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

  Stanley answers, “Forty pound[s] will I send, Bessy, for the love of thee, and twenty thousand eagle feet [men] a Queen of England to make thee.” Sir William Stanley adds, “Remember, Bessy, another time, who doth the best for thee.” He says he has raised a thousand men, who will be ready at an hour’s warning. “In England thou shall be a queen, or else doubtless I will die.” Savage tells her he is sending a thousand marks to “thy love beyond the sea,” and Strange adds, “A little money and few men will bring thy love over the sea.” But they decide it is too hazardous to send their gold abroad, and that they will keep it at home to spend on waging war on Richard III. Edward Stanley also reminds Bessy to remember in the future those who are doing their best for her, “for there is no power that I have, nor no gold to give thee. Under my father’s banner will I be, either for to live or die.”

  Bessy falls on her knees before the lords, promising to send £10,000 [£4.9 million] “to my love over the sea.” This seems highly unlikely, as Elizabeth had no money of her own, but it was probably the imagined value of “a rich ring with a stone” that Brereton was to take to Henry Tudor—although it is unlikely that any ring of the period was worth as much. Brereton tells her he dare not take her gold over the sea for fear of being robbed or drowned.

  “Hold thy peace, Humphrey,” she replies. “Thou shalt carry it without jeopardy. Thou shalt have no basket nor no [chain] mail, no bucket nor sackcloth; three mules that be stiff and strong, loaded with gold shall they be, with saddles side-skirted wherein the gold stowed shall be. If any man says, ‘Who[se] is the ship that saileth forth upon the sea?’ say it is the Lord Lisle’s—in England and France well-beloved is he.” This was Edward Grey, who had borne the rod with the dove at Richard III’s coronation, and had been created Viscount Lisle by the King.5

  Stanley scolds Bessy: “Thou art to blame, to point any ship upon the sea! I have a good ship of my own.” He will send it across the sea with the eagle symbol flying from the top mast, and if anyone asks whose ship it is, the crew must say it is his. It is in this ship that Brereton sails to France with the ring given him by Bessy, which he takes to Henry Tudor at “Bigeram Abbey.” This was probably Bec Hellouin Abbey, west of Rouen, where Henry was raising mercenaries, and south of Harfleur, whence he would sail to England.

  When Brereton comes before Henry Tudor, he falls to his knees and delivers Bessy’s letter and her ring. Henry is gladdened at the sight; he takes the ring and kisses it three times. Then he stands silent, leaving Brereton on his knees, perplexed. Eventually, the squire rises.

  “Why standeth thou so still?” he asks. “I am come from the Stanleys bold, King of England to make thee, and a fair lady to thy fere [wife]; there is none such in Christendom. She is a countess, a king’s daughter, a lovely lady to look upon, and well she can work by prophecy. I may be called a lewd messenger, for answer of thee I can get none. I may sail hence with a heavy heart. What shall I say when I come home?”

  Henry turns to John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Lord Dorset (who is referred to in the poem by his lesser title, Lord Ferrers) and Lord Lisle, who are standing by, and confers with them. Then he tells Brereton he cannot give him an answer for three weeks. The next day he rides off with his lords to Paris, “there arms to make ready,” and to ask the King of France to lend him ships. Historically, Henry visited Paris in June 1485. Back at Bec Hellouin Abbey, he gives Brereton 100 marks [£16,300], promising he will be “better rewarded” in time to come.

  “Commend me to Bessy, that Countess Clare,” he says. “I trust in God she shall be my queen. For her I will travel the sea. Commend me to my father, Stanley. Bring him here a love letter, and another to little Bessy. Commend me to Sir William Stanley. Tell him, about Michaelmas, I trust in God in England to be.” The mention of Michaelmas sounds authentic; Brereton might well have remembered Henry saying that, and if he was writing purely with the benefit of hindsight, he would probably have had Henry predicting his arrival in August.

  Brereton returns to Bessy and Stanley in London, with the letters from Henry to both of them. At this point, Stanley prepares to ride to Lathom, and Sir William Stanley, Gilbert Talbot, John Savage, and Edward Stanley are raising their levies. The stage is set for the King’s destruction.

  If “The Song of Lady Bessy” was pure fiction, Elizabeth may have been at Heytesbury with her mother all along. But it is also possible that at some point she was residing in Stanley’s London house, and there remains a fair chance that Richard III did discover that she was involved in a conspiracy against him—or suspected she was in league with that proven turncoat, Lord Stanley, or even feared she would attempt to flee abroad to join his enemy. He may have anticipated that Elizabeth would do much to win the crown she believed was rightfully hers. Even had he nurtured no such suspicions, with Henry Tudor’s invasion believed imminent, he was taking no chances. He knew that Elizabeth was regarded by many as the rightful heiress to York, and at some stage he decided to move her to a secure place, far out of the reach of Henry Tudor or anyone else who might aspire to a crown by marrying her.

  Wherever Elizabeth was, she was vulnerable to intrigue and capture, so the King gave orders that she be escorted to Sheriff Hutton Castle, ten miles northeast of York, to join the household he had set up for her cousins, Edward, Earl of Warwick, and probably Warwick’s sister, Margaret Plantagenet, and his own bastard son, John of Gloucester. It has often been suggested that Elizabeth’s sisters were sent there too, but there is no evidence for this.

  Sheriff Hutton Castle was a feudal fortress dating from the 1140s but rebuilt in the late fourteenth century by the powerful Nevilles, who held it until it was confiscated by Edward IV in 1471; soon afterward it was given to Richard of Gloucester. Situated next to a park on a rising bank affording beautiful views across the forest of Galtres, it had two moats, used as fishponds, and the village of Sheriff Hutton had grown up around it. The castle was built of brown stone around a large rectangular courtyard, or “base court.” John Leland, who visited Sheriff Hutton during the reign of Henry VIII, recorded that it had “four great towers with a gatehouse in the middle”—the arched gateway in the Warder’s Tower, which probably accommodated the garrison. “In the second area were five or six small towers.”6 In fact there were eight or nine square towers over a hundred feet high. The connecting stone walls were five stories high and contained narrow galleries and chambers.

  In Yorkist times the castle was not only a building of strength and security, but also boasted luxurious accommodation. The tower chambers, accessed by spiral stairs, had arched or vaulted ceilings and painted plaster walls, while below there were strong cellars that could be used as storerooms or dungeons. There was a great hall in the “second area,” and Leland thought “the stately stair up to the hall … very magnificent, and so is the hall itself, and all the residue of the house, insomuch that I saw no house in the North so like a princely lodging.” In Elizabethan times William Camden called Sheriff Hutton a most elegant castle, pleasantly seated among the woods.7

  Richard probably felt it would be safer to lodge Elizabeth in the North, where he could command his greatest support, but Sheriff Hutton cannot have had happy associations for her, for it was the place where her uncle, Earl Rivers, had been imprisoned two years earlier before being borne off to execution at Pontefract; and it was a long way from her mother and sisters, and from Westminster and the palaces of the Thames Valley where she had spent most of her life. Again she found herself effectively a prisoner, in “safe custody,” according to Sir Francis Bacon, whose History of the Reign of King Henry VII was published in 1622.8

  The household at Sheriff Hutton was under the control of John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, the King’s Lieutenant in the North, who was then twenty-six. As the eldest son of Edward IV’s sister Elizabeth and John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, he was the heir to a wealthy and noble house, with great establishments at Ewelme, Oxfordshire, and Wingfield, Suffolk. Through his grandmother, Alice Chaucer, Lincoln
was descended from the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. He was Richard III’s closest adult male relative and had carried the orb at his coronation.

  After the death of the Prince of Wales, Richard III considered naming Clarence’s son, the Earl of Warwick, his successor, but it was a choice fraught with difficulties. Warwick was technically barred from the succession by his father’s attainder, and although that could have been reversed, it would have left him with a better claim to the throne than Richard. Moreover, he was only a child of nine. Richard decided that Warwick was not the best option and, with the consent of the nobility, named Lincoln his successor,9 appointing him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a post customarily held by Yorkist heirs to the throne. Lincoln was also granted the reversion of Margaret Beaufort’s estates.

  Little is recorded of Lincoln’s character, saving the conventional praise for his nobility, wisdom, and gallantry. Despite his youth, he was experienced in government and respected for his judgment and political sense. He was a committed Yorkist, as events would prove, especially as he had a crown in his sights and stood to lose much if Henry Tudor was victorious.

  Elizabeth probably saw little, if anything at all, of her cousin Lincoln while she was at Sheriff Hutton. His official base was at Sandal Castle, fifty miles away, and in July 1485 he was at Nottingham with the King, preparing to fight for Richard against Henry Tudor. In June, anticipating that Henry would invade soon, Richard had issued a proclamation calling on all true Englishmen to repel a pretender who was “descended of bastard blood both of the father’s side and of the mother’s side, for Owen [Tudor], the grandfather, was bastard born, and his mother was daughter to John, Duke of Somerset, son unto John, Earl of Somerset, son unto Dame Katherine Swynford, and of her in double adultery gotten, whereby it evidently appeareth that no title can nor may be in him, which fully intendeth to enter this realm purposing a conquest.”10

  On August 1, Henry Tudor’s invasion fleet set sail from Harfleur in Normandy. Six days later “the enemy landed with a fair wind and without opposition at Milford Haven, near Pembroke.”11 After disembarking, Henry fell to his knees, recited the 43rd Psalm—“Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an unworthy nation”—and kissed the ground. Then, calling on the aid of God and St. George, he urged his men onward, marching under a white and green banner proudly displaying the red dragon traditionally attributed to Cadwaladr. He came, as he was at pains to make clear, to reconcile the warring factions.

  From his base at Nottingham, Richard had summoned “his adherents from every quarter” to help him triumph over “so contemptible a faction,”12 but by now he had lost the support of more than half of his nobility.13 Estimates vary from six to twelve, but only a few peers answered his summons, and many knights and gentlemen ignored it. Even the mayor and corporation of York, with whom Richard had enjoyed good relations, sent only eighty men.14

  Croyland states that Lord Stanley had sought and received permission to go to Lancashire to see his family, but only on condition that he left his heir, Lord Strange, with the King as a hostage for his loyalty. The King had no illusions about Stanley, who had changed sides to suit himself too often, and whose loyalty could not be taken for granted, especially as he was married to Henry Tudor’s mother. Richard was afraid “lest she might induce her husband to go over to the party of her son.”15

  “The Song of Lady Bessy” also has Stanley taking leave of the King and riding to Lathom, but taking Elizabeth with him. He leaves her at Leicester, bidding her “lie there in privity,” and warns her, “If King Richard knew thee here, in a fire burnt must thou be.” Then he spurs his horse toward Lancashire, and sends Lord Strange “to London [sic] to keep King Richard company.”

  It has long been assumed that Elizabeth was sent to Sheriff Hutton in June,16 but in fact no date is recorded. It is possible therefore that she was sent there in August, and not impossible that Richard’s men discovered her in hiding at Leicester, and, being preoccupied with more pressing matters, he gave orders that she be sent to Sheriff Hutton at this juncture, rather than earlier in the summer, thus deferring the question of what to do with her. What mattered now was that she was safely beyond Henry Tudor’s reach at Sheriff Hutton.

  As Henry marched his army eastward, entering England via Shrewsbury on August 15, the King rode to confront him. The armies met in Leicestershire, near Market Bosworth, on August 22.

  Both Croyland and Vergil state that Richard had suffered nightmares in the dark hours before they met in the field. “The King, so it was reported, had seen that night, in a terrible dream, a multitude of demons apparently surrounding him, just as he attested in the morning, when he presented a countenance which was always drawn but was then ever more pale and deadly.” In this mood, he “declared that he would ruin all the partisans of the other side, if he emerged as the victor.”17 Elizabeth was one of those who stood in deadly danger of her uncle’s vengeance—not least because she was seen by many as the legitimate Yorkist heir.

  The Battle of Bosworth lasted two hours, with an estimated twenty thousand men engaging in combat, most of them in the royal forces. It was “a most savage battle.”18 Henry Tudor—whom Richard dismissed beforehand as “an unknown Welshman, whose father I never knew, nor him personally saw”19—did not engage in the fighting, but remained under his standard behind the lines, leaving the experienced John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, to command his vanguard. Lord Stanley turned up with his men, but he had secretly met with Henry two days earlier,20 and when Richard commanded his presence, had sent word that he “was suffering an attack of the sweating sickness” and could not attend him.21 “The Song of Lady Bessy” has Stanley meeting Henry before the battle, giving him his blessing and Margaret Beaufort’s, and promising to come to his aid. But when the historical Stanley turned up at Bosworth, he positioned himself some way off to the north with his forces, waiting to see which way the battle was going before joining it. His brother, Sir William Stanley, also notorious for changing sides, was with him. Even if the Stanleys had intrigued with Elizabeth to set Henry on the throne, they were looking to their own advantage before anyone else’s.

  On the morning of the battle, the King sent a message ordering Stanley to join him at once, if he wanted his son to stay alive. Stanley, taking a terrible gamble, sent back word that he did not feel like joining the King, and he had other sons, whereupon Richard ordered his captains to put Lord Strange to death. When they refused, he told them to keep Strange under close arrest until he could deal with him after the battle.

  When the King’s side appeared to be losing the day, the Earl of Northumberland, who should have intervened with his men to aid his sovereign, did nothing. Seeing that he was deserted by those in whom he had trusted, Richard gathered a small band of loyal followers and made one final, desperate charge, bearing down on the red dragon banner of Henry Tudor. He cut down the standard bearer and was about to swoop on Henry himself, but now Lord Stanley came racing to Henry’s aid, which decisively turned the tide of the battle, and “a glorious victory was granted by Heaven to the Earl of Richmond.”22

  The Croyland chronicler recorded that it was during the fighting, and not in the act of flight, that Richard fell, “like a brave and most valiant prince.” The chronicler John Rous, who had once praised Richard but turned hostile toward him in 1485, was moved to write: “Let me say the truth to his credit, that he bore himself like a noble soldier and honorably defended himself to his last breath, shouting again and again that he was betrayed, and crying, ‘Treason! Treason! Treason!’ ” Even the Tudor historian, Polydore Vergil, conceded that King Richard was killed “fighting manfully in the thickest press of his enemies.” Croyland declared: “Providence gave a glorious victory to the Earl of Richmond.”

  Legend has it that the crown fell from the dying Richard’s helmet and rolled under a hawthorn bush—later a popular Tudor emblem, which can be seen on Henry VII’s tomb and in a window of Westminster Abbey. The crown was lying “among the spoils in the field,”23 w
here Sir William Stanley spotted and retrieved it.24 As “the soldiers cried, ‘God save King Henry!’ ” he placed it on the head of Henry Tudor, “as though he had been already by the commandment of the people proclaimed King after the manner of his ancestors.”25 The first sovereign of the celebrated royal House of Tudor was “replenished with joy incredible.”26

  With Richard III’s death, 331 years of Plantagenet rule had come to an end. Now a new age had begun, and its progenitor, Henry VII, “began to receive the praises of all, as though he had been an angel sent down from Heaven, through whom God had deigned to visit His people and deliver them from the evils with which they had hitherto, beyond measure, been afflicted.” Croyland commented: “The children of King Edward,” had been “avenged” at last “in this battle: the boar’s tusks quailed, and, to avenge the white, the red rose bloomed.”

  Richard’s body, “pierced with numerous and deadly wounds,” was found under a heap of the dead, for many men had been cut down in that last fatal charge. His corpse was stripped naked, “with not so much as a clout to cover his privy members”; then, “with many other insults heaped on it,” it was thrown over a horse’s saddle with a felon’s halter around its neck, and borne, “besprung with mire and filth,” back to Leicester, where it was exhibited for two days in the collegiate church of St. Mary in the Newark.27 “The Song of Lady Bessy” claims that “Bessy met him with merry cheer” and addressed the bloody remains: “How likest thou thy slaying of my brethren twain? Now are we wreaked upon thee here! Welcome, gentle uncle, home!” But there is no other record—as surely there would have been—of Elizabeth being at Leicester on that day; and Sheriff Hutton is nearly 130 miles from Leicester, a journey of at least two days back then. It is inconceivable that she could have escaped Richard’s custodians before his defeat at Bosworth, and more likely that Brereton was taking poetic license to show that she viewed her uncle’s defeat as just retribution for the death of her brothers.

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