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

  Bridget had been destined for the religious life from birth, so possibly she was sent to Dartford soon after her mother retired to Bermondsey, when she was six. Initially, like other children of noble families, she would have lived in the priory as a boarder before entering the novitiate. The earliest date she could have taken her final vows was November 1493, for girls had to be thirteen to become professed Dominican nuns. Candidates had to be highly educated, and to that end Bridget would have been tutored well in the priory’s school and become familiar with the holy texts in its library. On entry to the order, she donned the requisite white tunic and scapular and black mantle and veil, and resigned herself to a strict régime of prayer and contemplation. Nevertheless, she continued to correspond regularly with her sister the Queen. Elizabeth paid her a pension of 20 marks [£3,250] a year (less than she provided for her other sisters), and forwarded sums to the Abbess of Dartford “toward the charges of my Lady Bridget.” In 1495, Cecily, Duchess of York, bequeathed to Bridget three books: the Legenda Aurea, a life of St. Catherine of Siena, and a life of St. Hilda.23

  Elizabeth has been criticized for acquiescing in her husband’s treatment of her mother, but she was powerless, and Henry may have ignored any protests she made. As usual, she kept her opinions—and perhaps her objections—private. But even if she was relieved to be in possession of her dower at last, it must surely have troubled her that she had profited by her mother’s misfortune.

  Elizabeth Wydeville was not the only one to come under suspicion at this time. That same month of February saw Bishop Stillington summoned before the council to answer charges regarding certain “damnable conjurations and conspiracies.” Since receiving his pardon in 1485, the bishop had been living in retirement at the University of Oxford. But Oxford was where the Simnel conspiracy had originated, and these charges may well have related to his suspected involvement. Stillington refused to obey the summons, and claimed the protection of the university. There he remained throughout March, and it was only after he received a royal safe conduct that he agreed to go to Windsor, where he was interrogated in private. No charges were laid against him, yet he was kept under house arrest, and remained more or less in custody in Windsor for the four years that were left to him.

  In the first week of February, at Sheen, the council, having arrested the priest, Symonds, decided that the threat posed by the pretender in Ireland was sufficiently serious to justify showing the real Warwick to the people.24 A week after Elizabeth Wydeville retired to Bermondsey, the twelve-year-old earl was paraded in a stately procession through London to St. Paul’s Cathedral to attend Mass. Afterward, he was allowed to mingle freely and converse with the King’s councilors and people he knew, including his cousin Lincoln, before being taken in procession to Sheen Palace, where he was received by another cousin, the Queen. Elizabeth would have known him well—they had both lived in the household at Sheriff Hutton less than two years before—so she must have been able to recognize him, as did others, although when the rebels in Ireland heard of the parading of Warwick, they accused Henry of trickery.

  Elizabeth and several lords conversed with Warwick but they found the twelve-year-old unresponsive and backward. Vergil says he could not tell a goose from a capon, while Warwick’s own nephew, Cardinal Reginald Pole, was to declare that his uncle was as innocent as a year-old child. Almost certainly Warwick was of limited intellectual capacity, but just by living he posed a threat to the King, and at the end of the day he was returned to his dismal existence in the Tower.

  Soon afterward, in March, Elizabeth—like many other people—was probably shocked to hear that the Earl of Lincoln had left court and fled to Flanders, where his aunt, Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, lived. Margaret violently disapproved of Henry VII because he had slain her brother, Richard III, and toppled the House of York from the throne, and she was to do everything in her power to undermine his title. She was “not mindful of the marriage which finally united the two houses of York and Lancaster. She pursued Henry with insatiable hatred,”25 baring “such a mortal hatred to the House of Lancaster, and personally to the King, as she was in no ways mollified by the conjunction of the houses in her niece’s marriage, but rather hated her niece as the means of the King’s ascent to the crown.”26

  Possibly her resentment had its roots in the young Elizabeth displacing her as the eldest daughter of the royal House of York, and then becoming betrothed to the heir to France, Burgundy’s enemy; her jealousy may also have been fueled at the prospect of her niece outranking her as Queen of France.27 But after marrying “this most iniquitous invader and tyrant,” who had overthrown the Plantagenet dynasty, Elizabeth was forever damned in Margaret’s eyes because she had turned traitor to her house. In 1493, Margaret told Isabella of Castile that her family had “fallen from the summit.”28 Henry VII thought Margaret a “silly and shameless woman,”29 but she was dangerous too, and her meddling would prove a constant threat to him and Elizabeth. One exasperated English envoy was to express the fervent wish that “the lady would once taste the joys which Almighty God doth serve up to her, in beholding her niece to reign in such honor and with so much royal issue, which she might be pleased to account as her own.”30

  Lincoln’s defection dealt a blow to the Queen, placing her in a difficult situation, because he was the first member of her family to come out in open rebellion against the King, and the first to challenge Henry’s title. His treason set a precedent, paving the way for his brothers, Edmund and Richard de la Pole, and, much later, other surviving scions of the House of York, to plot against the Tudors, who inevitably became increasingly paranoid about the loyalty of anyone with Plantagenet blood in their veins, with the inevitable consequence that much of that blood would be spilled on the executioner’s block.

  At Lincoln’s behest, Margaret of Burgundy was only too happy to acknowledge Simnel as the nephew she had barely seen (if at all), and to finance the hiring of German mercenary troops to back his claim. In May, with this force at his back, Lincoln sailed to Ireland to offer his sword to the pretender, to take control of the situation and prepare for an invasion of England.

  The House of York had long been popular in Ireland, and there was already much support there for the lad who was calling himself Warwick. Waterford alone had declared for Henry VII, on account of Elizabeth’s claim to the throne. On Whitsunday, May 24, Lincoln, the disaffected Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, and other dissident Anglo-Irish lords had the pretender crowned as Edward VI in Christ Church Cathedral, in Dublin. Soon afterward, with hordes of half-naked, untrained Irishmen swelling its ranks, the rebel army sailed for England.

  Elizabeth apparently feared the rebels as much as Henry did. The evidence for this occurs in the Papal Registers for June 1487, where it is stated that Pope Innocent VIII, who had “lately inhibited all the inhabitants of the realm and subjects of King Henry to stir up fresh disturbances in the matter of the right of succession, etc., under pain of excommunication and the greater anathema,” learned that “there is a doubt whether the said inhibition included the inhabitants of Ireland and other places subject to the said King, outside the realm of England, who do not obey the said monition, wherefore the King and Queen Elizabeth fear lest ecclesiastical persons of the said realm and dominions may stir up such new disturbances.” To allay their fears, the Pope declared “the secular inhabitants of Ireland and other places and dominions subject to the said King are included in the said monition, and extends it to all ecclesiastical persons in the said realm and in Ireland and other dominions of the said King, under pain of interdict.”31

  In March 1487, Henry left Elizabeth behind when he departed on a progress to East Anglia and Warwickshire. He was at Kenilworth when, on May 5, he received news of the imminent invasion, and on May 13 wrote to the Earl of Ormond, the Queen’s chamberlain, commanding him—“not failing hereof as ye purpose to do us pleasure”—to escort “our dearest wife and lady mother” to his presence32 at Kenilworth, a strongly buil
t, centrally located fortress where Henry was setting up his headquarters, having chosen the castle for its stout defenses.

  When she received her husband’s summons, Elizabeth was staying with Margaret Beaufort at Chertsey Abbey in Surrey.33 Her first concern was for her child. Accompanied by Bishop Courtenay, she hastened to Farnham Castle to collect Prince Arthur, while emergency plans were made for her to take refuge with him at nearby Romsey Abbey, which was conveniently close to the coast should they need to be spirited across the sea to safety.34 But that proved unnecessary, and Elizabeth and Arthur joined the King at Kenilworth by May 29.35 This would not be the only time the Queen would take one of her children under her protection when danger threatened.

  In the fourteenth century Kenilworth had been transformed by John of Gaunt from a feudal stronghold into a luxurious palace with a vast and magnificent great hall. Elizabeth and her baby would have lodged in splendor in this mighty fortress, protected by its massive walls and the great lake, the Mere, which surrounded it on three sides. When news came that Lincoln’s army had landed in Lancashire on June 4, the King marched to Coventry and prepared to defend his kingdom, having ordered Bishop Courtenay to remain with the Queen and Prince Arthur at Kenilworth during his absence. By then, alarm and confusion were spreading throughout England.

  Few rallied to the pretender and his supporters. “Their snowball did not gather as it went,”36 especially after the King again proclaimed that he would pardon any rebel who surrendered. On June 16, in a hard-fought battle at Stoke, near Newark, Henry won a great victory, at a cost of at least four thousand lives. Lincoln was killed and Lambert Simnel taken prisoner. The King was lenient toward him, setting him to menial work in his kitchens; later, Simnel rose to be “trainer of the King’s hawks,”37 and died in 1525.

  The Battle of Stoke, which André called “the second triumph of Henry VII,” finally brought the Wars of the Roses to an end, and established the Tudor dynasty more firmly on the throne. But the legacy of those wars—the heirs of the overthrown House of York, whom the Tudors feared because they were too close in blood to the throne—and the memory of the “treachery” of the “perfidious Dark Earl,”38 as Henry called Lincoln, would haunt the King and his successors for another eight decades. Stoke taught Henry VII that the elimination of his Yorkist rivals could ensure the stability of his throne and the kingdom, but the implications for Elizabeth were, of course, horrible. Her position depended on her husband’s security, yet it was her close kin whose lives were at stake in the years that followed, years that would see conspiracies, plots, and rebellions all aimed at toppling Henry VII and restoring the House of York to the throne. Small wonder that, throughout Elizabeth’s lifetime, Henry was “possessed with many secret fears touching his own people,” and “had a settled disposition to depress all eminent persons of the House of York.”39

  After the victory, Henry gave thanks in Lincoln Cathedral, then rode back to rejoin Elizabeth at Kenilworth in July. In August 1487 the King and Queen visited Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, where they were entertained by its owner, Sir Edmund Bedingfield. The present King’s and Queen’s Rooms on the first floor at Oxburgh were those occupied by the royal couple at this time, and were named in honor of them.

  Henry had a son to succeed him; he had triumphed over his enemies, and his throne seemed more secure than ever. It was time for a celebration.


  “Bright Elizabeth”

  Elizabeth had still not been crowned, even though her title to the throne bolstered Henry’s own and she had borne him a son and heir. English queens had customarily been crowned soon after marriage or their husbands’ accessions, and Elizabeth was the first uncrowned Queen to bear an heir since the Norman Conquest of 1066. The delay was unprecedented, and it had not made Henry popular. “The root of all was the discountenancing of the House of York, which the general body of the realm still affected. This did alienate the hearts of the subjects from him daily more and more, especially when they saw that after his marriage, and after a son born, the King did nevertheless not so much as proceed to the coronation of the Queen, not vouchsafing her the honor of a matrimonial crown.”1 Even Simnel’s rebels had complained about the delay.2 But in September 1487, twenty months after his marriage, Henry “began to find where his shoe did wring him” and, “being now too wise to disdain perils any longer, and willing to give some contentment in that kind (at least in ceremony), resolved at last to proceed to the coronation of his Queen.”3

  “It was an act against his stomach, and put upon him by necessity and reason of state,”4 yet he rose magnificently to the occasion, appointing his uncle, Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford, to act as Lord High Steward at the coronation, Lord Stanley as High Constable, and the Earl of Oxford as Lord Chamberlain. At Michaelmas 1487, Richard Guildford was put in charge of “the jousts for the coronation of the lady Queen,” and paid 100 marks [£15,500].5 In September summonses were sent out commanding the nobility to attend the ceremony. Following Henry’s consecration, his wedding to Elizabeth, and the christening of Prince Arthur, the Queen’s coronation was to be an even more spectacular means of proclaiming the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty to the world. It was also an expression of the high regard in which he now held Elizabeth.

  It does seem that Henry was at last coming to appreciate the benefits of his marriage. At this time he sent an envoy to the Pope, “signifying unto him that, like another Aeneas, he had passed through the floods of his former troubles and travails and was arrived unto a safe haven,” by which he meant his marriage to Elizabeth. His ambassador, “making his oration to the Pope in the presence of the cardinals, did so magnify the King and Queen as was enough to glut the hearers.”6

  Henry and Elizabeth left Warwick for London on October 27, celebrating the feast of All Hallows in St. Albans a few days later. They lodged at Barnet that night, then she returned ahead of him to the capital, in readiness for her great day.

  But for now the glory was to be the King’s alone. On November 3, richly clothed, the Queen “went secretly” to the hospital of St. Mary Spital in Bishopsgate, where she sat in a window with the Lady Margaret and other great lords and ladies “to behold the fair and goodly sight” of her husband, the victor of Stoke, making his jubilant entry into a capital city “hugely replenished with people.” Henry, “a comely and royal prince, appareled accordingly,” was given a rousing welcome by citizens “that made great joy and exaltation to behold his most royal person after his late triumph and victory against his enemies.” They cheered as he was escorted by Sir William Horne, the Lord Mayor, to St. Paul’s, where the Te Deum was sung in honor of his triumph.7 Elizabeth and Margaret did not attend the service; they traveled down “to their beds” at Greenwich, where the King joined them two days later.

  On November 7 the Court of Common Council of the City of London voted a gift of 1,000 marks for the Queen in honor of her coronation.8 Three days later a royal commission was issued to the stalwarts of Henry’s régime: Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford; John de Vere, Earl of Oxford; Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby; William de Berkeley, Earl of Nottingham; and three others. Stanley, as High Constable, was in overall charge of the arrangements for the ceremony.

  Elizabeth’s coronation far surpassed her husband’s in splendor, and followed time-honored rituals: a sojourn at the Tower of London, a state entry into London, and the crowning itself in Westminster Abbey. It was timed to coincide with the feast day of the hugely popular virgin martyr, St. Katherine of Alexandria, patron saint of royal ladies, who exemplified all the virtues most admired in women and was also a queen by birth.9

  On Friday, November 23, a “royally appareled” Elizabeth left Greenwich with Margaret Beaufort, attended by a great train of lords and ladies, and boarded the magnificently decorated royal barge that was to convey her to the Tower. The Londoners, as ever, were ready to put on a good show, especially to welcome this popular Queen. The City’s streets had been cleaned for the official welcome celebrations; there was
a great water pageant, the first recorded at the coronation of a queen; it launched a new tradition of river spectacles, which would become customary in later centuries.

  “The mayor, sheriffs, aldermen, and many out of every craft [guild] attended [the Queen] in a flotilla of boats freshly furnished with banners and streamers of silk richly beseen with the arms and badges of their crafts” and rowed by liveried oarsmen. Alongside Elizabeth’s boat glided the barge of the bachelors of Lincoln’s Inn, “garnished and appareled, [sur]passing all other” and containing a model of “a great red dragon”—the red dragon of Cadwaladr—that “spouted flames of fire into the Thames.” The symbolism was apt, as Elizabeth, like Henry VII, claimed descent from Cadwaladr. Manned by the handsomest legal graduates, the barge kept pace side by side with the Queen’s, entertaining her with sweet music and attracting the excited admiration of the many spectators thronging the riverbanks.

  In the barges that followed there were “many other gentlemanly pageants, well and curiously devised to do Her Highness sport and pleasure withal,” and she was “accompanied with the music of trumpets, clarions, and other minstrelsy.” When she landed at Tower Wharf, “the King’s Highness welcomed her in such manner and form as was to all the estates, being present, a very goodly sight, and right joyous and comfortable to behold.” Then he led her across the Cradle Tower drawbridge, and so to the old royal apartments in the Lanthorn Tower, where they kept “open household and frank resort” for all the court. That night, Henry created fourteen new Knights of the Bath, as was customary at coronations, and Elizabeth joined him for a reception in their honor.

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