family had for a long time been supporters of Lancaster, and had changed allegiance after it became clear that Henry VI was mentally ill-suited to rule. Elizabeth had been married before, to a Lancastrian who died fighting against York! She was left with two young sons from this previous union.
It was at this time that she caught the eye of the new York king, Edward IV! The legendary story of their meeting goes that she had heard that he was leading a hunting party. So she waited for them to come by a large oak tree, with her two sons. She was there to beg that her husband’s lands be returned to her boys. Of course, this became more than she would have expected, since the king, virile and five years her junior fell deeply in lust with her. This is unsurprising given that Elizabeth Woodville was said to be the most beautiful woman of her day, and Edward was known as a lady’s man! She famously rejected his initial advances, refusing to be his mistress (legend has it by threatening to slice her throat with his dagger)! This is what convinced Edward of her value as not merely a lover, but as a queen. She had the moral conviction to not simply be his mistress, and had the beauty and fertility to ensure heirs to his throne!
At the beginning this marriage was kept secret, having been done with only a chaplain and Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta, present. When the time came that Edward was (yet again) pressured to marry, he made the radical announcement that he could not marry the French princess who had travelled to meet him because he was already wed! This caused a stir, as even Elizabeth’s father and brothers had no idea. It was then that the new queen could finally attend court and take her rightful place on the throne. Unsurprisingly much was made of her commoner status, her previous marriage (to a Lancastrian, at that), her having sons already, and her being five years the king’s senior! However, Edward rightly saw that her already baring two healthy boys meant that she was fertile, and the fact that her mother had bore 14 children amplified this assertion.
Over time Elizabeth became less scandalous to the court, as they realized that Edward truly loved her and that she was able to bare him many healthy children! Although her family was long seen as upstarts, and that she was purposefully marrying her many siblings to prime noble stock, this was in fact common practice among royals and nobles. Those who were closest to the crown would get the best marriage matches!
There came a point where the main person still opposed to this union was the Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker, a cousin to Edward who helped him acquire the throne. In fact Warwick, and Edward’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, plotted openly against the king and queen. Both would end up dead for this, Clarence in a famous execution.
When Edward came to the throne it was a time of war (now called the Wars of the Roses, but initially called the Cousin’s War). This led to his authority being tested for years. However, after 1471 the wars came to a brief close, and all was rather peaceful until Edward’s death in 1483! It was during these peaceful years that we see an image of Elizabeth as an ideal queen, and where much reference to Arthurian legend was used at court. Edward and Elizabeth smartly utilized legendary reference in his opulent court, as would many that followed (including their daughter and son-in-law, and their grandson Henry VIII).
Now let’s look at some parallels between Elizabeth and Guinevere. Both can be seen in two ways, either as ideal benevolent queens, or as harlots enthralling the king (and knights in Guinevere’s case). Both were known to be the most beautiful woman of their time. Both have a connection to the Faery Realm, in that Guinevere can be seen as a possible faerie queen (or figure of sovereignty) and Elizabeth is said to be descended from the water faerie (or water goddess) Melusine (or Melusina) through her mother’s bloodline! Both are associated with sexuality, Guinevere for her lovers and Elizabeth for her many children. Of course, in most tellings of the legend Guinevere never had children, but in some very early tellings there are references to children of Arthur (and since they are legitimate, Guinevere would have been their mother). Interestingly in some legends (when she is a mother) Guinevere loses a son, much as Elizabeth would lose her sons, the Princes in the Tower! Finally both the legendary Guinevere, and real Elizabeth, have been at times associated with witchcraft! Guinevere is sometimes said to have been a sorceress, along with Morgan Le Fay. Elizabeth was believed to be a witch by her detractors, and Warick even went as far as to put her mother Jacquetta on trial for witchcraft (she was found not guilty)!
Much like the legendary Guinevere, Elizabeth died in an Abbey after the death of her warrior king husband. One prime difference is that Elizabeth had to fight to help her children regain their birthright, and put her daughter on the throne as queen through an important marriage contract. She had to fight her brother-in-law, Richard III, when he usurped the throne from her son (and likely had both of her sons killed). That being said both of these queens went through real strife, as Guinevere was nearly burned at the stake for her treasonous affair with Lancelot in many tellings. A second difference is that Elizabeth married her king out of love and lust, where as in most tellings Guinevere’s relationship with her lover (most often Lancelot) was the one of true love!
As you can see there is a very thin line between legend and royal history sometimes! Whether this is because royals chose to embrace the legends, or because of some sort of coincidence (or even real magic), is up to debate.
I hope you have enjoyed my comparison of Elizabeth Woodville and Guinevere. Elizabeth is a figure whose life has sometimes become that of legend, as we do not know every late medieval detail, and I felt this would be a good analysis! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is the cover of The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, based on the life of Elizabeth Woodville. I found the image on mjroywriter.medium.com.
- Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower by David Baldwin
- Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance by Amy Licence
- The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (fictional telling of Elizabeth Woodville’s life, but gives a good overview of her legend)
- Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory
- The Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes
- The Vulgate Cycle by Anonymous medieval writers (also known as the Lancelot-Grail cycle)
- The Once and Future Queen by Nicole Evelina