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

  Henry had not only to maintain his wife, but also her mother—effectively, he was supporting two queens, which placed an unusual strain on his finances, as a new queen was usually assigned the dower of her predecessor; as we have seen, Henry had granted other lands to Elizabeth Wydeville. He also gave grants to his own mother, and was responsible for the maintenance of Elizabeth’s dowerless sisters, although he expected her to support them out of the income allocated her. It did not help that revenues from the dukedom of York were tied up in her grandmother’s generous dower. To boost Elizabeth’s income, the King, “in consideration of the great expenses and charges that his most dear wife, Elizabeth, Queen of England, must of necessity bear in her chamber,” obtained the consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament that she should “be able to sue in her own name, without the King, by writs &c., all manner of forms [contracts], rents, and debts due to her; and sue in her own name in all manner of actions, and plead, and be impleaded, in any of the King’s courts.”108 Queens, unlike other married women, enjoyed the unique privilege of granting and acquiring lands as femmes sole, and they could also sue, and be sued, independently of the King.109 However, Henry VII, like Edward IV, was not above alienating lands he claimed to hold “in right of Elizabeth, the Queen consort,” as in 1494 when he gave away some Irish estates of Elizabeth’s earldom of March to her chamberlain, Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond.110

  In 1489, Elizabeth was granted the use of some of the property of her aunt, Isabella Neville, Duchess of Clarence, during the minority of Isabella’s son, the Earl of Warwick. In 1495 she inherited Mortimer and Clare property worth £1,400 [£684,500] from her grandmother, Cecily Neville, which she had been granted in reversion in 1492.

  Elizabeth had her own auditors. Each year, they and her receiver-general would tour her estates, inspect her stewards’ accounts, compile valuations of her properties, arbitrate in disputes, and advise their mistress on various issues.111 There could be a shortfall between what was due to her in rents and what was actually received.112 There is evidence to show that Elizabeth and her council were obliged to extract as much income as they could from her manors, but that this was resented by her tenants. For example, in 1487 they established a collector of rents at the royal manor of Havering in the hope of ensuring that all monies due to the Queen would be raised, but the local people made life difficult for every occupant of the post until, in 1497, the then incumbent, Thomas Elrington, was assaulted after ordering the bailiff to seize the goods of the Queen’s tenant, local justice of the peace Sir Philip Coke, who might have been knighted for valor in the recent Cornish uprising but had rent outstanding. Coke, whose wife was probably the sister or aunt of Margaret Belknap, one of Elizabeth’s gentlewomen, was accused of an act injurious to the honor of the Queen and as a dangerous example to her other tenants. Her council fined him £5, whereupon Elrington demanded twelve years’ back rent. Coke reacted violently, and was fined a further £5; he never again held office, but in a sense his was the victory, because Elrington was relieved of his post to avoid further violence, and was never replaced.113

  The Queen had the right to make a new appointment every time a post on one of her estates fell vacant: it was another way in which she could show favor to those who had served her well. Sir Gilbert Talbot, who had been associated with Elizabeth in “The Song of Lady Bessy” and was now one of Henry VII’s privy councilors, was appointed steward of her lands in Feckenham, Worcestershire. A letter from Elizabeth survives in which she acknowledges the good and faithful service he had rendered to her.114 In November 1502, Talbot sent her a wild boar as a gift.115

  Margaret of Anjou had received a dower of 10,000 marks [at least £1.5 million], which was later increased. Elizabeth Wydeville’s dower was at least £4,500 [£2.1 million]. Elizabeth of York’s dower lands were ultimately worth only £3,360 [£1.6 million] in 1506, less than two-thirds of her mother’s income.116 Although she had brought him a great inheritance (the lands of the Mortimers and the Clares), Henry kept her short of money, which meant that financially she would always be heavily dependent on him for loans and gifts of cash, several of which are recorded.117 She was obliged to borrow small sums from her sisters and even her servants.118 Though she appeared outwardly wealthy,119 Elizabeth struggled to make ends meet, and her extant privy purse expenses show that often she could settle her debts only in part, leaving much still owed, in several cases over an extended period. One London silk merchant, Henry Bryan, had to submit his account for £107 [£52,000] several times, and in the end was obliged to settle for payment in installments.120

  By 1495, Elizabeth was deeply in debt, and had been driven to pawning her plate to Sir Thomas Lovell for £500 [£250,000], and borrowing money from her chamberlain and her ladies. In February 1497 the King ordered £2,000 [£972,200] to be delivered to her “to repay her debts,” but it was only another loan. When he loaned her money, he expected her to pledge her plate as security, and to redeem it on the due date, and took care to see that she did.121

  She was not extravagant in her personal expenditure. She ran her household economically, better than her mother had run hers. She paid her ladies lower salaries than previous queens, the highest being £33.6s.8d. [£16,200]. As well as her dower, she received money from the Exchequer for her chamber expenses, and this she spent on items such as clothes for herself and for her household, horses, repairs to her barge and litters, repeated “boat hire,” household items (such as sheets, baskets, bellows, carving knives, bolts, locks, an axe, brushes, wheels, wax, faggots, and barehides), jewels, a small pair of enameled knives for the Queen’s own use, meat for her goshawks and spaniels, offerings in church, barrels of Rhenish wine, bread, ale, butter, eggs, and milk, and payments to her physicians and apothecaries. There were a few luxury items too, including chair coverings of crimson and blue cloth of gold and crimson velvet with linings of blue satin; and, for the Queen’s litters, twenty-seven cushions of blue cloth of gold, backed with various shades of satin, damask, and velvet. Elizabeth herself checked and signed every page of the book in which details of her income and her privy purse expenses were listed, ensuring that her officers were acting within their means. The most costly items she ever bought for herself—apart from clothing—were the clavichords and popinjay for which she paid a poor man 13s.4d. [£320].122

  The small sums of pocket money she apportioned to herself were given by her accountant, Richard Deacons, into the hands of her ladies (usually Lady Anne Percy, Lady Elizabeth Stafford, or Elizabeth Lee), who would put them in her privy purse. It was rare for Elizabeth to receive more than 10s. [£250] or 20s. [£500] at a time, and sometimes she got as little as 4s.4d. [£110]. She was, however, abundantly generous, which may have been the cause of some of her financial difficulties.123 The King gave her only a very small allowance for the charities to which she was expected to dispense, so she had to make stringent economies in order to give to the poor. Much of her available funds were spent on gifts—numerous, but not lavish—and donations to religious establishments. That left less for alms, and it has been noted that she outlaid only £9.11s.5d. [£4,650] on those in her last year. Her gambling debts at Christmas 1502 were about half that amount.124

  She also had to support her unmarried sisters, paying them annuities of £50 [£24,450] each out of her privy purse. When they married, they received no dowries from the King, so she paid their husbands annuities of £120 [£58,350] for their maintenance. In addition, she sent her sisters gifts of cash: in 1502, for example, she gave Anne £6.13s.4d. [£3,250] for pocket money.125 Often, Elizabeth would go without to do all this. She might have lived in great state and luxury, but the Queen of England had to juggle her financial resources as carefully as any peasant’s wife.


  “Offspring of the Race of Kings”

  Early in January 1486, before her wedding, it had been confidently expected that the new Queen would immediately be crowned, and it must have been on the King’s orders that a royal offic
ial, Piers Curteys, drew up a memorandum listing expenditure for items to be delivered “against the Queen’s coronation”: spurs for the henchmen who were to ride in the procession; “tawing” (treating) of ermines; “canopy staves and ye timber work of two chairs of estate”; hire of a cart “to carry in ye Rennes”—a fine linen cloth woven in Brittany, to be dyed scarlet and used as a carpet—“unto Westminster, and six porters’ wages for to help to lay the same Rennes from Westminster Hall unto the abbey”; ermines, miniver, and “powderings for furring of divers of ye Queen’s robes” (small spots added to distinguish royal ermine from that worn by the nobility); worsted, “white bogy [lambskin] for furring of ye henchmen’s gowns,” and “scarlet,” a fine, expensive wool cloth.1

  In the event, though, there was no coronation for Elizabeth—not for nearly two years. It is often said that Henry expected her to bear him a son before he outlaid any serious expenditure on her crowning, or that he did not want people to think that the ceremony was an endorsement of her title; but the likeliest explanation for it being deferred is that, by Lent, it was known that Elizabeth was expecting a child.

  Loyal subjects had “prayed to Almighty God that the King and Queen would be favored with offspring, and that eventually a child might be conceived and a new prince be born, so that they might heap further joys upon present delights.” They had not had long to wait. “Our Lord Jesus Christ heard their prayers and permitted the joyous Queen to become pregnant with the desired offspring.”2

  The speed with which Elizabeth conceived—on her wedding night, perhaps—must have seemed to Henry, and no doubt to many of his people, to be the greatest manifestation of divine approval of his marriage. “Then a new happiness took over the happiest kingdom, great enjoyment filled the Queen, the Church experienced perfect joy, while huge excitement gripped the court and an incredible pleasure arose over the whole country.”3

  The bodies of queens were effectively public property, for their fertility was of prime importance to the nation and a legitimate object of speculation in courts, diplomatic circles, noble households, taverns, and humble hovels. The swift arrival of an heir would go far toward assuring the stability of the Tudor dynasty, and it would immeasurably increase Elizabeth’s standing with her husband the King and the country at large.

  The news that any highborn lady was to bear a child was cause for great celebration in that dynastically minded age, and it was the subject of much interest on the part of both sexes. It was not expected that the Queen would retire from public view or swath herself in shawls like Queen Victoria, for there was then no sense of squeamishness or embarrassment about what was regarded as a highly desirable condition; and it was customary for relatives and friends to send good wishes for a safe delivery—a “happy hour.” Everyone was well aware of the risks involved in childbirth.

  Henry VII might have claimed his crown by right of conquest, but now that he had married Elizabeth, it was indisputably his by right. It should have ensured his security and been “the final end to all dissensions, titles, and debates,”4 yet it was already obvious that this marriage, which had been made to heal the breach between the warring royal houses, was insufficient to stifle treason and had not reconciled all the King’s opponents. Some diehard Yorkist activists just would not accept it, and they were making their opposition plain.

  In the spring of 1486, Henry VII felt it politic to go on a progress to Lincolnshire and Yorkshire to be seen by his northern subjects and to “weed, root out, and purge men tainted with dissension and privy factions,” especially in Yorkshire, where Richard III had once been popular.5 Elizabeth stayed behind at the palace of Placentia at Greenwich with her mother. It has been suggested that Henry did not take her with him because he wanted to make it clear he did not owe his crown to her or “seek popularity on her account,”6 yet it is far more likely that she was suffering the nausea and fatigue common in early pregnancy; moreover, the King was visiting areas where pockets of Yorkist resistance were anticipated, so he would not have wanted his expectant Queen to be exposed to any risk.

  Henry departed before Easter, which fell on March 26 that year, and he would be away for three months, visiting—among other places—Waltham, Cambridge, Huntingdon, Stamford, Lincoln, Doncaster, Pontefract, York, and Worcester. On the way, he had to suppress insurrections involving Humphrey Stafford, and Francis, Lord Lovell, one of Richard III’s closest adherents, and deal with a plot against himself—but generally he was well received, even in York. While he was away, he sent frequent letters to Elizabeth.

  Placentia, where she was staying, was a beautiful palace built around 1427 as “Bella Court” by Henry V’s brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who had acquired the large hunting park surrounding it in 1433. The large stone mansion was seized by Margaret of Anjou on his death in 1447, and it was she who renamed it “Placentia,” meaning a “pleasance,” or pleasant place, and set about converting it into a palace. To that end, ranges of brick and timber were built, the floors paved with terra-cotta tiles bearing her monogram, beautiful glass windows decorated with marguerites and hawthorn buds inserted, pillars and arcades adorned with sculpted marguerites added, and a vestry built to serve as a jewel house. Tapestries covered the walls of the royal apartments, and in the gardens there was an arbor for ladies to sit in. Queen Margaret’s house was arranged around two courtyards, and to the west she ordered a pier constructed, so royal barges could land.7 In 1465, Placentia was granted to Elizabeth Wydeville as part of her jointure.

  The palace lay in a healthy setting, aired by breezes from the Thames, and nestling in two hundred acres of rolling parkland. Elizabeth had known this palace from childhood, and it was already one of Henry VII’s favorite residences. He was soon to rename it Greenwich Palace.

  On March 6, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull confirming the dispensation issued by the Bishop of Imola. On March 27, in another bull, he gave his own dispensation addressed to “thou King, Henry of Lancaster, and thou, Elizabeth of York,” recognizing Henry as King, threatening anyone who rose against him with excommunication, and informing the royal couple that “as their progenitors had vexed the kingdom of England with wars and clamors, to prevent further effusion of blood it was desirable for them to unite in marriage.” He referred to Elizabeth as “the undoubted heir of that famous king of immortal memory, Edward IV.” The bull arrived in England in June, and copies of it, printed in Holborn by William Machlin, were distributed.8

  Henry VII was at Worcester when the dispensation was brought to him, and he was present in Worcester Cathedral on Trinity Sunday to hear John Alcock, Bishop of Worcester, read it, proclaiming to all that “understanding of the long and grievous variance, contentions, and debates that hath been in this realm of England between the House of the Duchy of Lancaster on the one party, and the House of the Duchy of York on the other party,” and “willing all such divisions to be put apart, by the counsel and consent of his College of Cardinals,” His Holiness had approved, confirmed, and established “the matrimony and conjunction made between our sovereign lord, King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster of that one party, and the noble Princess Elizabeth of the House of York of that other, with all their issue lawfully born between the same.” A copy was presented to the Queen at Sheen, and the text was printed, circulated, and read out in pulpits throughout the realm “for conservation of the universal peace and eschewing of slanders.”9

  When the King was at Coventry Cathedral on St. George’s Day, John Morton, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and many other bishops, all in their pontifical vestments, “read and declared the Pope’s bulls, touching the King’s and Queen’s right, and there in the choir, in the bishop’s seat, by the authority of the same bulls, cursed with book, bell, and candle all those that did anything contrary to their right, and approving their titles good.”10

  In a third bull of dispensation, issued on July 23,11 the Pope confirmed that “if it please God that the said Elizabeth (which God forbid) should decease without is
sue between our sovereign lord and her of their bodies born, then such issue as between [the King] and her whom after that God shall join him to shall be had and born inheritors to the same crown and realm of England.” In other words, Henry’s title, and his children’s right to the succession, did not depend on his marriage to Elizabeth, but was vested in him independently. It was through him, not his wife, that the crown would descend. Again, Elizabeth’s title to the throne had been slighted, while this bull confirmed Henry’s title and threatened anyone challenging it with excommunication.

  That summer, after suppressing “tumultuous sedition” in the North,12 Henry returned south via Worcester, Hereford, Gloucester, and Bristol, rejoining Elizabeth at Sheen.13 By now she would have begun loosening the front laces of her bodice as her pregnancy began to show. There was no concept of antenatal care in those days, and a midwife would not have been engaged until near the time of the expected confinement. On June 5 the royal couple traveled by barge to Westminster for London’s official welcome.14

  André says that “while the Queen was close to delivery,” Henry was administering affairs from Windsor. At the end of August the King and Queen moved to Winchester,15 the ancient capital of England, where Henry wanted his heir to be born, for he believed it to be the site of Camelot, King Arthur’s fabled seat, and that being born there would be portentous for the prince who would bring a new golden age to England.

  In Winchester Castle there was a round table, said to be King Arthur’s, but in fact dating from the mid-thirteenth century. It has been said that the Queen wished to give birth in the castle but that it proved inconvenient, so she moved instead to St. Swithun’s Priory, the ancient Benedictine monastery founded in AD 642–43, attached to Winchester Cathedral. However, the city of Winchester was by then depopulated and run-down, and the castle in decline, the last major works having been undertaken in the fourteenth century,16 so it is likely that the Queen had intended all along to be confined in the priory, where most of the buildings dated from the later Middle Ages.

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