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


  Most English people believed that the royal wedding would bring an end to the civil wars and herald a new era of peace and stability; consequently it was very popular, and it won for Henry Tudor the loyalty of many who had supported the House of York. Victory had given Henry “the knee of submission,” wrote Bacon, but “marriage with the Lady Elizabeth gave him the heart; so that both knee and heart did truly bow before him.”

  The nuptial union of Lancaster and York was a continuing theme in Tudor propaganda. “Now may we sing, we two bloods all made in one,” Bessy rejoices in Brereton’s poem. Thomas Ashwell, an English composer skilled in polyphony, wrote an early form of the National Anthem, “God save King Henry, wheresoe’er he be,” in honor of the marriage.71 In 1509, at the coronation of Henry VIII, the court poet, Stephen Hawes, reputed (probably without foundation) to have been a bastard son of Richard III, lauded the King’s parentage:

  Two titles in one thou didst unify

  When the red rose took the white in marriage.72

  More than a century later the union was still being extolled, indeed, immortalized, by Shakespeare in Richard III:

  We will unite the white rose and the red.

  Smile Heaven upon this fair conjunction

  That long hath frowned upon their enmity!—

  What traitor hears me, and says not Amen?

  England hath long been mad and scarred herself;

  The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood,

  The father rashly slaughtered his own son,

  The son, compell’d, been butcher to the sire:

  All this divided York and Lancaster,

  Divided in their dire division.

  O now let Richmond and Elizabeth,

  The true successors of each royal House,

  By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together!

  And let their heirs—God, if Thy will be so—

  Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,

  With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days!

  Now civic wounds are stopped, peace lives again

  That she may long live, God say Amen!

  And as late as 1603, the accession proclamation of James I would speak of this marriage that had “brought to an end the bloody and civil wars to the joy unspeakable of this kingdom.”73

  After the wedding, the King and his new Queen presided over a lavish nuptial feast, at which the guests dined on roasted peacocks, swans, larks, and quails, followed by sugared almonds and fruit tarts.

  It is often claimed that a medal (now in the British Museum) was struck to commemorate the marriage, embellished with images of the happy couple holding hands; the man wears a garland of roses on his head, while the woman is shown crowned, with her wavy hair loose, as betokened a virgin bride and queen. She wears a round-necked gown beneath a mantle, and a heavy cross suspended from a pearl necklace. The reverse shows a wreath of roses enclosing a legend: “As the rising sun is the ornament of the day, so is a good wife the ornament of her house.” It is the roses that have led to the incorrect assumption that the medal was struck to mark the union of Henry and Elizabeth, but it has now been established that the medal is one of a series made in Prague in the late sixteenth century, and that it has nothing to do with them.74

  Similarly, a painting formerly at Sudeley Castle (once at Strawberry Hill), said to be by Jan Gossaert (or Mabuse), has long been said to portray the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, and has often been engraved as such. Yet there is no evidence that Gossaert ever visited England, and his style is very different. The setting is an imaginary church, and the attire of the bride appears to date from the late sixteenth century, while the other figures wear late-fifteenth-century dress. A painting, perhaps contemporary, and said to be of the marriage, is in Lady Braye’s collection at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire. A modern romanticized painting of The Joining of the Houses of Lancaster and York, executed by J. R. Brown around 1901, hangs in Blackpool Town Hall.

  At last Elizabeth’s ambitions had been crowned with the royal dignity that was rightfully hers. Her wedding night was spent in the King’s bedchamber, the Painted Chamber of the Palace of Westminster, a vast room built in the thirteenth century by Henry III, measuring eighty-six by twenty-six feet. Behind the massive four-poster bed was a mural dating from that time, showing the coronation of Edward the Confessor in faded red, blue, silver, and gold, and on the walls were huge paintings of Biblical battles. There was a great fireplace in the room, but even so the Painted Chamber must have been difficult to heat in January, and the palace was notoriously damp. Fortunately, the bed curtains would have afforded a degree of intimacy.

  Now, it was Henry’s part to assay a second victory: as on the battlefield, so in the bedchamber, for as Ann Wroe points out, the language of love was very much the language of war, and a man was expected to come prepared with his “weapon” or “harness” and engage in a “raid,” or “sweet combat,” with his lady, each showing the other mercy in paying “the sweet due debt of nature.”75 For all the years of intrigue and political maneuvering, the blood shed at Bosworth, the pageantry and symbolism of the wedding, and the advantages of this great alliance, what mattered now was what happened when these two young people, divested of their royal finery—for it was customary to sleep naked—got between the sheets together to do their duty to their people and to posterity, and, as Fuller put it, “the two Houses of York and Lancaster united first hopefully in their bed.” As time would soon prove, this was a most successful mating, not least because the Yorkist claimant to the throne, who could have been Henry Tudor’s greatest enemy, had now been rendered neutral in his embrace.

  The white and red roses of York and Lancaster combined were from the first the chief symbol of this union, and of the new dynasty. Henry was actively to promote it. The following year, in York on progress, he ordered a pageant to be performed featuring “a royal rich red rose, unto which rose shall appear another rich white rose, unto whom all flowers shall give sovereignty, and there shall come from a cloud a crown covering the roses.”76 Here is the origin of the Tudor badge, the rose and crown. The great rose window in the south transept of York Minster, with its intertwined red and white roses, commemorates the marriage of the founders of the Tudor dynasty. The King had the Tudor rose incorporated into the collar of the garter insignia, and it became customary to surround the royal arms with a garland of Tudor roses.

  Popular songs were written about the new emblem, notably, “A Crown-Garland of Noble Roses gathered out of England’s loyal Garden: A Princely Song made of the Red Rose and White, royally united together by King Henry VII and Elizabeth Plantagenet,” which claimed that “the owners of these princely flowers in virtues do excel.”77 And in 1550 the title page of the printed edition of Hall’s chronicle, The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York, had the title enclosed between two rose trellises, with Henry VII and Elizabeth of York kneeling, hand in hand, at the top of each, with their son, Henry VIII, in majesty above them—the true inheritor of both strains of royal blood.78

  8

  “In Blest Wedlock”

  On the morning after her wedding night, Henry presented Elizabeth with Giovanni de’ Gigli’s poem, her morning gift, and then there would have been the traditional small ceremony of her “uprising” as a new wife.1 Henceforth, as a married woman, she would be expected to bind up her hair and cover it with a hood, although queens were invested with symbolic virginity because they were expected to emulate Mary, the Mother of Christ, so they were allowed the privilege of wearing their hair loose on ceremonial occasions when they wore their crowns.

  Waking up as Queen of England, Elizabeth would surely have been conscious of the fact that she now occupied the most powerful and socially desirable position to which a woman could aspire.2 She was the wife of the Lord’s Anointed,3 a status that would from now on be reflected in every aspect of the ritual and ceremonial that surrounded her and governed her life; and she, the daughte
r of a King and Queen, would have been aware of the weight of responsibility that brought with it. She was to be the highest example of virtuous womanhood: the living mirror of the Virgin Mary, as exemplified by her chastity and humility, her anticipated motherhood, her charity, and her acts of mercy. A Queen had to be the embodiment of piety, the guardian of the royal bloodline, an object of chivalric devotion, a gentle and moderate mediator in the conflicts of men, and an inspiration to her husband’s subjects.

  Elizabeth now had to prove her worthiness in more practical ways too. She had to bear the heirs so crucial to the Tudor succession and the continuance of the new dynasty. She had a great household to run, and was no doubt thankful that a phalanx of officers had been appointed to help her do it. She had a sophisticated ceremonial role to perform at court and in the realm at large. She had to negotiate the political institution that was the court, which might mean subsuming her private loyalties to her duty to the King her husband. She had to learn to live within her means, yet show herself generous in her charities and make provision for her immediate relations, who would now look to her for support and advancement. She also had to accustom herself to her husband’s ways, combine queenly dignity with the docility and submission expected of a wife, and be a loving helpmeet to this man who clearly expected her to play a subordinate role, despite her superior claim to the throne. Then she had to forge good relations with his influential mother. It was daunting, what was expected of her: yet she had been born a royal princess and reared to know what to expect; and she had the example of her mother before her.

  The Queen’s seal survives in the National Archives at Kew. Elizabeth chose “Humble and reverent” as her queenly motto, in place of “sans removyr,” and the white rose of York as her personal emblem. As her father’s heiress, she was legally entitled to bear the royal arms of England, but for Henry VII that implied joint sovereignty, so at his instance she and her sisters bore the royal arms quartered with those of their Mortimer and de Burgh forebears. Their maternal Wydeville heritage did not feature at all.4 Elizabeth’s escutcheon can be seen at the foot of her tomb in Westminster Abbey. For public occasions and court ceremonials, her retinue wore her personal livery of mulberry and blue silk, the colors of the House of York.5 At other times they wore liveries of various colors, such as russet, green, tawny (tan), or black.6

  Elizabeth now had to adjust to marriage with the complex twenty-nine-year-old man who was her husband. Bacon called Henry VII “a dark prince and infinitely suspicious,” which is not surprising considering that, from early childhood, his life had been overshadowed by war and intrigue. And as King, as Bacon observed, “his time was full of secret conspiracies.” He was calculating, pragmatic, devious, ruthless, and prone to dissimulation, and he never won the love of his people, only their grudging respect.

  But Henry was also “a man of vast ability”7 and hidden depths. He knew four languages, was well read, good at economics, and well versed in the arts of the period. He was clever, hardworking, subtle, shrewd, caring to his family, and possessed of a dry humor. His good qualities would much later be lauded in a funeral oration made by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and chaplain and confessor to Margaret Beaufort, who praised “his politic wisdom in governance” as “singular,” his wit “always quick and ready, his reason pithy and substantial, his memory fresh, his counsels fortunate and taken by wise deliberation.”

  Henry’s greatest achievements were to survive on the throne for so long and ultimately to bring stability to England. His aims were a secure throne bolstered by wealth, the maintenance of law, order, and peace, the supremacy of the crown, the future prosperity and standing of his dynasty, and the establishment of his realm as an international power to be reckoned with. He succeeded in them all. He established strong centralized government, a far-flung network of administrators and justices, and effective law and order. He promoted foreign trade and commerce, brought economic prosperity to the merchant classes, and amassed a fortune that made him financially independent of Parliament. By clever alliances he would substantially enhance England’s standing in the arena of European politics.

  Henry was haunted by the knowledge that an army as small as the one he had led against Richard III at Bosworth could overthrow him, and by the fear that any of the Yorkist heirs might challenge his title. Yet despite his insecurities, he brought firm government to England. Conscientious and professional, he displayed insight, prudence, patience, and understanding. He was well-informed and astute, and his political acumen earned him universal respect. Ever suspicious of his nobles, he outlawed “bastard feudalism,” the system by which great lords had maintained private armies of retainers, which made the Wars of the Roses possible. Henry reined in the power of the nobility by banning such armies and reviving the Court of Star Chamber,8 which had power to punish those lords who infringed the new laws. He promoted loyal and energetic “new men” who had risen through wealth and ability to prominence.

  He was a man who liked to keep an eye on details that other kings might have left to others. Notoriously careful with money, he painstakingly initialed each item in his accounts.9 “He constantly kept notes and memorials in his own hand, especially touching persons, as whom to employ, whom to reward, keeping a journal of his thoughts.” But he was to be confounded. “His monkey, set on, as it was thought, by one of his chamber, tore his principal notebook all to pieces, when by chance he had left it about. Whereat the court, which liked not these pensive accounts, was much tickled with the sport.”10

  Henry was an intelligent and cultured man who patronized William Caxton, collected books, appreciated poetry, and encouraged the new learning of the Renaissance in England. He invited French and Italian scholars such as Bernard André and Polydore Vergil to his court. Like Elizabeth, he was genuinely devout, and would attend Mass up to three times a day. He was also liberal when it came to giving alms to the sick, the poor, and the Church.

  If Henry lacked the common touch, he liked to give the impression of greatness, and knew when to spend lavishly to project the magnificence expected of monarchs, which would command respect and awe for the new dynasty. Andrea Trevisano, a Venetian envoy, was received by the King in 1497 in “a small hall hung with very handsome tapestry. Leaning against a tall gilt chair covered with cloth of gold, His Majesty wore a violet-colored gown lined with cloth of gold, and a collar of many jewels; and on his cap was a large diamond and a most beautiful pearl.”11 When the King ate, he was served not by his household officers but by peers of the realm. Whenever he ventured out in public, he walked under a canopy of estate and was attended by great ceremonial. He founded the Yeomen of the Guard, the first standing army in English history, as his personal bodyguard. Henry VII’s personal magnificence, typical of princes of the age, helped to convince not only his subjects, but also foreign ambassadors and the princes they served, that his throne was secure. Yet an envoy once observed of him: “He likes to be much spoken of, and to be highly appreciated by the whole world. He fails in this because he is not a great man.”12

  Henry was often a cheerful, witty, and congenial companion. He loved court ceremonial, music, cards, dice, gambling, dancing, disguisings, plays, and morris dancers, and delighted in the antics of tumblers, jugglers, acrobats, fire eaters, and court fools, pastimes Elizabeth enjoyed also. He was clearly a thoughtful man, and gave generous gifts to his servants and Elizabeth at New Year, and extra to those who could not attend the festivities.13 To his children, he was an attentive and loving father, “full of paternal affection, careful of their education, aspiring to their high advancement, regular to see that they should not want of any due honor and respect.”14 That he loved them too is apparent in two inscriptions he wrote in a book of hours given to his daughter, Margaret, probably on her departure to marry the King of Scots in 1503: “Remember your kind and loving father in your prayers.” And, “Pray for your loving father that gave you this book, and I give you at all times God’s blessing and mine.”15 Also, he was a
faithful and loving husband to Elizabeth.

  The carved letters H and E in a lovers’ knot on the tower roof of Sherborne Abbey Church, Dorset, are said to be the initials of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, symbolizing their loving wedlock. Touching mentions of Elizabeth in official correspondence and accounts, such as “the King’s most dear bedfellow, the Queen,” “the King’s most dear consort,” or “our dearest wife, the Queen,”16 were merely conventional forms of reference, and do not necessarily reflect real affection. That there was affection and tenderness between Henry and Elizabeth cannot be doubted, but evidence about the true nature of their relationship is contradictory. A Spanish envoy, Juan de Matienzo, sub-prior of Santa Cruz, claimed in 1498 that Elizabeth “suffered under great oppression and led a miserable, cheerless life.” He suggested to his sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, that “it would be a good thing to write often to her, and to show her a little love.”17 Evidently he thought love was lacking in her life. Yet there is no other evidence that Elizabeth was deprived of it—rather the opposite, for there are instances of both the King and his mother showing genuine concern for her health and her happiness; and on this one occasion there may have been a very good reason why Elizabeth appeared subdued, even unhappy.

  In 1613, Bacon asserted of Henry that “his Queen (notwithstanding she presented him with divers children, and a crown also, though he would not acknowledge it) could do nothing with him … Toward [her] he was nothing uxorious, nor scarce indulgent, but companionable and respective [considerate], and without jealousy … And it is true that, all his lifetime, while the Lady Elizabeth lived with him, he showed himself no very indulgent husband to her, though she was beautiful, gentle, and fruitful. But his aversion toward the House of York was so predominant in him, as it found place not only in his wars and councils, but in his chamber and bed.” If this were initially true, it could have had much to do with Elizabeth’s involvement with Richard III, which had upset Henry at the time, and must have seemed like a betrayal. But was it true?

 
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