In May of 1487, for unknown reasons, Dowager Queen Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of King Edward IV, was compelled to give up all of her lands and possessions and retire to Bermondsey Abbey beside Southwark. It was a surprising move on the part of King Henry VII and his council and the motives for her retirement have been argued by historians ever since. Whether it was voluntary or involuntary on her part is unknown. It could be as simple as Henry wanted her lands and income for his wife, Elizabeth of York who was the dowager queens’ eldest daughter and had recently given birth to a male heir, Prince Arthur Tudor. Some historians think Elizabeth may have had involvement in the recent rebellion to place the pretender Lambert Simnel on the throne of England.
Whatever the purpose of her quasi-banishment, she was given an annuity of 400 marks which was later raised to £400. For the last five years of her life, her financial situation was precarious. She had survived many years of childbearing and had enjoyed robust health most of her life. But as she entered her fifties, her health began to fail. On April 10, 1492 she made her last testament. Here’s a transcription of her will:
“In Dei nomine, Amen. The Xth day of April, the year of our Lord God M cccc LXXXXII. I Elizabeth by the grace of God Queen of England, late wife to the most victorious Prince of blessed memory Edward the Fourth, being of whole mind, seeing the world so transitory and no creature certain when they shall depart from hence, having Almighty God fresh in mind, in whom is all mercy and grace, bequeath my soul into his hands, beseeching him, of the same mercy, to accept it graciously, and our blessed Lady Queen of comfort, and all the holy company of heaven, to be good means for me.
I’tm, I bequeath my body to be buried with the body of my Lord at Windsor, according to the will of my said Lord and mine, without pomp entering or costly expenses done thereabout.
I’tm, where I have no worldly goods to do the Queen’s Grace, my dearest daughter, a pleaser with, neither to reward any of my children, according to my heart and mind, I beseech Almighty God to bless her grace, with all her noble issue, and with as good heart and mind as is to me possible, I give her Grace my blessing, and all the forsaid my children.
I’tm, I will that such small stuff and goods that I have to be disposed truly in the contentac’on (settling) of my debts and for the health of my soul, as far as they will extend.
I’tm, if any of my blood will of my said stuff or goods to me pertaining, I will that they have the preferment before any other.
And of this my present testament I make and ordain mine Executors, that is to say, John Ingilby, Prior of the Charterhouse of Sheen, William Sutton and Thomas Brente, Doctors. And I beseech my said dearest daughter, the Queen’s grace, and my son Thomas, Marques Dorset, to put their good wills and help for the performance of this my testament. In witness whereof, to this my present testament I have set my seal, these witnesses, John, Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Savior of Bermondsey, and Benedictus Cun, Doctor of Physick. Given the day and year abovesaid.”
It was a simple will and demonstrates she didn’t have anything of great value to leave her children. She only mentions her daughter Queen Elizabeth of York and her son by her first marriage, the Marques of Dorset. Elizabeth died on June 8, 1492. On June 10, her body was put in a wooden coffin on a low, unadorned hearse and taken by boat to Windsor, accompanied by Prior Ingilby, Dr. Brent, her second cousin Edward Haute, and two gentlewomen, one of them being King Edward IV’s natural daughter Grace.
The coffin was taken quietly from the river to Windsor Castle and was received there at eleven o’clock at night by a single priest and a clerk and buried immediately. Two days later, the Marques of Dorset, his half-sisters Anne, Catherine and Bridget, Edmund de la Pole and a handful of other relatives arrived at Windsor. That evening the Bishop of Rochester performed the dirige and requiem mass. One of the heralds at Windsor mentioned there were only four wooden candlesticks around the coffin. He also said there were no new torches in the procession but just several old men holding old torches and torch ends. It wasn’t unusual for someone of her status to request a simple funeral and burial and she may have known her estate was impoverished and unable to afford anything more elaborate. However, tradition required a person be buried according to their rank and estate. This funeral must have been a sad sight and not worthy of a former Queen of England.
Further reading: “Elizabeth Woodville: Mother of the Princes in the Tower” by David Baldwin