Elizabeth was born about 1437 at Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire, the daughter of Richard Woodville, 1st Earl Rivers and his wife, the former Jacquette of Luxembourg, widow of John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford.
In about 1452, she married Sir John Grey of Groby, who was killed at the Second Battle of St Albans in 1461, fighting for the Lancastrian cause, which would become a source of irony, as Edward IV was the Yorkist claimant to the throne. Elizabeth had two sons from the marriage, Thomas and Richard.
Her marriage to Edward VI was done secretly at her home about 3 years after he claimed the throne. Elizabeth was crowned Queen on 26 May 1465.
In the early years of his reign, Edward depended on his cousin Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. At around the time of Edward’s secret marriage, Warwick was negotiating an alliance with France that included that Edward should marry a French Princess. When his marriage to Elizabeth, who was both a commoner and from a family of Lancastrian supporters, became public, Warwick was both embarrassed and offended, and his relationship with Edward never recovered.
With the arrival on the scene of the new queen came a host of siblings who soon married into some of the most notable families in England.
When Elizabeth’s relatives, especially her brother, Anthony Woodville, began to challenge Warwick’s pre-eminence in English political society, Warwick conspired with his son-in-law, the Duke of Clarence, the king’s younger brother. One of his followers accused Elizabeth’s mother, the Duchess of Bedford, of practicing witchcraft. Jacquetta was acquitted the following year. Warwick and Clarence twice rose in revolt and then fled to France. Warwick formed an uneasy alliance with the Lancastrian Queen Margaret of Anjou and restored her husband Henry VI to the throne in 1470, but, the following year, Edward IV returned from exile and defeated Warwick at the Battle of Barnet and the Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Henry VI was murdered soon afterwards.
Following her husband’s temporary fall from power, Elizabeth had sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, where she gave birth to a son, Edward (later Edward V of England). Her marriage to Edward IV produced a total of ten children, including another son, Richard, Duke of York, who would later join his brother as one of the Princes in the Tower. Five daughters also lived to adulthood.
Following Edward’s sudden death, possibly from pneumonia, in April 1483, Elizabeth briefly became Queen Mother as her son, Edward became king, with his uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester acting as Lord Protector. Fearing the Woodvilles would attempt to seize power, Richard quickly moved to take control of the young king and had the Queen’s brother and her son arrested and beheaded. The young king was transferred to the Tower of London to await the Coronation.
Richard now moved to take the throne himself and on 25 June 1483, an act of parliament, the Titulus Regius declared Edward’s and Elizabeth’s children illegitimate on the grounds that Edward had made a previous promise (known as a precontract) to marry Lady Eleanor Butler, which was considered a legally binding contract that rendered any other marriage contract invalid.
As a consequence, the Duke of Gloucester became King Richard III. Young Edward and his brother Richard, Duke of York, remained in the Tower of London. The exact fate of the so-called Princes in the Tower has been long debated; whether they died, disappeared, or were murdered is still unknown.
On 1 March 1484, she and her daughters came out of sanctuary after Richard publicly swore an oath that her daughters would not be harmed or molested and that they would not be imprisoned in the Tower of London or in any other prison. He also promised to provide them with marriage portions and to marry them to “gentlemen born”. The family returned to Court, apparently reconciled to King Richard. After the death of Richard’s Queen Anne Neville in 1485, rumours arose that the now-widowed King was going to marry his beautiful teenaged niece Elizabeth of York.
In 1485, Henry Tudor invaded England and defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. As King, he married Elizabeth of York and had the Titulus Regius revoked. Elizabeth was accorded the title and honours of a queen dowager.
Dowager Queen Elizabeth spent her last five years living at Bermondsey. At the Abbey, Elizabeth was treated with all the respect due to a queen dowager, lived a regal life, and received a pension of £400 and small gifts from the King. Elizabeth died at Bermondsey Abbey on 8 June 1492. As by her request, she was given a simple funeral.