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


  There were certainly other meetings after this. For the first two weeks after his arrival in London, the King was staying near Coldharbour at Baynard’s Castle, prior to removing to his mother’s palace at Woking, Surrey, and that would have facilitated the couple meeting in private, affording them the opportunity to get to know each other.13 After that, an understanding grew between them, and—on Elizabeth’s side at least—affection blossomed. In January, Lord Stanley would state that he had “heard the King and [the] lady often and at divers times treating and communing of, and about, a marriage to be contracted between them.” By the following January, according to the testimony of Lord Stanley, Elizabeth had come to feel “great and intimate love and cordial affection” for Henry, so the couple must have seen each other reasonably often.14 During the Michaelmas term of 1485, the King arranged for his Great Wardrobe to supply the princess with ten yards of crimson velvet and six yards of russet damask, priced at £20.4s. [£9,880], and sixty-four timbers (individual furs) of ermine costing £54.2s. [£26,450], supplied by Gerard Venmar and Hildebrand Vannonhaw (or Vain) furriers.15

  Henry needed to consolidate his title and be formally acknowledged as King as soon as possible. A “device” for a joint coronation was drawn up, probably by one of the heralds of the College of Arms, laying out detailed arrangements for the King and “the noble princess, Dame [space left blank], his wife, Queen of England,” for royal approval. “Soon after the King is passed out of the Tower, the Queen shall follow upon [a] cushion of white damask cloth of gold, bare-headed, wearing a round circle of gold set with pearls and precious stones, [and] arrayed in a kirtle of white damask day cloth of gold furred with miniver, garnished with onlets [aiglettes, or fastenings] of gold … The cardinal [Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury] shall bless the Queen’s crown, then he shall set the same crown upon the Queen’s head, having then a coif put thereon by a great lady, for conservation of the unction [holy oil]. The Queen, thus crowned, shall be led by the Bishops of Exeter and Ely unto her seat of estate near to the King’s seat royal.”16

  But Henry could not afford to defer his coronation until he was married, while a joint ceremony with Elizabeth might have sent out the message that they were equal sovereigns. There was to be no queen at his coronation, and the service was hastily amended to omit all references to one. Elizabeth was not even present at the solemnities in Westminster Abbey on October 30. Instead, the Lady Margaret Beaufort enjoyed a prominent place, visibly overwhelmed by the occasion: “in all that great triumph and glory, she wept marvelously.”17 Those who had lent Henry valuable support—Jasper Tudor, Bishop Morton, Lord Stanley, and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford—were given prominent roles at the ceremony; Morton would be consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury the following year, on the death of Cardinal Bourchier. Possibly the people were dismayed at Elizabeth’s absence. She was popular, the crown was seen as her right, and public opinion wanted her wed to the King without further delay. But before that could happen, there was other important business to be attended to.

  “After the coronation had been solemnly performed, a Parliament was held at Westminster,” in which Henry VII was hailed as a second Joshua who had rescued his people from tyranny. “And the sovereignty was confirmed to our lord the King as being his due, not by one but by many titles; so that we are to believe he rules most rightfully over the English people, and that not so much by right of blood as of conquest and victory in warfare.”18

  Parliament then proceeded to repeal Richard III’s act, Titulus Regius, effectively proclaiming Elizabeth and her siblings legitimate. This act, which had declared them bastards, was ordered suppressed. The judges deemed it too scandalous even to be read out, and urged that its recital in Parliament be avoided in order to preempt the perpetuation of its contents. It was also considered too subversive to be allowed to remain on record, for its “falseness and shamefulness” deserved only “utter oblivion”: the very Parliament roll on which it had been written was burnt by the public hangman, and orders were given that every copy be surrendered to the chancellor before Easter 1486, on pain of imprisonment or a heavy fine, so that “all things said and remembered in the said act may be forever out of remembrance and forgot.”19 Fortunately for posterity, the original draft of the act was found in the seventeenth century among the records stored in the Tower, and printed by John Speed in 1611; the text of it was also preserved in the Croyland Chronicle, most copies of which were also destroyed.

  Thus it is unsurprising that Polydore Vergil, an intelligent man with a humanist approach to history, later declared that the “common report that in Shaa’s sermon King Edward’s children were called bastards” was “devoid of all truth.” Thanks to the suppression of Titulus Regius, the finer details of the precontract story—such as the identity of the lady to whom Edward IV had supposedly been contracted (More thought she was Elizabeth Lucy, one of the King’s mistresses)—were forgotten; but the scandal was not. As late as 1533 the Spanish ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, when urging his master, the Emperor Charles V, to invade England in defense of Katherine of Aragon, whom Henry VIII had divorced, suggested he might seize the throne: “People here say you have a better title than the present King, who only claims by his mother, who was declared by sentence of the Bishop of Bath a bastard, because Edward IV had espoused another wife before the mother of Elizabeth of York.”20 There were several scions of the House of York then living who were in league with Chapuys and could have passed on that information. Eleanor Butler’s name was not to be published until 1646, after the text of Titulus Regius had been rediscovered.21

  Just after Bosworth, Henry VII had sent a warrant for Bishop Stillington’s arrest to the civic council in York, near to where Stillington was then living. Possibly Henry had heard in France the same gossip that had informed Commines’s claim that it was Stillington who had married Edward IV to Eleanor Butler; or he received information from his supporters in England that Stillington had helped compromise Elizabeth’s legitimacy. Whether any of this was true or not, Stillington could prove a threat or liability, and Henry may have felt he deserved to be punished, or at least frightened into silence.

  When the bishop was brought to York, he was found to be “sore crazed” and too ill to be sent south to London, so the city fathers imprisoned him at York—but not for long. A pardon for “horrible and heinous offenses imagined and done by him to the King” was issued by Henry VII in his first Parliament on the grounds of Stillington’s “great age, long infirmity, and feebleness.”22 After that, the King and the judges appointed to study Titulus Regius came to the conclusion that Stillington was either its author or had furnished the information about the precontract, but the King would not allow the bishop to be examined because he had been pardoned. Thus he blocked any discussion of the alleged precontract.

  Henry VII’s discretion in regard to Titulus Regius and the naming of crimes and offenses can be better understood when one remembers that he publicly committed himself to marrying a princess whose legitimacy had been called into question. He knew there were many who believed he must marry Elizabeth to make good his own claim; therefore her legitimacy must be beyond dispute. He could not risk anyone challenging her title, or that of himself and their heirs. It may be that Henry was unable to disprove the allegations of a precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, probably because no evidence of one had ever been produced. It was essential therefore that all the evidence impugning Elizabeth’s legitimacy be eradicated. This appears to have been a subject about which Henry VII was especially sensitive.

  Elizabeth was now the undisputed heiress of Edward IV. A political poem of 1487 acknowledged that:

  His title is fallen to our sovereign lady,

  Queen Elizabeth, his eldest daughter lineal;

  To her is come all the whole monarchy,

  For the fourth Edward had no issue male.

  The crown therefore and sceptre imperial

  Both she must have without division.


  Pietro Carmeliano, an Italian poet who had transferred from Richard III’s service to Henry VII’s, recognized that, upon the murder of her brothers, Elizabeth—that “beautiful, marriageable virgin”—had become her father’s heiress.23 Undoubtedly she had a better claim to the throne than Henry did, but there is no record of her resenting Henry relegating her to the role of Queen consort instead of Queen regnant. Although the Pope himself called her “the undoubted heir of that famous King of immortal memory, Edward IV”24 and Giovanni de’ Gigli, the papal collector in England, recognized that Edward’s “firstborn, should of right succeed her mighty sire,”25 and there were those who thought that Henry and Elizabeth should reign as joint sovereigns, no one seriously considered that a woman—even the legitimate, rightful heiress of the House of York—could actually rule alone as Queen regnant. On the contrary, her crown was the inheritance she would bring to her husband. As one song would put it, “the Queen’s title, by fortune’s adventure, he hath.”26 Traditionally women could transmit the crown—the royal houses of Plantagenet, York, and Tudor derived their claim through the female line—but not wield sovereign power. Even Margaret Beaufort, with all her astute capabilities, had never been regarded—or regarded herself—as a contender for the throne.

  There was no Salic law in England barring women from the throne, as there was in France, so there was nothing to prevent a woman from ruling, but memories of female misrule were long. People remembered how, in the twelfth century, the haughty, overbearing Empress Matilda’s attempt to pursue her lawful claim to the throne had resulted in a civil war so bloody that it had been said that “God and His saints slept.” That experience had left the English with an enduring prejudice against female rulers.

  The notion of a woman wielding dominion over men was seen as unnatural and against the laws of God and Nature. As Buckingham had bluntly put it, “It was not women’s place to govern the kingdom, but men’s.”27 Women were regarded as weak, irrational creatures at the mercy of their reproductive cycle, their chief function being the bearing of children. They were seen as unfit to lead armies in battle and interfere in affairs of state. Once wed, they had no control over their own property. In law, they were regarded as infants. Their primary purpose was to be wives and mothers, subordinate to their menfolk, in whose interests their marriages were arranged. Thus, no one spoke out in favor of Elizabeth of York ascending the throne in her own right as England’s lawful queen, and in this respect, in Parliament, Henry VII “would not endure any mention of the Lady Elizabeth, no, not in the nature of a special entail” of the crown.28 It would be left to the granddaughter who was named for her, Elizabeth I, to prove that a woman could rule successfully.

  There were those who felt strongly that Henry VII should have become King only through marriage to Elizabeth. He would remain unpopular with several of his nobles “for the wrong he did his queen, that he did not rule in her right.”29 Resentment festered in all ranks of society, and in time it would emerge as one of the chief causes of discontent on the part of his subjects, and provide a convenient pretext for his enemies to move against him.

  In an act attainting Richard III as a traitor, Parliament made no direct mention of Elizabeth’s brothers, the Princes in the Tower, but referred to “homicides and murders, in shedding of infants’ blood” among the many crimes attributed to him30—the kind of crimes of which traitors were often accused. Some modern historians have commented on the fact that the princes are not specifically named in the act. Given that repeal of Titulus Regius had legitimated Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, Henry VII might have been expected to publicize their murders in order to show that Elizabeth was the undoubted heir of York, and to stain Richard’s name more foully. The omission of their names has therefore been seen as proof that the princes still lived.

  There is little evidence that the early Tudor monarchs actively pursued a policy of character assassination against Richard III.31 Henry VII had good reasons for wanting to avoid any mention of the heirs of Edward IV. One was that it was not in his interests to raise the specter of Elizabeth’s bastardy. The other was that, almost certainly, he had no hard evidence of the princes’ murder, and was relying on the assumption made in 1483 that Richard had gone ahead with his plan to destroy them. Had their bodies been found, Henry would surely have publicized the fact; it would have saved him a lot of trouble in the long run, because from the commencement of his reign there were “secret rumors and whisperings (which afterward gained strength and turned to great troubles) that the two young sons of King Edward IV, or one of them (which were said to be destroyed in the Tower) were not indeed murdered, but conveyed secretly away, and were yet living; which, if it had been true, had prevented the title of the Lady Elizabeth.”32 Henry’s failure to establish beyond doubt that the princes were dead probably accounts for his unwillingness to accuse Richard III openly of having them killed; there was then a legal presumption that, without a body, there could be no charge of murder.

  In legitimizing Edward IV’s children, Henry VII could not but have been aware that he was acknowledging Edward V’s just title, so he must have been convinced that the princes were dead, for if they still lived, they posed a serious threat to his crown. Much has been made of two royal pardons granted by Henry to Sir James Tyrell in the summer of 1486, but there is no evidence that these relate to the murder of the princes. Very likely Henry himself did not know for certain what had happened to the boys, and it would have been highly damaging to the crown to publicize the fact that the brothers of the Yorkist heiress had effectively disappeared—hence the official silence on the matter.

  What Elizabeth felt about the “secret rumors and whisperings” of the survival of her brothers is not recorded. Maybe she believed there was no truth in them; but if there was doubt in her mind, then soon the realization would have followed that she faced a massive conflict of interests in marrying the man who occupied the throne to which they had a better claim, and that his hold on it—not to mention her own position—might then prove precarious. If so, she might have reasoned that she had done well to survive the past two years with her legitimacy restored and a crown within her grasp, and that it was better to accept the status quo than to stir up controversy; and of course she was in no position to challenge Henry Tudor’s title. But it may be that her brothers were never far from her mind, and that the possibility of their survival was to haunt her for many years to come.

  Now that Parliament had recognized Elizabeth Wydeville as Edward IV’s rightful queen, it restored her “estate, dignity, preeminence, and name” and repealed Richard III’s act confiscating her property.33 This was not returned to her, but she was allowed her widow’s jointure of thirty manors plus rents, as well as the rights and privileges normally enjoyed by a queen dowager. Parliament restored to Margaret Beaufort all the estates confiscated in 1483, and granted her rights as a sole person, “not wife or covert of any husband,”34 which gave her control over her huge fortune. Thereafter the King, grateful for all she had done to further his cause, “allotted her a share in most of his public and private resources.”35 Her status at court as “my lady the King’s mother” was to remain unchallenged. It was such that, from 1499, after years of signing herself “M. Richmond,” she began using the royal style “Margaret R.” The R stood for Richmond, of course, but it sounded suitably regal, and the Lady Margaret was already enjoying commensurate influence; effectively, she acted as an unofficial queen dowager and wore her countess’s coronet whenever she appeared in public, whereas the King and Queen only appeared in their crowns on state occasions.

  During this Parliament the King rewarded those who had served him loyally and helped him to win the crown. Lord Stanley was made Earl of Derby and given the offices of Constable of England and Chief Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster. Jasper Tudor, Henry’s uncle, was created Duke of Bedford. On November 7, Elizabeth was probably present at Jasper’s wedding to her aunt, Katherine Wydeville, widow of the Duke of Buckingham.<
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  Henry Tudor had triumphed. But “although all things seemed to be brought to a good and perfect conclusion, yet the harp still needed tuning to set all things in harmony. This tuning was the marriage between the King and Elizabeth.”36 There was no cause now for any further delay. Elizabeth had been legitimated, and a dispensation for her marriage to the King could be applied for. By November 4 a new coinage was being minted with a double rose symbolizing the union of Lancaster and York on the reverse—proof of Henry’s firm resolve to proceed to the marriage.37 But he still appeared in no hurry to fulfill his vow to wed Elizabeth. He clearly did not want it to be thought that their union was a matter of political necessity.38

  Bernard André asserts that, as Christmas drew nearer with no sign of any marriage preparations, Elizabeth grew anxious, for she had heard reports that the King had considered marrying Anne, Duchess of Brittany, who could bring him a great duchy coveted by the French king; or, it was said, his personal choice was Katherine, the youngest daughter of his former guardian, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, a girl he had known since childhood, and whom he had considered as a bride earlier that year.

  There was no substance to these reports, but they “bred some doubt and suspicion in divers that [the King] was not sincere, or at least not fixed in going on the match England so much desired, which conceit also, though it were but talk and discourse, did much afflict the poor Lady Elizabeth herself.”39 Bacon says she greatly desired this marriage, and to corroborate that we have Stanley’s evidence that her love for Henry had grown on acquaintance during the few weeks they had been seeing each other.40

 
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