Queen Elizabeth of York was an unlikely bride for Edward IV: She was a widow from an obscure family with ties to the king’s political enemies. Yet she caught the king’s heart and his hand, and brought her abundant trail of siblings with her to power. Anthony Woodville, her athletic, intellectual brother, shone out among his siblings. He was a warrior and a scholar, embodying the ideals of chivalry.
In 1467, Edward IV hosted the legendary Smithfield Tournament to entertain a diplomatic envoy from the Burgundian Court. Burgundy represented the height of European Medieval pageantry with tournaments and feasts that became legends abroad. England, meanwhile, was stymied by civil war and a stench of backwardness A Medieval tournament ritualized chivalry, and Edward’s court orchestrated the Smithfield Tournament to show England had recovered from internal division and the humiliating reign of Henry VI, a weak king who presided over his country’s decline. Edward hoped to convince the Burgundian Court to agree to a marriage treaty between Duke Charles the Bold and Margaret of York, Edward’s sister, to bolster his loose grip on the throne.
Edward IV chose Anthony Woodville to be the face of English chivalry. He would challenge Antoine, the Bastard of Burgundy and natural son of Phillip II, Duke of Burgundy. Antoine fought with such lethal precision that he had achieved fame all through Europe. Edward, meanwhile, was the younger brother of a controversial queen and could not boast of any great exploits in Europe’s grandest tournaments.
Lords and ladies from each court competed to outdo each other with their splendor as they watched the tournament. Their necks were heavy with the weight of heavy, rich fabrics and diamonds. The peasants, who were barred from entering, climbed trees to catch a glimpse of the splendor. At last, the long-awaited match between Antoine and Woodville began. On the first day, Woodville and Antoine challenged one another in a jousting match. They pummeled towards each other. They missed, and the match ended. The audience’s anticipation had been for nothing. The next day, they faced each other again, this time to fight with swords on horseback. Woodville spurred his horse into a crashing gallop. He collided with Antoine, knocking him to the ground, where his massive war stallion fell on top of him and pinned him down. England’s hopes for an alliance sunk with Antoine’s bruised pride. Antoine recovered, but his horse died.
The next day, Antoine and Woodville turned to hand-to-hand combat. They fought as though in battle, forgetting that they were only players in a ritual of chivalry not a war. They tore gashes in each other’s armor. The spectators feared they would be the unwilling witnesses to killing. Edward IV saw that the men had lost themselves to the passion of the fight. He called out, ordering them to step away from each other. They obeyed, ensuring that they ended the tournament as acknowledged equals. For England’s diplomatic maneuvers, no other outcome could have been better. Without defeating Antoine, Woodville became a legendary warrior whose exploits entered the European imagination. Edward showed himself to the Burgundians as a king whose men were willing to die for him, but also listened to his orders even in the heat of battle.
The chronicles of the 15th century celebrated Anthony Woodville for his bravery. His family was cluttered with parvenus climbing the social ladder, but Edward saw that Anthony deserved status. He granted him the Channel Isles in 1468 and have him important roles in the military and government. Woodville’s intense faith limited his influence because he often abandoned England to fight in crusades or make a pilgrimage. Still, he went on to crush the Lancastrian army’s attempt to capture London, ward off French invaders encroaching on Brittany, and mentor and tutor the king’s son and heir. After the king died, tragedy struck amid the struggle for succession.
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