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


  The tiny Prince Arthur, already styled Duke of Cornwall, was bathed, swaddled, and laid in one of the two cradles that had been made for him, the one “fair set forth by painter’s craft” in fine gold—“the little cradle of tree” with buckles that could be attached to his swaddling bands. This was in everyday use. The other cradle, which stood in his outer chamber under a cloth-of-gold canopy, was only “used on state occasion. Furnished with great magnificence,” it was five feet six inches long and two feet six inches wide, and was “graven with the King and Queen’s arms” and made up with luxurious bedding of crimson cloth of gold, scarlet, ermine, and blue velvet.48

  Yeomen of the Queen’s chamber were immediately dispatched with the “comfortable and good tidings” of the birth to “all the estates and cities of the realm,” and the King gave orders for church bells to be rung throughout the land. The Te Deum was sung in churches in thanksgiving, and in the streets people lit bonfires “in praise and rejoicing” and “every true Englishman” celebrated the joyful news.49

  On a cold, wet Sunday, September 24, four-day-old Arthur was borne to his christening in Winchester Cathedral. Because so many infants died young, it was customary to have them baptized soon after birth. By tradition, the King and Queen did not attend: Elizabeth, of course, was still lying in, and the King kept no “day of estate,” as a christening was seen as “a deed of alms.”50 It was the godparents—or sponsors—who had important parts to play, while the ceremonial was ordered by the King. It is a measure of Henry’s gratitude to Elizabeth—and no doubt of his desire for a display of amity and unity—that her mother and other members of the Wydeville family were assigned prominent roles, while the high-profile presence of Elizabeth’s Yorkist relations was a public acknowledgment of Arthur as the heir to both York and Lancaster, and proclaimed their endorsement of the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty. It also showed that in return for their loyalty, Henry was ready to treat them with the honor their blood deserved.

  The christening was held up because John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, one of the godfathers, had been delayed on his way from Lavenham, Suffolk, because of the stormy weather, which had turned the roads into quagmires. After waiting for him in vain for three hours, the King gave the order for the procession to form in Elizabeth’s great chamber. “My Lady Cecily, the Queen’s eldest sister, bare the Prince, [who was] wrapped in a mantle of crimson cloth of gold furred with ermine and with a train” that Sir John Cheyney helped to support. Cecily was attended by her eleven-year-old sister Anne and supported by the Marquess of Dorset and the Earl of Lincoln. It was thought proper that the prince’s train should be borne by an earl, so Lincoln may have been assigned the honor. Two hundred unlit torches, carried by esquires and yeomen, were borne before the prince as, attended by “a great company of lords and ladies and divers gentlewomen,” Cecily “proceeded through the cloisters into the church, where Queen Elizabeth [Wydeville] was abiding the coming of the prince.”51

  Margaret Beaufort was strangely absent on this important occasion. Possibly she did not wish to be seen taking second place to the prince’s other grandmother, Elizabeth Wydeville, who outranked her, yet they had worked together for Henry Tudor’s triumph and his marriage to Elizabeth of York, so possibly the Lady Margaret was merely unwell. The Queen Dowager stood godmother to the prince, and Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, who gave a salt cellar, was one of the godfathers. Thomas FitzAlan, Lord Maltravers, stood in to present a coffer of gold on behalf of the Earl of Oxford, who arrived in time to sponsor Arthur at his confirmation. Lionel Wydeville, Bishop of Salisbury, also took part in the ceremony, and Margaret of Clarence was foremost among the ladies in attendance.

  Henry VII’s ordinances of 1494 specified the manner of the christening of a prince, and it is likely they reflected the arrangements made for Arthur’s baptism. The cathedral door was hung with cloth of gold, and the nave had been magnificently “hanged with cloths of Arras and red sarcenet” and laid with carpets right to the altar, a sure sign of magnificence, for carpets were costly items that were more commonly placed on tables to preserve them; only the very wealthy put them on floors. In the Lady Chapel “a solemn font of silver-gilt” costing £5.11s. [£2,700] was placed next to the ancient Norman font on “a stage of steps with a rich canopy” of cloth of gold, the stage also laid with carpets. The font was lined with cloth of Rennes, surmounted by “a great gilt bowl” and “set on a great height, that the people may watch the christening.” Beside it was “a step like a block for the bishop to stand on.”

  To one side was a curtained area, behind which was “a fire of coals,” a chafer of water, and silver basins. It was here, where he could be kept warm and clean, that the prince was undressed completely. Then he was carried up the steps and given into the arms of John Alcock, Bishop of Worcester, who immersed him in the font and christened him. Anne of York came forward with a rich chrisom cloth, which she had worn pinned to her breast and draped over her arm on “a kerchief of fine ermines,” and as it was placed on the baby’s anointed head the esquires and yeomen lit their torches.

  With his little fingers held closed around a lighted taper, Arthur was “borne in fair order to the High Altar” by his grandmother, as the choir sang Veni Creator Spiritus and Te Deum. The Queen Dowager laid him on the altar, “after which the Earl of Oxford took the prince in his right arm, and Peter Courtenay, Bishop of Exeter, confirmed him.” Afterward he was taken back behind the curtain to be dressed, and wine and spices were served to the “gossips,” who presented many costly gifts to the child. Elizabeth Wydeville’s was “a rich cup of gold, covered, which was borne by Sir Davy Owen,” the King’s bastard uncle.

  With the gifts carried aloft in procession by the peers, “the prince returned and was borne home by my Lady Cecily, the minstrels playing on their instruments; and then was he borne to the King and the Queen.” Henry sat by Elizabeth’s gorgeously hung bed of estate as they waited to receive their son; she was wearing a rich gown and mantle for the occasion. Given that she was still feverish, she must have made an effort to put on such a brave show. Cecily placed young Arthur in her arms, for, following ancient custom, his mother was the person who first called him by his Christian name; then he received “the blessings of Almighty God, our Lady and St. George, and of his father and mother.” The christening gifts were presented at the door to the Queen’s chamber, after which the infant prince was returned to his nursery.52

  The King wanted everyone to share in his joy at having an heir, and to understand the importance of this day. “In the churchyard were set two pipes of wine, that every man might drink enough” to toast the prince, and three days of celebrations followed the christening, as England rejoiced.53 The birth of a royal heir who embodied the union of Lancaster and York and would aptly be hailed as “the rosebush of England, rose in one,” had greatly strengthened the King’s position and assured the succession; it was hailed as the beginning of a new golden age, and commemorated in ballads such as this one, “The Peace of the Roses,” by Thomas Phelypps:

  I love the rose both red and white;

  Is that your pure, perfect appetite?

  To hear talk of them is my delight.

  Joyed may we be

  Our Prince to see

  And roses three!54

  Pietro Carmeliano composed a long laudatory poem in honor of the prince’s birth, hailing him as a new Arthur, the manuscript decorated with red and white roses,55 and the poet laureate, John Skelton, joined the chorus of celebration:

  The rose both red and white

  In one rose now doth grow.

  Bernard André composed “a poem of one hundred verses,” which, thankfully, he omitted from his history because of its length. Yet he could not resist including its opening lines, which begin: “Come celebrate the child’s birth, O Muses, and the noble offspring born of illustrious royalty. To celebrate the festal day, wreath your hair with a comely flower, O English, and crown your brows with garlands. Let the pipe blow, let b
oys and young girls dance and stir the air with applause, and let happy London celebrate festive games. Behold, the royal child Arthur arises, the second hope of our kingdom.”

  It was said that the birth of the new Arthur had been foretold by Merlin,56 while the Welsh bard, Dafydd Lloyd, celebrated the arrival of this “descendant” of the ancient Welsh princes in a verse in which he recommended him to the keeping of Dark-Age Welsh saints:

  Let St. Mary and St. Mwrog secure

  Our Prince and his cradle;

  Let the hand of Beuno and Ilar

  Preserve him from all ill,

  And the hand of Derfel, the great guide,

  And the hand of Christ.57

  Newly delivered mothers were expected to lie in after the birth; unlike now, there was no getting up and walking around soon afterward, and of course no understanding of the risks of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms, which may well have accounted for a number of fatalities in childbed. It was believed that the body needed time to cleanse itself during the period following labor. The lying-in period could be anything from fifteen to sixty days, and it ended with the mother’s churching. The new mother might spend up to two weeks on her back before her “upsitting.” As soon as she could sit up and was well enough to receive visitors, the Queen presided over a ceremony called the “relevailles,” at which she showed off her child to the courtiers while sitting up in bed, royally wrapped in her mantle of estate.58 Afterward she would remain in her bedchamber, but not necessarily in bed; and for the last few days of her confinement she was allowed to leave her chamber but not go outdoors.59 Given that childbirth was such an ordeal, and could have painful physical repercussions such as a perineal tear or an obstetric trauma, many women must have needed this time to recuperate.

  “After that the Queen was purified and whole of an ague that she had,”60 she was churched. At the feast of Michaelmas (September 29), at the King’s command, Richard Gullefer, merchant of London, supplied “my lady the Queen” with “ten yards of crimson velvet at 35s. [£850] the yard [and] six yards of damask russet at 9s. [£220] the yard,” at a cost of £20.4s. [£10,000].61 This was for her churching, the solemn purification and thanksgiving service that followed her lying-in period, cleansed her of sexual sin and afforded her the opportunity to offer thanks for her child and her survival. “And when the Queen shall be purified, she must be richly be seen in tires62 and rich laces about her neck, and linen cloth [must be laid] upon the bed of estate; and there shall be a duchess or a countess to take her down off ye bed and lead her to her chamber door,” where two more duchesses waited to receive her. Then “a duke shall lead her to the church,” carrying a lighted taper, as the choir sang the Nunc Dimittis and Lumen ad Relevacionem, antiphons that were associated with the purification of the Virgin Mary.63

  The ceremony of churching took place at the chapel door, where the bishop intoned, “Enter the temple of God, adore the Son of the Holy Virgin Mary, who has given you the blessing of motherhood,”64 and sprinkled the Queen with holy water before leading her by the hand into the church, where the Mass of the Trinity was celebrated. The escorting duke, still carrying the lighted taper, would precede the Queen up to the high altar, where she made her offering of it, along with gold and the chrisom cloth used at her infant’s baptism; then all her ladies and gentlemen offered too, according to their degrees. Once the ceremony was over, Elizabeth sat enthroned in her great chamber, under her canopy of estate, and had her largesse, or charity, cried. The King, by custom, was not present.65

  Now Elizabeth was officially ready to resume normal everyday life—and sexual relations with her husband. Queens did not breastfeed their infants, so their periods resumed soon after giving birth, enabling them to conceive again. Whatever her joy in her baby, Elizabeth had already given him into the care of others who would suckle him and see to all his daily needs, leaving her free to fulfill her prime dynastic duty of bearing royal offspring, and to attend to her ceremonial functions and other duties. In the late fifteenth century a good mother was one who loved her children and looked to their advancement; the term did not imply daily practical care or interaction with them. Royal mothers accepted it as inevitable, indeed normal, that their young would be reared and looked after by other people. Their chief concerns were to oversee and supervise their children’s upbringing and education, and, later on, to ensure that they made good marriages.

  The infant prince already had his personal staff, and soon he would have his own establishment headed by a chamberlain. The King laid down the rules for the management of the royal nursery, which was to have a lady governor, a nursery nurse (the term wet nurse had not yet come into use), and rockers, or chamberers; but it was the Queen who appointed the staff. Before June 1487—and probably from the time of the prince’s birth—Elizabeth, Lady Darcy, who had been in charge of Edward V’s nursery and obviously managed it well, was appointed to run Prince Arthur’s as “lady governor” or “lady mistress,” at a salary of £26 [£12,700] per annum. Under her was Katherine Gibbs, the prince’s nurse, Elizabeth Wood, a gentlewoman, and a staff of yeomen, grooms, sewers, and panters. There were also three rockers—Amy Butler, Emmeline Hobbes, and Alison Bwimble—whose duty it was to rock Arthur to sleep in his cradle and keep watch over him. Velvet liveries were supplied by the King to the female attendants in 1488.66 All had sworn solemn oaths of service before the Lord Chamberlain.

  Every precaution was taken, for in an age before antibiotics, infants were vulnerable to infection, and clearly Henry VII feared that other dangers might threaten “the jewel of his household.” He gave orders that, before his son was weaned—which would not have been until he was two67—“it must be seen that the nurse’s meat and drink be essayed [for poison] during the time that she giveth suck to the child”; he also commanded that “a physician do stand over her at every meal, which see what meat or drink she giveth the child.”68

  The prince’s nursery was furnished with rich stuffs, crimson damask cushions and “eight large carpets” on the floor, but his father also provided for practical items such as a great chafer (warming dish), a basin of latten (brass), and two large pewter basins for washing laundry.69

  Elizabeth’s ague persisted into the autumn. Her prolonged ill health after the birth of Prince Arthur may have been the reason why she did not conceive another child for nearly two and a half years. When she finally recovered, she gave a substantial offering to Winchester Cathedral in thanksgiving for her return to health and the safe delivery of her son. Prior Hunton and his successor, Prior Thomas Silkestede, used this gift for enlarging and revaulting the fourteenth-century Lady Chapel where Arthur had been christened, installing larger windows with beautiful stained glass, and commissioning a series of wall paintings depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The work was completed around 1500, and Elizabeth’s arms, surmounted by the legend “In Gloriam Dei,” may be seen there today, alongside those of her son, on decorative shields mounted on the wall. She herself is depicted in a Victorian stained-glass window in the same chapel.70

  The court left Winchester in the third week of October, arriving on the October 26 at Farnham, where Prince Arthur’s household was now established, with 1,000 marks [£140,300] allocated for its upkeep.71 “The town of Farnham, where the King’s firstborn son, Arthur, is now being nursed,”72 had been in the hands of the bishops of Winchester since the ninth century; the castle dated from 1138 and overlooked the town from its high hill. The prince’s household was probably established in the adjacent bishop’s palace, an equally ancient building with many later improvements. Peter Courtenay, the bishop-elect, was probably in residence in the palace at this time. The constable of Farnham was Thomas FitzAlan, Lord Maltravers (soon to be Earl of Arundel), who was married to Elizabeth’s aunt, Margaret Wydeville.

  It was no doubt felt that the cleaner air of Farnham would do the premature infant some good, and it was certainly not thought necessary that his mother should be with him. Elizabeth had discharg
ed her chief responsibility, that of appointing trustworthy attendants to care for him, and now she had duties to perform. She was back with Henry at Greenwich by November 1, when the King held a great court to celebrate the feast of All Hallows, clad magnificently in cloth of gold, “a very good sight, and right joyous and comfortable to behold.” On November 18, no doubt grateful for the heir who had arrived so promptly, the King sent £100 [£48,900] to the Queen “by the hands of the Lord Treasurer.”73

  This disruption to the bonding process may have affected the relationship between mother and son. A substantial body of modern research has shown that mothers show limited maternal responsiveness toward premature babies when there has been a prolonged period of separation after birth.74 We cannot say that was the case with Elizabeth and Arthur—not enough is known, although there is evidence that she would have much more to do with her subsequent children—but it is a possibility. There is no evidence to suggest that Arthur experienced the learning difficulties that can affect premature children, but new research, based on a study of a million births,75 shows that prematurity can have consequences right into adulthood, and that such children have an increased risk of dying in late childhood compared with babies delivered at full term; in late childhood, boys in particular have a sevenfold increased risk of dying. That may not impact greatly on today’s low mortality rates, but it would have had serious implications five hundred years ago. And while there is little evidence to support the theory that Arthur was always delicate, it is likely that he had a lifetime risk of poor health because he was premature, and there might have been concerns about his frailty before he reached his fourteenth birthday.

  Arthur’s nursery was to remain at Farnham for at least six months, and perhaps the first two years of his life, after which it was apparently relocated to, or near, Ashford, in Kent.76

 
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