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


  This was probably no easy disability to bear. In all respects severe scoliosis is a serious condition with far-reaching effects on every aspect of life. There was no treatment in Richard’s day, and he probably suffered pain and muscle fatigue in the back, chest, head, hips, shoulders, neck, and legs as a result of postural problems and limited spinal movement. Severe scoliosis can cause constriction of the chest and restrict breathing capacity. It can also lead to serious emotional and behavioral problems such as low self-esteem, mood swings, depression, difficulty in sleeping, poor sexual relationships and interpersonal skills, and social isolation. Untreated, the condition usually worsens. That Richard III overcame such difficulties to the extent of being able to lead a charge in battle says much for his strength of character. One may speculate as to the ways in which his disability might have impacted on his life and actions, but we can never know that for certain. He appears to have been a man much in command of himself.

  The reconstruction of his face, based on scans of his skull, was of necessity partly conjectural, as no soft tissue survived, and makes him look very young and fresh-faced; in those days a person of thirty-two was nearing middle age. Richard’s portraits show a set-faced, serious-looking man with a jutting chin, thin lips, and long dark hair. He was no great catch physically, but he was the King, which outweighed that, and that was what mattered to Elizabeth.

  Elizabeth was probably present on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1485, when Richard entered Westminster Hall wearing his crown, as was customary, and presided over a great feast. During that feast, word was brought to him from his spies on the coasts that “his enemies would without doubt invade the kingdom early the following summer, or at least would attempt to do so.” This was welcome news “as much as it could be seen to be putting an end to all the doubt and misfortune,” but it was also worrying because his treasury was short of money. He was to resort to demanding forced loans, or “benevolences,” from his subjects, just as his brother had, despite the fact that he himself had condemned the practice in Parliament.17

  It was probably early in 1485 (the date is not recorded) that the King, bearing in mind Henry Tudor’s vow to marry Cecily of York if he could not have Elizabeth, ensured that a husband was found for Cecily, the relatively lowly Ralph Scrope of Upsall,18 another intimation that he had reserved Elizabeth for himself. She may have felt Cecily’s humiliation keenly, for while Ralph Scrope was hardly “a man found in a cloud, of unknown lineage and family,” as Hall asserts, but the second son of Thomas, the fifth Baron Scrope of Masham, he was no great match for a girl who had once been a princess.

  “In the course of a few days” after Christmas, Croyland recorded, “the Queen fell extremely sick, and her illness was supposed to have increased still more and more, because the King entirely shunned her bed, declaring that it was by the advice of his physicians that he did so. Why enlarge?”

  Several writers have concluded from this passage in Croyland that Anne’s doctors believed her illness to be contagious, hence the long-held theory that she was suffering from tuberculosis. But Croyland’s cynical aside suggests either that he did not believe Richard’s excuse for shunning her bed, or that he thought the King was glad to have such an excuse. In view of the rumors that had proliferated in the year between Anne’s death and the writing of his chronicle, he might have been implying something more sinister, a matter of such common currency that he had no need to enlarge.

  We do not know what killed Anne Neville. It could have been cancer, or one of any number of conditions, to which stress over her son’s death and her husband’s neglect may have undermined her resistance. Tuberculosis can spread rapidly through the lungs—what used to be called galloping consumption—but in view of Croyland’s skepticism, Anne may have died of something else entirely. She lingered into the early spring of 1485, attended by many physicians, but they could do nothing to save her, and on March 16, “upon the day of a great eclipse of the sun, [she] departed this life.” Soon afterward she “was buried at Westminster with no less honors than befitted the interment of a queen.”19 No provision was ever made for a tomb, and the site of her grave is lost. She is commemorated only by a small bronze wall plaque erected in 1960 in the abbey.

  Vergil asserts that it was now, when he was “loosed from the bond of matrimony,” that Richard began to “cast an eye upon Elizabeth, his niece, and to desire her in marriage.” As we have seen, Croyland makes it clear that this had been in his mind at least three months earlier. Vergil continues: “Because the young lady herself, and all others, did abhor the wickedness so detestable, he determined therefore to do everything by leisure.” But rumors had spread in the wake of the Christmas court, and public opinion was against such a marriage, while Richard’s enemies had been spreading sedition. For, in the days immediately following Anne’s death, there was “much simple communication among the people by evil-disposed persons, contrived and sown to very great displeasure of the King, showing how that the Queen, as by consent and will of the King, was poisoned, to the intent that he might then marry and have to wife Lady Elizabeth, eldest daughter of his brother.”20

  Richard was quick to deny it. Within six days of Anne’s passing, “the King’s purpose and intention being mentioned to some who were opposed thereto, [he] was obliged, having called a council together, to excuse himself with many words, and to assert that such a thing had never once entered his mind.”21

  Croyland says “there were some persons, however, present at that same council, who very well knew the contrary [as, he implies, he did himself]. Those who were most strongly against the marriage” were Sir Richard Ratcliffe and Sir William Catesby, “two men whose views even the King himself seldom dared oppose,” which shows how much he needed their support. “By these persons the King was told to his face that if he did not abandon his intended purpose, and deny it by public declaration before the mayor and commons of the City of London, opposition would not be offered to him merely by the warnings of the voice; for all the people of the North, in whom he placed the greatest reliance, would rise in rebellion and impute to him the death of the Queen, in order that he might, to the extreme abhorrence of the Almighty, gratify an incestuous passion for his niece.” This was the motive imputed to him by Tudor chroniclers such as Hall, who states that Richard “compassed by all the means and ways that he could invent how carnally to know his own niece under the pretense of a cloaked matrimony.”

  To give weight to their protests, Ratcliffe and Catesby “brought to him more than twelve doctors of divinity who had sat on the case of a marriage of an uncle and niece, and had declared that the kindred was too near for the Pope’s bull to sanction.”22

  These alone were powerful arguments against the match, but “it was supposed by many” that Ratcliffe, Catesby, and others nursed darker, more self-interested concerns, and that they “threw so many impediments in the way for fear lest, if the said Elizabeth should attain the rank of Queen, it might at some time be in her power to avenge upon them the death of her uncle, Earl Anthony [Rivers], and her brother, Richard [Grey], they having been the King’s special advisers in those matters.” Ratcliffe, moreover, had pitilessly supervised the executions of Rivers and Grey. There is no evidence at all that Elizabeth of York had it in her to be vengeful, but she was a Wydeville, so it is credible that Ratcliffe and Catesby believed they had reason to fear that she might seek to avenge her kinsmen’s deaths, or would be persuaded to it by her mother’s family. Some of Richard’s northern councilors had received Wydeville lands and were worried they might lose them if a queen of Wydeville stock married the King. In light of this, Vergil’s assertion that Ratcliffe and Catesby had suggested the marriage in the first place makes little sense. Vergil claimed that the councilors were now decrying the marriage because “the maiden herself opposed the wicked act.”

  Richard III urgently needed to beget an heir to his throne; he could not afford to observe a decent period of mourning for Anne, for taking a new wife was
a priority. On March 22, 1485, having suppressed whatever disappointment he might have felt at being thwarted of his chosen bride, he sent Sir Edward Brampton to Portugal to negotiate two marriages: one for himself with the saintly Infanta Joana, daughter of Alfonso V, King of Portugal, and a woman close to him in age; and the other for “the daughter of King Edward”23 with sixteen-year-old Manuel, Duke of Beja—the future King Manuel I, a nephew of King Alfonso.24 There has been credible speculation that this match was intended for Elizabeth, for it would have made sense now for Richard to have married her off and put her safely beyond Henry Tudor’s reach; had she died before the wedding, he doubtless meant to substitute one of her sisters.

  Since Alfonso V’s death in 1481, Portugal had been ruled by his son, John II, who had a son of his own, so at present there was no prospect of any daughter of Edward IV becoming Queen. England had enjoyed an alliance with Portugal for a century. There was close kinship between the two ruling dynasties: both Joana and Manuel descended from John of Gaunt. For Richard, Joana was arguably the next best dynastic choice after Elizabeth, although the Portuguese councilors feared that he might reject her for another of Gaunt’s descendants, Isabella, Infanta of Castile, daughter of the Spanish sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella. They were therefore keen to conclude the alliance as soon as possible, and aware that “it suits the King of England to marry straight away.” However, nothing came of these negotiations, which continued until August 1485. The Infanta, at heart, wanted to be a nun, and a much later story has her predicting that Richard III would be dead within a year.25 No one could have foreseen that John II’s son would die in 1491, or that Manuel would become king four years later; had Elizabeth married him, she would have been a queen. Even as things stood, this was a prestigious and honorable marriage, far better than she might have expected, and it would have restored her royal status.26

  Historians have long speculated as to where Elizabeth stood in all this. Writing much later under a régime that wished to eradicate all remembrance of Richard III’s plan to marry her, Henry VII’s official historian, Polydore Vergil, claimed that “the young lady herself, and all others, did abhor this wickedness so detestable. To such a marriage the girl had a singular aversion.” Richard Grafton, More’s continuator, also asserted that Elizabeth “abhorred this unlawful desire as a thing most detestable.” In his printed edition of the work of his uncle, Sir George Buck, George Buck, esq., emphasized that “all men, and the maid herself most of all, detested this unlawful copulation.” In his original manuscript Vergil says that Elizabeth was “weighed down for this reason by her great grief” and repeatedly exclaimed, “I will not thus be married, but, unhappy creature that I am, will rather suffer all the torments which St. Katherine is said to have endured for the love of Christ than be united with a man who is the enemy of my family!”27

  Yet in the early seventeenth century, Sir George Buck wrote that he had seen a letter, now lost, which Elizabeth had sent to Richard III’s loyal supporter, John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, at the end of February 1485, the month in which she turned nineteen. The text of the original letter can now only be guessed at, for Buck only summarized it, and although his unfinished, partially holograph manuscript survives, with revisions by himself and his nephew, George Buck, esq., it was badly damaged in 1731 in a fire that ravaged the Cotton Library, and parts of the text are missing or illegible. What remains is as follows:

  … st she thanked him for his many Curtesies and friendly … as before … in the cause of … and then she prayed him to be a mediator for her to the K … ge who (as she wrote) was her onely joy and maker in … Worlde, and that she was his … harte, in thoughts, in … and in all, and then she intimated that the better halfe of Ffe … was paste, and that she feared the Queene would neu …28

  There are copies of Buck’s history in other, later hands, mostly with revisions by George Buck, esq.29 The younger Buck—who had not hesitated to revise and publish another of his uncle’s works as his own—extensively and (in parts) inaccurately rewrote The History of King Richard III in a condensed form for publication in 1646, and there are later printed editions based on that.30

  Only in 1979 did A. N. Kincaid edit what remains of Buck’s original text, himself supplying some of the missing text—shown in square brackets below—from B. L. Egerton MS. 2216, the closest manuscript copy to the original. The letter appears there in a passage written by Buck’s scribe, in what Kincaid believes to be a fair copy of Buck’s original words, and parts of it are probably in Buck’s own hand; these are shown in italics below.31 This edited version reads:

  When the midst and more days of February were gone, the Lady Elizabeth, being very desirous to be married and, growing not only impatient of delays, but also suspicious of the [success], wrote a letter to Sir John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, intimating first therein that [he was the] one in whom she most [affied] [i.e., trusted], because she knew the King her father much lov[ed] him, and that he was a very faithful servant unto him and to [the King his brother, then reign]ing, and very loving and serviceable [in the sense of rendering service] to King Edward’s children. First, she thanked him for his many courtesies and friendly [offices, an]d then she prayed him, as before, to be a mediator for her in the cause of [the marria]ge to the K[i]ng, who, as she wrote, was her only joy and maker in [this] world, and that she was his in heart and in thoughts, in [body] and in all. And then she intimated that the better half of Fe[bruary] was passed, and that she feared the Queen would nev[er die].32

  The younger Buck naturally could not claim to have seen the letter, and his bowdlerized version of it is as follows:

  When the midst and last of February was past, the Lady Elizabeth, being more impatient and jealous of the success [of the King’s plan to marry her] than anyone knew or conceived, writes a letter to the Duke of Norfolk, intimating first that he was the man in whom she affied [trusted], in respect of that love her father had ever bore him, etc. Then she congratulates his many courtesies and friendly offices, in continuance of which she desires him, as before, to be a mediator for her to the King in the behalf of the marriage propounded between them; who, as she wrote, was her only joy and maker in the world; and that she was his in heart and thought, [the words “in body and in all” are left out] withal insinuating that the better part of February was past, and that she feared the Queen would never die.

  As can be seen, this version differs significantly from Buck’s original text.

  Sir George Buck—who was praised by his contemporary, the antiquarian scholar William Camden, for his learning—believed that the letter was genuine. “And all these be her own words, written with her own hand,” he wrote, “and this is the sum of the letter, whereof I have seen the autograph, or original d[raft], under her [own] hand, and by the special and honorable favor of the mos[t noble] and first count of the realm, and the chief of his family, Sir Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel and of Surrey, and the immediate and lineal [heir] of this Sir John Howard. And he keepeth that princely letter in his rich and magnificent cabinet, among precious jewels and rare monuments.” The text Buck cites bears similarities to other letters written by noble ladies in Elizabeth’s day, notably one by her sister-in-law, Cecily Bonville, Marchioness of Dorset, whose words, “I have none help in the world but him only,” are strikingly similar to those in the Buck letter.

  Buck was not unbiased: his great-grandfather, Sir John Buck, had been one of Richard III’s household officers and would fight for him at Bosworth, suffering decapitation two days later; his children would be raised by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, whose own father, John Howard, had been killed in the battle fighting for Richard.33 Buck’s ancestors had close ties with the Howard family and enjoyed their patronage since the fifteenth century, and his history was dedicated to his patron and distant kinsman, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, who would have been presented with a copy34 and could have disputed any inaccuracy.

  Thus it is likely that Buck was writing the truth about the letter. A
s Kincaid has demonstrated, there are relatively few inaccuracies in his long history, and he was at pains to get his facts right. He made some errors of fact, and of judgment, such as accepting Titulus Regius at face value, and his memory was sometimes at fault, but he brought integrity to his work, so it is inconceivable that he would have forged or invented the letter.

  Arundel was a discerning collector of art, historical artifacts, and a great library; he was also the patron of Sir Anthony van Dyck and Inigo Jones, and at the center of a circle of scholars and literary figures such as Sir Francis Bacon and William Harvey. His magnificent cabinet containing the letter would have stood in one of the galleries at his London residence, Arundel House, where his collections were kept. That he kept the letter in such a prominent place shows that he considered it one of his prized possessions and believed it to be authentic; and Buck’s emphasis on having been shown such a treasure may, as Kincaid suggests, be a compliment to the kindness of his patron. Arundel was prominent at court during the reign of James I, whose title to the throne descended from that of Elizabeth of York, which makes it unlikely that Buck invented any calumny about her; indeed, as Master of the Revels, he showed caution in licensing plays that portrayed women or the ancestors of the nobility in a disrespectful light.35

 
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