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

  The vanquished King’s body, which had apparently been mutilated after death, was “indifferently buried”28 in a roughly dug grave that was too small for it in the choir of the Grey Friars’ church,29 and in 1502, Henry VII paid out £10.1s. [£4,890] “for King Richard’s tomb” of alabaster.30 This was destroyed along with the church during the Reformation of the 1530s. In the early seventeenth century, Robert Herrick, a mayor of Leicester, built a house and laid out a garden where once the choir had stood. Here, in 1612, Christopher Wren, father of the architect, saw “a handsome stone pillar, three foot high,” bearing the inscription: “Here lies the body of Richard III, sometime King of England.” In 2012 the grave was found under the car park laid out where the Grey Friars’ monastery once stood.31

  How rapidly news of these momentous events had filtered through to Sheriff Hutton is unknown, but Elizabeth would certainly have been anxious to hear of the outcome of the conflict between the two men who had played for her hand, for it would seal her own fate. She did not have long to wait, for within hours of his victory at Bosworth, even before departing from Leicester, the new King sent Sir Robert Willoughby and Sir John Halewell32 to Sheriff Hutton to secure her person and that of Edward, Earl of Warwick; they came with “a noble company to fetch [Elizabeth] to her lady mother.”33

  André says that when Elizabeth “learned that Henry had won the victory,” she “exclaimed with gladness of heart: ‘so even at last, thou hast, O God, regarded the humble and not despised their prayers. I well remember that my most noble father, of famous memory, meant to have bestowed me in marriage upon this most comely prince! O that I were worthy of him; for, as I have lost my father and protector, I sorely fear me that he will take a wife from foreign parts whose beauty, age, fortune, and dignity will more please him than mine! What shall I say? I am alone, and I dare not take counsel. O that I could acquaint my mother, or some of the lords, with my fears, but I dare not, nor have I the courage to discourse with him himself on the subject, lest in so doing I might discover my love. What will be, I cannot divine, but this I know, that Almighty God always succors those who trust in Him. Therefore will I cease to think, and repose my whole hope in Thee. O my God, do Thou with me according to Thy mercy.’ ” And she “pondered these things privately.”

  Allowing for the flowery language, and the likelihood that the speech is invented, there may be some truth in the sentiments expressed; it is unlikely that André would have made all this up. Elizabeth might indeed have come to regard her father’s plan to marry her to Henry Tudor as prescient, if not sacrosanct, and these may well have been the sentiments she expressed at the time. It is credible that she herself was one of André’s sources, for he wrote his official history during the last years of her life.

  Henry wanted Elizabeth and Warwick brought south immediately, and Elizabeth “received a direction to repair with all convenient speed to London, and there to remain with the Queen her mother; which accordingly she soon after did,”34 escorted under Sir Robert’s protection with the honor due to a future Queen of England. Warwick, however, was to be conveyed in secret.

  Henry was always to regard young Warwick as one of the chief threats to his crown, despite the fact that the earl, then just ten years old, was barred from the succession and seems to have been mentally backward. But for the attainder against his father, the Duke of Clarence, Warwick would have been the rightful male heir to the House of York; Elizabeth’s claim was better, but she was a woman, and Henry, knowing attainders could be reversed, feared that Yorkists might now look to Warwick in preference to her and the man Richard III had called “an unknown Welshman.” As soon as Warwick arrived in London, Henry had him confined briefly at Margaret Beaufort’s London house, Coldharbour, and then imprisoned in the Tower. Because Henry was fearful lest he escape to “stir up civil discord,”35 the unfortunate boy was to spend the rest of his life there, bereft of companions, tutors, or much in the way of comforts. Thus seriously did the new King regard him as a rival, and with justification, for, captive though Warwick remained, he was to be the focus of several Yorkist plots.

  Elizabeth, however, was brought openly to London, attended by an escort of “many noblemen and ladies of honor.”36 That was a good sign, yet she might have felt a passing anxiety as to her future, for until Henry married her, she was essentially a rival claimant to his throne, for all that she was a woman; and she could transmit her claim to any man she married. Probably she had read enough history to know that King John murdered Arthur, Duke of Brittany, a rival claimant to the throne, then imprisoned Arthur’s sister Eleanor for life. But Elizabeth had four sisters, each of whom could replace her in the line of succession, and her proposed marriage was popular, so it was hardly likely that the new King would renege on a promise that had won over so many Yorkists to his cause. And now the courtesy and honor accorded to her must have given her cause to hope that she would soon be Queen, although she may have been disconcerted to learn that Henry “had assumed the style of king in his own name,” on the battlefield of Bosworth, “without mention of the Lady Elizabeth at all,”37 especially as he was supposed to be marrying her to give legitimacy to his title. Furthermore, when she reached London, she might have found it strange that there was no state welcome in the capital, or any celebrations to mark her arrival, as was usual for a royal bride. These were the first indications that her marriage to Henry VII was not to be regarded as the means of his kingship. Had she processed through the City in triumph, it might have looked as if she herself was the rightful sovereign.38

  Observing the proprieties, Henry had arranged for his prospective bride to be lodged with his mother. Apartments had been made ready for Elizabeth and her mother at Coldharbour, which lay on the foreshore south of Thames Street, just outside the City walls; and it was there that she was reunited with Elizabeth Wydeville. The former Queen had been staying at Sheen at the time of Bosworth, but hastened to London, and it was to her care that the new King initially entrusted his future bride. It is likely that Elizabeth’s sisters joined her, for Henry arranged for Margaret Beaufort to be given “the keeping and guiding of the ladies daughter of King Edward IV” along with eight-year-old Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, and the hapless Earl of Warwick.39 Warwick’s sister Margaret probably also joined this bustling household.

  Elizabeth spent the following weeks at Coldharbour. In 1484, Richard III had granted the royal heralds this ancient house as a permanent home. It lay by the River Thames on the site now occupied by 89 Upper Thames Street.40 It was a great mansion, dating from at least the early fourteenth century, and among previous residents were Henry IV, Henry V, Margaret of Burgundy, Sir John de Pulteney—four times mayor of London in the fourteenth century and builder of Penshurst Place—and Alice Perrers, Edward III’s mistress, who added a tower. The heralds had held the house for only a year when Richard III was killed and Henry VII canceled the grant of Coldharbour, which he gave to his mother.

  Here, Elizabeth anxiously awaited news that she was to become Queen of England at last.


  “Our Bridal Torch”

  Henry VII made a triumphal entry into London on September 3. After giving thanks at St. Paul’s Cathedral for his victory and his crown, he retired to the nearby Bishop’s Palace and summoned his first Privy Council, declaring to them his intention of marrying Elizabeth of York. The matter was discussed at length, but first there were two obstacles to be overcome.1 Parliament had to repeal the act Titulus Regius in order to declare Elizabeth legitimate and restore her royal status, for it was unthinkable that the King should found his dynasty by marrying a lady tainted with the stain of bastardy. Then a new dispensation for the marriage had to be obtained, for Henry and Elizabeth were related in the fourth degree of kinship.2 The dispensation obtained by Henry in 1484 was deemed insufficient because it had been sought without Elizabeth’s consent.3

  It is possible too that Henry VII wanted time to have a search made in th
e Tower for the bodies of the princes to assure himself that they really were dead before legitimizing their sister and marrying her. Probably Henry did have the Tower searched for any trace of them,4 but if he gave the order at this time—and it would be surprising if he hadn’t—then almost certainly nothing was found, and he was unable to confirm whether they were dead or alive. If their bodies had been discovered, he would surely have made political capital out of it. Proof that they were not may lie in a clause inserted when Titulus Regius was repealed, providing that nothing in the reversal should prejudice the act “establishing the crown to the King and the heirs of his body.”5 Even if Henry had gotten to London and found the princes alive, then had them murdered—an unlikely theory advanced by some revisionists—it would have been of no benefit to him because their removal was not sufficient in itself to guarantee his security: people had to know they were dead. But Henry never uttered a word on the matter, or accused Richard III of their murder. He could not, because, not having found any bodies, he had no means of knowing what had happened to the princes. That must have concerned him greatly, as uncertainty about their fate undermined the title of the woman he intended to make his wife, and it was to underscore many of the problems facing him in the years to come.

  Legislation and dispensations took time, but there is evidence to suggest that Henry was in no hurry and that the delay suited him well, for it underlined the fact that he was King in his own right, and not by right of marriage to the Yorkist heiress. Never should anyone say that he owed his crown to his Queen (although many did). He would not be his wife’s “gentleman usher,” he said; and he was resolved to be crowned and have Parliament recognize his title before he married. Although marriage to Elizabeth was “the fairest” claim to the throne he had “and the most like to give contentment to the people, [who] were become affectionate to that line, it lay plain before his eyes that, if he relied upon that title, he could be but a king at courtesy, and have rather a matrimonial than a regal power, the right remaining in his queen, upon whose decease, either with issue or without, he was to give place and be removed. And though he should obtain by Parliament to be continued [as King], yet he knew there was a very great difference between a king that holdeth his crown by a civil act of estates and one that holdeth it originally by the law of nature.”6

  Back in 1483, Buckingham and his allies had risen on Henry Tudor’s behalf on the understanding that he would marry Elizabeth of York and rule jointly with her, as King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella did in Spain. But now Henry was claiming the throne by right of conquest, as the true successor to the House of Lancaster. Wisely, he did not stress his Lancastrian descent, as there were about thirty other people who could have been considered to have a better claim, including Elizabeth, her sisters, her Yorkist cousins, and his own mother. Instead, he declared it was “the true judgment of God,” expressed in his victory at Bosworth, that gave him the crown by divine right.7

  Henry was aware that his claim to the throne was weak and open to challenge. As Strickland wrote, not entirely fancifully, “much of the royal brain was occupied with ballads of the ‘Mort d’Arthur,’ with red dragons and green leeks, besides long rolls of Welsh pedigrees, in which Noah figured about midway.” Henry took care to emphasize his descent from the ancient kings of Britain, and in particular the legendary Arthur, and the Welsh prince Cadwaladr, King of Gwynedd, who had fought the Anglo-Saxon invaders in the seventh century. He claimed Cadwaladr as his hundredth progenitor, and had his red dragon emblazoned on his standard and later used as one of the supporters of the Tudor royal arms. It was said that, on his deathbed, Cadwaladr had foretold that a Welsh king would restore the ancient royal line of Britain, and that his descendants would rule the whole island. The message was clear: Henry Tudor was the true successor of these ancient rulers; it was those interlopers who had come since—the Saxon and Norman kings and the Plantagenets—who were the real usurpers. And lest his Welsh heritage make him appear alien to the English, Henry also took care to emphasize his devotion to St. George, the patron saint of England. As for his future bride, she was descended from the ancient princes of Wales by virtue of the marriage of her ancestor, Roger Mortimer, to Gladys Ddu, daughter of Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, in 1230. Her father, Edward IV, had also boasted of his descent from Cadwaladr; thus she was, by descent, an eminently suitable wife for a Welsh-born king.

  Craftily, Henry VII dated his reign from the day before Bosworth,8 effectively branding as traitors Richard III and all those who had fought for him, and provoking much comment, including this outraged response from Croyland: “O God, what security shall our kings have henceforth that in the day of battle they may not be deserted by their subjects?” Richard’s remaining adherents scattered, changed sides, or prudently disappeared. His heir, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, was one of those who made his peace with the new King and obtained a pardon. Henry VII even gave him a prominent place on his council, although no doubt he kept an eye on him, given Lincoln’s prominence under Richard III, and the fact that he was now the hope of those who wanted to see a Yorkist king on the throne. Henry also issued a general pardon to those who had fought at Bosworth. Peers such as the earls of Northumberland and Surrey (Norfolk’s son), who were initially taken into custody, were later pardoned and released.

  Possibly there were personal reasons why Henry was in no hurry to marry Elizabeth. By now he could have heard that she had urged Norfolk to further her marriage to Richard III. In Henry’s eyes that might have looked like betrayal, after he had publicly vowed to take her as his wife. Of course, Elizabeth could probably have reassured Henry as to why she had pressed for the marriage to Richard, and no doubt did, but history now had to be rewritten. Not for nothing would Henry’s official historian, Polydore Vergil, describe Richard’s plan to marry her as “the most wicked to be spoken of, and the foulest to be committed that ever was heard of.” Henry’s feelings may perhaps be gauged from the fact that, around 1488–89, his mother commissioned Caxton to print the romance Blanchardin and Eglantine, doubtless because of its clear parallels with the story of her son and Elizabeth of York. Its publication may have been intended to quell any persistent rumors about Elizabeth’s eagerness to marry his enemy.

  Many Yorkists had supported Henry precisely because he had sworn to marry Elizabeth; they were of the opinion that marriage to her would supply all that was lacking in his title to the throne. Most people in England believed that he could only claim the throne through marriage to the Yorkist heiress.9 Moreover, Henry needed this marriage in order to build support for his rule. He dared not leave the way open for anyone else to wed Elizabeth; unmarried, she would remain a threat to him, and the best way to neutralize it was to honor his word and marry her himself. Such a fortuitous union was seen by many as the best means of bringing peace between the two warring royal houses, and a lot of people, both high and low, were anxious to see it come to pass, to set the seal upon the King’s victory. Therefore his delay in marrying Elizabeth must have seemed like a betrayal to many, and certainly there was some murmuring that he had slighted her.

  No one, however, could accuse Henry of being tardy while Elizabeth’s status remained unsettled and the dispensation needed to be obtained; nor could they have complained that he did not pay court to her. Buck states that he “came to the Tower to meet [her] there, to whom he was shortly to be married.” “The Song of Lady Bessy” exults: “Great solace it was to see, when the red rose of mickle [much] price and our Bessy were met.” But there is no other record of what happened when Henry and Elizabeth encountered each other for the first time, although it was likely a formal occasion with all the courtesies observed. When Elizabeth came face-to-face with the man who was to be her husband, it might have struck her, as it did a Spanish ambassador, that “there is nothing purely English in the English king’s face.”10 That was perhaps not surprising, as Henry was a quarter Welsh, a quarter French, and only half English.

  Vergil described the King thus:
“His body was slender but well-built and strong; his height above the average. His appearance was remarkably attractive; his eyes were small and blue.” That Henry was tall is borne out by his tomb effigy, which shows him to have been over six feet. Later Tudor chroniclers, Edward Hall and Raphael Holinshed, would extol his good looks. Hall, who took a hagiographic view of the Tudors, says he was “a man of body but lean and spare, albeit mighty and strong therewith, of personage and stature somewhat higher than the mean sort of men be, of a wonderful beauty and fair complexion, his eyes gray, his teeth single and hair thin.” Holinshed states he was “so formed and decorated with all the gifts and lineaments of Nature that he seemed more an angelical creature than a terrestrial personage. His countenance and aspect [were] cheerful and courageous, his hair yellow like the burnished gold, his eyes gray, shining and quick.” Both chroniclers were no doubt exaggerating, for certainly Henry’s portraits belie their admiring descriptions.

  It may have been Henry’s manner, rather than his looks, that made an impression on Elizabeth. His expression was normally “cheerful, especially when speaking,”11 and he had a “countenance merry and smiling, especially in his communications, [being] of wit quick and prompt, of a princely stomach and high courage.”12 Holinshed recorded that Henry was “prompt and ready in answering,” but added, more realistically, that he was “of such sobriety that it could never be judged whether he were more dull than quick in speaking, such was his temperance.” One imagines, given his probable awareness that the young woman before him had schemed to marry his enemy, that it was this wary and cautious side of Henry that came across in his first meeting with Elizabeth. And of course she represented the rival House of York. Yet all the evidence suggests that she gave him no provocation in this regard, but exerted herself to be pleasant and conformable to his wishes, and so impressed him.

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