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


  Late that year Elizabeth, no doubt seeking spiritual comfort and wishing to pray for the blessing of a son, journeyed to the famous shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary at Walsingham in Norfolk, where Christ’s mother had reputedly appeared in 1061 to Richeldis de Faverches, a devout widow, and asked her to build a replica of the “holy house of Nazareth” where she had received the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus. Angels were said to have assisted in the miraculous construction of what was to become one of the most important shrines in Christendom. In time, Augustinian and Franciscan monasteries were founded nearby to look after the needs of the hordes of pilgrims, and over the centuries the “holy house,” known as “Little Nazareth,” had been visited by numerous kings and queens, and made rich by the offerings of the devout.

  Our Lady of Walsingham, the patron saint of mothers, and indeed of all humanity, was said to bestow the gift of calm and serenity to those beset by troubles. Elizabeth had to pass several small chapels along the road leading to the shrine, but at the last, the fourteenth-century Slipper Chapel, dedicated to St. Katherine, she would have removed her shoes and walked the remaining mile barefoot. Thus she reverently entered the holy sanctum of the incense-scented, candlelit Chapel of the Virgin to pray before the gilded and bejeweled image of St. Mary. Relics were displayed nearby, among them a phial of the Virgin’s milk and a statue of her said to be of miraculous origin. Elizabeth would also have seen a kneeling silver-gilt statue of her husband, given during a pilgrimage made by Henry VII in 1487.

  Elizabeth was also a patron of the shrine of Our Lady of Grace of Ipswich, which was first recorded in 1152 and now ranked only second in popularity to Our Lady of Walsingham. A daughter of Edward I had been married in the chapel of Our Lady of Grace in 1297. The shrine was closed down in 1538, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and no trace of the chapel survives; a bronze plaque in Lady Lane marks the site where it once stood. Almost certainly a statue of the Madonna in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Grace at Nettuno, Italy, is the original image that adorned the shrine in Ipswich, having been rescued from the pyre that awaited it in Chelsea, where it was to be burned with the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham.8

  In November 1495, Perkin Warbeck surfaced in Scotland and was received with royal honors by King James IV at Stirling Castle. James took an instant liking to him, decked him out in clothes befitting a king, settled on him a very generous pension, and took him on a triumphal progress through his kingdom. News of this alarmed Henry VII, for he had been working to seal a peace alliance with Scotland through the marriage of his daughter Margaret to the Scots king.9 James not only seemed determined to provoke his English neighbor, but clearly believed that Warbeck was indeed “Prince Richard of England.” He held tournaments in his honor and married him to his distant kinswoman, Katherine, “a young virgin of excellent beauty and virtue, daughter of George Gordon, Earl of Huntly.”10 If a love letter from Warbeck is genuine, he was deeply smitten. His bride’s eyes were “brilliant as the stars. Whoever sees her cannot choose but admire her; admiring, cannot choose but love her; loving, cannot choose but obey her.”11

  This was all bad news for King Henry, for Ferdinand and Isabella were now stalling at concluding the marriage alliance with England while the pretender was at large. But the King was working to neutralize that threat. Fractured relations between England and the Low Countries were healed in February 1496, when he sealed a peace treaty with Maximilian in which each agreed not to support the other’s rebels; the treaty, in both countries’ interests, effectively slammed the door to Flanders in Warbeck’s face, for Margaret of Burgundy had been warned that she would be deprived of her dower lands if she did not honor its terms. Henry had also made peace with the French, so Warbeck was now isolated in Scotland.

  Elizabeth’s third daughter was born on March 18, 1496, at Sheen Palace.12 The year is sometimes given as 1495, as Margaret Beaufort incorrectly recorded it in her book of hours. In true medieval fashion she dated the years from Lady Day, March 25, and by that reckoning March 18 would have belonged to the previous year, 1495. Later, Erasmus misleadingly stated that this child, Mary, was four in September 1499; however, he gave the ages of Prince Henry and Prince Margaret as a year older than they actually were, so it is likely that he gave Mary’s age incorrectly too. The earliest extant document that mentions Mary is a payment to Anne (or Alice) Skern (or Skeron), her nurse, for one quarter ending June 1496, such payments normally paid half yearly. The fact that she was paid only from March confirms that Mary was born in 1496.13

  The King and Queen possibly named their new baby after the sister Elizabeth had loved and lost, or after the Virgin Mary. Mary grew up to be very beautiful, much resembling her mother in portraits; like her, she had red-gold hair. The infant princess was sent to Eltham to be brought up with Prince Henry and Princess Margaret.

  By May, Henry and Elizabeth had moved to Sheen and thence to Greenwich, where he gave her a gift of £30 [£14,600] to buy jewels.14 That summer, their progress took them to the West Country. In June they left Sheen for Chertsey, then moved on to Guildford, Farnham, Alresford, Bishops Waltham, Porchester, and Southampton, arriving on July 14. They stayed at Beaulieu Abbey and crossed the Solent to the Isle of Wight during their visit, then traveled on to Christchurch, Poole, and Corfe Castle. On August 5 they were at Salisbury, and five days later visited Heytesbury, where Elizabeth probably lived after she left sanctuary in 1484. John Nesfield, her former gaoler and host, had died in 1488, and the manor was now owned by Edward Hastings, Lord Hungerford; he was married to the heiress of the Hungerfords, who had been restored in blood by Henry VII.15 During her visit Elizabeth may have reflected on how settled her life was now compared with the uncertainties of twelve years earlier, when she had resided at Heytesbury during Richard III’s reign.

  The royal couple then traveled on to Bath, Bristol, Iron Acton, Malmesbury, Cirencester, and Woodstock. On September 10 they returned via Wycombe to Windsor.16

  In September 1496, Prince Henry—or “my Lord Harry,” as he was known17—performed his first public duty when he witnessed a charter granted by the King to the abbot and convent of Glastonbury Abbey, a monastery he was to dissolve decades later.

  Harry was now five, a boy of considerable intellect and talent, whom his grandmother called the King’s “fair sweet son.”18 It was the King who drew up the rules by which the royal nursery was governed, but the Queen also had a say in the upbringing of her children, as no doubt did Margaret Beaufort. In 1496, Elizabeth appointed Elizabeth Denton, who had served her as wardrobe keeper since her marriage, as a replacement for the long-serving Elizabeth Darcy as lady mistress of the nursery to Prince Henry and his sisters at Eltham Palace.19 Elizabeth Denton also continued to serve the Queen, and by February 1499 had become governess to the princesses and was replaced as mistress of the nursery by Anne Crowmer.20 When Elizabeth Denton accompanied Princess Margaret to Scotland in 1503, Anne Crowmer took over as Mary’s governess. Mistress Denton later served as lady governess and mistress of the nursery to Henry VIII’s own children, Henry, Prince of Wales, and the future Mary I, respectively, and in 1515 was in receipt of an annuity of £50 [£19,000] for good service rendered to the late King and Queen.21

  By 1499, Jane Vaux, Lady Guildford, who had long served in the household of the Queen, was also employed as governess to the princesses; in 1503 she was paid a salary of £13.6s.8d. [£6,500].22

  The nursery at Eltham was therefore dominated by women, and the young Prince Henry spent his childhood very much under female influence. The fact that Elizabeth Denton served both Prince Henry and his mother suggests that the Queen spent time with her younger son and his sisters,23 taking a keen interest in their learning and accomplishments, as did the Lady Margaret. All the evidence suggests that Henry, Margaret, and Mary grew up closer to their mother than was often the lot of royal children. It is likely that Elizabeth herself taught her younger children some of their early lessons. A literate woman who loved books and music, s
he imparted her passion for these things to the future Henry VIII and his sisters. David Starkey noted the similarities between the few extant examples of her handwriting and theirs, which suggests that she herself taught them to read and write.24

  Prince Henry’s formal education had begun the year before under the guidance of the Cambridge-educated poet laureate, John Skelton, a protégé of Margaret Beaufort, who was probably responsible for his appointment. Skelton, who was also a great satirist, now took up residence with his charge at Eltham Palace, and would remain in that post until 1502. Erasmus told Prince Henry that Skelton was “that incomparable light and ornament of British letters, who cannot only kindle your studies but bring them to a happy conclusion.”25 Twenty years later, when Henry was King, the poet recalled:

  The honour of England I learned to spell

  In dignity royal that doth excel.

  I gave him drink of the sugared well.26

  It was ever-frowning, frost-faced Skelton who encouraged the prince’s musical talents, inherited from and encouraged by both parents, and taught him to play the lute, organ, and virginals, to read music, and to sing. Young Henry proved to be gifted musically, not only as a player but also as a composer: many pieces he was to compose as an adult survive and are still sung today. Skelton also fostered in his pupil a love of theology and taught him Latin. Like all the Tudors, Henry had an aptitude for languages. Above all, Skelton instilled in the boy a love of learning and scholarship that lasted all his life; and he took delight in his charge’s achievements, calling him “a delightful small, new rose, worthy of its stock.” It was for Henry that he wrote his Speculum Principis, a manual for a future ruler, which advised him not to rely too heavily on his ministers, and to “choose a wife for yourself, prize her always and uniquely”—advice that the adult Henry did not heed.

  Much later—around the time of Elizabeth’s death, as he was given mourning cloth to wear in her funeral procession—Skelton was succeeded as tutor by a Scottish schoolmaster, John Holt,27 who in turn was replaced on his death in 1504 by William Hone, a Cambridge scholar who also taught Princess Mary.28 The young duke was also instructed by Bernard André, who wrote his Vita Henrici VII to teach him history, and probably schooled him in Latin. Arthur’s former tutor, Giles Dewes, taught him French, and perhaps grammar and alchemy. It is possible that Thomas More, a humanist scholar like André, instructed the boy in mathematics, geometry, and astronomy; it was probably More who had introduced the boy to the works of Erasmus. Later, Erasmus would assert that Henry’s style of writing was like his own because he had been encouraged to read his books when young.

  Of Margaret’s education we know little, save that she could read and write, although not very competently; she was the first English princess whose signature survives. She loved music and dancing, and had minstrels among her personal servants. Elizabeth encouraged her to play the lute and clavichord, and the King purchased for her a lute costing 13s.4d. [£325].29

  Despite all the care taken over their upbringing, Elizabeth’s children grew up in a world overshadowed by insecurities, threats, intrigue, and paranoia. Unsurprisingly, that would take its toll—and now a new threat was brewing.

  In September 1496, James IV invaded England with Warbeck, his support assured by Warbeck’s promise of the return of Berwick, a town that had been much fought over by the Scots and the English, and which the future Richard III had taken in 1482. Henry VII prepared to confront the pretender, saying that “he hoped now he should see the gentleman of whom he had heard so much.”30 But James’s army was more interested in looting and settling old border feuds than in securing a victory for Warbeck, and four miles into England the Scots king was obliged to cease raiding and retreat at the appearance of the royal army. Henry was now determined to force James to surrender Warbeck. Early in 1497, Parliament readily voted punishing taxes to finance a war against the Scots.

  Elizabeth suffered a brief illness at Greenwich in the spring of 1497. On April 25, Lady Margaret wrote to the Queen’s chamberlain, acknowledging gloves he had purchased for her: “Blessed be God, the King, the Queen, and all our sweet children be in good health. The Queen hath been a little crazed [broken down in health], but now she is well, God be thanked. Her sickness is not so good [amended] as I would, but I trust hastily it shall, with God’s grace.”31 It is clear from this letter that Margaret Beaufort took a proprietorial interest in her grandchildren—“our sweet children”—and that she was genuinely concerned for her daughter-in-law, the Queen. It does not read as if this was merely the concern of a dynast for the royal bride her son had married. But by June 12, Elizabeth had recovered, Andrea Trevisano, the new Venetian ambassador, congratulating the King on that date “on his own well-being, and that of the Queen and his children”; Trevisano also brought letters of credence to Elizabeth and Prince Arthur.32

  Crippled and provoked by the new taxes, the “brutish and rural” men of Cornwall rose against their sovereign and marched on London. Elizabeth was at Sheen with the King when news came that the rebels were on the march, and he paid her £10 [£4,860] “for garnishing of a salett”—the helmet he would wear into battle—with jewels.33

  Before departing on June 5 to deal with the threat, Henry furnished Elizabeth with a stout escort of lords and gentlemen, and she immediately hastened to Eltham Palace to collect Prince Henry and her daughters; although only Margaret is mentioned, the younger children lived together, so probably Elizabeth took Mary with her too. She entered London with them the next day, lodging at Margaret Beaufort’s house, Coldharbour, within the protection of the City walls. They stayed there six days, while the reports that filtered through from the west grew ever more alarming. The rebel army had been reinforced by malcontents from the shires, and on June 12 their forces numbered 18,000 and they were approaching Farnham in Surrey. On hearing this, the Queen hastened with her children into the Tower for safety, no doubt thanking God that Prince Arthur was far away in Ludlow and no longer living at Farnham.34

  On June 16 the rebels reached Blackheath, four miles east of the City where they drew up their battalions, ready to attack. Their plan was to force an entry into the City and assault the Tower, because they thought the King was there. But Henry had now joined his forces with those of his chamberlain, Lord Daubeney, and their 25,000 men were stationed at Lambeth, blocking access to London. The King was keeping his nerve, aware that the rebels were exhausted after their long march, and preparing to surround and overcome them. But he knew too that the situation was critical, for Elizabeth and his children were in the Tower.

  “There was great fear throughout the City, and cries were made: ‘Every man to arms, to arms!’ Some ran to the gates, others mounted the walls, so that no part was undefended; and the magistrates kept continual watch lest the rebels should descend from their camp and invade the City.”35 For Elizabeth, this ordeal must have resurrected dim but frightening memories of Fauconberg’s attack on the Tower in 1471, when she was four years old. Once again she was trapped in the fortress while turmoil raged outside, this time with her own children at risk. Well-educated as she was, she was probably uncomfortably aware that during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the mob had breached the Tower’s defenses, insulted the mother of Richard II, and dragged forth and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Treasurer. The Tower was no more heavily fortified now than it had been then.

  But on June 17 the King “delivered and purged” everyone’s hearts of fear as he sent forces under the command of his nobles to surround the rebels. Then, “with manly stomach and desire to fight,” he himself led an army out of the City, sending Lord Daubeney ahead “with a great company.”36 Staunch Londoners hastened to the King’s aid, and that day the Cornish insurgents were routed in a sharp skirmish at Blackheath, in which two thousand of their number were slain. A victorious Henry returned to London to be welcomed by the mayor and to give thanks in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Afterward, he hastened to the Tower to be reunited with Elizabeth and
their children. They were back at Sheen by July 1.37

  The following month Henry sent envoys to James IV to demand the surrender of Warbeck and to offer peace terms. But James had preempted him, having already dispatched the pretender south—in a ship appropriately called The Cuckoo—to launch an offensive on the southwest. Simultaneously, despite having agreed a seven-year truce with Henry, James was planning another offensive across the border. England stood in deep peril.

  Warbeck, however, scuppered the fine timing of this strategy by making a detour to Cork to visit Sir James Ormond, his chief Irish supporter, in the hope of rallying more men to his banner. Learning that Ormond had been killed in a brawl, he had no choice but to flee across the sea to Cornwall, with four Irish ships in pursuit.

  In July 1497 a new treaty was agreed to with Spain, which provided for the Infanta to come to England when she was fourteen, an age she would reach in December 1499. That August, Prince Arthur was formally betrothed to Katherine of Aragon at Woodstock Palace, Henry and Elizabeth having traveled up to Oxfordshire to be present.38 Arthur was now nearly eleven, “but taller than his years would warrant, of remarkable beauty and grace, and very ready in speaking Latin.” The King and Queen “celebrated with great triumph and festivities the marriage between Prince Arthur and Katherine, and in this good time they hope she will be brought to England with great splendor.”39 But their hopes were destined to be frustrated.

 
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