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


  “Damnable Conspiracies”

  Now that Elizabeth was the mother of a prince, plans were once again set in hand for her crowning. Late in 1486, Sir Robert Cotton was paid £40 [£19,500] “for divers necessaries furnished by him toward the coronation of the lady Queen.”1

  Elizabeth’s Wydeville relatives were now held in high favor by the King. On November 19, Thomas Grey was confirmed as Marquess of Dorset and granted an annuity; Elizabeth’s uncle, Sir Richard Wydeville, received a similar reward in January, and his brother Edward was made a Knight of the Garter.2

  The court remained at Greenwich for Christmas, a time for religious observance, festivity, and ceremony. Although Elizabeth Wydeville seems to have accompanied Elizabeth back to London from Winchester, she is not recorded at this Christmas court, although Margaret Beaufort was present with her husband, Derby.

  On Christmas Day the King customarily went in procession to Mass, wearing his crown and his royal robes. Gifts were exchanged formally on New Year’s Day in the King’s bedchamber, but Elizabeth did not give hers to her husband in person. Instead, she sent a messenger with it. When the King came to his “foot-sheet” (the bench at the end of his bed, over which the bedding would have been draped), the usher of his chamber door would say to him, “Sire, here is a New Year’s gift coming from the Queen.” The King would reply, “Sir, let it come in.” Then his usher admitted the Queen’s messenger with the gift, and was rewarded with the customary 10 marks [£1,600] by Henry; one can see why posts in royal service were much sought after. “The Queen, in like manner, sat at her foot-sheet” with her chamberlain and usher in attendance, “and received the King’s New Year gift within the gate of her bed railing. When this formal exchange of presents had taken place between the King and his consort, they received, seated in the same manner, the New Year’s gifts of their nobles.” It is clear from Elizabeth’s privy purse expenses that she gave rewards to those lords and servants who brought her New Year’s gifts, and that those payments were carefully graded according to rank, but they were “not as good as those of the King.”3

  On New Year’s Day the King and Queen always wore their crowns and their royal robes furred with ermine, and went in procession to chapel. Afterward they presided over a great feast. Normally, after such a feast, they and their special guests would retire to a private chamber or banqueting house for what was known as “the void” (as it took place when the table was voided), or banquet—the informal serving of sweet or spiced wine known as hippocras, spices, sugared fruits, marchpane, or other comfits. But on Twelfth Night, the culmination of the Yuletide celebrations, they took the void in the hall. Then the Lord Steward and the Treasurer of the Household would enter with their staves of office, bearing gold wassail cups containing a kind of mulled fruit punch that was drunk to toast the festive season. The steward would cry, “Wassail! Wassail! Wassail!” and the choristers of the King’s Chapel, waiting at the side of the hall, would “answer with a good song.”4

  That Christmas season was perhaps overshadowed by a rumor that had surfaced in November, asserting that more would be heard of the Earl of Warwick before long. There had been other rumors too, that he had escaped, or been murdered in the Tower,5 like his cousins the princes; but he was still there and very much alive. These rumors presaged the first serious threat to Henry VII’s security.

  Again, Elizabeth’s coronation had to be deferred, for in January the King received news that a pretender to his throne, one Lambert Simnel, had appeared in Ireland, claiming to be the Earl of Warwick and to have escaped from his prison in the Tower.

  Then, as now, the identity of this pretender was something of a mystery; much of the contemporary evidence about him derives from English government sources, so there may have been some spin at play. His very name may have been made up: John Leland6 gave it as Lambert, but elsewhere it appears as John,7 while the surname, Simnel, is extremely rare. This suggests that the King and his ministers were much in the dark about the facts behind the conspiracy. Later it emerged that Lambert Simnel, who was about the same age as Warwick, was the bastard son of an organ maker at the University of Oxford.8 He was said to have been coached in his role by an ambitious priest, Richard Symonds, who apparently had a dream that he would be tutor to a king, although it is more likely that he was acting on behalf of more powerful Yorkist interests.

  Because the real Warwick was largely unknown, many were taken in by Simnel: the boy was well-spoken, handsome, and gracious, and he spoke accurately and convincingly of his past, as if he really were Warwick, and scathingly of the “Welsh milksop” who had seized his crown.

  It is highly likely that the driving force behind the Simnel plot was the Earl of Lincoln, the hope of those who wanted a Yorkist king on the throne; and that it was he who secretly had Simnel groomed as a pretender to mask his own intention of seizing the crown. Once designated to succeed Richard III, Lincoln had seen his ambitions overthrown by the victory of Henry VII, and although he offered Henry his allegiance and was outwardly reconciled to the new régime, he had never enjoyed the same income and honors that had been his under King Richard. Probably his loyalty had always been in question, for apparently he had never come to terms with the loss of his hopes of a crown.

  It is perhaps significant that the Simnel conspiracy originated in Oxford, not far from Lincoln’s house at Ewelme—and that Simnel soon afterward surfaced in Ireland, of which Lincoln had been Lord Lieutenant under Richard III. His appearance heralded the first serious crisis of Henry VII’s reign.

  That January, Elizabeth visited Arthur at Farnham, and on February 1, in response to a petition by the townsfolk, the King granted license to Lord Maltravers “to found a perpetual chantry” at Farnham “for the good estate of the King, Elizabeth, Queen of England, Prince Arthur, and the King’s mother.” On May 29, Henry would also grant Bishop Peter’s nephew, Sir William Courtenay, license to found a perpetual chantry in the parish church of St. Clement at Powderham in Devon, “to pray for the King, Queen Elizabeth, Arthur, Prince of Wales, the said William Courtenay, and Cecily his wife.” In February 1487 license was granted to Thomas, Abbot of Shrewsbury, “to celebrate Mass at the altar of St. Winifred for the good estate of the King [and] Elizabeth the Queen,” and a grant was made to Henry, prior of St. Mary’s at Llanthony in Wales, so he could perform a similar service.9 It was common for royal and noble persons to make such provision for the health of their souls and those dear to them: thus did they lay up treasure in Heaven.

  On July 10, 1486, Elizabeth Wydeville had taken a forty-year lease on Cheyneygates, the abbot’s house at Westminster Abbey; after her previous sojourns there, while in sanctuary, it may have represented a refuge from a court where (in view of what was about to befall her) she might have felt increasingly unwelcome—and it was conveniently situated for worship at the abbey and for visiting the Palace of Westminster. But she was not to enjoy it for long.

  That same month, in negotiating a truce with Scotland, Henry VII had suggested that Elizabeth Wydeville might marry the widowed James III of Scotland, even though she was nearing fifty—to James’s thirty-four—and highly unlikely to bear him children. Henry would have been relieved of the burden of providing for the Queen Dowager if she married abroad, but the plan was complicated by the fact that two of her daughters had been proposed as brides for the Scots king’s eldest son, James, and his second son, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Ross, and there ensued some discussion about proposing one of her younger girls, Anne or Bridget, for the King instead. Negotiations dragged on until, abruptly, they were halted by James III’s assassination in June 1488.10

  By then Elizabeth Wydeville was out of the running. Early in February 1487, at Sheen, she was deprived “by the decree of the council of all her possessions.”11 The King took all her property into his hands, and on February 20, Parliament allocated her a pension of 400 marks [£133.3s.6d., now worth £65,100], which was to be paid in installments to “our right dear and right
well beloved Queen Elizabeth, late wife unto the noble prince of famous memory, King Edward, and mother unto our dearest wife the Queen.”12 This was 300 marks fewer than Richard III had assigned Elizabeth Wydeville in 1484.13

  According to Vergil, the reason given for the confiscation of the Queen Dowager’s property was that in 1484 she had imperiled Henry’s cause because, according to Hall, she “made her peace with King Richard, had voluntarily submitted herself and her daughters to the hands of King Richard, whereat there was much wondering, and had, by leaving sanctuary, broken her promise to those (mainly of the nobility) who had, at her own most urgent entreaty, forsaken their own English property and fled to Henry in Brittany, the latter having pledged himself to marry her elder daughter, Elizabeth. She was accordingly deprived of the income from her estates, so that she should offer an example to others to keep faith.” Hall adds: “Through her double dealings it was likely to have followed that the marriage could not take place, nor might the noblemen who, at her request, took King Henry’s part return without danger to their lives.” Undoubtedly that was a savage blow to Henry Tudor’s ambitions at the time. Yet it had been all of three years ago, and none of it was news to him: why wait until now to punish her for it? Far from appearing to harbor resentment, he had restored her to royal status and treated her honorably and well, giving her prominence above his own mother as the godmother of his firstborn son. It is also unlikely that he would have contemplated marrying her to the Scots king if he feared she had it in her to intrigue against him, for the Scots were notoriously unreliable allies. It sounds therefore as if this pretext was contrived.

  Elizabeth Wydeville now retired, for “divers considerations,” to St. Saviour’s Abbey at Bermondsey, across the river from the Tower of London.14 It has been suggested that she retreated there at her own request, possibly because of ill health, or because she did not wish to marry the Scots king, or because she was broken by the murders of three of her sons, although they had taken place nearly four years before—but subsequent events would suggest otherwise. It could not have been because she wanted to retire from the world to lead a life of piety, because Bermondsey was a house of monks, and her marriage to the Scots King was still being mooted nine months later. And if she had gone willingly, why had she taken a forty-year lease on Cheyneygates less than a year earlier?

  Her retirement came at a time when the threat posed by Lambert Simnel and those who were using him to achieve the restoration of the House of York was becoming more acute. Although no contemporary commentator linked Elizabeth Wydeville to the Simnel conspiracy, the two other orders in council passed on that day at Sheen related to the threat: one offered pardon to all rebels who threw themselves on the King’s mercy; the other was for the parading of the real Warwick at St. Paul’s. It has therefore been assumed by some commentators that the order in council banishing the Queen Dowager to Bermondsey was also connected to the Simnel plot—but that does not necessarily follow.

  Francis Bacon, writing more than a century later, was the first to assert that Henry VII distrusted his mother-in-law and banished her to Bermondsey because she had been the prime mover behind that plot: “It cannot be but that some great person that knew [Warwick] particularly and familiarly had a hand in the business. That which is most probable, out of precedent and subsequent acts, is that it was the Queen Dowager from whom this action had the principal source and motion. For certain it is she was a busy negotiating woman, and in her withdrawing chamber had the fortunate conspiracy for the King against King Richard III been hatched, which the King knew and remembered perhaps but too well.” As she had plotted on Henry’s behalf, the theory went, so she might decide to plot against him, and apparently she had anticipated that her daughter would enjoy more influence as Queen—the kind of influence she herself had enjoyed in her day—but it quickly became clear that Elizabeth was to be allowed no real power at all. Therefore the Queen Dowager “was at this time extremely discontent with the King, thinking her daughter not advanced but depressed.”15 Thanks to Bacon, there has been speculation ever since that Elizabeth Wydeville was involved in the Simnel conspiracy.

  Why would Elizabeth Wydeville have plotted against Henry to the detriment and ruin of her own daughter and grandson? There is absolutely no evidence that she did. She had actively worked for Elizabeth’s marriage to the King. If Elizabeth had little power as Queen now, she would have even less if Henry were to be deposed and Lincoln became King. Even if the Queen Dowager really believed Simnel to be Warwick, which is highly unlikely, would she have lent her support to the son of Clarence—in whose ruin she and her party had probably been complicit—above the claim of her own grandson? And would she have collaborated with the ever-busy Bishop Stillington, who was suspected of supporting the rebels—the man who had been instrumental in the impugning of her marriage? The only scenario that makes sense of Bacon’s assertions is that she believed at least one of her sons was still alive, but there is no evidence to support this.

  Henry VII might be forgiven for being overcautious, or even slightly paranoid, at this time; Bacon imagines him thinking that his mother-in-law was involved in the Simnel plot, and that “none could hold the book so well to prompt and instruct this stage play as she could.” That the King imprisoned her son Dorset in the Tower until the threat from Simnel and his supporters was dealt with appears to support this assumption, but her brother, Sir Edward Wydeville, was to fight for the King against Simnel’s forces.16 What’s more, no contemporary source mentions Henry voicing the concerns described by Bacon more than a century later.

  Yet Henry did have another, more pressing reason for banishing his mother-in-law. Two queens in one kingdom involved unnecessary expenditure. Throughout the fifteenth century the Queen consort’s dower had been paid out of the revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster, but the income assigned by the King to Elizabeth Wydeville proved a drain on resources that should have supported his wife.17 Probably his only objective in sending his mother-in-law to Bermondsey was to seize her lands, which could then be used to dower his financially embarrassed Queen.

  At Bermondsey, Elizabeth Wydeville was registered as a boarder, which entitled her to free board and lodging as a descendant of the founder. She was lodged in an old range of apartments formerly used by the earls of Gloucester, early benefactors of the monastery, whose line had died out in the fourteenth century; maybe these old rooms did not offer the most comfortable or elegant accommodation. The Benedictine abbey, originally a priory, was founded in the eleventh century on the site of what had been successively a Saxon monastery and a royal manor recorded in the Domesday Book. From the twelfth century on it had enjoyed the patronage of royalty, and in 1399 it became an abbey. In 1437, Queen Katherine of Valois, widow of Henry V, had been sent to Bermondsey after her secret liaison with Owen Tudor (grandfather of Henry VII) was discovered, and died there in childbirth soon afterward. The present abbot, John Marlow, had been among the clergy who officiated at the obsequies of Edward IV.18

  In the fifteenth century Bermondsey was a large and important religious house, but it was not an ideal retreat. It had often been poorly run and allowed to fall into neglect—its history is a long catalogue of debt and mismanagement—and it was located in a damp and unhealthy situation, so if Elizabeth Wydeville retired there solely on account of her failing health, as some writers have suggested, it was a strange choice. For Henry VII, though, it provided a solution to the problem of maintaining his mother-in-law, for a condition of the original royal grant of the land stipulated that the monks must always keep a residence for use of the monarch. Thus Henry could send the Queen Dowager there at no cost to himself—and could also provide more easily for his Queen.

  At Easter 1487, which fell on April 15, Elizabeth got her dower at last. Royal warrants were issued to officers of the Exchequer to pay “all profits and issues of all lands, honors, and castles lately belonging to Elizabeth, late wife of King Edward IV,” to her daughter, “the lady Queen.” At Coventry, on
May 1, the King confirmed that “whereas we have seized into our hands all honors, castles, manors, lordships, etc., by us late assigned unto Queen Elizabeth, late wife to Edward IV,” he had formally assigned “every of the said honors to our dearest wife the Queen.”19 One of the properties that Henry confiscated from his mother-in-law was Sheen Palace, which he soon proceeded to repair and alter, building two large towers and adding a new lead roof. It was to become one of his and Elizabeth’s favorite residences.

  Bacon states that Elizabeth Wydeville was now so tainted with treason “that it was almost thought dangerous to visit her, or even see her”; yet after her retirement she came to court occasionally and was visited by her daughters. The King made grants of money to her from time to time, and they exchanged gifts—in 1488 he rewarded her for sending him a tun of wine, and in 1490 he gave her 50 marks “against the feast of Christmas.” He referred to her in letters as “our dear mother, Queen Elizabeth” or “our right dear and right well beloved Queen Elizabeth, mother of our dear wife the Queen.”20 This all suggests cordiality and concern rather than antagonism. In November 1487, Henry again put the Queen Dowager forward as a bride for James III, which he is hardly likely to have done if he believed she had been plotting treason and saw her as a threat to him—or if she had retired to Bermondsey because of ill health or a desire to retreat from the world.

  Elizabeth Wydeville’s wishes for the disposition of her youngest daughter, Bridget, were honored by the King. Possibly in 149021—between 1486, when Bridget was considered as a potential bride for James III, and 1492, when she is recorded as coming from Dartford to Windsor—the child was sent to the Dominican priory at Dartford, Kent, to join the sisters of the Order of St. Augustine, “a house of close nuns.”22 Dartford was the only Dominican nunnery in England, and the seventh richest convent in the land at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. It was famous as a center for prayer, spirituality, and education, and had enjoyed royal patronage since it was founded by Edward III in 1349.

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