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

  One thing Richard III could have done to put paid to Henry Tudor’s aspirations was marry off Elizabeth—and her sisters. His failure to do so seems inexplicable, as many Yorkists had attached themselves to Henry in the expectation that he would wed Elizabeth and restore the rightful royal line to the throne. Maybe Richard was hoping that the Portuguese marriage would be speedily concluded. But these things took time—and, for him, time was now running out.


  “Purposing a Conquest”

  Publicly rejected and humiliated by the King after being made a spectacle of at the Christmas court, deprived of the chance to wear the crown that would have brought honor and prosperity to her family, and possibly horrified by rumors that Richard had hastened his queen’s death, Elizabeth had every reason to feel distressed and angry. Now plans were afoot to marry her into Portugal, which would put paid to her aspirations, and leave her family without a friend in high places. Small wonder that she now looked to Henry Tudor to deliver her and fulfill her hopes. After all, he had sworn to marry her and rule England with her. Marriage to him probably seemed the best way to satisfy her ambitions, restore her rights, and safeguard her kinsfolk—and it would wreak a devastating revenge on Richard.

  She had good reason to hope. In 1485, Charles VIII recognized Henry Tudor as King of England and gave him money, ships, and French troops for an invasion, with the aim—as Henry put it—of “the just depriving of that homicide and unnatural tyrant.” Upon this, many Englishmen hastened to France to join the pretender. Even though Richard III had now repudiated his plan to marry Elizabeth, Henry knew he must invade soon lest the King marry her elsewhere; if that happened, his cause would irretrievably be lost. He was as eager as she was for their marriage. Thus the French aid was a godsend.

  There is evidence that Elizabeth enlisted the aid of Lord Stanley, Henry’s stepfather. Stanley may privately have resented Richard III’s treatment of his wife, Margaret Beaufort, and by Christmas 1484 both of them were secretly in contact with Henry Tudor. But Stanley, as ever, would not show his hand until it was safe to do so.

  A near contemporary metrical chronicle, “The Song of Lady Bessy,” describes Elizabeth’s involvement in the momentous events of 1485. Although the earliest surviving text dates from ca. 1600, the song was written in Henry VII’s reign, probably before 1500 (see this page), and perhaps disseminated as popular propaganda against Richard III. It exists in three different forms: in the Harleian MS. 367 ff. 89–100, which dates from ca. 1600, and Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript III, which is just slightly later in date; both are probably the most authentic versions and closer to the original, although there is no means of detecting how much the fifteenth-century text has been altered. There is a later seventeenth-century copy, printed with notes by Thomas Heywood in the reign of Charles II, which has suffered by elaborate embellishment.

  The song was probably composed by Stanley’s squire, or agent, Humphrey Brereton of Cheshire, who himself features in it and was the person best placed to recount the events the ballad describes. Opinions vary as to its historical accuracy. A few parts are demonstrably inventions, and others may be too—although there are not “numerous anachronisms,” as claimed by Gairdner.1 The inaccuracies probably arise from the author not always being as close to events as he would have liked the reader to think he was, and also no doubt as a result of his partisan zeal. He perhaps exaggerated his own role and the familiar trust in which he was held by Elizabeth and the other high-ranking people who appear in the poem. He invented speeches for his characters; again that was standard practice at this period, even in the recording of history. Stanley’s role in this episode may also have been overstated, for the poem was probably written under his auspices, and with the benefit of hindsight—as well as a good dollop of poetic license.

  There is no way of proving if the substance of the poem is based on fact, as the historical record is silent on Elizabeth’s role in the events it describes. Yet despite being mere doggerel, and possibly altered in parts, the minute and exact details in “The Song of Lady Bessy” suggest a close acquaintance with real people and events, and are unlikely to be entirely imaginary. Even Gairdner admitted that there was “a great deal of truth in the poem.” Brereton’s almost affectionate portrayal of the industrious and committed Lady Bessy appears to come from one who was familiar with her. She is a heroine standing up for the right, busily intriguing to achieve her ambitions, and working actively undercover to aid Henry Tudor’s—and her own—cause. It is unlikely that Brereton would have depicted her as such were there not a degree of truth behind his verses. There was no reason to include her if she had not been involved—Lord Stanley’s exploits alone justified a ballad.

  There can be little doubt that Brereton was privy to much that was going on in Lord Stanley’s life at that time, and the details in the song suggest that it is firsthand evidence of Elizabeth’s involvement in the conspiracy to put Henry Tudor on the throne. The ballad may exaggerate her role in the intrigues that preceded Henry Tudor’s invasion, yet it is conceivable—even credible—that she did participate, perhaps even to the extent the poem portrays. Written probably within eight years of the events it describes so vividly, and by a trusted retainer of her stepfather-in-law, it would have had to appear credible to anyone who read it, especially as it described in detail the deeds of one who was now Queen of England. What is striking is that the Elizabeth portrayed in “The Song of Lady Bessy” is as proactive as the Elizabeth who wrote to John Howard urging his help in progressing her marriage with Richard III.

  Politically, much—if not all—of the chronology of “The Song of Lady Bessy” fits into the context of the known events of 1485. A lot of the information it contains has the ring of authenticity, and affords insights into the kind of intrigues that were secretly at play at this time but otherwise, inevitably, went unrecorded.

  If the poem does reflect actual events, given some dramatic license, it may seem strange that Margaret Beaufort barely earns a mention in it; but Margaret had already courted disaster in supporting Buckingham and Henry Tudor, and got off lightly. Given the dread penalty for women who committed treason, she probably felt she dared not test Richard’s leniency a second time, and kept her dealings with her son as secret as possible.

  It may be that in becoming proactive in Henry’s cause, Elizabeth was trying to redeem herself in his eyes and make amends for what he had seen as a betrayal; for she could have learned from Margaret Beaufort of his reaction to rumors that she was to marry Richard III.

  The poem begins when “Lady Bessy” is sojourning in London with Lord Stanley; internal evidence indicates that this is the spring of 1485, after Queen Anne’s death. At that time Elizabeth may have been living at Heytesbury, but there is no actual evidence for her whereabouts. Her age is given by Brereton as twenty-one when in fact she was nineteen. When we first encounter Bessy, she is apparently distressed and frightened, angry even—much as the historical Elizabeth probably felt at that time—and she complains to Stanley about her uncle, King Richard.

  “Help, Father Stanley, I do you pray!” she cries, then tells him that the King has had her brothers put to death by drowning them in “a pipe of wine” in their bed (a garbled description of their fate that owes much to the rumors then in circulation, not only about the princes’ end but Clarence’s also). Then she says that Richard “would have put away his queen for to hath lain by my body.” She begs Stanley to “help that he were put away, for all the royal blood destroyed will be!” She wants to wreak revenge on “that traitor” and “help Earl Richmond, that prince so gay, that is exiled over the sea. For if he were King, I should be Queen.” She loves him, she declares, even though she has never seen him.

  She reminds Stanley that her father, King Edward, on his deathbed, “put me to thee to govern and to guide.” She says that the King left her a book of prophecy, and that “he knew that ye might make me a queen, Father, if thy will it be, for Richard is no righteous king,” w
ho will destroy “the royal blood of all this land, as he did the Duke of Buckingham.” She reminds Stanley that Buckingham “was as great with King Richard as now are ye.”

  Bessy now reveals that she has busily been thinking of ways to overthrow Richard. She knows that Stanley’s brother, Sir William, could summon up five hundred fighting men, while Stanley’s oldest son George, Lord Strange, then at Lathom House, the family seat in Lancashire, could afford to support a thousand men for three months; and his younger sons, Edward and James, a priest who had “lately” been made Warden of Manchester, could send soldiers too. In fact, James was not appointed warden until July 1485, but Brereton’s memory was probably imprecise. James was made Archdeacon of Richmond in 1500, and Bishop of Ely in 1506.2 Since he is referred to only as Warden of Manchester, and there is mention of Sir William Stanley coming “under a cloud,” a reference to his execution for treason in 1495, the poem must originally have been written between 1495 and 1500.

  Bessy persists, telling Stanley that his sister’s son, Sir John Savage, could provide fifteen hundred fighting men, Gilbert Talbot (a younger son of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury) could send a thousand and pay their wages for three months, while Stanley himself could provide another thousand. Historically, Savage was to command the right wing of Henry Tudor’s army at the Battle of Bosworth, and Gilbert Talbot the left; Talbot would be knighted for his support of Henry in the battle and receive several important appointments thereafter. Bessy urges Stanley, “Thou and thine may bring Richmond o’er the sea, for, an [if] he were King, I should be Queen.”

  Stanley appears as cautious in the poem as he was in real life. “An King Richard do know this thing, we were undone, both thou and I,” he warns Bessy. What she is plotting is no less than high treason. If anything went wrong, he continues, “in a fire you must burn”—burning at the stake being the penalty for women who committed treason—while “my life and my lands are lost from me. Therefore these words be in vain. Leave and doe away, good Bessy!”

  Bessy is determined; her ambition is to wear the crown. “Father Stanley! Is there no grace? No, Queen of England, that I must be.” Tears of frustration trickle from her eyes. “Now I know I must never be Queen! All this, man, is long of thee!” She urges Stanley to think of the dreadful Day of Judgment, crying: “I care not whether I hang or drown, so that my soul saved may be. Make good answer, as thou may, for all this, man, is long of thee.” With that, she pulls off her headdress of pearls and precious stones, throws it to the ground, tears her hair and wrings her hands, saying through her tears: “Farewell, man, now I am gone; it shall be long ere thou me see!”

  Stanley stands “still as any stone,” weeping himself. “Abide, Bessy! We part not so soon,” he replies. “Here is none but thee and I. Fields hath eyen and wood hath ears; you cannot tell who standeth us by, but wend forth, Bessy, to thy bower, and look you do as I bid ye.” He tells her to “put away thy maidens bright, that no person doth us see,” and he will come to her bower at nine o’clock at night, when they will talk more of the matter; and she must have ready a charcoal fire—“that no smoke come in our eye”—wine and spices, pen, ink, and papers.

  Bessy eagerly complies, and has “all things full ready.” Waiting for Stanley, she looks at her book of prophecy and realizes that, for her to become Queen of England, “many a guiltless man first must die.” When Stanley arrives, he finds her weeping. She bars the door behind him, and when they are seated she gives him wine and spices, saying, “Blend in, Father, and drink to me.” The fire is hot, and soon “the wine it wrought wonderfully,” mellowing Stanley and making him weep.

  “Ask now, Bessy, then, what thou wilt, and thy boon granted shall be,” he says.

  “Nothing,” she answers. “I would have neither of gold nor yet of fee, but fair Earl Richmond, so God me save, that hath lain so long beyond the sea.” Stanley replies that he would grant her that boon, but there is no clerk he can trust to write to Richmond on their behalf.

  “Father, it shall not need,” Bessy assures him. “I am a clerk full good, I say.” And to prove her point she draws “a paper on her knee” and begins to write “speedily.” Stanley tells her to write to his brother, Sir William, at Holt Castle, Denbighshire. “Bid him bring seven sad yeomen all in green clothes, and change his inn at every town where before he was wont to lie; and let his face be toward the bench,” to avoid being recognized. He asks Elizabeth to write to his three sons, as well as to John Savage and Gilbert Talbot, who are all to follow the same instructions and be with Stanley by May 3.

  Stanley seals the letters that Bessy has written, then pauses. “Alas!” he laments. “All our work is forlorn, for there is no messenger that we may trust.” It is Bessy who suggests Humphrey Brereton. “He hath been true to my father and me. He shall have the writing in hand. Go to bed, Father, and sleep, and I shall work for thee and me. Tomorrow, by rising of the sun, Humphrey Brereton shall be with thee.”

  After Stanley has gone to bed, Bessy works through the night: “there came no sleep in her eye.” Early the next morning she seeks out Brereton in his “bower” and calls out to him “in a small voice.”

  “Lady, who are ye that calleth on me ere it be light?” he responds.

  “I am King Edward’s daughter, the Countess Clare,3 young Bessy,” she tells him, saying he must come “with all the haste you can” to speak with Lord Stanley. Humphrey throws on a gown and slippers and emerges from his chamber. He goes with Bessy “to the bedside” where Stanley is sleeping. When Stanley wakes, he weeps “full tenderly” at the sight of Brereton.

  “My love, my trust, my life, my land—all this, Humphrey, doth lie in thee,” he tells him. “Thou may make, and thou may mar; thou may undo Bessy and me.”

  Brereton evidently assures Stanley of his loyalty, as in the next moment Stanley commands him to take the six letters Bessy has written and deliver them to the people whose names are “written on the backside.” Brereton is about to depart when Bessy waylays him, saying, “Abide, Humphrey, and speak with me. A poor reward I shall thee give.” It will be £3, or nine nobles [£1,470]. “If I be Queen, and may live, better rewarded shalt thou be.” She advises him, when he sets off on his mission, to take “no company but such as shall be of the best. Sit not too long drinking thy wine, lest in heat thou be too merry”—and indiscreet. She gives him nine nobles to cover his expenses, and some wine, whereupon he takes leave of her and rides westward to Holt Castle.

  Brereton delivers her letters to Sir William Stanley at Holt, and to Lord Strange at Lathom, both of whom rally to the cause, then to Edward and James Stanley in Manchester. These two praise Bessy for her good counsel. “We trust in God, full of might, to bring her lord over the sea!” they declare. Sir John Savage, however, pales when he reads her letter. “Women’s wit is wonder to hear!” he exclaims. “My uncle is turned by your Bessy!” Nevertheless, he promises to do Stanley’s bidding. Brereton then rides to Sheffield Castle, where Gilbert Talbot also pays tribute to Bessy’s true counsel, and says: “Commend me to that Countess Clare; tell her I trust in God to bring her love over the sea. In all this land she hath no peer.”

  Brereton rides straight back to London, where he finds Lord Stanley walking in a garden with King Richard. Stanley gives him “a privy twinkle with his eye” and welcomes him warmly as he bends his knee to the King. Brereton pretends he has been visiting the place where he was born and bred, and says that support for Richard is strong there; the people will fight for him “and never flee.” This pleases the King; he thanks Brereton courteously, and assures Stanley: “Father Stanley, thou art to me near; you are chief of your commonalty.4 Half of England shall be thine, and equally divided between thee and me. I am thine, and thou art mine.” It is easy to imagine the beleaguered Richard making such extravagant promises to secure the loyalty of the slippery Stanley.

  When the King has gone, Stanley and Brereton hasten to Bessy’s bower, where they find her alone. She is so pleased to see Brereton safely
returned that she kisses him three times—a detail Brereton is unlikely to have included were it not true.

  “Welcome home!” she cries. “How hast thou sped in the west country?”

  Stanley leaves Brereton with Bessy, so that he can tell her the tidings of his journey, which she is eager to hear. Even so, she is fearful. “If I should send for yonder prince [Henry Tudor] to come over for the love of me,” he might be murdered by his foes. “Alas, that were full great pity! Forsooth, that sight I would not see for all the gold in Christendom!”

  Brereton recounts how Stanley’s kinsmen and allies have shown themselves ready to overthrow King Richard. “By the third day of May, Bessy, in London there will they be. Thou shalt in England be a queen—or else doubtless they will die.”

  As the conspirators’ plans mature, Stanley withdraws from the City to an old inn in the suburbs and draws an eagle (part of the Stanley cognizance of the eagle and child) above the doorway—a prearranged sign to the men who come to find him. Bessy is there with him to greet them—the Stanleys, Savage, and Talbot—and “when all the lords together” meet over flagons of wine, “among them all” is “little Bessy,” who asks, “Lords, will ye do for me? Will ye relieve yonder prince that is exiled beyond the sea?”

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