The White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville: Was she a witch?

Elizabeth Woodville, 'The White Queen', practises witchcraft Elizabeth Woodville and her mother create a 'magic mist'.

In the BBC One series 'The White Queen', Elizabeth Woodville is accused of being a witch. But did she really practise witchcraft? Historian Peter Maxwell-Stuart investigates the magical myth that surrounds The White Queen and her mother Jacquetta.

When the White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, became the first 'commoner' to marry an English king, some muttered she may have used magic to enchant him. Edward was said to be so enamoured with her beauty that he married her in secret, rather than wed a French princess.

However, it was Elizabeth's mother Jacquetta who was first accused of witchcraft.

Jacquetta Woodville The White Queen's mother Jacquetta on trial for witchcraft

In February 1471, Edward IV had lost the English throne after the Earl of Warwick imprisoned him in his castle and reinstated Henry VI.

Warwick also executed Elizabeth's father, Earl Rivers. Shortly after, the now widowed Jacquetta was accused of witchcraft by one of Warwick's squires, Thomas Wake.

He brought a broken puppet made of lead to Warwick castle, and said Jacquetta had fashioned it in order to practise witchcraft. To support his allegation, he claimed that a parish clerk called John Daunger knew of two more images, one representing Edward, the other Elizabeth.

By April, Edward was back on the throne, and his Council examined Wake and Daunger's claims at Jacquetta's request. Wake said he knew nothing about the puppet until Daunger showed it to him. However, Daunger claimed Wake himself had asked if he could see it. Daunger also denied saying there were images of Edward and Elizabeth. The Council dismissed the whole story.

History of witchcraft

  • Witchcraft was denounced as heresy by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484
  • Witchcraft was made a capital offence in Britain in 1542
  • Ten 'witches' were executed in the Pendle witch trials in Lancashire, 1612
  • In the 1640s witch hunters Hopkins and Stearne executed dozens of East Anglian women

In the 15th century belief in magic, white or black, was universal throughout society.

Royal persons in both France and England had long been viewed as vulnerable targets of witchcraft. In 1419, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to every English bishop, saying that the life of Henry V was being threatened by 'the heathenish rituals of necromancers', and ordered public prayers for the King's protection. In 1429, several knights, gentlemen, and clerics were accused of making a wax image of Henry VI and melting it in order to cause his death, and in 1430 seven women were imprisoned in London on similar charges.

The allegations of witchcraft against the Woodvilles returned, this time directed at Elizabeth. When Edward died of an illness in 1483, their twelve-year-old son was declared King Edward V, while his uncle Richard was appointed Protector. However, within months Richard shut his two nephews in the Tower and took the throne to become Richard III.

In order to undercut their claim to the throne, Richard resurrected the allegations of witchcraft against Elizabeth's family. Richard's title to the throne, set out by Parliament in 1484, makes several defamatory claims against Elizabeth and her mother, including the use of sorcery and witchcraft to procure her marriage to King Edward. Yet no proof was ever advanced and Richard never brought Elizabeth to trial.

Elizabeth Woodville (c.1437-1492)

The White Queen

Witchcraft itself was not a crime on the statute book at this time. Witches - female or male - were not punished simply for being witches. When accusations were made against Elizabeth it was not so much against the practice of magic itself, rather what it had been commissioned for. It wasn't until many years later that that witchcraft became a capital offence.

Although there is no conclusive proof that either Elizabeth or her mother really practised magic, they lived in a time when magic was seen as neither unusual nor exotic. It was just one way among many to solve a practical problem. People believed that it was a way of opening channels between this world and the worlds of spirits, angels, and demons, whose power could then be used for human ends.

The practice of magic could be elaborate or simple - a sentence or two accompanied by gestures, so anyone could use it and most people did. Women would often use magic where brute force or political power was not really open to them.

The widespread belief in magic also allowed Warwick, Richard the Third and others to make accusations against their enemies on little or no evidence and to be believed.

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