Book Review: “Elizabeth Widville Lady Grey: Edward IV’s Chief Mistress and the ‘Pink Queen’” by Dr. John Ashdown-Hill

A1EHw9PpVwLThe English conflict known as the Wars of the Roses is filled with dynamic figures whose stories are those of legends. None more so than the wife of Edward IV and the mother of Elizabeth of York and the princes in the Tower, Elizabeth Woodville. She has been known in popular culture as the commoner turned “White Queen” consort, but do we really know the true story about her life? Was she really Edward IV’s wife? How much influence did she actually carry? These questions and more are tackled in Dr. John Ashdown-Hill’s latest book, “Elizabeth Widville Lady Grey: Edward IV’s Chief Mistress and the ‘Pink Queen’.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. I have had my eyes on this particular title for a while since I like learning about the women of the Wars of the Roses, and because I have never read a book by Dr. John Ashdown-Hill.

Since I was not familiar with Dr. John Ashdown-Hill and his work before I read this book, I decided to look into him in order to understand the position he might take on this particular topic. He is a medieval historian, who mainly focuses on Yorkist history. His main claim to fame was when he helped find the location where Richard III’s remains were buried. He also traced the female-line descendants of Richard III to his sister, which established the mtDNA haplogroup that was necessary to identify the remains found in the Leicester parking lot as Richard III. For this important research, Dr. John Ashdown-Hill was awarded an MBE in 2015 but sadly passed away from motor neurone disease on May 18, 2018. This was one of the last books he had ever written.

Knowing this information about Dr. John Ashdown-Hill, it helps to understand that he knows this subject rather well. He does show his knowledge through the family trees, the letters, and the tables that he does include. These sources give the reader an understanding of where Ashdown-Hill is coming from and a different perspective on Elizabeth Widville’s life and times in the courts of Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII. Ashdown-Hill does use his own books quite frequently as sources, which can come across as braggadocious at times.

Ashdown-Hill refers to Elizabeth Widville as the ‘Pink Queen’ because, at different times in her life, she was supporting the Lancastrians and the Yorkists causes. I do agree with this terminology because it does tell her story in a colorful way. However, it is his calling Elizabeth Edward IV’s ‘chief mistress’ where I do have an issue. Personally, I believe that Elizabeth was Edward’s wife, but Ashdown-Hill believes that Edward’s pre-contract with one Eleanor Talbot was valid and that Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth was bigamous. This is a central point in this book, but he does not really go into the depth that I wished he would have gone into to explain his point of view.

Another part of his book that I do not exactly agree with is his assessment of how many deaths Elizabeth was associated with, including possibly poisoning George Duke of Clarence’s wife and young son. He does not take into account illnesses as possible causes of death and jumps straight into malicious intentions, mostly by Elizabeth herself. Ashdown- Hill can come across as either passionate or brash in his writing style, which can be a bit off-putting at times. It feels like, at least to me, that Elizabeth was either treated as a villain or was in the background for this particular biography, instead of in the spotlight, which is something one would expect in a biography about a certain person.

Although I do not entirely agree with Dr. John Ashdown- Hill’s assessment of Elizabeth Widville’s life, I do respect the amount of research he obviously poured into this book. It is meticulously researched and I found it a unique experience to read a different perspective from my own. I wasn’t exactly the biggest fan of this book, as I did have to stop reading it and come back to it several times to get my head around what he was saying since it was different than what I accept as fact about her life. However, I do believe that it is important to read books and authors who you don’t agree with in order to expand one’s knowledge about a topic. If you are a fan of Dr. John Ashdown-Hill or you would like to read a unique take on Elizabeth Widville’s life and times, I would suggest you read “Elizabeth Widville Lady Grey: Edward IV’s Chief Mistress and the ‘Pink Queen’”.

Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey: Edward IV’s Chief Mistress and the ‘Pink Queen’ by Dr. John Ashdown-Hill will be published in the United States on November 2, 2019. If you are interested in pre-ordering this book, you can follow this link: https://www.amazon.com/Elizabeth-Widville-Lady-Grey-Mistress/dp/1526745011/

One thought on “Book Review: “Elizabeth Widville Lady Grey: Edward IV’s Chief Mistress and the ‘Pink Queen’” by Dr. John Ashdown-Hill

  1. David K. Warner

    I have not read this particular book, but am familiar with Ashdown-Hill’s work. There are two points from this review I would make.
    Firstly, the over-simplistic designation of ‘Lancastrians’ and ‘Yorkists’ common to popular histories of this period imposes post-facto and ahistorical dynastic associations that lead to a constitutional reading of what was primarily a political conflict resulting from weaknesses of the crown and king, which in turn permitted intra-noble, local and regional disputes to take on a national character.
    Elizabeth was the daughter of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, widow of John duke of Bedford, and Sir Richard Woodville, the duke’s chamberlain; while she married Sir John Grey, a scion of the Greys of Ruthin and Ferrers of Groby, two noble families long associated with the court and crown office, particularly in Wales. With no direct association with York or the Nevilles, it was no surprise that John Grey fought with Margaret of Anjou’s army at Second St Albans. But that did not make his widow a Lancastrian partisan, although the manner of her husband’s death probably made any chance of friendship with Warwick highly unlikely.
    With two young children, Elizabeth adapted, as did many others, to the new regime, hence her petitioning of Edward IV. The need to compromise was paramount amongst the minor nobility and gentry, as the crown, whomever occupied the throne, was their source of protection, office, and honour, and the adaptation of Elizabeth, and her two sons, to Yorkist rule was common, as can be seen in comparison with the Pastons, who served both Henry VI and Edward IV, carefully negotiating the political pitfalls of the mid-fifteenth century. Family needs, local alliances, and retaining by greater lords predominately determined how those like the Woodvilles and Greys saw national politics and explain how those superficially regarded as partisans of one House were able to transfer their service to the other when circumstances changed, Warwick the Kingmaker being the exemplar amongst the higher nobility.
    Secondly, the question of the legitimacy of Elizabeth and Edward’s marriage, only becomes an issue when Gloucester moved to establish the bastardy of their two sons, after briefly having questioned his eldest brother’s own legitimacy. It is possible that York and Shrewsbury did consider the marriage of their son and daughter while campaigning in France, and also that Edward may have committed adultery with Eleanor before his marriage in 1464, but no evidence of a precontract was raised after Edward announced his marriage at the Reading parliament, or before Elizabeth’s coronation in 1465, or by Warwick – the Woodvilles’ enemy who had his hopes of a French marriage or for his daughters prospects dashed – or during the Readeption. The only substantive evidence of a precontract comes from the Titulus Regius, Richard’ III’s claim to the throne and justification for usurpation in 1483, and which was based solely upon the, possibly perjured, testimony of Bishop Richard Stillington of Bath and Wells, who claimed to be the only surviving witness, Edward and Eleanor (d.1468) being dead. Until Richard needed to bastardise his nephews, no question of an existing precontract or bigamy was seriously considered by political society, and the most likely explanation is that the claim was concocted to suit Richard’s plan for the throne.
    Elizabeth Woodville can often seem a supporting player in her own biography, because too many popular historians are concerned to give her a political role she did not have, unlike Margaret of Anjou, particularly from 1453. What determined Elizabeth’s actions and choices was family, and she played a typical feminine aristocratic role in doing all she could for her Woodville siblings, her Grey sons, and her children by Edward IV. Loyalty to her own is what characterised Elizabeth, and what makes her of particular interest is not so much her own traditional role as daughter, sister, mother, and queen, but the extraordinary times through which she lived.

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