Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir

  The council felt that it was not suitable for the young king to stay at the Palace of Westminster because of the proximity of the sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, where his mother and sisters were staying. Instead it was decided, at Buckingham’s suggestion (possibly prompted by Gloucester), that Edward should lodge in the palace of the Tower of London, where monarchs traditionally stayed before their coronations. The Tower had not yet acquired the sinister reputation it was to gain under the Tudors; on the contrary, it had been one of Edward IV’s favorite residences, and so would have held happy associations for Edward V. But it was also a strong and secure fortress.

  By May the council was becoming uneasy about Elizabeth Wydeville remaining in sanctuary, and the continuing imprisonment of her kinsmen, and concerns were expressed that “the protector did not, with a sufficient degree of considerateness, take fitting care for the preservation of the dignity and safety of the Queen.”51 Gloucester responded to this by making efforts to persuade his sister-in-law to leave sanctuary with her children, appointing a committee to negotiate with her, and sending councilors with assurances of her and the children’s safety, but all were met with a barrage of scorn, tears, and indignation.52 In the first week of June, the council tried again to persuade the Queen to leave sanctuary with her children and go into honorable retirement, but again she refused.

  Her obduracy gave Gloucester grounds for treating the Wydeville faction as aggressors. On June 10 he sent a letter to the civic council of York for the muster of troops to march on London against “the Queen, her blood adherents and affinity, which have intended and daily doth intend to murder and utterly destroy us and our cousin, the Duke of Buckingham, and the old royal blood of this realm”53—proof, if any were now needed, of how deeply he hated the Wydevilles. But the latter’s wings had been well and truly clipped: the Queen was in sanctuary, powerless, and her kinsmen were scattered, either in prison or in hiding, so clearly Gloucester’s accusations were merely an excuse to bolster his power with military force.

  Lord Hastings, resentful that Buckingham had usurped his prominence on the council, and mistrusting Gloucester’s intentions, now switched sides to the Queen, although his prime loyalty remained to Edward IV’s son. But on June 13, Gloucester found out that Hastings had confided his concerns about the protector’s ambitions to Thomas Rotherham, Archbishop of York; John Morton, Bishop of Ely; and Lord Stanley. Within hours Hastings’s “joy gave way entirely to grief,”54 for Gloucester responded by staging a second illegal coup. It was another preemptive strike, a ruthless exercise to eliminate or neutralize his opponents, and with it he embarked on a reign of tyranny in order to silence all those who stood in the way of his ambitions. And his ambitions, as many had suspected, and as would now become clear, focused on the crown. His much vaunted loyalty to his brother now counted for nothing.

  Immediately, that same morning, he summoned Hastings and others to a council meeting in the Tower, and there—in a dramatic scene later immortalized by Shakespeare—accused him of treason and had Hastings summarily executed, “without judgment or justice.” Likewise, Stanley, Morton, and Rotherham were also arrested, but spared execution “out of respect for their status” and—again without trial—sent to Wales to be imprisoned in separate castles. In this way “the three strongest supporters of the new King had been removed, and—all the rest of his faithful subjects fearing the like treatment—the two dukes did thenceforth just as they pleased.” This was achieved in part by the strong presence of Gloucester’s northern troops, “in fearful and unheard-of numbers,” in the capital.55

  Gloucester knew that Stanley was too rich and influential to be alienated, and that his loyalty must be bought. Soon he would restore him to the council and grant him new lands and high offices. It might have seemed to Elizabeth that “father Stanley”—as she called him in “The Song of Lady Bessy”—had abandoned her at this frightening time. But Stanley’s first loyalty was to himself.

  Even in sanctuary Elizabeth must have heard about Elizabeth Shore doing public penance at St. Paul’s for her harlotry, clad only in a sheet, before being committed to Ludgate Prison, all on Gloucester’s orders. In fact, Mistress Shore had been arrested for her connection with Hastings, and her very public punishment was probably intended to discredit them both and give weight to Gloucester’s summary sentence on Hastings. It also proclaimed that the duke, unlike his late brother, would not tolerate immorality.

  Gloucester knew it was not enough to have the young king in his power. He “foresaw that the Duke of York would by legal right succeed to the throne if his brother were removed.” As the day of the coronation approached, “he went to the Star Chamber at Westminster and submitted to the council how improper it seemed that the King should be crowned in the absence of his brother, who ought to play an important part in the ceremony. Wherefore he said that, since this boy was held by his mother against his will in sanctuary, he should be liberated, because the sanctuary had been founded by their ancestors as a place of refuge, not of detention, and this boy wanted to be with his brother.”56 How true this was is not known; but many lively nine-year-old boys would have chafed against the restrictions imposed by being in sanctuary, and resented being cooped up in a household of women; and maybe young York was eager to join the brother he barely knew, but who must have represented power and glory and freedom, and the chance of some excitement.

  Gloucester was prepared to use force to remove York from his mother. On June 16, “with the consent of the council, he surrounded the sanctuary with his household troops” armed with swords and staves, and sent the elderly Cardinal Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, to persuade Elizabeth Wydeville to give up the young duke. “When the Queen saw herself besieged, and preparation for violence, she surrendered her son, trusting in the word of the Cardinal of Canterbury that the boy should be restored after the coronation.” But “the cardinal was suspecting no guile, and had persuaded the Queen to do this, seeking as much to prevent a violation of the sanctuary as to mitigate by his good services the fierce resolve of the duke.”57 Elizabeth Wydeville’s parting from her younger son was later touchingly portrayed in many narrative paintings of the romantic era. “But the Queen, for all the fair promises to her made, kept her and her daughters within the sanctuary.”58 Clearly she did not think that any of them would be safe if they left it, so her fears for her sons might have been imagined.

  Elizabeth was a witness to these events, and they must have caused her great distress, as “the love she bore her brothers and sisters was unheard of, and almost incredible.”59 Thereafter, she must have fretted—even agonized—over her absent brothers, and if she heard what was being reported, she would soon have had even more cause for concern. For “after Hastings was removed, all the attendants who had waited upon the King were debarred access to him. He and his brother were withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower proper, and day by day began to be seen more rarely behind the bars and windows, till at length they ceased to appear altogether.”60

  This all happened between mid-June and Mancini’s recall from England shortly after July 6. Some of his information came from Dr. John Argentine. His account suggests that the boys were now being held in the White Tower—the keep, or “Tower proper”—and the mention of bars indicates that they were securely confined as prisoners of state. Dr. Argentine, who was “the last of his attendants whose services the King enjoyed,” reported “that the young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him.” Mancini saw “many men burst forth into tears and lamentations when mention was made of him after his removal from men’s sight; and already there was a suspicion that he had been done away with. Whether, however, he has been done away with, and by what manner of death, so far I have not at all discovered.”

  Mancini’s evidence is corroborated by the anonymous Croyland chronicler, a privy councilor and canon lawyer—probably John Rus
sell, Bishop of Lincoln,61 “a man of great learning and piety.”62 As Lord Chancellor and a member of the council, he was in a good position to know what was going on. He too states that after Hastings’s execution “was the prince and the Duke of York holden more straight, and there was privy talk that the Lord Protector should be King.” He also mentions that “during this mayor’s year, the children of King Edward were seen shooting and playing in the garden of the Tower by sundry times.” But soon, as Mancini corroborates, they would be seen no more. And after June 8 no more grants were made in the name of Edward V.

  Indeed, from the day York was removed from sanctuary, Gloucester and Buckingham “no longer acted in secret but openly manifested their intentions”63—and their intentions boded no good for Elizabeth and her family.

  Richard was clearly determined to prevent the Wydeville-dominated boy king from reigning. He later alleged that on June 8, someone—Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, according to Commines—had “discovered to the Duke of Gloucester” that before Edward IV married Elizabeth Wydeville in 1464, he “had been formerly in love with a beautiful young lady and had promised her marriage, on condition that he might lie with her. The lady consented and, as the bishop affirmed, he married them when nobody was present but they two and himself. His fortune depending on the court, he did not discover it, and persuaded the lady likewise to conceal it, which she did, and the matter remained a secret.”64

  Any bishop or cleric would have known that a ceremony of marriage conducted without any witnesses present was invalid, but even if Stillington had officiated, it seems strange that it had taken him nearly twenty years to speak out, for the existence of a previous secret marriage rendered the second union bigamous, with serious implications for the legitimacy of the children born of it and the royal succession; and there were implications too for the safety of the King’s immortal soul,65 which should have exercised the bishop’s mind. But Stillington was no saint—he had fathered bastards, rarely visited his diocese, and switched loyalties like a weathercock, according to which king was ruling, acquiring pardon after pardon along the way. What’s more, in 1472 he had sworn allegiance to Edward, Prince of Wales, as Edward IV’s “very and undoubted heir”—a strange thing to do if he knew the boy was not legitimate.66 He was therefore not a reliable witness.

  The lady Edward was said to have married was Eleanor Butler, daughter of the great John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, a military hero of the Hundred Years War. She had married Thomas Butler, heir to Ralph Butler, Lord Sudeley, but was widowed before 1461, and died in a Norwich convent before June 30, 1468. It is highly unlikely that Edward ever did go through any ceremony of marriage with her. English sources mention only a precontract, a promise before witnesses to marry; once it was cemented by sexual intercourse, it became as binding in the eyes of the Church as a marriage. By the fourteenth century the Church had reluctantly allowed that such clandestine marriages—with no calling of banns or blessing by a priest at the church door—were valid, but only if the promise had been made before two witnesses, which the law required. In practice, many couples considered themselves married on the basis of a promise alone,67 but there is no good evidence that Edward IV made any promises to Eleanor Butler, or considered himself precontracted to her. Only after his death did Gloucester assert that he “stood married and troth-plight” to the lady, “with whom [he] had made a precontract of matrimony.”68

  Significantly, Eleanor Butler, a member of a powerful aristocratic family, never joined the chorus of protest when the news broke that the King had married Elizabeth Wydeville, who was of lower rank than herself; nor did her family ever defend her honor when the alleged precontract was made public or later confirmed in Parliament. People were not afraid to speak out against the Wydeville marriage, so there is no reason why she and her kin could not have taken advantage of that and enlisted the support of Warwick, who was affronted by the King’s marriage. Moreover, as a notably pious lady,69 she surely would not have allowed a situation in which her husband was putting his immortal soul at risk to continue. Finally her nephew, Gilbert Talbot, was to fight for Henry Tudor, who had vowed to marry Elizabeth of York—which Talbot surely would not have done if he believed Elizabeth were illegitimate.

  Furthermore, if Elizabeth Wydeville had married Edward IV in good faith, not knowing that he was already under contract to another lady, her children could have been declared legitimate, and her marriage regularized, on Eleanor Butler’s death in 1468; then the legitimacy of her sons, who were born later, would never have been in doubt. It seems inconceivable that Edward IV, who lived in an age in which lawful title to the crown was bloodily disputed, would knowingly have made a bigamous marriage, or would not have taken steps to ensure that his heirs’ legitimacy could never be disputed. But Gloucester apparently accepted this new evidence as sufficient to render his brother’s marriage invalid and his nephews and nieces bastards and unfit to inherit the crown or anything else.70

  Commines is the only source to name Stillington as Gloucester’s informant: he is not mentioned by English writers, so Commines may have been reporting speculation or gossip from diplomatic circles abroad. If Edward IV had indeed married Eleanor Butler in secret, he is hardly likely to have chosen his Keeper of the Privy Seal to perform the ceremony,71 but an obscure priest such as the one who had married him to Elizabeth Wydeville. And as Commines reports that the bishop had officiated at an actual marriage, rather than a precontract, and without witnesses present, the rest of his story must be called into question.

  Nevertheless, Stillington’s possible involvement has been the subject of much debate. It was he who had persuaded Clarence to submit to Edward IV in 1471.72 In 1475, after being dismissed as Chancellor of England, he had retired to his diocese of Wells, which bordered on Clarence’s lands in Somerset. In 1478, shortly after Clarence’s execution, Stillington had been sent to the Tower for uttering words “prejudicial to the King and his estate,” but was released three months later after paying a fine.73 What he had said to give offense is not recorded, but if it impugned the legitimacy of the King or his children, then the punishment was lenient. Furthermore, he defended himself, and it was recorded that he had “done nothing contrary to his oath of fealty, as he has shown before the King and certain lords.”

  From such fragmentary evidence it has sometimes been conjectured that Stillington had entered into a secret alliance with Clarence and confided to him the tale of the precontract. That would have been political dynamite, of course, whether true or not. But Clarence never used the precontract story against Edward IV. He was ready to make wild and subversive claims, such as the one about Elizabeth Wydeville having poisoned his wife, and he had been quick to impugn Edward’s own legitimacy, so it follows that he would not have hesitated to act on explosive evidence such as this.

  If there were allegations about a precontract in 1478, it would have been remarkable for Gloucester not to have heard of them. If he did, they did not undermine his loyalty to his brother, nor did he attempt to have the matter clarified. He had not used them against the Wydevilles back in April and May, even when fabricating evidence against them, notably falsely accusing the Wydevilles of stockpiling arms to use against him. Now, facing the likelihood of retribution from the young Edward V when the King achieved his majority, and determined at all costs to prevent the Wydevilles from returning to power, Gloucester probably fabricated the whole story, in all likelihood with Stillington’s assistance; Commines’s mention of him (out of all the bishops of England) and his later prosecution by Henry VII suggests he was involved in some way. A yearbook of 1488 asserts it was Stillington who later drew up the petition in which the lords and commons beseeched Richard to accept the crown of England.74 However, he received no tangible rewards from Richard.

  Given Edward IV’s reputation with women, the precontract tale may have sounded sufficiently convincing—at least to Gloucester’s supporters. But the sudden emergence of this information, surfacing at
a crucially convenient time for the duke, is not only suspicious but also astonishing. Clearly many regarded it merely as “the color for” his seizing the throne—“this act of usurpation,” as the Croyland chronicler scathingly put it—or what More calls a “convenient pretext”; and it is obvious that many continued to regard Edward IV’s children as the rightful heirs of the House of York. Croyland, for one, insisted that the whole precontract story was false: “there was not a person but what knew very well who was the sole mover of such seditious and disgraceful proceedings.” And, of course, both Edward IV and Eleanor Butler were dead, and could not confirm or deny the allegations.

  Gloucester’s informant was said to have produced “instruments, authentic doctors, proctors and notaries of the law” as well as the “depositions of divers witnesses,” none of which survive or were publicly produced at the time. If this evidence had been as compelling as Gloucester claimed, it is odd that he did not immediately act upon it, or refer it to an ecclesiastical court, as the law required, for no secular court had jurisdiction over such cases. Probably he realized that the story would not stand up, and knew that proof of it did not exist. Initially he ordered Dr. Ralph Shaa, the Lord Mayor’s brother, to preach at Paul’s Cross on the text “Bastard slips shall not take root,” and had him rake up Clarence and Warwick’s stale propaganda about Edward IV being “conceived in adultery.”75 Elsewhere in London, other clerics, similarly primed, were repeating the same thing.

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