With the screening of the BBC's White Queen drama series only weeks away, many questions about the life of Elizabeth Wydeville remain unanswered. None more so than that of her marriage. Depicted by Philippa Gregory as a beautiful siren, claiming her descent from the mythical water spirit Melusine, Elizabeth's love story with Edward IV will unfold before thousands of eager viewers. As the series will show, it was a controversial match, shrouded in secrecy, which was deeply unpopular with Edward's nobles. After his death, rumours of a pre-contract made by the lusty King to another woman, proved the means by which his children were declared illegitimate. Yet, at the start, Edward may not have intended to honour his marriage at all. The secrecy and reputed date of the ceremony points to a lost tradition that may help us better understand his motives.
Edward was no innocent when he met the widowed Elizabeth, reputedly waiting to waylay him in the forest of Whittlebury. According to contemporary chroniclers, he already had something of a reputation with the ladies and may have fathered existing illegitimate children. One claimed he "overcame all" with promises and money whilst another said the new king thought of nothing but women. It was probably not the first time he had seen the beautiful blonde, yet the match came as a surprise to all. Elizabeth's application to Lord Hastings for assistance, in spring 1464, implies she was unaware that she would soon remarry; otherwise she had no need to appeal to Hastings as a protector. This squeezes the courtship into a very rapid timescale. However fuelled by lust he may have been, Edward was no fool. It seems unlikely that he would have risked making a permanent union so quickly, particularly as his subsequent silence shows he knew how controversial the match would prove. It is far more probable that the secret May Day "ceremony" was for the benefit of the bride and her family.
By that September, negotiations were well underway for Edward to marry Bona of Savoy, the teenaged sister-in-law of the King of France. Although Edward was leaning more towards Burgundy in his foreign policy, this would bring the Yorkists an important dynastic connection and help validate the regime change. It would have been a far shrewder political move than to ally himself with a Lancastrian widow with two sons, from a large and ambitious family. When Parliament met at Reading to finalise the match, Edward was forced to reveal he was actually married. In fact, England had already had a queen for five months.
Tradition has placed Edward and Elizabeth's wedding on May 1. If we accept this in the absence of any other evidence, the date itself may provide us with clues about the groom's intentions. If he chose May Day to make his promises, Edward would have been exploiting a centuries-old tradition that allowed normal social relations to be inverted, women to dominate men and servants overrule masters. It was a time of rule-breaking, topsy-turvy and carnival. Mock kings and queens were crowned from among the servants, presiding over pretend courts and punishing their enemies. They could even be fined if they refused to take part. The social underdog was celebrated with outlaws such as the legendary Robin Hood featuring in pageants and plays. A degree of sexual licence was also tolerated, with later Puritans critical of it being an excuse for the deflowering of a large number of virgins. Everyone knew that for a brief window, the normal hierarchy was suspended but, that in a few hours all would return to normal. Edward's marriage was opportunistic, even potentially reversible. If necessary, it could be dismissed as part of the May Day tradition. He could have undergone some sort of ceremony in anticipation of merely bedding the beauty, as chroniclers suggest he did with other women and still marry his foreign princess, the "right" queen. Edward, however, fell in love.
The notion of Edward marrying cynically amid a mood of national role-reversal will not be popular. Viewers of the White Queen series will be looking to enjoy Gregory's portrayal of the fairy-tale attraction that became a rollercoaster marriage. Thanks to various fictional portrayals, the first Yorkist King and Queen have become entrenched in the popular imagination as a devoted and romantic couple. Yet this does not preclude Edward's later affairs, the most notorious being with Jane Shore. If he was capable of that, he was also able to marry in secret and "trial" his wife before announcing his actions to the world. The date gave him his escape clause and he would not be the first or last English king to require one. Even if Elizabeth ended up as England's Queen, which no one had really intended, except perhaps her mother, she started off as another of the lusty young king's exploits.
The marriage did not prove popular. The new queen's suitability was questioned, as well as the validity of the match but not the date, as Edward's secrecy had obscured the details. No banns were published, there were barely any witnesses and he told his household that he had been out hunting. Reputedly, he was smuggled into his bride's bedchamber by her mother and after that, her beauty kept him bewitched for the next nineteen years. He fell in love and decided to keep her. During Edward's lifetime, the overwhelming consensus was that Elizabeth was the wrong Queen for England. Perhaps, at the start, her husband had thought so too.