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


  Elizabeth may have been influential in the development of royal pageantry during Henry’s reign, which would set a pattern for the Tudor court for the next century and more. As the daughter of Edward IV, who had recognized the value of Burgundian court culture, with its emphasis on magnificence and display, and emulated it, she was ideally placed to advise her husband.

  On great occasions the court would be the setting for the lavish feasts, tournaments, pageants, and revelry deemed essential for a successful monarchy, but as we have seen, Henry VII enjoyed simpler pleasures too. No great sportsman himself—although he liked hunting, hawking, cock-fighting, bull baiting, shooting crossbows at the butts, and the spectacle of jousting—he nevertheless installed bowling alleys and tennis courts on the grounds of his palaces, and laid on hunting expeditions and lavish musical entertainments, all for the diversion of his courtiers and guests. Elizabeth shared many of these interests, including hunting and archery; her privy purse expenses record payments for her greyhounds and for arrows and broadheads (arrow tips). She went hawking too: Oliver Aulferton was keeper of the Queen’s goshawks and spaniels, and was paid a salary of £2 [£970].70

  Where the moral laxity of some European courts was notorious, the court presided over by Henry and Elizabeth was a byword for propriety, which was ensured by the marital fidelity of the King and Queen, and no doubt by the guiding moral hand of the Lady Margaret. It was also a great center of piety and learning, peopled by divines, scholars, and poets.

  When they were not on display to the court, the royal family enjoyed living in the warmth and intimacy afforded by the warren of small closets beyond the public chambers of their apartments, an arrangement that reflected the increasing desire of European monarchs to achieve some privacy in their otherwise very public lives, although privacy as they understood it invariably meant having many select persons in attendance to look to their every need. It was during Edward IV’s reign that this growing taste for seclusion emerged, so Elizabeth would have grown up with the notion of kings and queens enjoying a private life away from the court. That would have been a foreign concept to earlier medieval kings, whose lives had been communally centered on the great hall, and who were incessantly on display.

  The court was not just a magnificent domestic and ceremonial institution; it was also the seat of government and the political hub of the kingdom. There were two political entities in the court: the Privy Council, which—presided over by the King—attended to matters of state; and the Privy Chamber, the nerve center of monarchical power. It was Henry VII who created the Privy Chamber, the department of state comprising the influential and often powerful gentlemen who waited personally upon the sovereign and were thus able to influence him and bestow patronage. There are frequent references to his retiring among them in his private lodgings, which were also called the privy chamber.

  Elizabeth had her corresponding private apartments, where she resided with her ladies and other female attendants—a chaste female enclave within the King’s “house of magnificence.” It usually consisted of three distinct parts: a great chamber, a presence chamber for audiences and entertaining, and a privy chamber, which, like the King’s, might comprise bedchambers, closets, a privy, a privy wardrobe, and sometimes a privy kitchen, where the Queen’s meals were prepared. Guards were stationed at the entrance to each room, and only the King, Elizabeth’s servants, and the most privileged guests would be admitted to her privy chamber. Elizabeth would usually dine with her ladies in her presence chamber, rather than with the King.71 Edward IV’s “Black Book of the Household” had laid down that service to the Queen “must be nigh like unto the King.”72

  The Queen was not of course confined to her apartments. She enjoyed the freedom of the court and the King’s lodgings, and it was expected that she would be at his side whenever appropriate: at the great religious festivals, when both wore their crowns, at “days of estate,” feasts, courtly celebrations, receptions and entertainments, and when peers were ennobled. When the King sat in his chair of estate, or throne—the actual seat of government—there she would be, seated on a lower chair beside him, with “the cloth of estate hanging somewhat lower than the King’s, by the valance.”73

  Although he was “frugal to excess in his own person,” Henry VII “kept a sumptuous table. There might be six to seven hundred persons at dinner. His people say that his Majesty spends upon his table £14,000 [nearly £7 million] annually.”74 On a “day of estate” when Henry dined before the court in his great chamber, he would have a bishop and a duke, or two earls, at table with him, and Elizabeth—who arrived in procession preceded by her chamberlain and usher—always sat at her own table with a duchess, a countess, and perhaps a baroness. She had her own servers and carver, and her sewer (food taster) to bring her neck towel, or napkin, which was worn over one shoulder. Everyone else was seated below the high tables according to rank. Once the meal was over, the boards were cleared and the royal sewers spread a clean “surnap” (tablecloth) across them, which the ushers then smoothed over. Knights or barons would bring basins and covered ewers containing water, and at a sign from the King everyone washed their hands. The esquires then took up the boards, while the ushers knelt down to “make clean the King’s skirts” of crumbs. Grace was said by a bishop or a royal chaplain.75

  Music, minstrelsy, and disguisings were part of the culture of the Tudor court. Elizabeth loved them all, especially music; she had grown up in a court where her parents both employed musicians, and she too had her own minstrels and drummers; three of the latter would serve her son, Henry VIII. Among her musicians were Mark Jaket and Janyn Marcazin, who is listed as a minstrel in 1503, Richard Denouse, William Older, and a fiddler whom Henry VII rewarded.76 Late in 1486, Jaket and Older received a reward of £5 [£2,500]. In 1502 the Queen’s minstrels were headed by “M. of Lorydon,” and each received a salary of £2.6s.8d. [£1,130].77 These minstrels were professional musicians and their function was to entertain the Queen, her household, and her guests, and provide accompaniment for dancing in the privy chamber; they also taught musical skills to the royal children.

  Elizabeth was to commission works from William Cornish and Richard Fairfax, two virtuosi of the Tudor court.78 Her passion for music, which was to be inherited by her children, may be measured by the large sums she was ready to spend on it—money she could ill afford. She would handsomely reward minstrels such as the man who played a drone—possibly an organ or a cornemuse (bagpipes)—before her at Richmond. One of her most lavish purchases was a pair of clavichords for herself, costing £4 [£1,950].79 Her influence was significant. Her daughters played skillfully upon the lute, and her son, the future Henry VIII, became a notable musician and composer.

  Books would have had a prominent place in the Queen’s chamber; they were not just there for the pleasure to be obtained from them, but as outward manifestations of magnificence, for they were fabulously expensive objects of desire and proclaimed the erudition and interests of their owners. Elizabeth’s love of books had stayed with her from childhood. Hers were a mix of the secular and the devotional. She owned one of the finest manuscripts of the age, the beautifully illuminated “Hours of Elizabeth the Queen,” dating from ca.1415–30. It is now thought to have been owned by her, rather than by her mother, as was previously claimed, and had once belonged to her cousin, Cecily Neville, Countess of Warwick (d. 1450), daughter of Ralph Neville, Earl of Salisbury. Its colorful pages illustrate the Hours of the Virgin and the Passion of Christ, the Penitential Psalms, the Office of the Dead, the Commendation of Souls, and prayers to St. Mary. There are eighteen exquisite miniatures, borders lavishly decorated with foliage on solid gold leaf, 423 decorated initials, and roundels showing the signs of the Zodiac. The manuscript bears the inscription “Elysabeth ye quene” in the lower margin of one folio, beneath a miniature of the Crucifixion.80

  The beautiful fourteenth-century Bohun Psalter owned by Elizabeth of York as Queen is in Exeter College, Oxford, and is inscribed
on the first page in her hand:

  Thys book ys myn

  Elysabeth ye quene.

  It is also known as “The Mass Book of King Henry VII’s Queen Elizabeth and King Henry VIII’s Queen Katherine,” and contains calendar notes by Elizabeth and her daughter-in-law, Katherine of Aragon, to whom it came after her death, and a further autograph inscription:

  Thys book ys myn

  Katherine the qwene.

  Elizabeth also recorded in it the birth dates of her children.81

  An illuminated manuscript of verses written between 1415 and 1440 by Charles, Duke of Orléans,82 bears the arms of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. It may have been partly executed for Edward IV at the end of his reign, but was completed by the anonymous Master of the Prayer Books under the direction of Quentin Poulet, Henry VII’s librarian, by 1500.83 It was probably a gift from Henry to Elizabeth. Orléans, a French prince captured at Agincourt, wrote his poems while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London. They tell of love, of spring, and of melancholy, and one speaks of jealousy, which may have struck a chord with Henry:

  Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart,

  And with some store of pleasure give me aid,

  For Jealousy, with all them of his part,

  Strong siege about the weary tower has laid.

  Nay, if to break his bands thou art afraid,

  Too weak to make his cruel force depart,

  Strengthen at least this castle of my heart,

  And with some store of pleasure give me aid.

  Nay, let not Jealousy, for all his art

  Be master, and the tower in ruin laid,

  That still, ah Love! thy gracious rule obeyed.

  Advance, and give me succour of thy part;

  Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart.

  Henry may also have presented Elizabeth with the “Miroir des Dames,” a manuscript containing moral instruction for queens and other highborn ladies.84 Based on a thirteenth-century text, of which copies had been owned by several European queens, and finished in 1428, it contained an addition in the form of a frontispiece showing the crown of England resting on a hawthorn bush—that favored Tudor symbol—with a salutation to Henry VII, “Vive le noble roy Henry,” perhaps added soon after Bosworth, possibly around the time of the King’s marriage. The nature of the text—which reminds queens that, as the image of feminine perfection, they are blessed with a special grace and must be an example to their sex—makes it likely that this book was given by Henry to Elizabeth of York.85

  Another illuminated manuscript associated with Elizabeth is a lavish “Legendary,” a book of the lives of the saints, dating from ca. 1250.86 The flyleaf bears the inscription “God save King Harry and Queen Elizabeth,” which must have been added before 1503, and a mark identifying it as later belonging to Henry VIII’s library.87 A prayer book that had belonged to Elizabeth of York was sold at auction in 1983.88

  Like her parents, Elizabeth was a patron of William Caxton and his successor at the Westminster printing press, Wynkyn de Worde. In 1490, Caxton’s translation of Eneydos, a French version of Virgil’s Aeneid, was dedicated to her eldest son, and around 1491, Caxton printed the Orationes: Fifteen Oes and Other Prayers “by commandments of” the Queen and the Lady Margaret. It was his last publication, and comprised fifteen prayers then believed to have been written by St. Bridget of Sweden, all beginning with the letter O.89 It was probably Elizabeth’s grandmother, Cecily Neville, who had nurtured in her a special devotion to St. Bridget, which she shared with Margaret Beaufort. Margaret was a regular visitor to the Bridgetine abbey of Syon,90 where Elizabeth’s cousin, Anne de la Pole, was prioress. When Anne died in 1501, her successor maintained good relations with the Queen, sending her quails and rabbits for her table.91

  Books were valued gifts. In 1494, Margaret Beaufort commissioned from Wynkyn de Worde a weighty book of spiritual exercises entitled Scala Perfectionis (The Scale of Perfection) by the Augustinian mystic Walter Hilton, which she and Elizabeth jointly presented to their kinswoman, Mary Roos, who served the Queen as lady-in-waiting. Elizabeth inscribed it: “I pray you pray for me. Elysabeth ye quene.”92 Elizabeth may have been the “Queen Elizabeth” who gave a book of hours to Katherine Neville, the widow of Lord Hastings, but Elizabeth Wydeville could also have been the donor.93

  Both the King and Queen wrote inscriptions in a Parisian missal of 1498 owned by one of Elizabeth’s ladies. Henry’s read: “Madam, I pray you remember me, your loving master, Henry R.” Elizabeth’s was less formal: “Madam, I pray you forget not me to pray to God that I may have part of your prayers. Elysabeth ye Queene.” Evidently she felt she needed the spiritual consolation these prayers might afford her.94

  Henry VII was astute when it came to finance. His tough upbringing had taught him the value of money and of enforcing policies that would ensure peace and generate wealth; he understood that the subtle practice of statecraft was infinitely preferable to achieving his aims through war. Yet although he was generous in giving alms to the sick and the destitute, and in enriching the Church, he was to gain a lasting reputation for parsimony. It was said that “although he professes many virtues, his love of money is too great.”95 The Milanese ambassador reported in 1495, “The King is rather feared than loved, and this is due to his avarice.”96 A Venetian ambassador thought him “a great miser,” and wrote that he “had accumulated so much gold that he was supposed to have more than well-nigh all the other kings in Christendom.”97 The Spanish ambassador observed, “The King’s riches augment every day. I think he has no equal in this respect. If gold coin once enters his strongboxes, it never comes out again. He always pays in depreciated coin. All his servants are like him: they have a wonderful dexterity in getting other people’s money.”98 A papal envoy who came to the English court to raise money for a crusade was disconcerted to find only £11.11s. [£5,650] in his collecting box, “which result made our hearts sink within us, for there were present the King, the Queen, the mother of the King, and the mother of the Queen,” and many lords and ladies.

  But the description of Henry as a miser, a gloomy, Scroogelike figure in sober, shabby clothing counting his money, is a distorted one. He had known adversity and realized that strength lay in financial security. By amassing a fortune, he was bolstering the future success of his dynasty, and he was determined to live in a style befitting a great prince. But his subjects paid a high price for it. A few years later Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish ambassador, imputed “the decrease of trade” to “the impoverishment of the people by the great taxes laid on them. The King himself said to me that it is his intention to keep his subjects low, because riches would only make them haughty.” He was to pay for this with his popularity. “He is disliked, but the Queen is beloved because she is powerless.”99

  Henry’s carefulness with money did not extend to the state he kept as King. It was expected of Renaissance sovereigns that they looked and acted the part magnificently, outward display considered essential to command the respect, confidence, and admiration of their subjects and other nations. In this, Henry was following the precepts of the court of Burgundy. Careful in other respects with money, he recognized the value of regal display and spent lavishly on it. “He knew well how to maintain his royal majesty and all which pertains to kingship.”100

  As Queen, according to Thomas More, Elizabeth enjoyed “plenty of every pleasant thing.”101 Rodrigo de Puebla, ambassador from the court of Queen Isabella of Spain, observed: “There is no country in the world where queens live with greater pomp than in England, where they have as many court officers as the King.”102

  But that high estate had to be maintained. On marriage, every English queen consort received a dower for the financial support of herself and her household. This took the form of a substantial settlement of lands, manors, and other crown property, making her one of the major landowners in the realm.103

  Elizabeth was co-heiress with her sisters to lands of the noble families of Mo
rtimer, March, and Clare, which had been inherited by the House of York. These lands, in which Cecily Neville held a share as dower, were not part of the crown estate, and should have been divided between the Yorkist princesses and then passed to their husbands on marriage; but Henry VII appropriated their shares as well as what was his in right of his wife, quietly incorporated them into the crown lands, and dowered Elizabeth from them.104 She was in possession of lands of the earldom of March in Herefordshire by September 1486;105 some of the rest went toward the support of Elizabeth Wydeville and Cecily, Duchess of York; but for Elizabeth’s sisters there would be nothing, not even dowries.

  Elizabeth had to wait for the rest of her settlement, for it was not finally assigned to her until November 1487; until then her financial needs were mainly met by the King’s household, further—and perhaps deliberately—limiting her sphere of influence and her capacity for patronage. From time to time she received grants from the King, such as the annuity of £100 [£48,900] bestowed on February 3, 1486, at Sheen Palace.106 When she finally was assigned her dower, for life, no set amount appears formally to have been settled on her. To the Mortimer and Clare estates were added her mother’s lands, worth about £1,890 [£924,000], and annuities from fixed rents from the towns of Bristol (amounting to £102.15s.6d., now £50,250) and Bedford. In addition, like her predecessors, she had income from wardships, fines, and tax exemptions granted her by the King, and in 1487, Parliament enacted that she could sell and grant leases in her own name, without the King’s consent, in consideration of the great expense of her chamber. On February 1, 1492, Henry settled upon her the reversion of the dower lands of her grandmother, Duchess Cecily, which she should have inherited anyway as part of the Mortimer and Clare inheritance.107

 
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