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


  Buckingham and Morton now began seriously to consider the claim of Henry Tudor, the only realistic choice. “Seeing that if they could find no one to take the lead in their designs, the ruin of all would speedily ensue, all those who had set on foot this insurrection turned their thoughts to Henry, Earl of Richmond, who had been for many years living in exile in Brittany.”23 Buckingham’s alliance with Henry Tudor’s supporters in support of the Lancastrian pretender was perhaps Morton’s doing. Morton may have reminded Buckingham that the latter’s father and grandfather had died fighting for Henry VI and the Lancastrian cause,24 and that his true loyalty should lie with the only viable Lancastrian heir—although Buckingham may not have needed much convincing. Morton seems to have worked covertly to bring together the Lancastrian party, the Wydevilles, and Yorkist dissidents, with the objective of overthrowing Richard III. Possibly he was working on behalf of another interested party.

  Margaret Beaufort was prominent at Richard III’s court, and had even carried Queen Anne’s train at the coronation, but she remained a Lancastrian at heart. She was a formidable woman of strong character and steely resolve, and all her ambitions were for her son, Henry Tudor. She had continued to correspond with him, and perhaps secretly cherished hopes that one day he would be able to pursue his claim to the throne. Should the time ever be opportune, her husband, the pragmatic Lord Stanley, could command a private army in Henry’s support. In the meantime, Margaret is said to have pressed Richard III—as soon as he came to the throne—to restore her son to the earldom of Richmond and marry him to one of the daughters of Edward IV with his “favor.”25

  It may be that Margaret soon realized that Richard would do nothing for Henry; or Henry had made it clear to her that he would never return to England while Richard was on the throne. Whatever the reason, she was soon working against the King, and it has been suggested that she was even involved in a plot to rescue the Princes from the Tower;26 how that would have furthered her son’s cause is hard to see, unless she thought that Edward V would be less of a threat to Henry than Richard, and that Henry might consequently be induced to return to England.

  Vergil asserted that, at the same time Morton and Buckingham were plotting at Brecknock, “a new conspiracy was laid in London” between Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Wydeville. But possibly Margaret Beaufort was already in league with Buckingham, and in contact with him through the good offices of Morton, her chaplain, and her servant, Reginald Bray, who was “the chief dealer in this conspiracy” and may have traveled to Brecon on her behalf.

  Probably Margaret, perhaps briefed by Buckingham, believed that Richard had done away with the princes. And “she, being a wise woman, after the slaughter of King Edward’s children was known, began to hope well of her son’s fortune.”27

  According to Vergil, it was Margaret who first conceived the momentous idea of uniting the rival houses of Lancaster and York through a marriage between her son and Elizabeth of York, who was now—in the eyes of many—the Yorkist heiress to the throne. Margaret is said to have realized “that that deed would without doubt prove for the profit of the commonwealth, if it might chance the blood of King Henry VI and King Edward to be mingled by affinity, and so two most pernicious factions should be at once, by conjoining of both houses, utterly taken away.”

  It is possible that Vergil overstated the role of the mother of the King he served, but certainly Margaret was active in the conspiracy once its objectives embraced her son, and it was probably true that she had cherished for years the idea of marrying him to Elizabeth of York. In 1486, Lord Stanley would depose that during Edward IV’s reign he had often heard his wife and others discussing the consanguinity that existed between Henry and Elizabeth,28 proof that the possibility of them marrying had long been under discussion. But now, in the eyes of legitimists, Elizabeth was an even greater prize, for marriage with her would immeasurably bolster Henry’s dubious claim to the throne and win hearts to his cause; and it would unite the Houses of Lancaster and York and be a means of ending the bloody conflict between them.

  The success of the plan depended, of course, on the princes being dead. There was no point in Henry Tudor marrying Elizabeth and claiming the crown through her if Edward V or York remained alive to challenge that claim. Clearly, Buckingham, Margaret Beaufort, and Henry Tudor all believed that they were no longer alive. There have been theories that any one of them might have arranged the murder of the boys, which would have been as advantageous to them as to Richard III. But while a handful of contemporaries suggested that Buckingham was involved, none of them—even Margaret of Burgundy, his mortal enemy—ever accused Henry Tudor of the deed, still less Margaret Beaufort.

  Apart from the lack of evidence there are insurmountable obstacles to these revisionist views: the princes disappeared while they were being securely held in the Tower as the King’s chief prisoners of state. If someone—Buckingham, for example, who, even as Constable of England, would have needed the King’s permission to breach security at the Tower—had murdered them, Richard would quickly have heard about it, and it would have been in his interests to make political capital against his enemies, thus giving the lie to the rumors about his own involvement; indeed, he was adept at using the tool of character assassination most effectively. More pertinently, even though the rumors about him murdering the princes continued to damn Richard’s reputation and undermine his security as King, he took no measures at all to counteract them, when it was crucially in his interests to do so. Had someone else murdered his nephews, especially one of his enemies, it would have served him well, and retrieved his reputation, to be able to accuse them—and he was soon to have an ideal opportunity to do that, of which he did not take advantage. It would also have been in his interests to make it known if the princes had died natural deaths. Claims that one or both of them survived are fascinating but unconvincing, and cannot be substantiated by good evidence.

  Enlisting Buckingham to her son’s cause was a great coup for Margaret Beaufort. All that was needed now was to win over Elizabeth Wydeville. But first she had to be told about the tragic fate of her sons.

  Dr. Lewis Caerleon, “a Welshman born,” was Margaret Beaufort’s physician, and because he was “a grave man and of no small experience, she was wont oftentimes to confer freely with him to lament her adversity.” It was during one of their talks that she prayed him to lay the conspirators’ plan before the Queen Dowager, who also consulted him, “for he was a very learned physician.” Margaret told him that “the time was now come when King Edward’s eldest daughter might be given in marriage to her son, Henry, and therefore prayed him to deal secretly with the Queen of such affair.” In September, “after the slaughter of King Edward’s children was known,”29 Dr. Caerleon braved Nesfield’s soldiers and visited Elizabeth Wydeville in sanctuary in his official capacity, his real purpose being to break the dread news that her sons were believed to have been murdered on the King’s orders.

  The impact on the Queen Dowager—and on her daughters—must have been dreadful. The likelihood that the princes had been killed was devastating enough, but not knowing exactly what had happened to them, or being able to lay them decently to rest, would surely have caused more anguish than learning for certain how they had died. There would always have been room for imagining so many dreadful scenarios—and for doubt, even hope.

  Vergil gives an account of Elizabeth Wydeville’s reaction to the news, which he may have embroidered to underline the dreadful import of the moment, yet it is easy to imagine her responding dramatically to news that any mother would dread to hear, and highly likely that there was a scene of this sort. She “fell in a swoon and lay lifeless a good while. After coming to herself, she wept, she cried aloud, and with lamentable shrieks made all the house ring. She struck her breast, tore and pulled out her hair and, overcome with dolor, prayed also for her own death, calling by name now and then among her most dear children, and condemning herself for a mad woman for that, being deceived by
false promises, she had delivered her younger son out of sanctuary, to be murdered by his enemy.” After long lamentation, says More, “she kneeled down and cried to God to take vengeance, who, she said, she nothing doubted would remember it.”

  Elizabeth and her sisters were probably shocked witnesses to their mother’s grief. Given Elizabeth’s love for her siblings, the news would have hit her hard too. And soon would come the startling realization that she was now—or should have been—the rightful Queen of England.

  To mitigate the dreadful tidings, and bring the Queen over to the side of Margaret Beaufort and Buckingham, Dr. Caerleon came to the real point of his visit, reminding her that her daughter Elizabeth was now the rightful inheritor of the crown. “If you could now agree and invent the means to couple your eldest daughter with the young Earl of Richmond in matrimony, no doubt the usurper of the realm should be shortly deposed, and your heir again to her right restored.”

  Very likely Caerleon, primed by Margaret Beaufort, gave a flattering account of the putative bridegroom, but at this point Henry Tudor was not much of a catch for a young woman whom many regarded as the Yorkist heiress. He was not even de facto Earl of Richmond, having been deprived of that title; he was a mere landless exile. But Elizabeth Wydeville saw in him her only hope of revenge on the man whom she was convinced had killed her sons and brought her to her present sorry condition, and readily gave her consent. “The Queen was so well pleased with this device that she commanded Caerleon to repair to the countess, who remained in her husband’s house in London, and to promise that she would do her endeavor to procure all her husband King Edward’s friends to take part with Henry, her son, so that he might be sworn to take in marriage Elizabeth, her daughter, after he should have gotten the realm; or else Cecily the younger if the other should die before he enjoyed the same.”30 Her agreement to the plan—which was not without considerable risk—is proof she truly believed that her sons had been murdered.

  While the two aspiring mothers-in-law covertly planned for the future, with Dr. Caerleon acting “as a messenger between them, without any suspicion,”31 Buckingham sent word to Henry, “by advice of the lord Bishop of Ely, inviting him to hasten into the kingdom of England as fast as he could reach the shore, to marry Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of the late King; and with her, at the same time, take possession of the whole kingdom,” implying that they should reign jointly. He informed Henry that his supporters would rise on St. Luke’s Day, October 18, and that he himself would raise the men of Wales. A proclamation was then made to the confederacies that Buckingham “had repented of his former conduct and would be the chief mover” in the planned risings.32 Henry Tudor entered enthusiastically into the conspiracy. Francis II, Duke of Brittany, had offered him his daughter and heiress Anne, who could have brought him a duchy, but now Henry “decided to yield to Edward IV’s wishes to marry Elizabeth,”33 who might just bring him a kingdom.

  Margaret Beaufort dispatched Reginald Bray “to draw unto her party such noble and worshipful men” as were prepared to risk joining them. She also sent Hugh Conway to Henry with “a good great sum of money” and instructions to join Buckingham in Wales. Word of the proposed marriage between Henry and Elizabeth rapidly won the conspirators the loyalty of Yorkists who had been outraged at Richard’s disinheriting of Edward IV’s children.

  Elizabeth’s own views on marrying this exiled pretender whom she had never met are unrecorded, but she probably felt that Henry Tudor represented her best chance of ridding herself of the stain of bastardy and attaining what was rightfully hers: the crown of England. She too seems to have accepted that her brothers were dead, and may have believed—in the words of the chronicler Holinshed—that her “fortune and grace was to be queen.”

  In 1489, Margaret Beaufort was to ask William Caxton to translate and print the text of a thirteenth-century French romance entitled “Blanchardin and Eglantine,” which she had acquired in 1483. It was a highly appropriate romance, for Eglantine’s story resonated with Elizabeth’s own situation at the time of Buckingham’s rebellion. Blanchardin, son of the King of Phrygia, falls in love with Princess Eglantine of Tormadei. While he fights the infidel, she makes the stations of the Cross, garrisons the city, and plans for their marriage, which is her heart’s desire. Eventually Blanchardin passes unscathed through a series of adventures, disasters, and escapes, and claims her as his wife. No doubt Elizabeth, and those in sanctuary with her in 1483, would have appreciated the parallels between the story and the alliance between herself and Henry Tudor. It is not beyond the bounds of probability that Margaret Beaufort sent her the book by the hands of Dr. Caerleon, to raise her morale and help while away the tedious hours in sanctuary.34

  Bishop Morton, meanwhile, had pressed Buckingham to allow him to leave Brecknock for Ely, to raise men in his diocese. The duke showed himself doubtful about releasing the man who was supposed to be his prisoner, but Morton escaped one night and fled to Ely,35 a move that may have been planned by both men.

  The rebels were supposed to rise on October 18, but their various groups were poorly coordinated, and on October 10 the Hautes orchestrated premature risings at Maidstone and Ightham Mote, only to be repelled by John Howard, now Duke of Norfolk. Dorset emerged from hiding to rouse the men of Exeter, and Lionel Wydeville stirred the men of Salisbury, his See. The Queen’s younger brothers, Sir Edward and Sir Richard Wydeville, were involved, and there were planned risings in Guildford and Newbury, while Buckingham was to raise Brecon and south Wales. In the wake of the rumors about the murder of the princes, many former members of Edward IV’s household had joined the rebels.

  Already, though, “the whole design of this plot had, by means of spies, become perfectly well known to King Richard, who, as ever, did not act sleepily, but swiftly, and with the greatest vigilance.”36 On October 15, Richard had Buckingham proclaimed a rebel and offered free pardons to any who surrendered. He “contrived that, throughout Wales, armed men should be set in readiness around the said duke as soon as ever he had set a foot from his home.”37

  Unsuspecting, Buckingham left Brecon on October 18, as planned, and advanced through the Wye Valley, making for Hereford. But storms and flooding wrecked his plans, his army deserted him, and he was forced to flee to Shropshire, where he sought shelter in the cottage of a poor retainer, who betrayed him for a handsome reward. On arrest, he was led to the city of Salisbury, “to which place the King had come with a very large army, on the day of the commemoration of All Souls; and [on November 2], notwithstanding the fact that it was the Lord’s day, the duke suffered capital punishment in the public marketplace of that city.”38

  If, as has been suggested, Buckingham had murdered the princes, with Richard’s approval and therefore on his behalf,39 Richard now had the perfect opportunity to lay the blame at his door and so give the lie to rumor. He did not seize it.

  On October 31, unaware that the rebellion had collapsed, Henry Tudor set sail from Brittany with the intention of invading England, but was blown off course by the foul weather. He was stationed off Plymouth harbor when “news of the current situation reached him, both of the death of the Duke of Buckingham and the flight of his own faction,” and realizing that his cause was hopeless, “hoisted his sails and put out to sea again,”40 fleeing back to Brittany.

  Richard III was remarkably lenient with Margaret Beaufort, despite her having treasonably conspired against him; she was lucky to escape being attainted by Parliament. He contented himself with giving her estates to her husband (who had rallied to his king), depriving her of the title Countess of Richmond, and ordering Stanley—who claimed he had known nothing of her subversive activities—to keep his wife a virtual prisoner “in some secret place” apart from her household. He also extended clemency, and the offer of a pardon, to Dorset and Morton, but they, Lionel Wydeville, and other rebels had already fled the kingdom to join Henry Tudor.41

  What of Elizabeth? André, in a passage that may relate to this time, later wrote th
at, before the summer of 1485, after Henry Tudor had decided to yield to Edward IV’s wishes and marry her, a “grievous situation nearly brought her noble life to an untimely end. And indeed, as the outcome of the matter later showed, by the pleasure of Edward, his noble and wise daughter was preserved in all her virtue for Henry.”

  The context of this passage is unclear, as is André’s meaning. It reads as if it was due to her father’s pleasure that Elizabeth survived this crisis, but it is more likely that the passage refers to Edward’s willing the marriage to take place, rather than to his being responsible for Elizabeth’s survival. The “grievous situation” to which André refers is probably the collapse of Buckingham’s rebellion. He may be implying that Elizabeth too could have been penalized for treason, although Richard’s leniency with Margaret Beaufort, who had been far more deeply involved, precluded Elizabeth from suffering the death penalty. Or André could have meant that she was so distressed at the dashing of her hopes of freedom and a crown that it severely affected her health.

  “The Hours of Our Lady,” which bears the signature “Elizabeth Plantagenet” on the flyleaf, has traces of an inscription containing the name “Henry” at the top of that page, which someone has evidently tried to erase. Maybe it was Elizabeth herself, realizing that her hopes of marrying Henry Tudor were now in the dust, and that it was wiser to delete this evidence of them.42

  The rebellion had collapsed, but it demonstrated that Henry Tudor was now a serious contender for the crown. In his native Wales the bards were claiming that he should rule as the rightful descendant of the near legendary Cadwaladr, the seventh-century King of Gwynned, and Brutus of Troy, to whom legend attributed the founding of the kingdom of Britain. The support of a growing body of Yorkist dissidents in Brittany—about four hundred fled to his base at the Château of l’Hermine after the rebellion failed—had strengthened Henry’s cause to the extent that he was now ready to throw down the gauntlet to King Richard. At dawn on Christmas Day 1483, Henry went to Rennes Cathedral and, in the presence of about five hundred of his supporters, publicly, “upon his oath, promised that, as soon as he should be King, he would marry Elizabeth, King Edward’s daughter,”43 thus uniting the rival Houses of Lancaster and York.

 
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