The Archaeology of Royal Weddings – Part 1

As Prince William and Kate Middleton’s nuptials this month stir feverish national excitement, what light can archaeology shed on the pomp and pageantry of the most magnificent of Royal occasions? Diggingthedirt has tackled this very subject. Here, we bring you Part 1 of our 3-part journey in search of the dirt on Royal Weddings.

The sound of smashing porcelain paralysed us with fear. Looking down at the kitchen floor, ‘29th July 1981,’ read one of the shattered pieces, laying next to the heart shaped portraits of The Price of Wales and his broken bride, tragically cracked in two. My best friend had dropped the most precious thing we had ever been given. His mum was going to kill us.

I sometimes reflect on my hapless friend’s royal wedding cup with the detached eye of an archaeologist. It doubtlessly ended up in a Yorkshire landfill, where it now rests in the July 1981 layer. Modern royal weddings spawn all manner of disposable souvenirs and paraphernalia, but what survives from earlier periods of history? Moving further back into the past, how much archaeological evidence remains for other royal weddings? Can archaeology, with its long, unsentimental view of history, tell us anything we don’t already know about these celebrated occasions?

What lies beneath?

Weddings are the least considered, among all the ‘rites of passage’ studied by archaeologists. We are on much firmer footing with funeral rituals, not least because mortal remains survive in the ground for us to study. A royal funeral may demand the construction of monumental architecture and burial with a wealth of grave goods, but what type of evidence might be expected for royal wedding? Recorded history from 1066 onwards suggests that they leave little or no trace. Throughout the Medieval period, royal weddings were small private affairs -with big political consequences.

The primary purpose of royal matrimony was political, such as Henry I’s marriage to Mathilda of Scotland in 1100, ostensibly to secure an heir that could unite England and Scotland. The pragmatic choice of bride could seal treaties between warring nations, and royal children were sometimes betrothed before they could walk. Henry ‘The Young King’ was engaged to Constance of Castile when he was 5 and she was 2, and Isabella of Valois married the 29 year-old Richard II when she was only six. In such matches, personal feelings were irrelevant. Weddings were a contract signed behind closed doors, between dynastic families. Love was not part of the equation.

Much has been made about Kate Middleton’s status as a commoner who won a Prince’s heart, but she is just one in a long line of upwardly mobile lasses who have married close to the throne, including the Queen Mother herself, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon. But to find the biggest upset to Royal protocol, we have to go back to the 15th century, and the tumultuous years of the War of the Roses.

A tryst in the tale

Elizabeth Woodville lived the last of her days amongst the nuns at Bermondsey Abbey. When she died on 8th June 1442, her simple funeral belied her true status in a dynastic struggle for the crown of England. The rise of the Woodville family from common stock to the Royal household reflects the complex social and political upheaval in England during the War of the Roses (1455-1485). As the houses of Lancaster and York (the red rose and white rose respectively) embarked on a sporadic thirty-year conflict, Elizabeth’s father fought for the Lancastrian cause. Elizabeth’s first husband was killed in the battle of St Albans fighting for the Lancastrians, and as the tide shifted in favour of the Yorkist’s claim, her lands were confiscated.

Elizabeth returned home to her father’s manor in Grafton, Northamptonshire, where hearing news that the King was hunting nearby, she set out to plead with him for restoration of her lands. What passed between them on that fateful day – 1st May 1464 – we will never know, but according to legend they met under an oak tree, where the King tried in vain to alleviate her distress by suggesting she become his mistress. The 25 year old Elizabeth was a renowned beauty, ‘with heavy lidded eyes like those of a dragon;’ she spurned his initial advances, until he swept her back to her father’s manor, and married her in secret.

The wedding took place in the family chapel, and the only people present at the ceremony were her mother, a priest, two anonymous witnesses, and a boy to help with the mass. Not even Elizabeth’s father knew of the marriage, which remained a closely guarded secret until the following September, when the King’s advisors unveiled their plans for far more profitable, and foreign, wedding match. The idea that a King could have married for love was unheard of in the 15th century, but there was little the nobles could do without provoking outright rebellion. Edward struggled to prove the credentials of his bride; the favours he bestowed on Elizabeth and her family served to intensify seething dynastic resentments.

The proof is in the plough-soil

In 1964 and 1965, Christine Mahany excavated what, on the surface, appeared to be little more than a jumble of lumps and bumps outside the village of Grafton Regis. This was the same ‘Grafton’ that Elizabeth Woodville had grown up in; the village acquired the suffix ‘Regis’ in the 16th century when Henry VIII took possession of her family manor. The investigation warranted two excavation seasons, because a Medieval structure began to emerge that could not easily be explained. Mahany discovered a pillared cloister measuring 10.3 metres by 10.6 metres internally, flanked by a chapel (14.6 metres x 4.5 metres) and several other associated buildings. Beyond the main building lay a dovecote, and what may have been a hospital and an industrial complex.

The excavators realised that this intriguing evidence for a small monastic settlement could have been the ‘Hermitage of Grafton’, an Augustinian religious house that 19th century Antiquarians had placed in Shaw Wood, three miles from Grafton Regis. If this was the Hermitage of Grafton, less than a stone’s through from Elizabeth Woodville’s manor, could this it also have been the family chapel – and the location for her secret wedding to Edward IV? And if so, how had the site so comprehensively disappeared from popular memory, so that by 1964 not even local tradition could identify the bewildering complex of rubble which lay just below the surface?

Mahany and her team identified a number of different phases corresponding to historical documents charting the development of the site. The earliest mention comes from an undated charter (between 1180 and 1205), which was witnessed by a ‘Helias, hermita de Grafton.’ Little more can be said of Helias, but he was likely to have been an Augustinian monk, perhaps commencing his religious life in the Abbey of St James (founded in 1140s) who later followed a call to solitude. Monastic authorities enjoyed close links with religious hermits, benefiting from their relationship with celebrated Holy Men; at sometime in the 13th century his small cell was enlarged into a complex church for orations, hospital for travelers or paupers, and accommodation for brothers. By 1256, the site was inhabited by a small religious community and continued to prosper until the second half of the 14th century.

At about this time Elizabeth Woodville’s family had succeeded to lands in the area, residing in what would become the Manor house in Grafton. Episcopal registers in Lincoln show that Thomas Woodville was taking an increasing interest in the fortunes of the hermitage, supporting it financially, and petitioning the parent Abbey of St James to appoint a master. At some point in Edward IV’s reign, possibly because they were unhappy at the abbey’s failure to support the hermitage, the Woodvilles took over the chantry and undertook a major reconstruction of the building.

The excavators found a number of coins of Edward IV in the rebuilt areas, and considerable remodeling. The cloister was sealed off, curtailing the inhabited area; a new room with two hearths was built, and the chapel was re-floored: tellingly, with tiles bearing the crest of the houses of York and Woodville. Given the limits of our evidence, this is as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to get. We will never know for certain if this small family chapel was the scene of Edward IVs elopement, but the substantial renovations certainly took place soon after, perhaps to commemorate the ceremony that took place. By the time Henry VIII had succeeded to the lands at Grafton in the 1530s, the Hermitage had been levelled.

Post script: The Woodville Oak

On 4 September 2000, in an act of symbolism and spirituality verging on Old English paganism, Prince Charles planted this tree (christened the Woodville Oak) to replace the so-called Queen’s Oak, that, according to legend, was the tree under which Edward IV met Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. The Queen’s Oak was believed to have survived for over 500 years, until its tragic demise in 1997 following an arson attack. Subsequent tests conducted on the perished oak have indicated, however, that it was a mere 340 years old – and therefore not the oak of legend.

(Full text available in Current Archaeology 254, and stay tuned for our next installment…


  1. Eric Macklin says:

    It would be really nice if someone could come up with an artist’s concept drawing of what Woodville manor House could/would have looked like in honour of Elizabeth Woodville.

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