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

  In so doing he acknowledged Elizabeth as the rightful heiress to the crown—but she could only be that if her brothers were dead; again Henry and all his adherents must have had good reason to believe that they were before announcing his intention of marrying her. In fact Henry described Richard as a homicide in letters he sent to potential allies in England.44 Effectively, Henry’s oath was also a public acknowledgment that the sons of Edward IV were dead. Had they been living, Richard III surely would have produced them to scupper the Tudor’s ambitions, but—incomprehensibly, if he had not had them killed—he did not.

  The oath, optimistic though it was, turned out to be a brilliant masterstroke because it united Lancastrian and Yorkist supporters and again made Henry a rallying point for disaffected Yorkists, many of whom swore homage to him in Rennes Cathedral on that Christmas morning “as though he had been already created King.”45 No doubt there were those who did so in the hope that, if he won the crown, he would restore their property. Until now, few had taken Henry’s claim to be the Lancastrian claimant seriously, but his vow to wed Elizabeth was a deciding factor for many. It also turned the powerless Elizabeth into one of the most important political figures in England, because marriage would from now on be seen by an increasing number as the key to holding legitimate sovereign power in the realm.

  After what must have been a mournful Christmas, compared with the splendid celebrations of the previous year, when her father was alive, and before so many close to her had died or disappeared, Elizabeth and her mother and sisters now suffered another blow. In January 1484, in Richard III’s first Parliament, the act entitled “Titulus Regius” was passed, confirming the King’s title to the throne and setting forth the grounds of his claim. It declared how, thanks to “the ungracious pretended marriage” of Edward IV, “the order of all politic rule was perverted,” and went on to state:

  We consider how the pretended marriage between King Edward and Elizabeth Grey was made of great presumption, without the knowledge and assent of the lords of this land, and also by sorcery and witchcraft committed by the said Elizabeth and her mother, Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford; and also we consider how that the said pretended marriage was made privily and secretly, without edition of banns, in a private chamber [which was untrue], a profane place, and not openly in the face of the Church after the law of God’s Church; and how also, that at the time of the contract of the said pretended marriage, and before and long after, King Edward was and stood troth-plight to one Dame Eleanor Butler, daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury, with whom King Edward had made a precontract of matrimony long time before he made the said pretensed marriage with Elizabeth Grey. Which premises being true, as in very truth they had been true, it appeareth and followeth evidently that King Edward and Elizabeth lived together sinfully and damnably in adultery, against the law of God and His Church, [and] also it followeth that all th’issue and children of the said King Edward had been bastards and unable to inherit or to claim any thing by inheritance.46

  Croyland fulminated, correctly, that Parliament, being a lay court, had no jurisdiction to pronounce on the validity of a marriage, but “it presumed to do so, and did do so, because of the great fear [of Richard] that had struck the hearts of even the most resolute.” Elizabeth and her siblings were now legally bastards; the act had stripped them of their titles and property and barred them from inheriting anything from their parents.

  In February, Elizabeth turned eighteen, the average age for marriage for upper-class girls at that period.47 She must have felt that time was passing her by while she was immured in sanctuary, and wondered what the future held for her. Her brothers were dead, her Wydeville relatives murdered or in exile, her mother powerless. It would not be surprising if she was still hoping against hope that Henry Tudor would somehow be able to fulfill his vow and marry her, although the prospect of that probably seemed remote.

  Richard III was taking no chances, though. He needed to neutralize the threat posed by the proposed marriage between Elizabeth and Henry Tudor, who was now styling himself King of England, and would, on March 27, obtain a papal dispensation sanctioning the union of “Henry Richmond, layman of the York diocese, and Elizabeth Plantagenet, woman of the London diocese.”48

  Richard wanted Elizabeth in his power. He could not continue to allow the Queen Dowager and her daughters to go on hiding in sanctuary, as if they were in danger from him; it did not do his already tarnished reputation any good. The rumors had proved highly damaging. Early in 1484 the Chancellor of France had publicly accused him of “murdering with impunity” his nephews, and Commines records that Louis XI believed Richard to be “extremely cruel and evil” for having had “the two sons of his brother put to death.” In December 1483, Mancini (who had been recalled to France in July) had written unquestioningly that Richard had “destroyed his brother’s children.” But if the King could secure the persons of Elizabeth and her sisters, he could show the world he had no evil intent toward them and marry them off to men of his own choosing, thus preventing Henry Tudor from claiming the throne through marriage to any of them.

  He knew he faced a struggle to persuade Queen Elizabeth to let her daughters leave sanctuary. He sent “grave men promising mountains to her” and “frequent entreaties as well as threats,”49 possibly of removing the girls by force. The ring of steel still surrounding the abbey was a constant, intimidating reminder that Richard had the means to carry out such threats. But there was perhaps talk that he was thinking of marrying Elizabeth to his son, Edward of Middleham, who was her cousin and could not have been much above ten years old.50 Vergil says his emissaries to Elizabeth Wydeville prejudiced their arguments at the outset by referring to “the slaughter of her sons,” after which she would not be comforted; if this is true, it amounted to an admission that Richard had the boys killed. Certainly he had been responsible for the judicial murder of another of her sons, Sir Richard Grey, and had given abundant proof of his hatred of the Wydevilles. The former Queen had good cause to be afraid of him.

  She made her fears so plain that on March 1 the King felt obliged to make an “oath and promise” in the presence of the lords of the council and the Lord Mayor and aldermen that, if she would agree to her daughters leaving sanctuary, he would offer them all his protection. This he confirmed in writing, declaring:

  I, Richard, by the grace of God, King of England [etc.], in the presence of you my lords spiritual and temporal, and you, Mayor and aldermen of my City of London, promise and swear on the word of a king, and upon these holy evangelies [Gospels] of God, by me personally touched, that if the daughters of Dame Elizabeth Grey, late calling herself Queen of England, that is, Elizabeth, Cecily, Anne, Katherine, and Bridget, will come unto me out of the sanctuary of Westminster, and be guided, ruled, and demeaned after me, then I shall see that they shall be in surety of their lives, and also not suffer any manner hurt in their body by any manner [of] person or persons to them, or any of them in their bodies and persons by way of ravishment or de-fouling contrary to their wills, not them or any of them imprison within the Tower of London or other prison; but that I shall put them in honest places of good name and fame, and them honestly and courteously shall see to be founden and entreated, and to have all things requisite and necessary for their exhibitions [display] and findings [domestic arrangements] as my kinswomen; and that I shall marry such of them as now be marriable to gentlemen born, and every of them give in marriage lands and tenements by the yearly value of 200 marks [about £34,000] for term of their lives, and in like wise to the other daughters when they come to lawful age of marriage if they live. And such gentlemen as shall hap to marry with them I shall straitly charge from time to time lovingly to love and entreat them, as wives and my kinswomen, as they will avoid and eschew my displeasure … And moreover, I promise to them that if any surmise or evil report be made to me of them by any person or persons, that I shall not give thereunto faith ne credence, nor therefore put them to any manner punishment, before that
they or any of them so accused may be at their lawful defence and answer. In witness whereof to this writing of my oath and promise aforesaid in your said presences made, I have set my sign manual the first day of March, the first year of my reign.51

  While he may have offended his sister-in-law by calling her “Dame Elizabeth Grey,” Richard had at least very publicly guaranteed the future safety and welfare of her daughters. His promises—and his oath made on the Gospels—reflect widespread concerns that he had done away with her sons, for whose safety, as opposed to that of her daughters, there are no reassurances in the document.52 This strongly suggests that they were dead, while the specific mention of the Tower, and Richard’s willingness to give such a public guarantee, amounts to a tacit admittance that she had good cause for concern.

  Clearly Elizabeth Wydeville had feared—especially in the wake of the sanctuary plot—that a pretext might be sought to find her daughters guilty of treason and worthy of punishment. But for Elizabeth of York, the King’s promises can only have emphasized the shame of her bastardy. He was contemplating marrying her to some gentleman, when, if her brothers really were dead, she was the rightful Queen of England, and might yet be queen consort, if Henry Tudor realized his ambitions. And the dowry Richard was offering was paltry compared with the 10,000 marks [£1.5 million] willed her by Edward IV, and a cruel reminder of her reduced status.

  In the circumstances, though, this was a pragmatic way of securing the girls’ futures, and Elizabeth Wydeville, “being strongly solicited to do so,” agreed to release them. On March 1, 1484, the same day her brother-in-law made his public declaration, she “sent her daughters from the sanctuary at Westminster to King Richard.”53

  The Tudor chronicler Edward Hall castigated Elizabeth Wydeville for surrendering her daughters to her enemy: “Putting in oblivion the murder of her innocent children, the infamy and dishonor spoken by the King her husband, the living in adultery laid to her charge, the bastardizing of her daughters, forgetting also the faithful prayers and open oath made to the Countess of Richmond, mother of the Earl Henry, blinded by avaricious affection and seduced by flattering words, [she] delivered into King Richard’s hands her five daughters as lambs once again committed to the custody of the ravenous wolf.”

  Yet what choice did she really have? There were pressing practical realities to be taken into account. Richard III was thirty-one, and might be in power for a very long time. She could not stay in sanctuary forever, especially in the face of the King’s guarantees; her continuing presence there might compromise the abbot’s standing with his monarch, and she had already been dependent on his kindness and charity for nearly a year. Furthermore, the abbey was still under siege on her account. If she refused to let her daughters leave, then Richard might well take them away, as he had young York, and on the same pretext. Her capitulation does not necessarily mean that she did not believe the King had murdered the princes. He had already judicially murdered another of her sons, on the flimsiest of pretexts, yet still she came to terms with him, doubtless hoping she had done the best she could for her remaining children.

  Vergil states that “King Richard received all his brother’s daughters out of sanctuary into the court.” Hall follows Vergil, saying that the King caused them “to be conveyed into his palace [of Westminster] with solemn receiving; as though, with his new, familiar, loving entertainment they should forget, and in their minds obliterate, the old committed injury and late perpetrated tyranny.” Buck also says that Elizabeth Wydeville sent the girls “to the court,” where they were “very honorably entertained and with all princely kindness.” Even so, it may have been a bitter experience for Elizabeth and her sisters to return to the palace where, just a year before, they were honored as royal princesses. Possibly resentment against their uncle, and anxiety about their mother, warred with pleasure and relief at being out of sanctuary and able to enjoy worldly pleasures and freedoms again. They were, after all, only young.

  It is likely that they were received into the Queen’s household; as unmarried girls of royal birth, it was the only suitable place for them in a court dominated by men. But it seems that as soon as Elizabeth Wydeville left sanctuary, sometime after her daughters, they joined her. It is clear she did not return to court, as Croyland records that “the Lady Elizabeth was, with her four younger sisters, sent by her mother to attend the Queen at court” the following Christmas, so obviously they were not lodging there then. If she sent them to court, they must have been living with her.

  All that is known of Elizabeth Wydeville’s whereabouts after she left sanctuary is that she was residing at Sheen in August 1485. The late Audrey Williamson wrote about an eighteenth-century tradition in which the Queen Dowager and her sons had once lived at Gipping Hall near Stowmarket, Suffolk, by permission of “the uncle,” presumably Richard III. Gipping Hall, which was demolished in the 1850s, was the seat of Sir James Tyrell, the man who as noted earlier probably arranged the murder of the princes, and it was rebuilt by him in 1474. From this late tradition, for which no earlier corroborating evidence exists, Williamson inferred that the boys had not been murdered at all, but sent here in secrecy with their mother by the King. If so, their sisters were with them.

  There are obvious problems with this theory, not least the discovery, in 1674 in the Tower of London, of the bones of two children approximately the age of the princes at the time of their disappearance in 1483. But if they had survived, and were taken to Gipping Hall, someone would surely have gotten to know about it. Late medieval royal and noble households were teeming places peopled with servants and officials, and privacy would not become a priority until the reign of Henry VIII. It is likely that several of those who served the Queen could have recognized her sons. Thus it would have been virtually impossible to keep the existence of the princes a secret, especially in the face of rumors of their deaths.

  It is inconceivable that Richard, knowing that Elizabeth Wydeville had not hesitated to plot his overthrow, would have entrusted the princes to her care anyway, let alone in a house less than twenty miles from the coast, whence their escape to the Continent could easily have been arranged, even if that house did belong to one of his trusted retainers. The River Gipping flowed nearby, and was navigable all the way down to Ipswich and then, as the River Orwell, to the sea. Many disaffected Yorkists were just across the Channel with Henry Tudor; had it come to their knowledge that the sons of Edward IV still lived, and were at liberty on the Continent, they would surely have switched their allegiance instantly.

  Some traditions may have a basis in fact, but even if this one originated with Elizabeth Wydeville retiring to Gipping Hall with her daughters, rather than her sons, it was still near the coast, and the chief objective of the sanctuary plot the previous year had been to spirit the Yorkist heiresses abroad. And it is highly unlikely that, in the wake of his undertaking to Elizabeth Wydeville, Richard would have entrusted her and her daughters to the custody of the man who’d had her sons killed.

  Elizabeth Wydeville had been deprived of her property by Parliament, which had assigned her a life annuity of 700 marks [£117,750], which Richard had confirmed in his public undertaking. Both he and Parliament had stipulated that it was to be paid, not to her, but to John Nesfield, Squire of the Body to the King, “for the finding, exhibition, and attendance of Dame Elizabeth Grey, late calling herself Queen of England.”54 Nesfield was to continue as the former Queen’s “attendant,” or rather, custodian.55 Historian David Baldwin has offered the compelling theory that she was sent to live in his charge, possibly at Heytesbury, a Wiltshire manor near Devizes, which he had been granted on April 5 by Richard III after helping to suppress Buckingham’s rebellion the previous year.56 The manor had been confiscated from the Hungerfords after they supported the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses and were attainted.

  At Heytesbury, Elizabeth would have resided at East Court, a medieval manor house dating from the fourteenth century, the erstwhile seat of the Hungerford
s. It was rebuilt in the sixteenth century and may have occupied the site of Heytesbury House, home of the poet Siegfried Sassoon, which still stands and probably incorporates some fragments of the medieval building.57

  Nesfield held other properties in the north riding of Yorkshire, where his forebears had been landowners since the fourteenth century: the manors of Amotherby, near Malton, and Broughton. Both had a “capital messuage”—the chief residence of a lord of the manor, with outbuildings, possibly a courtyard, and a garden—in the thirteenth century,58 but there is no other record of them, and by 1484 they may not have been suitable residences for the former Queen and her daughters. It is more likely, therefore, that Elizabeth and her daughters went to stay at Heytesbury. Many years later Elizabeth would make a point of visiting this small village, which suggests she had some link to it.59

  Maybe it was Nesfield who made certain that Elizabeth Wydeville kept her word and sent messages to Dorset in Brittany, urging him to abandon Henry Tudor and put an end to any idea of a marriage between Henry and her daughter Elizabeth. Her decision struck a blow to the hopes of the pretender, and provoked consternation and censure among his supporters, but it had been both wise and necessary—and she really had no choice in the matter. In January, Parliament had attainted Henry Tudor as a traitor, which meant that if he ever returned to England, he would be arrested and summarily executed. Elizabeth Wydeville must have realized that anyone supporting the mooted marriage between Henry Tudor and her daughter could be deemed guilty of misprision of treason.

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