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

  People of all ranks sent gifts for the Queen, and many commoners or poor folk came to the palace gates with humble offerings, such as butter, chickens, wardens (pears), pippins, puddings, apples, peascods, cakes, cherries in season, a conserve of cherries (several gifts of cherries are recorded, so they must have been known as among Elizabeth’s favorite foods), pomegranates, oranges, comfits (candied fruit), cheeses, several bucks, wild boar, tripes, chines of pork, a goshawk, pheasant cocks, capons, birds, a crane, Rhenish wine, roses, fine ironwork, and a cushion. None went away without a handsome reward, usually more than Elizabeth could afford. One man got 13s.4d. [£320] for bringing her a popinjay (parrot).39

  Some of the gifts may have been expressions of thanks or appreciation, much as flowers are given to royalty today; some were perhaps given in anticipation of queenly favor to come, given Elizabeth’s reputation for open-handedness and the influence she was perceived to have with the King. But most are probably testimony to the love and goodwill borne by Henry’s subjects for a kind, gentle, and generous-hearted queen.

  Ballads were sung about Elizabeth, such as the “White Rose Carol”:

  In a glorious garden green

  Saw I sitting a comely queen;

  Among the flowers that fresh been.

  She gathered a flower and sat between;

  The lily-white rose methought I saw,

  And ever she sang,

  This day, day dawns,

  This gentle day, day dawns,

  This gentle day dawns

  And I must home gone.

  In that garden be flowers of hue:

  The gillyflower40 gent that she well knew;

  The fleur de lis she did one rue41

  And said, “The white rose is most true

  This garden to rule by righteous law.”

  The lily-white rose methought I saw,

  And ever she sang,

  This day, day dawns,

  This gentle day, day dawns,

  This gentle day dawns

  And I must home gone.42

  Henry VII did not enjoy that kind of affection, so he was lucky to have such a queen to show to the world the popular face of monarchy.

  Elizabeth was “intelligent above all others, and equally beautiful. She was a woman of such character that it would be hard to judge whether she displayed more of majesty and dignity in her life than wisdom and moderation.” This was written by Polydore Vergil, Henry VII’s favored historian, so one might expect it to be flattering in the extreme, but Vergil was not afraid to offend or criticize his royal patron—Henry was decidedly put out when Vergil dismissed the Arthurian legends as myths. That Elizabeth had these qualities in good measure is borne out by the praise of other contemporaries as well. One chronicler called her “noble and virtuous,”43 and a Venetian report described her as “a very handsome woman of great ability, and in conduct very able,” beloved for her abundant “charity and humanity.”44 Erasmus described the Queen in one word: “brilliant.”

  Later writers had little to say about her, though. “Besides her dutifulness to her husband, and fruitfulness in her children, little can be extracted of her personal character,” observed Thomas Fuller in the 1660s, and his words sum up a problem faced by her biographers today, because much about her has to be inferred from external evidence. That she was gentle, kind, and devout is patently clear, and she was demonstrably generous by nature. Alison Plowden describes her as fruitful, beautiful, submissive, a loving mother, a dutiful daughter, chaste after marriage, pious, charitable, placid, kind, sweet-tempered, generous, and “naturally indolent.” In short, she had all the virtues of great ladies in medieval chivalric verse.

  Certainly she was pious: her privy purse expenses show that she unfailingly made offerings on all the great feasts of the Church and on numerous saints’ days; she had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary and various other saints; she owned religious books that give insights into a conventional, late medieval piety, and “a chest of ivory with the Passion of Our Lord thereon.”45 In 1486 the Pope issued her and Henry with a special dispensation “to have a portable altar, on which they may have Mass celebrated when necessary before daybreak, and to have Mass and other divine offices celebrated in places”—even “under interdict, with doors closed, the excommunicate and interdicted being excluded, bells unrung, and in a low voice, in presence of themselves and their household, etc., provided that they are not the cause of such interdict, nor specially interdicted.” His Holiness also permitted “each of them and for Margaret, Countess of Richmond, the King’s mother, not to be bound to fast in Lent, and during that season to eat eggs, cheese, butter, and other milk-meats, whenever they shall think fit.”46

  Elizabeth was hardly indolent. Rather, as Thomas Penn suggests in Winter King, she had a natural serenity. She could bestir herself when she needed to, as when she busily schemed in the months before Bosworth. That serenity made it easy for her to accept the decisions that were made for her, asserting herself with fervor only when important things were at stake, or with anger, as when she intervened to prevent an injustice. Richard III’s councilors feared that she had it in her to be vengeful, but those may well have been assumptions, for it is unlikely they knew her very well. Certainly there is no evidence to give credence to their fears. Elizabeth had neither her mother’s robust energy nor her strong will and steely determination, and maybe felt at a disadvantage beside that practical and capable paragon, Margaret Beaufort. It was fortunate that her serene nature—and no doubt her love for her husband—helped her to survive in a marriage in which she was kept in submission, and in a queenly role that was overshadowed by her mother-in-law. Her love for Henry would have made that easier too.

  The appearance of placidity, even indolence, may stem from the fact that all her life Elizabeth was overshadowed by dominant women: her grandmothers, her mother, and her mother-in-law—and it is sometimes said that there was friction between the latter two, although that can only be an assumption. In her early years Elizabeth had learned that it was her lot to be obedient and conformable, and this was to stand her in good stead in adult life. It is hard to imagine any of those domineering female relations being so mild and self-effacing as she undoubtedly was during her years as Queen. She was not domineering and grasping like her mother and mother-in-law, and it was probably because of her dutifulness and her willingness to accept a subordinate role that her marriage was successful, if not happy.

  It was not only Henry Tudor to whom Elizabeth had now to accustom herself, but also his devoted, emotional, and possibly overbearing mother. Margaret Beaufort’s lifelong passion was for her son; he was her “own sweet and most dear King, and all my worldly joy.”47 In one letter she reminded him that it was the feast of St. Agnes, “the day that I did bring into this world my good and gracious prince, King, and only beloved son.”48 In another letter, from 1501, Margaret addresses Henry as “my dearest and only desired joy in this world” and calls him “dear heart” and “my sweet King,” saying, “I trust you shall well perceive I shall deal toward you as a kind, loving mother.”49

  In 1485, Henry was something of a stranger to his mother—they had been separated since he was fourteen—although he was sensible about what he owed her, and over the years he came to reciprocate her devotion. In 1498 he wrote to her: “I shall be as glad to please you as your heart can desire it, and I know well that I am as bounden so to do as any creature living, for the great and singular motherly love and affection that it hath pleased you at all times to bear toward me. Wherefore, mine own most loving Mother, in my most hearty manner I thank you, beseeching you of your good continuance of the same.”50 Even allowing for the extravagant salutations of the period, this was no mere flattery. Sadly, no letters from Henry to Elizabeth survive, so we do not know if he addressed his wife as warmly as he did his mother.

  Margaret Beaufort had been a driving force behind the marriage of her son to Elizabeth of York. His earlier years were ones of anxiety and intrigue, a
nd they took their toll. “Either she was in sorrow by reason of present adversities, or else when she was in prosperity she was in dread of the adversity to come.”51 Elizabeth also owed a debt of gratitude to her mother-in-law, and was probably conscious of the fact.

  Contemporaries were unanimous in their praise of Margaret Beaufort. To Vergil, she was “a wise woman, a most worthy woman, whom no one can extol too often for her sound sense and holiness of life.” A friend, Henry Parker, Lord Morley, wrote of “her fame, her honor, her liberality, her prudence, her chastity, and her excellent virtues.”52 According to the funeral oration by her confessor, Bishop Fisher, Margaret was “a scholar and a saint, unkind to none” and “never forgetful any kindness or service done to her. Neither was she revengeful or cruel. Everyone that knew her loved her, and everything that she said or did became her.”

  Portraits of Margaret Beaufort show a thin-faced, thin-lipped elderly woman with high cheekbones, wearing a black gown and a severe widow’s chin-barbe under her long-lappeted white gable hood. Yet they all derive from originals painted late in her life. In earlier years she wore fashionable attire, and it was probably only after she took a vow of chastity in 1499 that she adopted more somber garb, and only after her husband’s death in 1504 that she donned a widow’s barbe. Yet however royally or soberly she was robed, she attended Mass six times daily, ate sparingly, observed fast days rigorously, and when in good health wore a hair shirt next to her skin.53 She was extremely devout, spending hours in daily prayer, and repeating moral homilies “many a time.”54

  She used some of her vast wealth for the benefit of others, not only doing good works but in furthering education. A great scholar herself, she became renowned as a patron of art, learning, and religion, and was to found two Cambridge colleges: Christ’s and St. John’s. An intelligent woman, she patronized William Caxton and translated books from French, which he printed; she also translated devotional texts. Her influence over the kingdom’s intellectual and spiritual life was considerable.

  Yet this was also the woman who sued the widows of her servants for debt, and who ruthlessly pursued her legal and fiscal rights;55 a woman who was vigorously efficient and a formidable disciplinarian, in whom piety combined with practicality. Margaret Beaufort was the greatest landowner in the realm after the King and Queen, and her expenditure was lavish. She kept almost royal state, had a great affinity of dependents, and was at the center of a wide network of patronage56—just as the Queen should have been, but was not.

  Although Bacon later claimed that Henry “reverenced [his mother] much” but “heard little” of what she said, Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish ambassador, reported, in July 1498: “The King is much influenced by his mother,” and stated that Margaret Beaufort’s influence was greater than that of Lord Chancellor Morton or Henry’s chamberlain, Giles, Lord Daubeney. He added: “The Queen, as is generally the case, does not like it.” The sub-prior of Santa Cruz had written only days earlier: “The Queen is a very noble woman, and much beloved. She is kept in subjection by the mother of the King.”57 Yet there is much evidence to show that the relationship between the two women was outwardly one of companionship and cooperation, so if there was any conflict between them, they had concealed it very well for twelve years, and would continue to do so. Indeed, they got on so well that it was said they lived “in peaceable concord,”58 and they seem also to have developed an affection for each other. This suggests that Elizabeth quickly learned to defer to her mother-in-law’s wisdom and decrees, and wisely did not try to compete with her. Probably she appreciated the support that Margaret so readily gave her, and was happy to cooperate with her.

  The two Spanish reports are the first of just three references to conflict between the Queen and her mother-in-law. It may be significant that they were written by Spaniards who were used to seeing their queen, Isabella, exercising power in her own right, and were startled by Elizabeth’s lack of it.59 The reports having been written so close together, and independently, suggests they were prompted by something that happened that summer.60 However, in 1500 a yeoman of the crown, John Hewyk of Nottingham, observed during a royal visit to that town “that he had spoken with the Queen’s Grace, and should have spoken more with her said Grace, had [it] not been for that strong whore the King’s mother.”61 Possibly Margaret had intervened to silence an aggravating man, but his remark is in keeping with the Spanish reports, and together they suggest an established balance of power in the relationship. Possibly, on occasion, Elizabeth allowed her irritation to show.

  Apart from these isolated observations, all the signs show that Elizabeth and Margaret Beaufort were close. Too much credence has been given to these reports and to Bacon’s jaded assumptions, and some modern writers who tend to superimpose their own perceptions of mother and daughter-in-law relationships.

  The Lady Margaret was often at court, especially in the earlier years of the reign. Although she played no formal role in politics, her influence in the domestic sphere was strong, and Elizabeth rarely acted independently of her—and possibly was glad of her advice. Yet as Elizabeth was soon to find, Margaret was frequently at her side, or never very far away. Wherever the King and Queen were, there his mother would usually be too, and she often accompanied Henry and Elizabeth on their travels and progresses around the kingdom. Sometimes she appeared in public with Henry when Elizabeth was absent. His household ordinances provided for lodgings to be kept for her at all the royal residences, often next to his private apartments. At Woodstock, their apartments were linked by a shared withdrawing chamber, and at the Tower they adjoined Henry’s bedchamber and council chamber.62 It was soon accepted that the King, the Queen, and the King’s mother formed an inviolable triumvirate.

  The pattern was set less than a month after the wedding when, on February 6, 1486, the King issued a license jointly to his “dearest consort, Elizabeth, Queen of England, and his dearest mother, to found a perpetual chantry in the parish church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Guildford, Surrey, for one chaplain to perform divine service daily for the healthful estate of the King, his consort, and his mother, and for their souls after death.”63 In conjunction with this, two gentlemen of Guildford persuaded the Queen, Margaret, and two knights of the King’s household to assist them in the founding of a guild in honor of the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, St. George, and All Saints at the same parish church.64 In December 1487, Elizabeth and Margaret, along with Archbishop Morton and Reginald Bray, were granted the right to present their candidate to the deanery of the college of St. Stephen at Westminster.65

  Whenever Lady Margaret attended church with the King and Queen, she sat beneath her own cloth of estate. If she entertained a bishop to dinner, he would be treated as if he were in the King’s own presence. After Evensong, wine and spices would be served to Margaret as well as to the King and his sons—the Queen was not included. But when Elizabeth went in procession, Margaret had to walk a little behind her, “aside the Queen’s half train.” When Henry and Elizabeth dined in state after Mass, only “half estate” was accorded to Margaret; and at the Easter Garter ceremonies in chapel, while Elizabeth and Margaret were censed after Henry, only the King and Queen might kiss the pax,66 a small tablet adorned with a sacred image, usually the crucifixion, which the devout kissed instead of each other as a sign of peace.

  Thus it was soon made clear to Elizabeth that from now on she was invariably to be associated with her formidable mother-in-law. It was to be expected that Margaret, an experienced and capable woman of forty-three, would take the young Queen under her wing and act as her mentor. That they enjoyed a harmonious relationship is evident from various sources, and the fact that they collaborated on several occasions when they were of one mind about something. The impression one gets is of two women who got on well working in unison together for everyone’s benefit. As Fisher testified, everyone who knew Margaret loved her, and there is no reason why Elizabeth should have been an exception. Furthermore, Margaret had a sense of humor
and could provide congenial companionship: she kept two fools, Skip and Reginald the idiot, and enjoyed gambling at cards and chess, as did the Queen.67

  The affection between the two ladies may have been facilitated by the fact that they were not continually obliged to enjoy each other’s company. The Lady Margaret sometimes resided at Lathom House or Knowsley Hall, the northern seats of the Stanleys; when in London, she would stay at Coldharbour.68 After 1499, having taken a vow of chastity with Stanley’s permission, she was less often at court, having moved into her own house at Collyweston in Northamptonshire, where apartments were permanently kept ready for her husband and her daughter-in-law the Queen.69 She never visited Lathom after that, but sometimes resided at Woking Palace in Surrey or Hunsdon House in Hertfordshire.

  Elizabeth’s good relations with her formidable mother-in-law are testimony to her warm heart, her good judgment of character, her peaceable nature, and her talent for diplomacy.

  The court over which Elizabeth presided as Queen was as magnificent as her father’s, and like Edward IV’s it was modeled on that of Burgundy. Henry VII has gone down in history as a miser, but he spent freely on the outward trappings of wealth, such as jewels, on which he paid out upward of £128,000 [£62.2 million], hundreds of pieces of plate bearing the monogram HE (for Henry and Elizabeth), tapestries, rich furnishings, and the rebuilding and decoration of his palaces. His court was imbued with learning, music, and pageantry. He deliberately exploited the symbolism of royal pageantry and the ceremonial, laying down a new series of ordinances for the regulation of daily royal life and etiquette. Small wonder that Bacon called him “a wonder for wise men.”

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