Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey by John Ashdown-Hill

As this is Nonfiction November, I have been working through a few of the non-fiction books on my TBR this month. This one, by the late historian John Ashdown-Hill, is a biography of Elizabeth Woodville, who became queen consort of England when she married Edward IV in 1464. Ashdown-Hill, who died in 2018, spent many years studying and writing about the Wars of the Roses and was a member of the Richard III Society, playing a part in the discovery and identification of Richard’s remains in 2012. This is the first of his books that I’ve read so I hoped I would be in good hands with an author who seems to have been an expert on his chosen subject.

As soon as I started to read, the depth of Ashdown-Hill’s research and knowledge was obvious. He begins with a detailed discussion of the origins of the Woodville name and why he believes ‘Widville’ is a more accurate spelling, before going on to spend several chapters looking at Elizabeth’s ancestry and genealogy charts. This level of detail continues throughout the book as we are taken through the rest of Elizabeth’s life, including her first marriage to Sir John Grey, her widowhood and meeting with Edward IV, the births of her many children and, after Edward’s death, how she fared under the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII. He frequently quotes long passages from primary sources (and doesn’t make it easy for us by translating them into modern English). However, his main source seems to be himself – he constantly references his own earlier works, which is not particularly useful when you haven’t read them!

Another thing that quickly became obvious to me was that this was not going to be a balanced, unbiased account of Elizabeth’s life. In his introduction, Ashdown-Hill questions whether Elizabeth could really be considered Edward IV’s wife and queen as Edward had allegedly been pre-contracted to another woman, Eleanor Talbot, before marrying Elizabeth (hence the book’s subtitle which refers to Elizabeth as ‘Edward IV’s chief mistress’). I already knew about the pre-contract, but Ashdown-Hill also puts forward a theory I haven’t come across before, which is that Elizabeth was responsible for Eleanor’s death. And this is not the only murder he attributes to Elizabeth; he also suggests that she was behind the deaths of the Earl of Desmond and of George, Duke of Clarence, and that she poisoned Clarence’s wife and young son. There is no real evidence for any of this and I found it disappointing that the author makes no attempt to be fair and objective, letting his own personal dislike of Elizabeth come to the forefront.

As this is my favourite period of history to read about, I found it interesting to read Ashdown-Hill’s thoughts on Elizabeth, even if I didn’t necessarily always agree with them – and, as I’ve said, the amount of detail he goes into is very impressive. He can even draw on his own studies into the mitochondrial DNA sequences of Elizabeth’s descendants. If you’re new to the period, though, I would recommend looking for a good general book on the Wars of the Roses first. As for other non-fiction specifically on Elizabeth herself, I remember enjoying David Baldwin’s essay in The Women of the Cousins’ War, but haven’t read any other full-length biographies. If you know of any good ones, I’d love to hear about them.

Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

13 thoughts on “Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey by John Ashdown-Hill

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think his research is necessarily faulty – it’s more that he has interpreted it to show what he wants it to show. I’m sure there must be better, more balanced books about Elizabeth Woodville.

  1. FictionFan says:

    Hmm… sounds like his bias got seriously in the way. It must be hard to remain objective when you spend years studying a subject, but when a book is as biased as this it makes me doubt eveything in it. Thanks for the heads up!

    • Helen says:

      This particular period of history always seems to provoke very strong feelings in historians but this book is even more biased than most of the others I’ve read.

  2. whatmeread says:

    Does it seem possible that it’s okay to quote yourself in a history? I’m not so sure. I know that Elizabeth isn’t considered to be a sterling person, but his theories sound a little far-fetched.

  3. jessicabookworm says:

    What a shame, this looked like it was building up to be a great read, but the bias and referencing himself would annoy me too! Oh well at least you’re not adding another book to my burgeoning wish list this Nonfiction November. 😛

  4. Viola says:

    I am reading this book and I agree with your review. Unfortunately, the author really seems to dislike Elizabeth and accuses her of being involved in quite a few mysterious deaths without much evidence and a lot of it is pure speculation! He also seems to dislike her mother!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you agree, Viola. I’m not sure why this author wanted to write a book about a woman he disliked so much! I’ve read quite a lot of books on this period of history and I’ve never seen anyone else accuse Elizabeth of being involved in all those murders.

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