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

  A shocked Mancini wrote that Gloucester “had so corrupted the preachers of God’s word that they did not blush to say in their sermons to the people, without the slightest regard for decency or religion, King Edward IV’s offspring should be disposed of at once, since he had no right to be King, and no more had they. For they claimed that Edward was conceived in adultery and bore no resemblance to the late Duke of York, although he had been passed off as his son. Rather, Gloucester, who looked just like his father, should come to the throne as the rightful successor.” That was no more believed in 1483 than it had been in 1469, and Shaa found his homily falling on deaf ears. The Londoners were unconvinced: “such as favored ye matter were few in number.”76

  Worse was to come. The council had refused to sanction the executions of Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, and Haute, so Gloucester, “of his own authority as protector,” had sent orders to Pontefract for them to suffer execution,77 on the patently false charge that they had plotted the death of the protector.78 There was “more of will than justice” involved,79 for they were beheaded on June 25 “without any form of trial being observed”—another act of tyranny, theirs being “the second innocent blood that was shed” as a result of Gloucester’s coups.80 These executions prompted a rising in Kent by Elizabeth Wydeville’s outraged kinsmen, the Hautes, and although abortive, it was sufficient to prove to Gloucester that the Wydevilles were still a force to be reckoned with, even though their teeth had been drawn. Tidings of the deaths of her uncle and half brother must have impacted badly on Elizabeth in sanctuary. She would have had to deal with her mother’s fresh grief and her new fears for the future.

  Influenced probably by the incredulous reaction to Shaa’s sermon, or perhaps by his mother’s protests, only now did Gloucester publicly proclaim the illegitimacy of his brother’s children. On June 25, 1483, at the Guildhall, in the presence of the lords (who had been summoned to Parliament), the Lord Mayor, and the citizens of London, Buckingham presented an address to the protector “in a certain roll of parchment,” asserting for the first time “that the sons of King Edward were bastards,”81 on the grounds that Edward had been “legally contracted to another wife” at the time of his marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville.82 At this, a low whispering broke out, “as of a swarm of bees.” As the next in line of succession, and the only “certain and uncorrupted blood of Richard, Duke of York”—Clarence’s heir Warwick barred because of his father’s attainder—Gloucester was “entreated” to accept the crown.83 The lords, who had been ordered to bring only small escorts to London, found themselves intimidated by the presence of “unheard of terrible numbers” (estimated at four to five thousand) of Gloucester’s and Buckingham’s armed retainers in the City, and they and the commons unanimously signaled their approval. Some might have regarded a grown man with a proven record of service in government and in the field of battle as preferable to a child ruler anway.84 Even so, unsupported allegations about Edward V’s legitimacy and an address made before an assembly of nobles were no substitute for a ruling by an ecclesiastical court, and were a very shaky foundation on which to base a claim to the throne.85 All the same, the next day, at Baynard’s Castle, Gloucester was entreated to bow to the lords’ petition; with a show of reluctance, he agreed and was proclaimed King Richard III.

  What was so striking, and probably shocking, about Richard’s usurpation was that where previous kings—Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI—had been deposed because of their bad government, Edward V did not even have a chance to prove his ability, while the speed of Gloucester’s two coups and his ascent to the throne strongly suggested that he had all along meant to oust his nephew. Moreover, Edward had been deposed, and he and his siblings branded bastards, on highly dubious grounds. These rapidly unfolding events must have been horrifying to Elizabeth and her mother and sisters. In an age in which the illegitimacy rate may have been as low as 2 percent,86 and bastards were legally barred from inheriting property, the loss of her status would have been a terrible blow, coming so soon after the death of her father and the curtailment of her freedom. And now the man whom her mother feared most was king, and they were all at his mercy.


  “The Whole Design of This Plot”

  On July 6, 1483, the new King and Queen were crowned in Westminster Abbey. Cecily Neville was not there to witness her son’s consecration; maybe she was furious with him for having publicly impugned her honor. Confined in the abbot’s house, Elizabeth and her sisters must have been aware of the bells ringing in celebration—the three Westminster sanctuary bells were customarily rung whenever a monarch was crowned—and they may have heard the crowds outside and even the music in the abbey. Their thoughts would surely have turned to their brother Edward, whose day of triumph this was to have been. It was a bitter reminder of all they had lost, one more trial coming fast upon the others they had endured.

  After the coronation, Richard III went on a progress through the kingdom. Already there were disturbing reports of agitation and confederacies in the South and West in favor of liberating Edward V. People had begun to “murmur greatly, to form assemblies and to organize associations; many things were going on in secret for the purpose of promoting this object, others quite openly. There was also a report that it had been recommended by those men who had taken refuge in the sanctuaries that some of the King’s daughters should leave Westminster, and go in disguise to parts beyond the sea, in order that, if any fatal mishap should befall the male children of the King [Edward IV] in the Tower, the kingdom might still, in consequence of the safety of the daughters, someday fall again into the hands of the rightful heirs.”1

  Possibly Elizabeth Wydeville was behind what has become known as the “sanctuary plot.” Elizabeth and her sisters could not have left sanctuary without their mother’s collusion, and the former queen had good reason to resort to desperate measures. Already her brother and one of her sons had been executed without trial. Her royal sons had disappeared into the Tower, and she and others were probably so fearful for their safety that she was prepared to risk the perils attendant on her daughters escaping abroad in order to ensure the survival of the legitimate royal line.

  But the plot was discovered, and when Richard III was informed, he ordered that the abbey be placed under siege, whereupon “the noble church of Westminster assumed the appearance of a castle and fortress, while men of the greatest austerity were appointed by King Richard to act as the keepers thereof; the captain and head of these was one John Nesfield, esquire, who set a watch upon all the inlets and outlets of the monastery.”2

  Nesfield, a Yorkshireman, was also responsible for guarding the Queen and her children while they were in sanctuary. He would have been a constant, perhaps menacing presence in Elizabeth’s life. A soldier who is first mentioned in 1470, when Edward IV appointed him “riding forester of the forest of Galtres” in Yorkshire, Nesfield had pursued Lancastrian adherents on the King’s behalf. In 1480 he had been serving in Calais, where he helped to recapture an English ship seized by the French.3 He was now a staunch supporter of Richard III, and saw that his men-at-arms kept strict guard over the Queen Dowager and her daughters. “Not one of the persons there shut up could go forth, and no one could enter, without his permission.”4 Clearly Richard took seriously the threat of the princesses being spirited abroad, for until now escape by boat along the nearby Thames would have been easy. There is no doubt that he regarded Elizabeth and her sisters as threats to his security, and feared that the older ones were as capable of conspiring against him as the mother with whom they were immured.

  Although these conspiracies were so vigorously suppressed that most of the evidence documenting them was destroyed, the fact that they had occurred at all probably convinced Richard he would never be secure on his throne while his nephews lived. In a few years’ time Edward V would be of an age to fight for his rights, and it was evident he would not lack for supporters; Edward IV had been popular, and the boy was loved for his father’s sake. It would
have made poor political sense not to have considered eliminating the princes at this juncture.

  Disapproval of Richard’s usurpation was widespread in the south of England. Before the summer was out, “people in the vicinity of London, throughout the counties of Kent, Essex, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Devonshire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Berkshire, as well as some others of the southern counties of the kingdom,” were determined “to avenge their grievances.”5 Indeed, by September even Buckingham, Richard’s close ally, had turned on him.

  It is strange that a man who had profited so “spectacularly”6 from his association with the King should suddenly have abandoned him, especially when he had so much to lose. Only weeks before, Richard had appointed Buckingham the Constable of England, and granted him the government of Wales and the Marches and control of all the royal estates in Somerset, Dorset, and Wiltshire, an unprecedented delegation of royal power. So Buckingham must have had a compelling reason to decide he could support Richard no longer.

  On August 2 he left the progress and rode west to his castle at Brecknock, Brecon, where he took charge of John Morton, Bishop of Ely, who had been arrested with Hastings and sent to Wales to be held “under house arrest.” It was apparently during conversations with the formidable bishop—a dedicated Lancastrian who was Margaret Beaufort’s chaplain but had nevertheless served Edward IV devotedly and was present at his deathbed—that Buckingham decided to rise in rebellion against the King.7

  Some writers have suggested that Buckingham’s initial plan was to seize power for himself, for he was descended from Edward III and had a claim to the throne, albeit a weak one. Morton, an astute politician of great integrity, “resource, and daring,”8 is supposed to have told Buckingham that he had “excellent virtues meet for the rule of a realm.”9 There is a tale that, having “suddenly remembered” that he himself was descended from Edward III, Buckingham had then met Margaret Beaufort on the road to Brecon, and realized that her claim was far superior, although this does not sound very likely. But although he did not at any time press his own claim, one might wonder what he hoped to gain from risking supporting the exiled Henry Tudor, when he was already doing so well for himself under Richard III.

  Vergil and More report a story that Buckingham turned against Richard III after the King failed to give him lands he had promised, which in fact were granted on July 13.10 It has been suggested that Buckingham, having heard how rumors that Richard had the Princes in the Tower murdered were provoking a backlash against the King, was fearful that it would rebound on him also, as Richard’s greatest supporter.11 But such rumors did not surface until late September, and what Buckingham was initially plotting was the rescue and restoration of Edward V.

  The likeliest explanation for Buckingham’s disaffection is that, prior to leaving the progress, Richard had confided to this man whom he believed he could trust that his intention was to do away with the princes, and that for Buckingham this was a step too far, in which he wanted no part. This was the opinion of the author of the Great Chronicle of London: “The common fame went that King Richard had within the Tower put unto secret death the two sons of his brother Edward, for the which, and other causes, the Duke of Buckingham conspired against him.” It may be that Morton’s propaganda took root in fertile ground—or Buckingham took the bishop into his confidence, and Morton, appalled, concluded that Richard should be brought down as a matter of urgency.

  It is clear that initially Morton was urging the restoration of Edward V, for on September 24, Buckingham wrote appealing for support from Henry Tudor in the “liberation” of the princes.12 But around that time “a rumor was spread that the sons of King Edward had died a violent death, but it was uncertain how.”13

  Despite imaginative theories to the contrary, put forward from 1483 to the present day, the weight of evidence14 overwhelmingly points to the princes having been murdered on the orders of Richard III, the man who had the strongest motive and the best opportunity; and that, on the night of September 3, 1483, they were suffocated with pillows by assassins hired by one of his trusted retainers, Sir James Tyrell, acting on the King’s behalf,15 as Thomas More describes in his book, The History of King Richard III (ca. 1513).

  Sir John Harington, in The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596), and Sir George Buck both mention a history of Richard III written by John Morton, later a cardinal and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Harington wrote that More’s book had been “written, as I have heard, by Morton.” Buck was Master of the Revels to James I and author of a well-documented History of King Richard III, written in 1619 and based on careful research from original sources in Sir Robert Cotton’s library at Ashburnham House, Westminster,16 and other places, the recently rediscovered Croyland Chronicle being one of them.17 Buck describes this history in a marginal note in his copy of Francis Godwin’s A Catalogue of the Bishops of England: “This Morton wrote in Latin the life of K.R.3 which goeth in Sir Thomas More’s name—as Sir Edward Hoby saith, and that Sir W[illiam] Roper hath the original.”18 No source before Harington connects Morton with More’s history, which was written several years after Morton’s death and includes information he could not have imparted, so if there was such a tract—and neither Harington nor Buck say they actually saw it—then it could only have been one of several sources used by More. Even that theory has been challenged by Raymond Chambers, More’s biographer and an authority on his literary works, who states that “the attribution is impossible, equally from the point of view of chronology, literary history, bibliography, language, style, and common sense,” and that Harington’s assertion should be “treated with the contempt it deserves.”19

  Tyrell had been knighted after Tewkesbury, and was appointed Master of the Henchmen and Master of the Horse in 1483. Later he was made Knight of the Body and given various offices, including those of Steward of the Duchy of Cornwall, Chamberlain of the Exchequer, and appointed to the council. According to More, whose account was based in part on Tyrell’s later confession and the probable firsthand testimony of John Dighton, one of the murderers—those “that much knew and little cause had to lie”—he was prepared to do much to rise high. We know that Tyrell was delegated to ride to the Royal Wardrobe at the Tower of London to fetch necessities for the investiture of Edward of Middleham, the new Prince of Wales, which was to take place on September 8, in York Minster, and it was probably during this trip that the deed was carried out. Other evidence fits with this account, and certainly the princes were never seen alive again. In England most people seemed to believe that Richard had them killed, possibly on the advice of Buckingham, and speculation focused mainly on how the deed had been done.

  Until the 1950s that opinion generally held, with only a few writers disputing Richard III’s guilt; since then, in the wake of Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time (1951), and Paul Murray Kendall’s sympathetic biography of Richard (1955),20 the mystery of the princes’ fate has been endlessly debated, and is still controversial. Nevertheless, wishful theories evolved by revisionists lack credibility in the face of the weight of evidence, both written and circumstantial, against Richard, and the realities of fifteenth-century realpolitik. The facts remain: the princes disappeared from view shortly after his usurpation; he had a compelling motive for doing away with them, and the means; they were never seen again; public opinion at the time was that he had murdered them; there is no credible evidence for their survival, nor did Richard ever produce them alive to counteract the rumors of their murder, which were eroding his support. But as Michael Hicks has so perspicaciously said, the weight of evidence “cannot convince those who do not wish to believe.”21 As far as Elizabeth of York is concerned, what matters is what she came to believe had become of her brothers—and later evidence strongly suggests she was convinced that they had been murdered.

  Rumors of the murders irrevocably damaged the King’s reputation. It was said in London that he had “put to death the children of King Edward, for which cause he lost the hearts of the people.
And thereupon many gentlemen intended his destruction.”22 Ruthlessness in war and politics was tolerated: child murder was a step too far. The Tudor royal historian, Bernard André, wrote that, in the wake of the rumors, “the entire land was convulsed with sobbing and anguish. The nobles of the kingdom, fearful of their lives, wondered what might be done against the danger. Faithful to the tyrant in word, they remained distant in heart.” We must allow for a degree of exaggeration from a partisan observer, but this was written less than twenty years later, when many people would have remembered the events of 1483. The rumors were believed as far away as Danzig, as Caspar Weinreich’s contemporary chronicle recorded that year: “Later this summer, Richard, the King’s brother, had himself put in power and crowned King of England; and he had his brother’s children killed.” Certainly Buckingham—who may have had good cause—and Morton took the rumors seriously.

  Richard had written to Buckingham several times after the duke left the progress, but it is unlikely he revealed that the princes actually had been murdered, for Margaret Beaufort (who was soon to be involved in the conspiracy) would certainly have come to hear of it from Buckingham and passed on the information to Henry Tudor. Yet the evidence strongly suggests that Henry Tudor did not know for certain that they had been killed—at least, probably, until 1502. So the likelihood is that Buckingham and his associates just assumed they were dead, which was a reasonable conclusion, given the rumors and how ruthlessly Richard had eliminated everyone else who stood in the way of his ambitions.

  The conspirators had now been joined by large numbers of alienated Yorkists. They realized that they must find a new candidate to replace the usurper. If the princes were indeed dead, Elizabeth of York was the next heir to Edward IV’s throne, but there was no question of an eighteen-year-old girl ruling as sovereign, especially with the realm so unstable and troubled. No one even suggested it, and of course there was a prevalent belief that no woman could rule successfully.

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