In his biography Richard the Third, Paul Murray Kendall praises Anthony Woodville (as far as Kendall could bring himself to praise a Woodville) by first cataloging his family’s supposed vices. He writes, “Anthony Woodville’s father was a rapacious adventurer . . . His brother Lionel was a type of their father in the gown of a bishop.” Elsewhere in the book, he describes Lionel as “haughty.”
As is often the case when Kendall writes about the Woodvilles, he offers no evidence to support his assessment of Lionel’s character, and indeed there seems to be none. For Lionel, Bishop of Salisbury, is a rather obscure person, despite the high office he obtained.
Most of what is known about Lionel has been summarized by John A. F. Thomson in two publications, one an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the other an article in the Bulletin of Historical Research (1986) entitled “Bishop Lionel Woodville and Richard III.” In an article originally published in The Ricardian and reprinted in Richard III: Crown and People, “Oxford University and the Life and Legend of Richard III,” Robert C. Hairsine adds a bit more to the picture.
Thomson estimates Lionel’s birth as being between 1450 and 1455. He notes that the Pope granted him the right to receive any benefice when he was over twelve and that Lionel received a canonry at Lincoln in 1466 as his first benefice. Lionel was educated at Oxford, which elected him as its chancellor in 1478 or 1479 and offered to award him a doctoral degree in canon law (he already held a bachelor’s degree). This is said to be the first honorary degree offered by Oxford. Lionel was also made Dean of Exeter Cathedral.
Lionel was not created Bishop of Salisbury until 1482, eighteen years after becoming the king’s brother-in-law. He was consecrated in April 1482. Although he undoubtedly owed his advancement to his royal connections, bishoprics were common enough destinations for well-connected younger sons, including George Neville, who as the youngest son of the powerful Earl of Salisbury and the brother of the immensely rich Earl of Warwick rose to be Archbishop of York. No controversy seems to have surrounded Lionel’s elevation to bishop, and nothing indicates that he was considered incompetent to hold his office. Records of his tenure are scant: according to Thomson, his episcopal register did not survive. Unlike George Neville, who played a leading role in the political controversies of his day, Lionel seems to have taken little part in his royal brother-in-law’s reign. Thomson suggests that his main interest, even after he became bishop, might have been in the affairs of Oxford University.
Following Edward IV’s death on April 9, 1483, Lionel apparently attended his funeral services, according to Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs, who have collated the various manuscripts describing the ceremonies. By April 26, 1483, however, Lionel was back at Oxford. On June 9, 1483, Simon Stallworth reported that Lionel had entered sanctuary with his sister the queen; Thomson speculates that he had traveled there for his nephew’s coronation and fled into sanctuary upon hearing of the arrest of his brother Anthony at the hands of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Harry, Duke of Buckingham (the latter married to Katherine Woodville, Lionel’s sister). Gloucester evidently was wary of Lionel, for on June 3, 1483, he removed Lionel’s name from a commission of the peace for Dorset. Later in June, however, Lionel appears to have reconciled with Richard and left sanctuary, for Richard restored Lionel to the Dorset commission on June 26, 1483, and appointed him to a Wiltshire commission on July 20, 1483. Lionel, however, is not recorded as being at Richard’s coronation on July 6, 1483.
In late July, Richard III set off on a royal progress, visiting Oxford’s Magdalen College on July 24 and 25, 1483. The college register records that the new king was greeted by the university’s chancellor—who, of course, was Lionel Woodville. Since Richard had recently executed Lionel’s older brother Anthony, this must have been a rather awkward occasion, but ceremony presumably carried the day.
On September 22, 1483, however, Lionel issued letters from Thornbury—a manor belonging to Lionel’s brother-in-law Harry, Duke of Buckingham, who by that time had joined those in rebellion against the king. The letters, which concerned the appropriation of a benefice, were harmless enough, but Lionel’s residence at Thornbury, as Thomson points out, is intriguing. Was he there as a guest of Buckingham or Katherine, or had he been arrested like Bishop Morton, who was also in Buckingham’s charge? Was Buckingham, with an eye to rebellion, attempting to reconcile with his Woodville kin? Richard clearly was suspicious of Lionel, for on September 23, 1483, he ordered the seizure of the bishop’s temporalities (i.e., his revenues). Richard III apparently still trusted Buckingham himself; Thomson suggests that at this stage Richard may have suspected some sort of treasonous communication between Lionel and Bishop Morton, whose nephew Robert was dismissed from his post as Master of the Rolls on September 23 as well.
Whatever the nature of Lionel’s residence at Thornbury, he had certainly become involved in the rebellion by October, when he, Walter Hungerford, Giles Daubenay, and John Cheyne planned an uprising at Salisbury. The rebellion, of course, failed, and Lionel fled to sanctuary at Beaulieu Abbey, where Queen Anne’s mother, the Countess of Warwick, had taken shelter years before following the Battle of Barnet. According to Louise Gill in Richard III and Buckingham's Rebellion, Lionel was joined in sanctuary by Robert Poyntz, who was married to the natural daughter of Lionel’s deceased brother Anthony. (Poyntz fought for Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth and was knighted after the battle.)
Oxford quickly moved to elect a new chancellor to replace Woodville, now a political liability to the university, while Richard III made inquiries in December 1483 as to the sanctuary rights of Beaulieu. In February 1484, he sent two chaplains to bring Lionel, who had been attainted, into his presence. These attempts to prise the bishop out of sanctuary failed, however.
In March 1484, in letters dated from Beaulieu Abbey, Lionel nominated a candidate to a vacant vicarage. Lionel is again referred to in a writ dated July 22, 1484, that was issued after a rival candidate challenged the nomination. By December 1, 1484, when the dean and chapter of Salisbury were allowed to elect a successor, Lionel had died. His cause of death is unknown, as is his burial place. Thomson notes that one manuscript from the seventeenth century states that he was buried at Beaulieu, though there is apparently another tradition that has him being buried in the north transept of Salisbury Cathedral.
In the sixteenth century, a tradition arose that Lionel Woodville was the father of Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. This claim can still be found in older books available on the Internet, but James Arthur Muller, a biographer of Gardiner, weighed the evidence and rejected it in 1926. He noted that Gardiner’s enemies never accused him of illegitimate birth and that Gardiner was probably not born until the 1490’s, eliminating Lionel as a father. More recently, C. D. C. Armstrong, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, estimated Gardiner’s birth date as being between 1495 and 1498. It seems safe to say, then, that the Bishop of Salisbury was not the sire of the Bishop of Winchester.