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

  We next hear of Nesfield in the summer of 1484, when he was captured while in naval combat with French and Scottish ships off Scarborough, and had to be ransomed by Richard III.60 David Baldwin suggests that, because of his absence, Elizabeth Wydeville was placed in the custody of someone else and moved elsewhere, but it is also possible that Nesfield left someone trustworthy to keep an eye on her in his absence.61

  Elizabeth’s cousin, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, had recently been appointed King’s Lieutenant in the North. The son of Richard’s sister Elizabeth and John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, Lincoln’s loyalty had never been in doubt, and he now presided over the Council of the North, set up by Edward IV in 1472 to govern the region in the King’s name. In July 1484, Richard drew up ordinances for a new royal household—the King’s Household of the North—which was to be based at Sandal Castle, Yorkshire, Lincoln’s official headquarters. In September, Lincoln was also entrusted with responsibility for another royal household, at Sheriff Hutton Castle, fifty miles away, where the King was establishing a nursery for children of the House of York, notably Clarence’s son, Edward, Earl of Warwick, now aged nine, and his own bastard son, John of Gloucester, who was probably about the same age as Warwick. Richard had high hopes for this boy, whose “quickness of mind, agility of body, and inclination to all good customs” he warmly praised.62 Henry Lovell, Lord Morley, aged eighteen, Lincoln’s brother-in-law, also lived in the household. Some historians63 have conjectured that Elizabeth’s brothers were among the children at Sheriff Hutton, having been secretly conveyed there from the Tower, but apart from a reference to “the Lord Bastard” in the household ordinances,64 which probably refers to John of Gloucester, there is no evidence for this.

  The ordinances laid down for the regulation of the establishment at Sheriff Hutton provided for “my lord of Lincoln and my Lord Morley to be at one breakfast, [and] the children together at one breakfast. My lord and the children” received the most generous allowances of food and drink. No other boys were to be allowed in the household apart from those sanctioned by Lincoln and the Council of the North,65 from which we might infer that at least one daughter of the House of York was living there, probably Warwick’s sister Margaret, aged eleven.66 It is unlikely that Richard III’s bastard daughter, Katherine Plantagenet, was present,67 as she was now married to William Herbert, Earl of Huntingdon.

  It has been suggested by some historians68 that Elizabeth and her sisters were sent to reside at Sheriff Hutton in 1484; certainly Elizabeth was staying there in the summer of 1485. But because she and her sisters were sent by their mother to court at Christmas 1484, and there is no record of Elizabeth Wydeville living at Sheriff Hutton, it is more likely that they were living with her, probably at Heytesbury. Moreover, there is no record of her younger daughters ever being at Sheriff Hutton, and Elizabeth, now eighteen, was too old to be one of the children described in the ordinances.69

  In 1484, according to Commines, the King offered Elizabeth Bishop Stillington’s bastard son, William, in marriage, which would have seemed a mighty insult, especially if she had come to regard Stillington as the archenemy of her family and the architect of its ruin. But the young man was shipwrecked off the coast of France, taken prisoner in Paris and “by mistake” starved to death.70 No English source mentions this proposed marriage, and it would have contravened the terms of the King’s undertaking to Elizabeth Wydeville, so the tale was probably an invention or garbled gossip.

  Anne of York’s betrothal to Philip of Burgundy had been broken off after her father’s death. In 1484, Richard arranged for her to be affianced to Lord Thomas Howard, the eldest grandson of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk,71 a good match in the circumstances. But Cecily had to endure the humiliation of her cousin, Anne de la Pole, being betrothed by King Richard to Prince James of Scots, her own former fiancé. Hall, the Tudor chronicler, observed: “Here may well be noted the disordered affection which this kind [king] showed to his blood; for he, not remembering the tyranny that he had executed against his brother’s sons, the wrong and manifest injury he had done to his brother’s daughters, both in taking from them their dignity, possessions, and living, thought it would greatly redound to his honor and fame if he promoted his sister’s child to the dignity of a queen, rather than to prefer his brother’s daughter, whom he had disinherited.”

  Soon after Elizabeth left sanctuary, observed Croyland, “it was fully seen how vain are the thoughts of a man who desires to establish his interests without the aid of God.” On April 9, 1484, Richard’s only son, Edward of Middleham, the hope of his line, died at Middleham Castle “after an illness of but short duration.”72 When the news came, “you might have seen his father and mother in a state almost bordering on madness by reason of their sudden grief.”73 In the wake of the young Edward’s death, “after Easter” (which fell on April 18), rumors of the murder of the princes resurfaced (if they had ever gone away), and “much whispering was among the people that the King had the childer [sic] of King Edward put to death,” with much speculation as to how,74 prompting More to write, years later, that “Englishmen declared that the imprecations of [the princes’] agonized mother” and her appeal for divine vengeance “had been heard.”

  The death of Edward of Middleham strengthened Elizabeth’s own position as the rightful Yorkist heir.75 “Still yet the King, [Richard] looked to the defense of his territory, for there was then a report that the exiles and those who had been proscribed would soon reach England with their leader, Henry Tudor, to whom all these exiles had sworn allegiance as if to their King, in the hope that a marriage could be arranged with King Edward’s daughter. King Richard was better prepared to resist that year than he would be at any time subsequently.”76 How Elizabeth must have held her breath. But Henry Tudor did not come that year.


  “Her Only Joy and Maker”

  By Christmas 1484 it was being “said by many that the King was applying his mind in every way to contracting a marriage with Elizabeth” himself.1 “The Lady Elizabeth (who had been some months out of sanctuary) was, with her four younger sisters, sent by her mother to attend the Queen at court, at the Christmas festivals kept with great state in Westminster Hall. They were received with all honorable courtesy by Queen Anne, especially the Lady Elizabeth [who] was ranked most familiarly in the Queen’s favor, who treated her like a sister.” But Anne Neville, for all her welcome, was sad and preoccupied: “neither society that she loved, nor all the pomp and festivity of royalty, could cure the languor or heal the wound in the Queen’s breast for the loss of her son.”2

  Anne was still only twenty-eight, “in presence seemly, amiable, and beauteous, and in conditions full commendable and right virtuous, and full gracious.”3 Much of Richard’s oft-vaunted popularity in the North, where the Nevilles had long had their power base, was due to his marriage to her, but there are few clues as to whether the couple were happy together. In September 1483, Thomas Langton, Bishop of St. David’s, had said of Richard that “his sensuality appears to be increasing.” But Anne was no longer able to satisfy those needs. By Christmas 1484 she was ailing and her death was anticipated.4

  Croyland states that “the feast of the Nativity was kept with due solemnity at the Palace of Westminster.” He goes on mysteriously: “There may be many other things that are not written in this book and of which it is shameful to speak, but let it not go unsaid that during this Christmas festival, an excessive interest was displayed in singing and dancing and to vain changes of apparel presented to Queen Anne and the Lady Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of the late King, being of similar color and shape: a thing that caused the people to murmur and the nobles and prelates greatly to wonder at, while it was said by many that the King was bent either on the anticipated death of the Queen taking place, or else by means of a divorce, for which he supposed he had quite sufficient grounds, on contracting a marriage with the said Elizabeth. For it appeared that in no other way could his kingly power be established, or
the hopes of his rival being put an end to.”5

  Given that Croyland, writing after Anne Neville had died, is referring to the anticipated death of the Queen or a divorce, he must have based his account on his inside knowledge of discussions at the time.6 He states that people were saying that Richard wanted to marry Elizabeth, but reveals that the King (not the gossipers) supposed he had sufficient grounds for an annulment, so evidently Croyland knew that an annulment had been discussed and was privy to the King’s intentions.

  No wonder he and others murmured and wondered, and that word of Elizabeth’s apparel spread beyond the palace to the common people. The fifteenth century was an age of strict sumptuary laws reserving the right to wear luxurious materials to the upper ranks of society; an act prohibiting all but the King’s family from wearing purple silk and cloth of gold had been passed only two years earlier. The Queen’s clothes were expected, by law and tradition, to be more sumptuous than those of women of lower rank, so the sight of Anne Neville’s bastardized niece “arrayed like a second queen” in robes to which she had no right would inevitably have prompted comment, even in a court where “sensual pleasure holds sway to an increasing extent.”7 It is hardly credible that Anne, welcoming as she was to Elizabeth, would have suggested out of kindness that she wear the same clothes as herself. Born into the higher nobility, she would have known that comment would ensue, and while Elizabeth was at court her reputation was under her aunt’s protection, the Queen being effectively the moral guardian of the unmarried girls in her retinue. It could only have been King Richard, eager to discountenance Henry Tudor, who ordered that Elizabeth appear dressed as a queen; and in that he showed scant regard for her reputation or for his ailing wife.

  But this was not the only cause for gossip and speculation. Croyland’s account makes it clear that in the wake of that Christmas court, “the King’s determination to marry his niece reached the ears of his people, who wanted no such thing.” Naturally many found the notion shocking.

  The plan was “ill-judged, inept, unrealistic,”8 and “foolish.”9 Richard surely knew it would be controversial, but he had compelling reasons for pressing ahead with it. Many still recognized Elizabeth as the legitimate, rightful heiress of the House of York. Marriage to her could render Richard’s title unassailable. A union with the popular princess whose brothers he was said to have murdered might also help to restore his damaged reputation and win over the loyalty of disaffected Yorkists. Richard desperately needed a son to succeed him, and Elizabeth, who came from fecund stock, was likely to provide one. Above all, their marriage would take her forever beyond the reach of Henry Tudor, and put paid to the latter’s designs on the crown.

  It may be that Richard was personally attracted to Elizabeth, for she was young and comely, and there is evidence from which we might infer that there was more to this than politics. Aside from Croyland’s consistently cynical view of his motives, the King’s most trusted advisers, Sir Richard Ratcliffe and Sir William Catesby, were to warn him that people would believe he was pursuing this marriage to “gratify an incestuous passion for his niece.”10 Maybe this was purely what people might, or did, infer, but evidently many had a clearer view of what was morally permissible or practically workable than Richard. If he had wanted merely to put Elizabeth beyond Henry Tudor’s reach, any bridegroom would have sufficed—it did not have to be himself.

  Sir George Buck, Richard III’s seventeenth-century apologist, believed that the King’s “counterfeit wooing” was just a political ploy to discountenance Henry Tudor and deflect him from his plans, and that he had no intention of marrying Elizabeth. “It may not be denied but that he made love to this lady and pretended [to marr]y her, and obtained both the good will of the lady [and] the Queen her mother. But this love was made in policy, and cunningly, to draw her to him [and divert her] from the Earl of Richmond.” This is at variance with what Croyland, Ratcliffe, and Catesby believed. If Richard had no real intention of marrying Elizabeth, but merely wanted to discountenance Henry Tudor, he did so with little thought of how it would rebound on Elizabeth or his wife, and he failed to take his advisers into his confidence, even in the face of adverse rumors.

  Whatever Richard’s initial motivation, he moved quickly—he had to, as Tudor’s prospects were looking decidedly brighter. That autumn, having been warned that the Breton chancellor was plotting with Richard III to seize him, Henry had fled to France. His timing was perfect, as the new French king, Charles VIII, Elizabeth’s former betrothed, was determined to annex Brittany by marrying its duchess, and feared that Richard III would support its independence. Thus he was more than willing to offer Henry his support, which made Henry an even greater threat to Richard. Marrying Elizabeth was, for Richard, an effective way of neutralizing that threat; thus it was a matter that needed to be advanced with some urgency. As Shakespeare has Richard saying, “I must be married to my brother’s daughter, or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.”

  Obviously the plan was fraught with difficulties. Elizabeth’s bastardization was the grounds of Richard’s title to the throne. Either he was being ruthlessly pragmatic or at heart he knew that Elizabeth was Edward IV’s lawful issue and the true heiress of the House of York. If she could supply all that was wanting in Henry Tudor’s title, she could also supply all that was lacking in Richard’s, although that would have raised awkward issues, for his marriage to her would be seen by many as a tacit admission that the princes were not only legitimate but also dead. Declaring her and her sisters legitimate would have been tantamount to proclaiming that Edward V was the rightful king but that he and Richard of York were no more, which would have raised yet more contentious questions and given rise to further damaging rumors; it would also have made Richard, in the eyes of many, King only in Elizabeth’s right. Yet it is hard to see how he could have married her without legitimizing her, for kings did not marry bastards, and a queen’s lineage was expected to be impeccable, which was why Elizabeth’s own mother had been so disparaged by the nobility. When it came down to it, the only political advantage to the union that Richard could actually acknowledge was thwarting Henry Tudor, and the path to that was littered with insurmountable obstacles.

  The prime obstacle to the marriage was that Richard already had a wife, and although he and Anne were cousins, a dispensation for their marriage had been granted by the Pope himself on April 22, 1472.11 However, the marriage settlement had included a divorce clause allowing Richard to keep Anne’s lands if either of them remarried.

  Then there was the grave matter of the close blood relationship between Richard and Elizabeth. Marriage between an uncle and niece was frowned upon by the Church and forbidden by canon law, as it was within the third degree of consanguinity; the ban extended to marriages up to the seventh degree of consanguinity. Dispensations for unions within these prohibited degrees could, for “great and pressing” reasons,12 be granted by the Pope. In 1528, wishing to marry the sister of his former mistress, Henry VIII obtained a dispensation that (had he been so inclined) would have allowed him to marry his mother or daughter; in 1496, Ferdinand II, King of Naples, was granted a dispensation to marry his aunt, Juana of Aragon;13 and in 1582, Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria, was permitted to wed his niece, Anne Gonzaga. Otherwise, examples of uncle-niece marriages are rare before the Reformation, after which Parliament banned them in England,14 and there was no precedent in the English royal houses. In 1560 avunculate marriages were forbidden by the Church of England because they were contrary to Levitical law. It is easy to see why such unions were regarded as incestuous in Elizabeth’s day, and why Richard, who had been at pains to show himself an upright, moral ruler, was to be accused of immorality by his contemporaries and later writers. That he risked such a backlash shows how desperate he must have been to put paid to Henry Tudor’s pretensions.

  It seems likely that Elizabeth Wydeville knew of Richard’s intentions before Christmas, for she sent her younger daughters to court to “color” their elder s
ister’s appearance there.15 Stuart and Georgian historians asserted that this proposed marriage was Elizabeth Wydeville’s idea, but that is unlikely; she had no influence now, she was not at court, and there is no evidence to support the assertion. Not many months before, Elizabeth and her mother were told that Richard III had murdered her brothers, and evidently they had believed that. How then could either of them have come to regard a marriage alliance with Richard as desirable? It has been asserted by his apologists that Elizabeth Wydeville would never have consented to her daughter marrying the man she believed had killed her sons, although, again, whether he had murdered the princes or not, he executed Sir Richard Grey without trial. Those who believe Richard innocent of the princes’ deaths often overlook the fact that Elizabeth Wydeville schemed to marry Elizabeth to Henry Tudor, the man whom many revisionists believe was the real murderer.

  Probably the former Queen saw marriage with Richard as a means of restoring her daughter’s status, rescuing her from the prospect of an undistinguished union with a man of lesser birth, and setting her up in an advantageous position from which she could exercise influence and patronage, which could only benefit her mother and sisters.

  Richard was then thirty-two, fourteen years Elizabeth’s senior; it was not an unusual age gap in an age of arranged marriages. “He was of bodily shape comely enough, only of low stature.”16 A Silesian knight, Nicholas von Poppelau, who visited his court in 1484, described him as lean, with “delicate arms and legs,” while John Rous speaks of “his little body and feeble strength.” His skeleton, discovered under a car park in Leicester in 2012, was found to have severe scoliosis, or curvature of the spine; this would have accounted for him having one shoulder higher than the other, which was what gave rise to the nickname “Crouchback,” first recorded in 1491. Coincidentally, the Greek word skoliosis means crooked. Although five feet eight inches tall, Richard would have appeared shorter because of the curvature. Only this one source mentions him as having any deformity, so clever dressing in padded doublets must have disguised it.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]