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


  In November 1490, Elizabeth was granted custody of the lordship and manor of Bretts, in West Ham, Essex. This may have been in response to her giving the King the glad news that she was expecting her third child, possibly conceived during a visit to Ewelme in Oxfordshire.42 On St. Peter’s Eve, June 28, 1491, at Greenwich Palace, in the midst of a rainy summer, she bore a second son, called Henry after his father, and perhaps after Henry VI, whom the King hoped to have canonized. The child was red-haired and sturdy, a true Plantagenet who much resembled his grandfather, Edward IV. As Henry VIII, he was to become the most famous of Elizabeth’s children.

  Wrapped in “a mantle of gold furred with ermine,” and escorted by two hundred men bearing torches, the new prince was baptized a few days later in the nearby church of the Observant Friars. The church was hung with rich Arras and cloth of gold for the occasion, and carpets were laid in the chancel. Richard Fox, Bishop of Exeter, one of the King’s chief ministers, officiated. The silver font in which this lusty infant was immersed was again borrowed from Canterbury Cathedral for the occasion, and “the bottom [was] well-padded with soft linen.” Money was paid “for sealing of a window where my Lord Henry was changed.” A nurse, Anne Oxenbridge,43 was appointed to look after him during his early years; clearly he grew fond of her, as much later, after he became King, he would reward her with a pension of £20 [£9,670]. In charge of his nursery was the King’s “dear and well-beloved Elizabeth Darcy, mistress to our dearest son the prince.” Agnes Butler and Emmeline Hobbes were among the “rockers to our said son.”44

  When he was still quite young, Prince Henry’s household was established at Eltham Palace in Kent, to the east of London. Although Prince Arthur was brought up away from the court, Elizabeth’s younger children were largely reared in close proximity to their parents, at Eltham, or at Sheen (where she herself had spent part of her early childhood), Greenwich, or the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace at Croydon, Surrey—all well away from the unhealthy air of London.

  Eltham Palace stood on a high hill with commanding views over the City, in a bracing location. There had been a moated manor house on the site as early as the thirteenth century; much extended, it became a favored royal palace in the fourteenth century, boasting a bathroom, dancing chambers, and beautiful gardens. Edward IV, who loved Eltham, had built its soaring great hall in the 1470s, adorning it with pairs of cinque-foil windows, battlements (now gone), and what is today the third-largest hammer-beam roof in England, after those at Westminster Hall and Christ Church, Oxford; and here his badges of the white rose and the sun in splendor still survive. Edward also built the stone bridge across the moat, the front courtyard, new kitchens at right angles to the hall, the service quarters of pantry and buttery at its screens’ end, and new royal lodgings beyond for himself and Elizabeth Wydeville. The latter contained a novel and unique series of five-sided bay windows, and a new innovation, a gallery, built for the purpose of recreation—the earliest one of its kind known in England. Surrounding the palace was a forested hunting park. After Westminster, Eltham was the largest of the royal palaces—and it would have held happy associations for Elizabeth.

  Henry VII built a new brick range of royal apartments with bays and oriel windows on the west side of the Great Court—“a fair front over the moat”45—and rebuilt the chapel. From 1490 on, he and Elizabeth of York often resided at Eltham, and in their day the great hall was used as a dining hall for the court. Here they dined on the dais, while the officers of the court kept their tables at right angles to theirs.

  The future Henry VIII and his siblings spent a large part of their childhood on Eltham’s breezy heights,46 their mother being a frequent visitor—often from nearby Greenwich—rather than a constant presence in their lives.47 Margaret was weaned in 1491, probably around her second birthday, and her nurse, Alice Davy, dismissed. It is clear from Exchequer warrants that her household and Henry’s were amalgamated before the end of that year, although each had their own attendants.48 In time other infants would join them. The Great Wardrobe Accounts contain many payments for beautiful clothing for the royal children, who were clad in velvet, satin, and damask right from infancy, outward display being considered more important than practicality.49

  Since 1489 there had been fresh and persistent rumors that at least one of the Princes in the Tower had survived. It is not known where they originated, or if Elizabeth heard these rumors, or what she made of them. It is unlikely that she knew for certain what had happened to her brothers, so it is possible that hope sometimes sprang in her heart that one or both of them was alive. Conceivably she had long speculated as to their fate, and maybe this new crop of rumors gave her pause for thought.

  But in the autumn of 1491 news came from Ireland that one of the princes might be very much alive. A merchant of Brittany, Pregent Meno, had sailed into Cork with a youth on board. When this fair, blond young man appeared magnificently garbed in silks, bearing himself with great dignity, the citizens of Cork are said to have concluded at once that he must be of royal blood, and the mayor, John Atwater, impressed by the youth’s knowledge of the court, declared that he must be the Earl of Warwick, escaped from the Tower. It is likely that this plot had been hatched in advance.

  What happened next is unclear, but soon afterward it was announced that the handsome stranger was actually Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the vanished princes. York would have reached sixteen in August 1491, and the stranger was about that age. In a drawing in the Receuil d’Arras he bears a strong resemblance to Edward IV, which was commented on by contemporaries, although he was “not handsome,” as Edward was.50 Certainly the boy knew a lot about the Yorkist court. According to a thirdhand report, Maximilian of Austria was to assert that he was Margaret of Burgundy’s bastard son by Henri de Berghes, Bishop of Cambrai,51 but there is no evidence to substantiate this.

  By 1487 the boy had been taken into the service of Edward IV’s godson, Sir Edward Brampton, a staunch Yorkist knighted by Richard III. Brampton had gone to Portugal to negotiate the marriage between Richard and the Infanta Joana, but he fled into exile in the Netherlands after Bosworth. It could have been in his household that his protégé learned so much about the Yorkist court, knowledge that would serve him well in the future. He might have been Edward IV’s bastard; Bacon hints that there was something scandalous behind the employment of the boy by Edward’s godson. Yet this lad, who claimed he was brought up at the English court until he was ten, had clearly not yet mastered the English language.

  Vergil believed that this was a new imposture, the brainchild of Margaret of Burgundy, who hated Henry VII and had probably been waiting for an opportunity to unseat him since the failure of the Simnel conspiracy. According to Vergil, Margaret had apparently come across the boy by chance, or he might have been pushed into her path by Brampton. Impressed by his looks and sharp wits, and possibly struck by his resemblance to her brother, Edward IV, she was only too happy to recognize him as her lost nephew, whom she had last seen when he was seven. Bacon claimed that she had been looking out for such a handsome, graceful youth “to make Plantagenets and dukes of York.” Vergil states that she kept him secretly in her household and that it was she who taught him all he needed to know, “so that afterward he should convince all by his performance that he sprang from the Yorkist line.” Vergil believed it was Margaret who had arranged for the lad to go to Ireland with a view to stirring up the Yorkist supporters there.

  There is no evidence that Margaret ever met the pretender before 1492, when he fled to her court from France. Even so, it is likely that some conspiracy had been formed before he appeared in Ireland. Henry VII was convinced that it had its roots in Burgundy.52 Certainly Margaret of Burgundy would not have hesitated to do everything in her power to overthrow Henry and Elizabeth and replace them with any “male remnant” of the House of York who was remotely suitable.53

  The news of York’s apparent survival “came blazing and thundering into England,” arousing much exc
itement and speculation.54 One wonders what Elizabeth felt on hearing it. Her Victorian biographers suspected that “her mental sufferings were acute”55 during the years and crises that followed, and that the emergence of this new pretender and his subsequent career filled her mind “with gloomy forebodings.”56 It seems many wanted to believe that one of the princes had survived. “The King began again to be haunted by sprites, by the magic and curious arts of the Lady Margaret [of Burgundy], who raised up the ghost of Richard, Duke of York, to walk and vex the King. This was a finer counterfeit stone than Lambert Simnel.” The youth who claimed to be York was so “crafty and bewitching” that he could “move pity and induce belief, as was like a kind of fascination and enchantment to those that saw or heard him.”57

  Is it possible that he was the prince he claimed to be? His own account of how he was spared death after his brother had been killed lacks credibility, and there were inconsistencies in his confession, made much later when he was a captive, which cast doubt on its veracity. Further, against the weight of evidence that the princes were dead by October 1483, it would be hard to argue for the survival of one of them. But some were apparently convinced that he was York. He was to “number kings among his friends,”58 convincing the monarchs of France, Denmark, and Scotland, the Duke of Saxony, Maximilian the Archduke of Austria and his son, Philip; all claimed to be satisfied with the evidence of birthmarks, although each at some stage may have been glad of an opportunity to discountenance Henry VII.

  The pretender was also a magnet for the dissident Irish lords. “My masters of Ireland, you will crown apes at length!” Henry VII was to observe scathingly.59 But it was no jesting matter: the King might dismiss him as “this lad who calls himself Plantagenet,”60 but that lad was to be a constant thorn in Henry’s side for the next eight years, and at first the King may have feared that he really was Richard of York. The pretender could not have plagued him thus if he had discovered what became of the Princes in the Tower. Had he been in possession of that information, he would surely have used it to counter the pretender’s claims, as he had paraded Warwick in London to counteract Simnel’s.

  The question of the youth’s true identity must at this stage have tormented Elizabeth, whose heart no doubt leapt at the news that her brother might be alive. Yet her hopes must have been tempered with dread and cruelly torn loyalties, for Richard of York had a better claim to the throne than she or Henry. Even if this pretender was her brother, he must be her husband’s enemy, and therefore hers, a deadly threat to Henry’s security and the safety of her children; and she herself would be placed in a most unenviable position.

  Despite the sensation he had created in Cork, the pretender had little success in winning over many of the Irish to his cause, so in 1492 he went to France. Charles VIII’s relations with Henry VII were dismal at that time, so predictably he warmly received the pretender as “Richard IV.” Assigned royal apartments and a guard of honor, the young man “thought himself in Heaven.”61

  His advent had already subverted the loyalty of some of Henry’s subjects, “in some upon discontent, in some upon ambition, in some upon levity and desire of change, and in some few upon conscience and belief, but in most upon simplicity, and in divers out of dependence upon some of the better sort, who did in secret favor and nourish these bruits. And it was not long ere these rumors of novelty had begotten others of scandal and murmur against the King and his government, taxing him for a great taxer of his people. Chiefly they fell upon the wrong that he did his Queen, and that he did not reign in her right, wherefore they said that God had now brought to light a masculine branch of the House of York that would not be at his courtesy, however he did depress his poor lady.”62 Unwittingly, Elizabeth had become a focus for discontent among her husband’s subjects, and the existence of the pretender only fueled the fire.

  On June 8, 1492, Elizabeth Wydeville died at Bermondsey Abbey. She must have been unwell since at least April 10, when she had made her will. Elizabeth could not be with her at the end, for “at this same season,” in the ninth month of her pregnancy, she had already taken to her chamber at Sheen,63 knowing that her mother was very ill; but her sisters and her half brother, the Marquess of Dorset, were present, with Grace, a bastard daughter of Edward IV. “The said Queen desired on her deathbed that, as soon as she should be deceased, she should in all goodly haste, without any worldly pomp, by water be conveyed to Windsor, and there to be buried in the same vault that her husband was buried in, according to the will of my said lord and mine.”64

  In her will, witnessed by Abbot John of Bermondsey, and Benedict Cun, “doctor of physic,” the Queen Dowager lamented: “Where I have no worldly goods to do the Queen’s Grace, my dearest daughter, a pleasure with, neither to reward any of my children, according to my heart and mind, I beseech Almighty God to bless Her Grace, with all her noble issue, and with as good heart and mind as is to me possible, I give Her Grace my blessing, and all the aforesaid my children … And I beseech my said dearest daughter, the Queen’s Grace, and my son, Thomas, Marquess Dorset, to put their good wills and help for the performance of this my testament,” and to ensure that her last requests were carried out. They were few.

  Elizabeth Wydeville’s wishes in regard to her interment were respected. Her body was “wrapped in [fifty yards of] wax canvas” and, on the evening of Whitsunday (June 10), conveyed by barge from London to Windsor, with only the executors—the late Queen’s chaplain, the prior of the Charterhouse at Sheen, a Mr. Haute, a clerk, Dr. Brent, and “Mistress Grace” in attendance. The coffin was borne “privily through the little park and conveyed into the castle without ringing of any bells or receiving of the dean and canons, but only by the prior of the Charterhouse of Sheen and her chaplain. And so, privily, about eleven of the clock in the night, she was buried” in Edward IV’s tomb in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, “without any solemn dirge or Mass done for her.”65

  On the Tuesday following, Elizabeth’s younger sisters, Anne, Katherine, and Bridget, arrived by barge at Windsor for the Requiem Mass, Bridget having come from Dartford Priory. With them were several relatives, including Lord Dorset and John, Viscount Welles, husband of Cecily of York, who was not present, possibly because she was ill or pregnant, so Anne was chief mourner, deputizing for Queen Elizabeth. They attended the ceremonies in St. George’s Chapel that evening and the next, and “the officers of arms, there being present, went before the Lady Anne, which offered the Mass penny instead of the Queen, wherefore she had the carpet and the cushion laid, as would have happened had Elizabeth been present.” There were murmurs that the obsequies were conducted cheaply and shabbily, because only the Poor Knights of St. George, garter officers, and other servants were present, but they had been performed as Elizabeth Wydeville had directed.66

  The death of her mother must have been a grievous blow to Elizabeth, coming as it did as she was about to give birth. An observer wrote that because the Queen was confined to her chamber, “I cannot tell what dolent [sad apparel] she goeth in, but I suppose she went in blue likewise as Queen Margaret, the wife of King Henry VI, went in when her mother the Queen of Sicily died.”67 Henry VII’s ordinances followed earlier precedents in laying down the colors to be used for royal mourning; blue was still to be worn,68 although Elizabeth was also to don the traditional black after the death of one of her children.69

  On July 2 she bore a second daughter, who was baptized Elizabeth in honor of her late grandmother as well as her mother.70 According to the epitaph on her tomb, this child was exceptionally beautiful. She was brought up in the nursery household at Eltham Palace with her brother Henry and sister Margaret, in the care of her nurse, Cecilia Burbage, who was paid a salary of 100s. [£2,500]. Her rockers each received 66s.8d. [£1,630]. That the royal siblings were brought up together is attested by warrants dated September 1493 for payment to servants attending upon “our right dearly well-beloved children, the Lord Henry and the Ladies Margaret and Elizabeth.”71 The Wardrobe Accounts
of the Lord Treasurer for the period 1491–95 contain orders for robes for “Margaret and Elizabeth,” the King’s daughters.72

  Henry VII’s alliances with Ferdinand and Isabella and Maximilian had led to hostilities with Charles VIII. Early in October 1492 he departed for France, leaving Prince Arthur at Westminster to act as nominal regent in his absence. He arrived at Calais on October 6, then joined his allies in besieging Boulogne. Elizabeth, left behind at Eltham in charge of her younger children, felt her husband’s absence keenly, and wrote him many letters with “tender, frequent, and loving lines,” begging him so persuasively to return that they were among the “potent reasons” why he raised the siege, concluded a peace treaty with Charles VIII on November 3 at Étaples, and returned to England soon after November 17.73 This reveals how close the royal couple had become in nearly seven years of marriage—so close that they hated being apart.

  The peace treaty put an end to Charles VIII’s support of the pretender, but rather than surrender him to Henry VII, Charles merely banished him from France. Late that year the youth sought refuge at the court of Margaret of Burgundy. At first she showed herself dubious about his claims, but then said she had been persuaded, after questioning him, that he was indeed her nephew, “raised from the dead,” and publicly congratulated him on his preservation.74 He was taken under the protection of the Archduke Philip, and was again treated like a king. Given a palatial house in Antwerp, he held court there seated under the royal arms of England, which enraged some English visitors. When he went abroad in the streets, he was escorted by a guard of thirty archers wearing his white rose badge. Philip’s father, Maximilian, received him in Vienna as the rightful King of England.

 
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