Of all the stories that have circulated about the Woodville family, surely one of the most damning, and one of the most beloved by the Woodvilles’ modern-day detractors, is the story that Elizabeth Woodville, her son Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, and her brother Edward helped themselves to the royal treasury after Edward IV died. But does the story stand up to scrutiny?
The story comes from a single contemporary source: The Usurpation of Richard the Third by Dominic Mancini. After discussing the French raids against English ships following the death of Edward IV, Mancini notes that on the day before Elizabeth Woodville went into sanctuary, Edward Woodville had put out to sea as captain of a fleet of twenty ships. As Mancini tells it, “in the face of threatening hostilities, a council, held in the absence of the duke of Gloucester, had appointed Edward: and it was commonly believed that the late king’s treasure, which had taken such years and such pains to gather, was divided between the queen, the marquess, and Edward.”
In looking at this statement, it should first be noted that Mancini is not giving an eyewitness account, but merely reporting that the story of the treasury raid was “commonly believed.” A common belief does not necessary mean that the thing believed is true; it could merely reflect the prevalence of gossip about the Woodvilles’ doings. Mancini himself gives no indication of whether he shared the common belief or whether he thought it to be well founded.
Even more important, Rosemary Horrox in her examination of the financial memoranda of Edward V’s reign has concluded that there was very little treasure to be divided. In Richard III: A Study in Service, she writes that the measures against the French, costing £3,670, had depleted the cash reserves left by Edward IV and that these expenditures likely were the source of Mancini’s tale of a Woodville treasury raid. Moreover, as Horrox notes in her article, “Financial Memoranda of the Reign of Edward V,” Edward IV’s cash reserves were low to begin with, thanks to two years of war with Scotland.
If there was any treasure to be divided up, there is no evidence that Elizabeth Woodville had any share of it; as Horrox points out, she was living in straitened circumstances in sanctuary. Moreover, Richard III took no steps, either as protector or as king, to recover any treasure from Elizabeth. Had there been any in her possession, he would have certainly required her to disgorge it either on May 7, when the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered the sequestration of Edward IV’s goods, jewels, and seals, on June 16, when Richard sent numerous armed men to Westminster Abbey to help persuade Elizabeth to surrender her youngest son to Richard’s custody, or no later than 1484, when Elizabeth agreed to leave sanctuary and was given a pension by Richard. It is hardly comprehensible that Richard, who was actively seizing Woodville lands as early as mid-May of 1483, would have sat back passively and allowed Elizabeth to keep treasure to which she had no legal right.
As for Edward Woodville, it’s important first to remember, as Mancini’s editor, C. A. J. Armstrong, points out, that there was a genuine French threat against England at the time Edward Woodville went out to sea, supposedly with his share of the treasure. “It seems that the men and moneys raised by the council, where the Woodvilles predominated, were genuinely intended for national defence and not for designs against Richard, as no sooner was Edward [IV] dead than the council ordered the embarkation of 300 men- at-arms for the defence of Calais” (Mancini, p. 145 n.58). Nothing indicates that when Edward went to sea on orders of the council, he had anything else in mind other than performing his appointed task of fighting the French raiders. (The council has been criticized for commissioning Edward for this task in the absence of Richard, but it would have surely been irresponsible, and quite stupid, to sit back and let the French prey on English shipping while waiting for Richard to arrive in London.)
By the middle of the month, Edward and his fleet were gathered at Southampton, where Edward did acquire treasure: on May 14, 1483, he seized ₤10,250 in English gold coins from a vessel there as forfeit to the crown. There was nothing secretive about this seizure; Edward gave an indenture in which he bound himself to repay the sum in English merchandise should the gold not be found to be forfeit; if the gold was found to be forfeit, he bound himself to answer to the king for this sum. At the time Edward made this indenture, he likely had no reason to believe that anything was amiss with Edward V or the rest of his family; he had put to sea on April 30, the same day his brother Anthony Woodville and his nephew Richard Grey were arrested by Richard. The news of the arrests did not get to London until that evening, and Edward might well have embarked from a location other than London anyway. Thus, there is no reason to believe that when he made the indenture he intended to appropriate the coins for any reason other than for the benefit of the crown.
On May 14, the same day Edward issued his indenture, however, Richard, who on May 10 had ordered men to "go to the Downs among Sir Edward and his company," instructed men to go to the sea with ships to arrest him. (Had Edward been in possession of treasure stolen from the Tower, it seems likely that the arrest order would have come a lot earlier.) Edward and two of his ships escaped. Presumably Edward took the gold coins with him upon his escape, for nothing more is heard of them. Once Edward learned of the orders for his own arrest, and probably learned also that his brother Anthony and his nephew Richard Grey were in custody, he must have feared for the safety of Edward V and the rest of his family and could hardly be expected to leave the coins behind to fall into the coffers of a government controlled by the man who had ordered the arrests.
That brings us to the third person said to have absconded with the royal treasure, Thomas Grey, the Marquess of Dorset. Simon Stallworth wrote a letter on June 9, 1483, stating, "wher so evyr kanne be founde any godyse of my lord Markues it is tayne. The Prior of Westminster wasse and yet is in a gret trobyll for certeyne godys delyvered to hyme by my Lord Markues." Armstrong has interpreted this letter to mean that Richard was attempting to recover Dorset’s share of the treasure, but it’s noteworthy that the reference is to the Marquess’s own goods, not to goods in his possession belonging to the crown. It seems more likely, then, that Richard’s agents were simply rounding up property belonging to the Marquess, as part of the seizure of Woodville property in which Richard was engaged. (Dorset was evidently believed to have taken to sea with Edward Woodville, for Richard in ordering Edward’s arrest had specifically excluded Dorset from those who could be received by Richard’s agents if they chose to make their peace with the regime.) The “certain goods” delivered to the Prior of Westminster could refer to stolen treasure, but it could also simply mean that Dorset was attempting to conceal or safeguard his own property by leaving it with the prior. Thus, all Stallworth’s letter tells us is that there was royal interest in Dorset’s goods, but it furnishes no clue as to their nature.
The other main contemporary source for the events of 1483, the Crowland chronicler, mentions no Woodville treasury raid; indeed, he writes that in 1484, Richard III was better prepared to resist his enemies “not only because of the treasure which he had in hand—since what King Edward had left behind had not yet all been consumed.” Thomas More, on the other hand, did pick up on the rumors about the treasury. He has Richard and the Duke of Buckingham telling Edward V “that the lord marquis had entered into the Tower of London, and thence taken out the king’s treasure, and sent men to the sea.” More makes it clear, however, that the dukes were misrepresenting Dorset’s intentions: “All which thing these dukes wist well were done for good purposes and necessary by the whole council at London.” The Great Chronicle of London, a source not particularly sympathetic to the Woodvilles, makes no mention of a treasury raid.
So that leaves us with the rumor reported by Mancini, to be set against Horrox’s evidence that there was very little in the treasury at the time the Woodvilles were supposedly robbing it. There’s no evidence that Elizabeth had any treasure with her, no evidence that Edward Woodville had any treasure other than the gold coins he seized on May 14, and no evidence as to what sort of goods of Dorset’s were being sought after or as to what goods Dorset had given to the Prior of Westminster. Since Richard III’s defenders are quite fond of noting that a murder case against him could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a modern court of law, perhaps they should also consider whether the charges of theft against the Woodvilles could be proven under such a standard. Personally, I doubt that such a flimsy case could even make it to a jury.
C. A. J. Armstrong, ed., The Usurpation of Richard III. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969 (2d. ed.).
Rosemary Horrox, ed., “Financial Memoranda of the Reign of Edward V.” Camden Miscellany, vol. xxix, 1987.
Rosemary Horrox, Richard III: A Study in Service. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991 (paperback edition).
Nicholas Pronay and John Cox, eds., The Crowland Chronicle Continuations, 1459–1486. London: Richard III and Yorkist History Trust, 1986.
Richard S. Sylvester, ed., The History of King Richard III and Selections from the English and Latin Poems. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1976.
A. H. Thomas and I. D. Thornley, eds., The Great Chronicle of London. London: Sutton Publishing, 1983 (reprint).
Christopher Wilkins, The Last Knight Errant: Sir Edward Woodville and the Age of Chivalry. London: I. B. Tauris, 2010.