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

  On Arundel’s death in 1646, his library was divided and given to the Royal Society and the College of Heralds. The Royal Society sold his manuscripts to the British Museum in 1831. A lot of Arundel’s papers are in the archives of the Duke of Norfolk at Arundel Castle; there are more in other collections. Others, inherited by his widow, were auctioned in 1720.36 Elizabeth’s letter is one of only eight sources out of the many Buck cites that are no longer extant. Given the widespread dispersal of Arundel’s collection, it is not surprising that the letter is missing, and it may still survive somewhere among these scattered papers.37

  Historians have long questioned the authenticity of the letter, pointing out that Buck is the only source to mention it, and that he reports rather than cites the text. It has been suggested that the letter is a forgery by his nephew, but the manuscript versions give the lie to that. Nineteenth-century historians such as Nicholas Harris Nicolas,38 Caroline Halsted, and Agnes Strickland could not believe that their heroine had written such a letter, and scathingly dismissed it as a fiction or hearsay. James Gairdner thought it “revolting” and “monstrous”—a “horrible perversion and degradation of domestic life”—and rejected any suggestion that Elizabeth was capable of “sentiments so dishonorable and repulsive.”39 Strickland called the letter “infamous,” insisting that Elizabeth “detested the idea of the abhorrent union.” Her “sweet and saintly nature” would never have allowed her to cherish the murderous ambition of her father and uncles, or to wish her kind aunt dead. Why, Strickland asked, did Buck not quote the princess’s words directly? Why had no one else seen the letter? Buck was obviously “too violent a partisan and too unfaithful a historian to be believed on his mere word.” None of these writers ever consulted Buck’s original manuscript.

  Recently the historian Rosemary Horrox has concluded that “one can hardly doubt that Buck saw the letter and that his version is broadly correct.”40 One can therefore hardly doubt that it did exist. Many historians have inferred from this letter that Elizabeth believed and hoped that her uncle would marry her and make her Queen. Kincaid, however, concluded that, while the letter was genuine, it proved only that Elizabeth wanted to be married—but not necessarily to the King.41 She asks Norfolk to be a suitor “in the cause of the marriage to the King,” which can be read two ways, especially if a comma is inserted after “marriage.”

  Recently it has been suggested that the letter relates not to marriage with Richard III but to that with Manuel of Portugal.42 In either case, it is credible that Elizabeth approached Norfolk, who had been one of her father’s foremost advisers, and was also trusted by Richard; indeed, the letter reveals that he had already acted as a mediator between Elizabeth and the King in regard to the marriage in question, which shows that it had been under discussion for a while. This ties in with Croyland’s report of the Christmas court. The letter was written in February, and there is no evidence that there were any discussions about the Portuguese alliances until March 22, when Richard proposed himself for a Portuguese bride. It follows that he would not have put forward the Portuguese match for himself while there was hope that he might marry his niece—unless, of course, it had been under discussion as an alternative option; the short timescale after Anne’s death might suggest that. But if he had considered it, there was no reason why he should have delayed negotiations for Elizabeth’s marriage to Manuel until after Anne’s death.

  The statements of Croyland, the mooted annulment, the rumors, the concerns of Richard’s advisers about his marrying Elizabeth, and his public denial, taken together, are sufficient to demonstrate that there was something to deny, and that until the week after Anne Neville’s death his intention was to marry Elizabeth. Given its context, the balance of probabilities strongly suggests that her letter relates to that. Indeed, Buck cites it in a discussion of this proposed marriage, so obviously he believed that the letter referred to it.

  That being so, Elizabeth was actively pushing for the marriage and apparently ready to promise her all to the man who—she so recently believed—had her brothers murdered; indeed, she could not wait for his wife to die. This is not the Elizabeth of York we know in other historical contexts, whose gentle, giving, and kind character shines forth. Many have thought it incredible that she could have written such a letter. But it is not irreconcilable with what else we know of her—and it may have been written for her.

  With no guarantee that Henry Tudor would ever successfully claim her, Elizabeth must have known that she would be far better off, and more safe and secure, as Richard’s queen than in the limbo she then inhabited. She may have been living in dread of an unworthy marriage being arranged for her, and in fear for her own and her family’s future. Probably she was ready to give her hand to any man who could put a crown on her head. Pragmatism, necessity, and ambition had overcome her mother’s scruples, and maybe her own, but in her case there was probably a more altruistic reason for pursuing the marriage with the King.

  According to Bernard André, Elizabeth had always shown “a truly wonderful obedience” to her mother. Even if she personally shrank from doing Elizabeth Wydeville’s bidding in this case, she bore “toward her brothers and sisters an unbounded love,” which André says “was unheard of, and almost incredible.” This is borne out by her kindness and generosity to her sisters later in life. Very probably she consented to the marriage for love of her mother and sisters, sacrificing herself to ensure their futures and prevent their situation from becoming any worse. Her becoming Queen would restore their lost prestige; and she would be in a position to use her influence on their behalf, particularly in regard to finding husbands for her sisters. The advantages of such a marriage were sufficiently powerful considerations to outweigh any revulsion or fears she might have felt, and Elizabeth probably saw it as the only way of ensuring her own and her family’s future security. This would explain why she was so eager to have it concluded and so rescue them all from their invidious situation. Her pursuance of the marriage is in keeping with the Elizabeth who is so proactive in “The Song of Lady Bessy” (see Chapter 6), an Elizabeth who will fade gracefully and wordlessly into the shadows once she achieves her ambition, and of whom there are only tantalizing glimpses in later years.

  It may seem odd that Norfolk would be interceding with the King on Elizabeth’s behalf for a marriage they both knew he wanted. Yet she seems to have been very much in the dark as to what was going on. Buck thought her naïve in thinking that Richard could not marry her while his wife still lived.43 Evidently she did not know that the subject of an annulment had been raised. Buck observed that “by this letter, it may be observed that this young lady was inexpert in worldly affairs.” But her mother was not, and the letter may well have been a diplomatic ploy to bring Richard to the point and discover his true intentions, which he was reluctant to declare while his wife lived. Indeed, the words could have been dictated by Elizabeth Wydeville,44 in which case Elizabeth had probably returned to Heytesbury after Christmas, which would explain why she was writing to Norfolk rather than approaching him personally. Indeed, it is unlikely she would have sent such a letter without her mother’s knowledge and approval.45

  In it she described Richard as “her only joy and maker in this world” and wrote that “she was his in heart, in thoughts, in [body] and in all.” The word “maker” meant one who makes or shapes, who advances or contrives, or even frames a legal document or law, possibly a treaty. That would make sense in the context of arranging a marriage, while the rest was intended as a fulsome declaration of loyalty, rather than something more personal. It was probably a means to an end, calculated to convince the King that Elizabeth was eager to marry him and that he held her happiness in his gift.

  Several historians have remarked upon her statement that “she was his in heart and thoughts, in body [author’s italics] and in all.” The word “body” is speculative, as text is missing here, although it does appear in Egerton 2216. This might seem to imply a more intimate involvement, bu
t the passage is probably a declaration that Elizabeth would serve the King with every aspect of her being—the conventional phraseology of late medieval fealty as well as courtship. Yet her words have also been taken to mean46 that she had already given herself to Richard. If so, would she have spoken so frankly of it to Norfolk? Sleeping with her uncle without any contract or the dispensation of the Church could seriously have endangered her reputation and her future, not to mention her immortal soul. But speculation on the matter is not just a modern construction; there were rumors at the time, on the Continent, if not in England: the Burgundian chronicler, Jean Molinet, never very reliable, even claimed that Elizabeth bore Richard a child, an assertion that is unsubstantiated by any other source.

  There is overwhelming evidence that Elizabeth was virtuous and deeply religious, but even if pragmatism had outweighed moral considerations, an illicit pregnancy could have ruined her. So it is highly unlikely that she took a desperate gamble, hoping that giving herself to a man who was shunning his wife’s bed was the best way to a crown. Vergil, no apologist for Richard III, says the King “had kept her unharmed with a view to marriage.” This chimes with the opinion of his advisers that people would think he was marrying her to gratify an “incestuous passion,”47 which more or less confirms that he had not already done so.

  Elizabeth’s letter betrays desperation and a sense of time passing fruitlessly: she is clearly anxious that the matter should be concluded, and apparently ready to display a callous disregard for the dying Queen Anne. In her defense, her sense of urgency may have stemmed from fear that Richard would be dissuaded from marrying her by his advisers—as later happened—and that he might then find her a less acceptable husband, which would put paid to her prospects of ever wearing a crown.

  There is no evidence as to her true feelings for Richard III. It appears that at this time she had in her possession two books: a manuscript containing a verse translation in French of Boethius’s Consolatio Philosophiae [Consolations of Philosophy]48 and “The Book of Tristram,” or “The Romance of Tristram de Lyonesse,” dating from the latter part of the fifteenth century.49 Both had belonged to Richard when he was Duke of Gloucester. The Boethius bears his motto, “Loyalte me lye” [Loyalty binds me], possibly written by Elizabeth, and her signature; the Tristram contains the inscription (not necessarily in his hand) “Iste liber constat Ricardo Duci Gloucestre.” On the same page Elizabeth wrote the motto she had chosen for herself, “sans removyr [without changing], Elyzabeth.” Her signature appears by itself in both books, not in the form she had used as a princess—“Elizabeth, the King’s daughter” or “Elizabeth Plantagenet”—or would use as queen: “Elizabeth ye Queen.” The lack of a title suggests that she owned the books during this period when she had no royal status, while the motto is apposite, given her situation, and may reveal a strength of character that enabled her to cope in adversity with fortitude.

  The tale of Tristram of Lyonesse may have had some significance for Elizabeth. Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the Arthurian legends has Tristram falling in love with Isode, whose uncle he has killed,50 just as Richard had Elizabeth’s uncle, Earl Rivers, executed.

  Possibly these books were gifts from Richard to Elizabeth, and it has been suggested that they are tangible evidence of a degree of closeness between them.51 It is more likely that they were merely gifts given—or sent—formally by the King to the woman he hoped to marry, conventional and costly expressions of his esteem. Elizabeth had been at court only over Christmas. There was no possibility of courtship while Queen Anne lived, and little opportunity for any relationship to develop.

  Elizabeth probably never saw Richard again. She may have been at Heytesbury while the momentous events of the spring were taking place. Holinshed, writing much later, states that the King would not permit her to attend the Queen’s obsequies, and sent her away from court, presumably to escape the rumors, to stay at Lathom House in Lancashire, Lord Stanley’s seat. But it is more likely that Elizabeth was at Heytesbury, itself a good distance from London. It is unlikely that the King would have risked her going to a house where she might come into contact with Margaret Beaufort.

  Whether Margaret Beaufort was at Lathom or not, she was still doing her best to bring about Elizabeth’s marriage to her son. That spring, when Henry Tudor, busily preparing ships for his invasion, heard a rumor that “King Richard, his wife being dead, was minded to marry Elizabeth, his brother Edward’s daughter,” and that he had married Cecily, Edward’s other daughter, to the younger son of a peer, it “pinched him to the very stomach,” and left Henry in fear that his friends would forsake him.52 He was so insulted that he decided to seek another bride in the person of Katherine Herbert, daughter of his former guardian. While Katherine could not bring him a crown, marriage to her might rally Welsh support to his cause. But the letter he sent to Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (who was married to Katherine’s sister), containing his proposal never reached its destination,53 and his mother wrote urging him to set aside his pride, insisting that his marriage to Elizabeth was crucial to his success in winning the crown. By then, Henry probably heard that Richard had publicly denied ever intending to wed his niece.54

  In view of the rumors, Richard had no choice but to take his councilors’ advice. “A little before Easter (which fell on April 3), in the presence of the mayor and citizens of London, in the great hall of the priory of the Knights Hospitalers of St. John in Clerkenwell, in a loud and distinct voice,” he publicly denied that he had ever intended to wed his niece. Croyland observed that he made “the said denial, more, as many supposed, to suit the wishes of those who advised him to that effect, than in conformity with his own.”

  But the King needed to placate his critics. He “showed his grief and displeasure, and said it never came in his thought or mind to marry in such manner wise, nor [was he] willing nor glad of the death of his queen, but as sorry, and in heart as heavy, as man might be”; and he “admonished and charged every person to cease of such untrue talking on peril of his indignation.”55 On April 11 letters containing the text of his public denial were sent to major towns and cities, which shows how widely the gossip had spread. In them the King fulminated against “divers seditious and evil persons in London and elsewhere within our realm [who] enforce themselves daily to sow seeds of noise and dislander against our person, to abuse the multitude of our subjects and avert their minds from us, some by setting up bills, some by spreading false rumors, some by messages and sending forth of lies, some by bold and presumptuous open speech and communication”; and he ordered that such persons be arrested and questioned.56

  Richard’s humiliating denials did little to quench the gossip; in fact, they fueled it. Decades later Richard Grafton, in his continuation of More’s history, would still state that Richard had “fancied apace Lady Elizabeth, desiring in any wise to marry with her.” But that was not all that rumor alleged. “After Easter,” The Great Chronicle of London records, “much whispering was among the people that the King had poisoned the queen his wife, and intended with a license purchased to have married the eldest daughter of King Edward. Which rumors and sayings with other things before done caused him to fall in great hatred of his subjects.”

  The damning rumors about Anne’s death passed into common currency. Commines heard them in France and reported: “some say he had her killed.” The chronicler John Rous, a Neville adherent who had been full of praise for Richard but turned vitriolic, possibly after Anne’s death, was to state categorically: “Lady Anne, his queen, he poisoned.” Later, Vergil wrote cautiously that “the Queen, whether she was dispatched with sorrowfulness or poison, died within a few days after.”

  Later writers asserted that Richard had harried Anne to her death by psychological means. Vergil wrote that he abstained from her bed, then lamented bitterly to Archbishop Rotherham that she was unfruitful, whereupon Rotherham spread the word that the Queen “would suddenly depart from this world.” The King was saying the same, and
even spread a rumor that she had died, intending to frighten her to death. When one of her ladies told her of it, Anne was so fearful that she concluded that her days were at an end, and fled to Richard in tears, asking why “he should determine her death,” but he made a show of kissing and comforting her, and bade her “be of good cheer.” In the late seventeenth century Thomas Fuller would write that “this lady, understanding that she was a burden to her husband, for grief soon became a burden to herself and wasted away,” her condition worsened by daily quarrels with Richard and his complaints that she was barren. “Some think she went her own pace to the grave, while others suspect a grain was given her to quicken her in her journey to her long home.”

  Of course, these later stories were written at a time when people believed that he had been a tyrant and a monster, but rumors that Richard had done away with Anne were in circulation very soon after her death, at the same time as it was said that he was planning to marry Elizabeth. Since rumors that he murdered the princes had now been in circulation for eighteen months, would not die down, and were damaging his reputation, it must have seemed believable that he had murdered an unwanted wife too. He had, after all, destroyed others—Hastings, Rivers, and Grey—who stood in the way of his ambitions. And it is possible, given the urgent need to neutralize Henry Tudor, that there was more than just rumor involved, and that the man who murdered his own nephews had not scrupled to hasten the end of the wife who stood in the way of his plans. That many people—sufficient to merit a public denial—believed this at the time is clear; and it might be that those who had kept silent felt free to voice their suspicions once Richard was dead, about this and other matters.

  The rumors, true or not, had done much damage. In southern England and Wales, Richard had lost any popular support he ever had. This was the man who had ruthlessly maneuvered his way to the throne, impugning the legitimacy of his brother’s children, and his mother’s honor in the process, and committed acts of tyranny, justified by what many regarded to be lies; who was widely reputed to have murdered his nephews and even his wife, and was known to have been contemplating a marriage with his niece, which most people condemned as incestuous. Only in the North did he retain some of his former popularity and support, but some of it had been due to his marriage to the Neville heiress, and now even that was dwindling. Small wonder that, after the Queen’s death, Richard’s “countenance was always drawn.”57 Someone who had known him later told More that he “was never quiet in his mind, never thought himself secure, his hand ever on his dagger,” and that “he took ill rest at night.”

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