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

  To begin with, Henry may have resented what Elizabeth was, even while growing to love her for herself. He was clearly wary of her lineage and potential influence. That is evident in his determination not to be seen to owe his crown to her, and his relegating her to a dynastic, ceremonial, and domestic role, and placing financial constraints upon her, as will be seen. Above all, it seems, he did not want her to be associated in any way with Richard III, as the matter of Queens’ College, Cambridge, shows. It had been founded by Margaret of Anjou and later enjoyed the patronage of Elizabeth Wydeville and Anne Neville, so it might have followed that Elizabeth of York, as Queen, would assume that role too. But Richard III had also been a patron of Queens,’ and on his accession, Henry VII confiscated all the endowments made by Richard and Anne; significantly, Elizabeth did not become the college’s new royal patron. On her death, however, that role would be taken over by Margaret Beaufort.18

  Bacon was sometimes apt to draw sweeping conclusions about Elizabeth that jar with other evidence and should be treated with caution. There is little else to support his damning assessment of the marriage, which was based on negative inferences he had made from Henry VII’s delay in marrying Elizabeth,19 and his belief that Henry had wronged her by not ruling in her right. In fact, historians all the way back to John Lingard, whose history of England was published in 1819, have questioned Bacon’s observations about the relationship between Henry and Elizabeth.

  The years spent as a fugitive had taken their toll on the King.

  He trusted few and had learned to maintain an autocratic distance. “He was of a high mind and loved his own will and his own way, as one that revered himself and would reign indeed. Had he been a private man he would have been termed proud: but in a wise prince, it was but keeping of distance, which indeed he did toward all, not admitting any near or full approach, either to his power or to his secrets. For he was governed by none.”20 Elizabeth may have found this daunting, at least to begin with, and probably soon realized that her husband was not going to treat her as a political confidante, for it was not in his nature. Children, companionship, and support seem to have been all he wanted from her, at least at the beginning.

  It was for these reasons, and possibly more personal ones, that Henry began by keeping Elizabeth in her place. The early years of their marriage were probably challenging, for he had to overcome his suspicions of his Yorkist bride and deal with her dangerous relations. Yet it is clear that Elizabeth left him in no doubt as to where her loyalties lay. Her superior title to the throne never proved a threat to him, and probably she herself made sure that he knew he had nothing to fear from her. As time passed, he clearly grew to love, trust, and respect her; he was affectionate toward her, and they seem to have become emotionally close. We know that she loved him, and she must have appreciated the stability that marriage to Henry brought her after so many years of tragedy, danger, and anxiety.

  We will hear how, much later, the couple hastened lovingly to comfort and support each other after losing a child, which argues that, after years of wedlock, they had come to enjoy a close and mutually supportive relationship. Thomas More would write of the “faithful love” that enabled them “to continue in marriage and peaceable concord.” Certainly there is no record of any strife between them. Touching references in Henry’s letters and privy purse expenses reveal his tenderness toward his wife, while his desperate grief after her death suggests that he had come to cherish her, and perhaps felt remorseful that he had not shown it enough. Probably, after suffering an uncertain youth in captivity or exile, he was grateful for the settled existence he came to enjoy with his virtuous queen, and for the welcome peace and tranquillity of his domestic life. And no doubt, over the years, he would have been increasingly grateful to Elizabeth for presenting him with the heirs that were so essential to the future of the Tudor dynasty.

  In an age in which royal couples often lived separate lives in separate apartments, and kings were frequently absent on business of their own while queens stayed at home, Elizabeth and Henry participated together in a full social life at court and traveled together frequently, spending much time in each other’s company. They shared a common piety and, it seems, a sense of humor. Inevitably, over the years, they grew closer. There was a softer side to the King that Elizabeth must have known. His privy purse expenses reveal numerous kindnesses, such as money he gave variously to a man wrongfully arrested, a woman with child, children singing for him in a garden, a Jewess for her marriage, the liberating of prisoners, and “a little fair maiden that danceth.”21 A man whose heart was touched by people such as these must have had some kindness and warmth in his character.

  We know something of what Henry VII admired in a woman from instructions he was later to give his ambassadors when, as a widower, he considered marrying Joan, Queen of Naples. He could not court her in person, so he asked them to note carefully her age and stature, “the features of her body; the favor of her visage, whether she be painted or not, and whether it be fat or lean, sharp or round, and whether her countenance be cheerful and amiable, frowning or melancholy, steadfast or light, or blushing in communication; her eyes, brows, lips, and teeth; the fashion of her nose, and the height and breadth of her forehead; her arms, whether they be great or small, long or short; her breasts and paps, whether they be big or small; whether there appear any hair about her lips or not; the condition of her breath, whether it be sweet or not; [and] whether she be a great feeder or drinker.”22 It may be that he had come to regard his late wife as an ideal to which any future wife must conform or be found wanting.

  Henry had lived a relatively chaste life. He had only one bastard son, Roland de Velville, conceived during his exile in Brittany; Velville was knighted by Henry VII, who appointed him Constable of Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey.23 After marriage, the King was apparently faithful to Elizabeth, and no breath of scandal tainted their union. A Spanish ambassador wrote that “one of the reasons why he leads a good life is that he has been brought up abroad.”24 He was implying that, had Henry been raised at the licentious court of Edward IV instead of being exiled, he might have succumbed to the temptations on offer there. Yet even an exile can indulge in amorous intrigues, so the likelihood is that Henry was, by nature, a monogamous man. And although there is evidence that, after years of faithful marriage, he was attracted to another lady, that was almost certainly as far as it went.

  The sources give an overwhelming impression that the union between Henry and Elizabeth evolved into a true partnership, a relationship based on deep affection, if not love, cooperation, fidelity, and trust. She was to show herself devoted to promoting his interests; she never interfered, never openly complained, and proved herself a true helpmeet. In short, this was the most successful and stable marriage made by any of the Tudors.

  Kings were not expected to share government with their queens, or to rely on their advice, and certainly they were not supposed to be influenced by them in political matters.25 Medieval queens were “generally the passive instruments of policy”26 and had no formal political identity or power of their own. Queens were applauded, however, when they used their gentle feminine influence to intercede with the King where appropriate, and thus enabled him to rescind a decision without losing face. Instances of queens using their influence probably went largely unrecorded; a queen enjoyed a unique advantage over other petitioners due to her intimate relationship with the King. It was accepted that, because of this, she might be privy to matters of state, but advice that Elizabeth might have read urged that her “wisdom ought to appear in speaking, that is to wit that she be secret and tell not such things as ought to be holden secret.”27 If she ever interceded with Henry, it was in private, and there are instances of his paying heed to her concerns, but it was not in his nature generally to be swayed by her.

  As he almost certainly came to appreciate, Elizabeth performed her queenly role to perfection, understanding exactly what was required of her, and conforming seemingly effortle
ssly to the late medieval ideal of queenship, which constrained her to a role that was essentially decorous, symbolic, and dynastic. She was beautiful, devout, fertile, and kind—the traditional good queen.

  In the past, historians tended to compare Elizabeth of York favorably to Margaret of Anjou,28 that “great and strong labored woman”;29 yet today, in the wake of a revolution in female emancipation, it is the proactive Margaret, vigorously fighting her husband Henry VI’s cause, who earns our admiration, rather than the passive Elizabeth. Gentleness, fruitfulness, and piety are no longer qualities esteemed in women. We have learned to admire them for what they do, and for their strengths. But in Elizabeth’s day, queens were not expected to do very much beyond exemplifying the humane, feminine side of monarchy—interceding for others, being charming to foreign ambassadors, or winning popularity by their charities, their gifts to the poor, their pilgrimages, and their pious example. Getting involved in politics and wars was a step too far. Unlike Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth never identified herself with factions at court; unlike her mother, she did not promote a horde of ambitious relatives. Certainly she was not as politically inclined, or as politically active, as Elizabeth Wydeville,30 and she never enjoyed anything approaching Elizabeth Wydeville’s influence. If she had been strongly identified with the Wydeville faction prior to her marriage, that was all at an end, for her mother’s family were never allowed much influence by Henry VII, who clearly preferred to emphasize Elizabeth’s paternal descent.

  Yet this was the girl who had schemed to marry her uncle, Richard III, the girl whose vengeance his councilors had feared—that same girl who had probably plotted with the Stanleys on Henry Tudor’s behalf. What drove her had doubtless been the desire to be restored to her rightful inheritance and elevated to the throne. But now that she was Queen, having made that dynastically crucial marriage and achieved her ambition, she retreated from politics and interested herself largely in affairs that were her legitimate province, such as her household, her estates, her court, and her children. Her opinions were seldom to be voiced, and although she would be at the center of great and tumultuous events that must have affected her personally, probably deeply in some instances, we know little of her role—if any—in them, or her views or feelings.

  It seems strange that she was now apparently ready meekly to accept a passive role as the price of her marriage and her queenship, but probably it was an adjustment she was happy to make, for there is no evidence that she wanted to involve herself in political affairs. Even so, her married life may have been fraught at times. Her Yorkist blood and her superior claim to the throne ensured that she would tread a tightrope of divided loyalties in the coming years, joined as she was to a husband who was deeply suspicious of her house. How she rose to these challenges we do not know specifically, yet we can surely infer, from the emerging harmony of her marital existence, that she took care never to be controversial and always to place her husband’s interests first.

  Her own concerns were apparently domestic rather than political. From time to time the King involved her in diplomatic relations, mainly in connection with the marriages of their children, in which traditionally she was supposed to interest herself. It is often said that Henry allowed Elizabeth no power at all, but evidently it was known that she exercised a gentle, unobtrusive influence on him, as is evidenced by the endless stream of gifts to her from powerful persons who clearly believed that her patronage was worth having.31

  However, given that she wielded such influence only in private, it is hard to assess the extent of it. Certainly there are instances of her exercising authority independently of her husband. We find her intervening in matters of law, and petitioning him on behalf of her servants, London merchants, and others. When one of her Welsh tenants complained of the heavy-handedness of Henry’s uncle, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, Chief Justice of North Wales, she did not refer the matter to the King but sent a sharp reproof to Pembroke herself, which apparently achieved the desired result.32

  Another letter from Elizabeth, undated but written in 1492, is among the Paston letters, that great collection of fifteenth-century correspondence; in it, she rebukes John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, in regard to disputed ownership of a manor:

  To our right trusty and beloved cousin, the Earl of Oxenford.

  By the Queen.

  Right trusty and entirely beloved cousin, we greet you well, letting you wit [understand] know how it is come unto our knowledge that, whereas ye newly entered upon our well-beloved Simon Bryant, gentleman, into the manor of Hemnals [Hempnalls Hall, Suffolk] in Cotton, descended and belonging unto him by right of inheritance, as it is said, ye thereupon desired the same Simon to be agreeable for his part to put all matters of variance then depending atween him and one Sir John Paston, knight, pretending a title unto the said manor, into th’award and judgement of two learned men, by you named and chosen as arbiters atween them; and in case that the same arbiters of and upon the premises neither gave out nor made such award before the breaking up of Pasche [Easter] term, now last passed, ye of your own offer granted and promised unto the said Simon, as we be informed, to restore him forthwith thereupon unto his possession of the said manor; and how it be that the same Simon, at your motion, and for the pleasure of your lordship, as he saith, agreed unto the said compromise, and thereupon brought and showed his evidence concerning, and sufficiently proving, his right in the said manor unto the said arbiters; and that they have not made nor holden out between the said parties any such award. Yet have not ye restored the same Simon unto his possession of the said manor but continually kept him out of the same, which, if it so be, is not only to his right great hurt and hindrance, but also our marvel. Wherefore we desire and pray you right affectuously that ye will rather, at the contemplation of these our letters, show unto the said Simon, in his rightful interest and title in the said manor, all the favourable lordship that ye goodly may, doing him to be restored and put into his lawful and peaceable possession of the same, as far as reason, equity, and good conscience shall require, and your said promise, in such wise that he may understand himself herein to fare the better for our sake, as our very trust is in you.

  Given under our signet at my lord’s Palace of Westminster, the xxv day of June,


  Beneath is written: “subscribed with the Queen’s hand.” The existence of this letter—and there were probably more like it that are lost—proves that Elizabeth did sometimes venture into the world of public affairs. Here we see her being firm, fair, and concerned to right a wrong, and her influence must have been known to be effective, or Simon Bryant would surely not have judged it worth appealing to her for help. Two months after the letter was written, John Daubeney sent Sir John Paston, Oxford’s councilor, “a copy of the letter that the Queen sent to my lord of Oxford from the manor of Cotton for Bryant.” He reported that the Archbishop of York wanted Oxford to help Paston keep possession of the manor, and was going to “inform the Queen of the matter, and because the Queen hath take[n to] her chamber,” he had sent a ring to the Lord Treasurer, anxious “that he should excuse my lord of Oxford to the Queen,” for he really had no choice in the matter.33

  As Queen, Elizabeth traveled widely, often with the King, sometimes on her own, showing the gentler face of monarchy to the people, which doubtless enhanced her popularity. Like her father, she had the common touch; she was charming and accessible. Certainly she was generous, and the multiplicity of her many charities and kindnesses bears testimony to a warm and giving heart. Sadly, her privy purse expenses survive for only one year, 1502–03,34 but they are packed with evidence of her goodness, her open-handedness, and her kindnesses, as will be seen; and no doubt the purse expenses for the missing years would have further served to show why she was such a popular queen.

  Elizabeth was seen as “a very noble woman,” as “the most distinguished and the most noble lady in the whole of England,” and she was “much loved”35 by her husband’s subjects, high
and low. The Great Chronicle of London states that she “demeaned her[self] so virtuously that she was named the Gracious Queen,” while Edward Hall, writing under her son, Henry VIII, was to recall: “For her great virtue this noble princess was commonly called the good Queen Elizabeth.”

  Short of cash though she was, her charities were many. She supported orphans, took children under her wing and raised them, and liberated debtors from London prisons. She gave money, for example, to an anchoress living in St. Peter’s almshouses in St. Albans; in alms to two of her father’s former servants; to a friary clerk, so that he could bury pirates who had been hanged at Execution Dock on the Thames at Wapping; to Nicholas Grey, clerk of the works at Richmond, whose house had burned down; to the children of the College of Windsor; to the son of a madman, for his diet and a gown; to the man who had cured himself of syphilis—“the French pox”; to “little Anne Loveday,” a girl who wanted to be a nun at Elstow Abbey, so that she could have a dowry; to a child christened at Windsor; and alms to many beggars. She also obtained a letter of pardon “for the remission of sins” for the friars of the monastery housing St. Katherine’s shrine on Mount Sinai in the Holy Land.36 She was the generous patron of several religious establishments, including the austere Carthusian priory of the Charterhouse at Sheen, founded by Henry V in 1414, and lying half a mile north of Sheen Palace; and she gave alms, rewards, and cash for repairs to the buildings.37

  Her privy purse expenses of 1502–03 reveal that she was the recipient of numerous gifts from many of her husband’s appreciative subjects. She handsomely rewarded them all, from the poor man who came with apples, to the Lord Mayor of London, who presented her with cherries. A substantial number of the gifts were of food: her son’s fool sent her some carp; Lord Stanley sent Malmsey wine; Edith Sandys, Lady Darcy, sent “a present of seal,” the meat of which was then a delicacy; Sir John Williams sent two bucks, Sir John Seymour two does; the prothonotary of Spain sent oranges—a costly delicacy only recently introduced into England—“from Spain to the Queen at Richmond”; Richard Smythe, yeoman of the wardrobe, sent a gift of a fawn “from the park of Swallowfield,” Berkshire, where he was bailiff; the Abbess of Syon sent rabbits and quails; Richard FitzJames, Bishop of Rochester, sent grapes; Henry Deane, Archbishop of Canterbury, sent a “Llanthony cheese,” while Henry, prior of Llanthony, also sent regular gifts of cheeses and some baked lampreys.38

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