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

  Prior Thomas Hunton gave Elizabeth the use of the luxurious Prior’s House, now the Deanery. It was originally built in the thirteenth century, from which time the triple-lancet-arched porch survives, but was largely reconstructed in the seventeenth century after becoming derelict. The Prior’s House stood at the southeast corner of the Great Cloister, on the edge of Little Cloister. It had a vaulted ground floor, above which was the Prior’s Chapel. Adjoining the house was his great hall with its magnificent timber roof, erected in 1459–60. Here, Elizabeth established her small court, with her mother, her sisters, and the Lady Margaret in attendance. “The prior’s great hall was the Queen’s chamber.”17 While Elizabeth rested, the King took advantage of the good hunting to be had nearby in the New Forest, braving the torrential rains that swept the land as autumn approached.18

  Records survive of the expenditure laid out by the King on items for Elizabeth in preparation for her confinement, “both for her own use and also for the removal of the Queen to the city of Winchester, and afterward for the taking of her chamber before the birth, and also toward the birth, as in divers robes and divers other ornaments pertaining to the said lady Queen”: lengths of cloth of scarlet and of various other colors, white woolen cloth and cloth of frieze (a coarser woolen cloth); thirty-three timbers of whole ermines; thirty-nine timbers of ermine backs; 2½ timbers of ermine bellies; one pane (piece) of ermine; forty-nine timbers and fifteen bellies of pure miniver; 13½ timbers of “lettuce” (“letoux”) miniver, which was white or pale gray; powderings of bogy; 66½ yards of cloth of “doubly set” velvet, probably having a two-pile warp; 42¾ yards of “singly set velvet”; 1¼ yards and three separate “nails” (yards) of cloth of gold; 23½ yards of damask; 5¾ yards of satin; 230 yards of sarcenet, to be furred with ermine and miniver; pieces of buckram, worsted, and fustian (a thick woven cloth of wool, Egyptian cotton, or linen); 440 ells of Holland linen cloth for napkins and kerchiefs; 119¾ ells of canaber cloth, a linen cloth for making hose; 4¼ ounces of silk; two pounds and twelve ounces of silk ribbon; one pound of gold-colored silk ribbon; fringe of silk and Venice gold; thread, cord, down, and wool. Among “divers other things necessary for the said Queen” were a chair of state, two beds, fourteen pommels of cypress wood, gilded; gilt nails, rings of lacquered iron, skins of leather, iron hammers, two pounds of feathers, four fustian cushions, seventeen yards of waxed linen, and two saddles covered with velvet.19 As much importance was accorded to the maintenance of the Queen’s royal estate during her confinement as to practical essentials.

  Benjamin Digby, page of the Queen’s bed, was paid 16s.8d. “for preparing certain stuffs for the lady Queen against the nativity of the lord Prince,” while Thomas Swan, his colleague, received 40s. “for the making of divers bearing sheets [infant mantles] of Holland cloth.”20

  There was no question of Elizabeth taking charge of her own confinement. Even though childbirth was an exclusively female preserve, even for queens, it was the King who regulated ceremonial affairs in the royal household. On December 31, 1494, evidently inspired by Olivier de la Marche’s L’État de la Maison de Charles de Bourgogne, commissioned by Edward IV in 1473 to facilitate the establishment of fashionable Burgundian protocols at his court, Henry drew up a series of ordinances governing the running of the royal household and laying down the ceremonials to be observed there. These included “ordinances as to what preparation is to be made against the deliverances of the Queen, as also for the christening of the child when she shall be delivered”; ordinances that were to be observed for many decades to come.21 There is no evidence that they were drawn up by Margaret Beaufort, as is often stated, although it is likely that she was consulted. Elizabeth herself may also have contributed her views.

  Little is known of royal birth conventions prior to the late fifteenth century, but Henry’s ordinances were modeled on procedures laid down in Edward IV’s “Royal Book”22 of court ceremonial, which had drawn on English, French, and Burgundian court ritual: we know that certain formalities had evolved in regard to royal confinements, for in 1456, Isabella of Portugal, Duchess of Burgundy, had consulted a book about the estates of France before preparing chambers for the confinement of her daughter-in-law.23

  Henry VII himself expanded on the dictates of the “Royal Book,” which may have been based on the court ceremonial of the Lancastrian kings. Even if Elizabeth’s earlier confinements were not conducted according to the 1494 ordinances, she would have been subject to similar provisions laid down in the “Royal Book” for her mother, with which she was no doubt familiar. These determined the color and quality of the furnishings for her chamber and bed, which was to be made up with pillows of down and a scarlet counterpane bordered with ermine, velvet, or cloth of gold.24

  Henry VII’s ordinances of 1494 reflected and formalized existing practice—it is stated in places that they were laid down “after the old custom”—and doubtless they embellished it. They provided for “the furniture of Her Highness’s chamber, and the furniture appertaining to her bed, how the church shall be arrayed against the christening, [and] how the child shall go to be christened.”25

  The King decreed: “As to the deliverance of a queen, it must be known what chamber she will be delivered in, by the Grace of God; and that chamber must be hanged with rich Arras [tapestry], the roof, side, and windows, all except one window, and that must be hanged so she may have light when it pleaseth her.” The room was also to have “a royal bed therein, the floor laid with carpets over and over with a fair pallet bed, with all the stuff belonging thereto, with a rich sperner [bed canopy] hanging over; and there must be a cupboard set fair, covered with the same suit that the chamber is hanged withal.” Over the doorway was to be hung a “traverse [curtain] of damask.”26

  The “stuff for the Queen’s bed” consisted of “two pairs of sheets of Rennes, either of them of four breadths and five yards long; two long pillows and two square, of fustian stuffed with fine down; a pane of scarlet furred with ermines and bordered with velvet or cloth of gold; a head-sheet of like cloth furred in like wise; a counter[pane] of fine lawn of five breadths and six yards long; and hinder [bottom] sheet of the same lawn, four breadths and five yards long.”27 The bed linen would have been sweetly perfumed with flowers and herbs. The bed was made according to the King’s regulations, which stipulated that the Queen’s ladies and gentlewomen must perform the task to a set routine that involved drawing the bed curtains back, stripping the mattress and shaking it, then laying each cover separately and straightly, and smoothing it down with care, leaving no wrinkles. They would also have tightened the ropes across the bedstead (the origin of the saying “sleep tight”), then laid upon that a canvas cover before plumping the mattress in place. The curtains would have been drawn to conserve warmth, and the bed sprinkled with holy water.

  The pallet bed was to be made up with “a feather bed with a bolster of fine down; a mattress stuffed with wool; two long and four short pillows; a pane of fustian of six breadths and five yards long; two pair of sheets of Rennes of four breadths and five yards long; two head-sheets of Rennes of two breadths and four yards long; a pane of scarlet furred with ermines, bordered with blue velvet upon blue velvet or cloth of gold; a head-sheet of like color, furred with ermines; a coverture of fine lawn of five breadths and six yards long, a head-sheet of the same lawn of four breadths and five yards long; a sperne[r] of crimson satin, embroidered with crowns of gold, the [King’s and] Queen’s arms and other devices, and lined with double tartaron [or tartaire, silk stuff, originally from Tartary] garnished with fringe of silk and gold and blue and russet, with a round bowl of silver and gilt.” Also to be provided were “four cushions covered with crimson damask or cloth of gold” and “a round mantle of crimson velvet, plain, furred with ermines, for the Queen to wear about her in her pallet, and all other things necessary for the same.”28 Thus royally robed, she would give birth on the pallet bed, and then be lifted into the great bed for her lying-in period.

; An altar with relics was to be placed near the pallet bed, so Elizabeth could hear Mass after being confessed and shriven before facing the dangers of childbirth, and pray for the protection of God and His Holy Mother during her coming labor. A court cupboard laden with gold plate for the service of her meals was also placed in the bedchamber.29

  The Queen, by custom, withdrew from the world for the duration of her confinement: this was known as “taking to her chamber.” Precise instructions were given by the King for the ceremonial to be followed, although he would not be present. “And if it please the Queen to take to her chamber, she shall be brought thither with lords and ladies of estate, and brought into the chapel or church there to be house-led [given Holy Communion].” When Elizabeth took to her chamber in good time for the birth, her mother and Margaret Beaufort headed her attendants, and her elder sisters were probably among their number. Throughout her life, Elizabeth would surround herself with family members, especially her female relations, to whom she was evidently close.30

  After Mass, attended by these ladies, her household, and a throng of courtiers, she proceeded “into the great chamber,” seated herself on her chair of estate, and took “spice and wine under the cloth of estate.”31 Her chamberlain, the Earl of Ormond, “in a very good voice desired in the Queen’s name all her people to pray God would send her a good hour,” and Elizabeth formally bade farewell to the courtiers. “Two of the greatest estates [led] her into her chamber where she shall be delivered, and then they [took] their leave of the Queen. Then all the ladies and gentlewomen [went] in with her” and she disappeared from public view.32

  Childbirth being an exclusively female ritual, “no man [was] to come into the chamber where she shall be delivered.” All her male officers were temporarily stood down, for “thenceforth, no manner of officer should come within the Queen’s chamber but only ladies and gentlewomen, according to the old custom that women be made all manner of officers, as butlers, panters (keepers of the pantry), sewers, carvers, cup bearers; and all manner of officers shall bring to them all manner of things to the great chamber door.” The only men who might be admitted during the weeks to come were the King and the Queen’s chaplains.

  It was at this point that the “gossips” took up residence at court. They were the godparents, or sponsors, of “such estates both spiritual and temporal as it shall like the King to assign to be gossips,” and they were summoned “to be near the place where the Queen shall be delivered,” so that “they may be ready to attend on the young prince or princess to the christening.”33

  Childbirth was a hazardous event for women in Tudor times. There was a very real chance of either mother or baby dying, and because of the risks, life expectancy for women was around thirty years. It has been estimated that one in forty women perished in childbed, and that the average first marriage lasted five years because of that high mortality rate. There must have been countless other women who were injured or traumatized by childbirth, or left with chronic conditions as a result of it. Male physicians were not normally involved in childbirth, as their presence was thought to upset laboring women; a midwife was in charge of the confinement, but midwives were usually of lowly status, poorly paid, and qualified only by reason of their experience.34 The midwives who served queens in this period seem to have practiced their calling professionally, and were probably more expert at it than most. It was common for female relations, friends, and “gossips” to be present at a birth, to encourage the laboring mother, so it was natural for Elizabeth’s own mother, the Queen Dowager, to join her when she took to her chamber, because mothers often assisted at their daughters’ confinements, many traveling long distances to do so.

  Knowledge of the reproductive process was limited, but the practices employed by midwives could be surprisingly modern. Herbal baths were given to relax the expectant mother during the later months.35 Documentary evidence suggests that women were encouraged to give birth in a sitting or squatting position. They were encouraged to do breathing exercises for labor, much as they are today, but there was no pain relief beyond opiates such as poppy seeds or infusions made of tansy, parsley, mint, cress, willow leaves and seeds, ivy, birthwort, or the bark of the white poplar. Instead, women relied on the protection of female saints such as St. Margaret of Antioch, to whom they would offer prayers of supplication. Westminster Abbey owned a precious relic, the girdle of the Virgin Mary, which was sometimes lent to queens and high-ranking women, so that they could tie it around themselves in labor, for it was believed to be of special efficacy at such times; and there were girdles of other saints with similar miraculous properties.36 Sometimes a prayer on a long scroll of parchment would be wrapped around the mother as a “birth girdle.”37 Despite all these practices, many women would have suffered the unmitigated pain of natural labor.

  The baby was supposed to arrive within twenty contractions. If it took longer, certain remedies might be essayed to open up the womb, such as opening doors and cupboards, untying knots, or unlocking chests.38 It is hardly surprising that childbirth was an ordeal in those days—and it was an ordeal that many women faced on a yearly basis; Elizabeth was to suffer it seven times.

  “Afore one o’clock after midnight” on the morning of St. Eustace’s Day, September 20, 1486, as Margaret Beaufort’s scribe noted in her Book of Hours,39 “the Queen was delivered of a fair prince,”40 to the great joy of the King and his subjects high and low. A manuscript drawing in the “Beauchamp Pageant” of ca. 1483–87 shows the birth of Henry VI to Katherine of Valois, wife of Henry V, in 1421, but the costumes and interior are those of the 1480s and reflect the kind of arrangements in place at the time of Elizabeth’s first confinement. The picture depicts the Queen, crowned (although she would not have been in reality), lying in a great bed, tended by four ladies, one of whom holds the swaddled infant, who is also crowned; another smooths the sheets; at the doorway a third lady passes on the good news of the birth to a messenger waiting outside.41

  Bacon states that Elizabeth’s son “was strong and able, though he was born in the eighth month, which the physicians do prejudge,” while Fuller describes him as “vital and vigorous, contrary to the rules of physicians.” To have been born at full term, he would have had to be conceived between December 29 and January 6, but his parents had not married until January 18. It is possible that Henry and Elizabeth had preempted their nuptial vows; as we have seen, once a precontract was made, it was acceptable for couples to consummate their union, after which society regarded them as legally wed. Elizabeth had been honored as Queen from December 1485, so maybe she and Henry began sleeping together at that time. Many couples of lesser rank did not bother with a formal marriage ceremony, but for royalty, of course, it was crucial for the avoidance of doubt over the succession. Even if the King and Queen had waited until after their wedding, their child might have been only about two to three weeks premature.

  However, other evidence tends to corroborate the statement that he was born at eight months, and suggests that Bacon and Fuller were making flattering assumptions; the accounts of the bishops of Winchester for 1486–8742 show that the prince’s nursery household was established for at least the first six months of his life at Farnham, Surrey, halfway between Winchester and London, because he was weak and needed careful nursing until he was strong enough to be moved to London and the palaces of the Thames Valley. William Wayneflete, the Bishop of Winchester, had died the previous month, but the man who was already designated his successor, the aristocratic Peter Courtenay, Bishop of Exeter, was in Winchester for the prince’s christening, and it was probably at his suggestion that the concerned parents decided to send their little son to Farnham. Courtenay, a loyal Yorkist, had been in the service of Edward IV, so may have been familiar to Elizabeth in her younger days. He had joined Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III, then fled to Brittany to join Henry Tudor, who later rewarded him handsomely, making him keeper of the Privy Seal. The King and Queen would have been grateful to entrust th
e well-being of their heir to such a loyal supporter.

  In her hour of triumph, Elizabeth was in a weak state. She may have caught an infection during parturition, as she is recorded as suffering an ague43—an acute fever—during her lying-in period. The importance of hygiene during childbirth was not fully understood until the nineteenth century, even in royal households, and unwashed hands and instruments not infrequently gave rise to fatal infections such as puerperal fever.44 It was not until the sixteenth century that midwives were urged to wash their hands and remove rings before delivering a baby.

  Although Henry and Elizabeth must have felt concern over the health of their child, it surely seemed to them that, in vouchsafing the blessing of a male heir, God had smiled upon the marriage that united Lancaster and York. Henry named his son Arthur, “in honor of the British race”45 and after the hero-king of legend, in order to underline his much vaunted (but mythical) descent from King Arthur and his dynasty’s links with the ancient rulers of Britain; and because his infant heir had been born at Winchester, “where King Arthur kept his court.”46 Above all, he chose the name because it epitomized a universally revered heroic and powerful ideal. “Englishmen no more rejoiced over that name than other nations and foreign princes quaked, so much was the name terrible and formidable to all nations.”47 It resonated with their burgeoning nationalism, with its promise that the Tudors were ushering in a new Arthurian age of greatness.

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