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

  On September 3, 1497, after the new Venetian ambassador, Andrea Trevisano, and his Milanese counterpart, Raimondo de Soncino, had an audience with the King at Woodstock, they were presented to Queen Elizabeth, whom they “found at the end of a hall, dressed in cloth of gold. On one side of her was the King’s mother, on the other her son the prince.” This was Henry, not Arthur, even though Arthur was present at Woodstock.40 As David Starkey points out, by now Arthur, the heir, was generally associated with the King, while Henry, the second son, was usually associated with the Queen41—a deliberate policy that may have reflected personal affiliations within the royal family.

  “The Queen is a handsome woman,” observed Trevisano. Being presented to her was a privilege only permitted to ambassadors if the diplomatic business in question concerned a woman, in which case she would naturally take an interest. Trevisano and Soncino brought her letters from the Signory of Venice and from a lady whom Soncino called “our queen”; this was probably the charming Beatrice d’Este, wife of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Elizabeth’s French was not fluent like her husband’s, so the ambassadors addressed her in Italian, with Thomas Savage, Bishop of London, acting as interpreter.42

  On September 7, 1497, Perkin Warbeck landed at Whitesand Bay near Land’s End in Cornwall, which was still simmering with resentment against the King. But Henry had received reliable intelligence from Ireland of the pretender’s aims, and was now making haste to assemble an army at Woodstock.

  Having taken St. Michael’s Mount, and left his wife in the monastery there, Warbeck marched to Bodmin, recruiting three thousand “part-naked men” of the “rude people”43 on the way. At Bodmin he had himself proclaimed Richard IV. On September 17, having rallied at least three thousand more supporters to his banner, “this little cockatrice of a king”44 and his army appeared before Exeter, to which they laid siege. Despite having few weapons, no armor, and no artillery, they managed to breach one of the gates, but were firmly repelled by the King’s brother-in-law, Lord William Courtenay, and the citizens, and cut to pieces.

  Henry took the threat posed by Warbeck very seriously. In October, Trevisano reported that the King had sent the Queen and the prince (Henry) to a very strong castle on the coast, and commanded that vessels be made ready nearby to convey them away, if necessary; they had left London after September 22, when Elizabeth was still in the capital.45 In fact she had gone with her son and Lady Margaret on a progress through East Anglia, well out of the way of the coming conflict. The presence of the true Duke of York in that region was intended to overturn the loyalty of Warbeck’s supporters, who were influential there. Meanwhile the King had raised a large army to deal with the rebels.46

  Warbeck had of necessity given up on Exeter. He pressed desperately on to Taunton, his remaining Cornishmen demoralized and deserting in droves. In the small hours of September 22, warned that the King was twenty miles away at the head of his forces, Warbeck fled south to find a ship at Southampton, accompanied only by three of “the chief officials of his court.” He had abandoned most of his remaining adherents, whom he left to flee or beg the King for mercy. Finding the south coast heavily guarded, Warbeck took sanctuary in Beaulieu Abbey. In no time the abbey was surrounded by Henry’s soldiers, who promised the pretender a pardon if he surrendered to the King and threw himself on his “grace and pity.”47 At this he capitulated.

  Having dressed himself (somewhat inappropriately) in cloth of gold, he was brought to the royal headquarters at Taunton, where, on October 5, Henry was finally brought face-to-face with the young man who had plagued him for six years. Confronted by nobles who had known the real Richard, Duke of York, Warbeck admitted he did not recognize anyone; kneeling, he confessed that he was not York, and pleaded for forgiveness. Henry made him write out his confession, which was to be printed and nailed to church doors throughout the land.

  With Warbeck in his train, Henry rode to Exeter to celebrate his victory. He ordered only “a few desperate persons” to be hanged, “the better to set off his mercy to the rest.” “He was never cruel when he was secure.”48 From Exeter, Warbeck wrote to his real mother in Tournai.

  Henry also took into custody Warbeck’s wife, Lady Katherine Gordon. She had remained at St. Michael’s Mount, in mourning—possibly, it has credibly been conjectured, after losing a child.49 There was some question of her being fit to travel, but when she was able, the King sent her a full outfit of black weeds. When she came before him she burst into tears, but Henry was gentle with her and relieved her fears, telling her she was more worthy to be among the captives of a general than a common foot soldier. He had been struck by her “modest and graceful look” and the fact that this “singularly beautiful” lady seemed as “untouched” as a virgin.50 According to Vergil, the King was much taken with her, while Hall goes as far as to say that he “began a little to fantasize her person.” Bacon states “it was commonly said” that he “received her not only with compassion but with affection, pity giving more impression to her excellent beauty”; and when he comforted her, “it was to serve his eye as well as his fame.” But that, probably, was as far as it went, for there survives no hint that Henry was ever actually unfaithful to Elizabeth, and events that were to unfold in less than six years show that his love for her was deep-seated.

  Henry escorted Lady Katherine to Exeter, and when she arrived he permitted her to see Warbeck and made the pretender repeat his story in front of her, at which she wept and raged at her husband, “soaked through with a fountain of tears.” But Henry had no quarrel with her. Doubtless relieved that she was not pregnant with a child who might live to challenge his title, he comforted her and dealt with her honorably, telling her that her “whole body, beauty, and dignity were crying out for a man of far greater superiority” than Warbeck. He assured her that her future would hold “many possibilities” and that he desired to treat her as his sister. Then, “because she was but a young woman,” he sent her, under the protection of Windsor Herald and “with a goodly sort of sad matrons and gentlewomen,” to reside at the court of the Queen,51 a most fitting arrangement given Katherine’s rank. On October 16, Henry charged his “trusty and well beloved servant, Thomas Stokes,” with responsibility for “the diet of Katherine, daughter to the Earl of Huntly, from Bodmin to our dearest wife the Queen, wheresoever she be.”52 Henry also arranged for a pension to be paid to Katherine.

  Nobly born she was, but the fact that Henry was prepared to allow the wife of the Yorkist pretender to associate with his Yorkist queen is proof that he knew he had no need to suspect Elizabeth’s loyalty, and strong evidence that he now had no doubts as to Warbeck’s true identity. Had he entertained any lingering suspicion that Warbeck really was Richard of York, or that Katherine still believed he was, it is unlikely he would have allowed the two women the freedom to exchange confidences, or Katherine the opportunity to use the Queen for her own ends. Even so, in setting six ladies to wait upon Katherine, he was probably placing her under surveillance.53

  Elizabeth was then on pilgrimage, having taken the opportunity during her progress through Norfolk to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, doubtless to pray for a happy outcome to the conflict, and perhaps for another child. It was at Walsingham that Elizabeth learned of Henry’s triumph over Warbeck. Immediately she and her party hastened south, “and upon St. Luke’s Even, the seventeenth day of October, came the Queen toward London from Walsingham, whereof the mayor having knowledge met with Her Grace at Bishopsgate. He with the aldermen being on horseback conveyed Her Grace from that place unto the King’s Wardrobe, the streets being garnished with the crafts [guilds] of the City standing in their best liveries as she passed by.” Elizabeth stayed the night at the Royal Wardrobe at Blackfriars, and the next day, “being St. Luke’s Day, Her Grace, after certain presents received from the mayor, departed that afternoon to Sheen, where upon the Saturday [October 21] was presented to Her Grace the wife of Perkin, which was a fair and goodly lady.”54

abeth appointed Katherine Gordon a lady-in-waiting. Thanks to her noble birth, she ranked fifth of all women at court after the Queen, the Lady Margaret, and the princesses.55 Katherine won many hearts at court, not least the Queen’s, and she was treated with much deference. Officially referred to as Lady Katherine Huntly, she became better known by her husband’s former nickname, “the White Rose,” on account of her “true beauty.” The King settled upon her “a very honorable allowance for the support of her estate, which she enjoyed many years after.”56 He also saw that she was dressed as splendidly as her rank merited, himself itemizing each detail of the clothing ordered for her, even the hose of kersey lined with cypress lawn. In 1498 she received a black velvet, mink-edged gown and other items of clothing worth the princely sum of £160 [£78,000] from the Great Wardrobe; in 1501–02 she was given several items of sumptuous apparel, and in 1502–03, Joan Wilcock, the silkwoman, supplied materials to the Great Wardrobe for Lady Katherine Gordon and Queen Elizabeth.57

  In decking out Katherine so lavishly, Henry no doubt wished to impress her kinsman James IV, who had then just become betrothed to Margaret Tudor—and maybe it pleased him to adorn her beauty too, or even to fantasize about the body he was so bountifully decking out. If Elizabeth had any cause for disquiet over her husband’s interest in Lady Katherine, there is no record of it, and later evidence suggests that husband and wife remained close. That Henry showed warm personal friendship toward Katherine is corroborated by speculation after Elizabeth’s death that they would marry (see Chapter 19).

  Warbeck had been sent under guard to London, paraded through streets crammed with people who had flocked to see him, and imprisoned in the Tower. The Milanese ambassador was moved to report that the Tudor throne was now “most stable, even for the King’s descendants, since there is no one who aspires to the crown.”

  By the end of November, Henry VII was back at Windsor58 and Warbeck had made a long and detailed written confession, admitting he was not Richard of York. Some said this had been obtained by torture, and persisted in their belief that he was York, but there was no sign that he was tortured. The confession, which contained several inconsistencies, was printed; copies were nailed to church doors across the length and breadth of the realm, and Warbeck was made to read it aloud before the lords of England. He was, it stated, the son of John Osbeck, customs controller of Tournai, and Katherine de Faro, his wife, both converted Jews, and thus a foreigner, which meant he could not technically be guilty of high treason against the King of England. He protested that he had been lured into his imposture against his will.59

  Henry was astonishingly lenient with Warbeck, the rival who had posed such a serious threat to his kingdom for six years. He released him from the Tower and allowed him to live at court, shadowed by two guards and confined to the precincts of the palace. In November 1497 the Venetian ambassador reported that he had seen Warbeck “in a chamber of the King’s palace. He is a well-favored young man, twenty-three years old, and his wife a very handsome woman. The King treats them well, but does not allow them to sleep together.”60

  Henry VII had paraded Warwick before the Londoners and the court to give the lie to Lambert Simnel’s claims, yet it has been asserted that he failed to confront Elizabeth with the man who had claimed to be her brother.61 But Elizabeth must have met or seen Warbeck after he came to court, and presumably she had a view on his true identity. The likelihood is that seeing this young man put an end to years of secret hoping and fretting on her part. Henry’s extraordinary magnanimity toward Warbeck was probably due to the fact that he was a foreigner and outside English jurisdiction; also his wife was the King of Scots’ kinswoman and had aroused Henry’s chivalry, if nothing else.

  Edwards, the Queen’s former yeoman, had been one of those taken with Warbeck. He was not so lucky. On December 2 he was tried at Westminster and found guilty. Three days later he was conveyed from the Tower to Tyburn and there hanged.

  On December 3, Elizabeth wrote a letter to Queen Isabella, which exemplifies the high formality and elaborate courtesy of communications between royalty:

  To the most serene and potent Princess, the Lady Elizabeth [sic], by God’s grace Queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, Granada, etc., our cousin and dearest relation, Elizabeth, by the same grace Queen of England and France, and Lady of Ireland, wishes health and the most prosperous increase of her desires.

  Although we have before entertained singular love and regard to your Highness above all other queens in the world, as well for the consanguinity and necessary intercourse which mutually take place between us, as also for the eminent dignity and virtue by which your Majesty so shines and excels that your most celebrated name is noised abroad and diffused everywhere; yet much more has this our love increased and accumulated by the accession of the most noble affinity which has recently been celebrated between the most illustrious Lord Arthur, Prince of Wales, our eldest son, and the most illustrious Princess, the Lady Katherine, the Infanta, your daughter. Hence it is that, amongst our other cares and cogitations, first and foremost we wish and desire from our heart that we may often and speedily hear of the health and safety of your Serenity, and of the health and safety of the aforesaid most illustrious Lady Katherine, whom we think of and esteem as our own daughter, than which nothing could be more grateful and acceptable to us. Therefore we request your Serenity to certify of your estate, and of that of the aforesaid most illustrious Lady Katherine, our common daughter. And if there be anything in our power which would be grateful or pleasant to your Majesty, use us and ours as freely as you would your own, for with most willing mind we offer all that we have to you, and wish to have all in common with you.

  We should have written you the news of our state, and of that of this kingdom, but the most serene lord the King, our husband, will have written at length of these things to your Majesties. For the rest, may your Majesty fare most happily, according to your wishes.

  From our Palace of Westminster, 3rd day of December, 1497.

  Elizabeth R.

  To the most serene and potent Princess, the Lady Elizabeth [sic], by God’s grace Queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, Granada, our cousin and dearest kinswoman.62

  This is one of several letters written by Elizabeth to survive, although there must have been many more. A similar letter, to King Ferdinand of Aragon, was written in 1498.

  Another of Elizabeth’s letters to Ferdinand and Isabella is dated August 1, 1499, and recommends one Henry Stile, “who wishes to go and fight against the infidels.” The Queen urged the Spanish sovereigns to agree to this, for “though he is a very short man, he has the reputation of being a valiant soldier.”63

  Another letter was written by Elizabeth to a member of the Arundel family of Trerice in Cornwall, who had once loyally supported her father. It bears her signature, and in it she announces the birth of one of her sons.

  A further surviving letter was written on June 6, 1499, to Thomas Goldstone, prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, and must be a typical example of many of the Queen’s routine missives that have not survived. It concerns her desire to present one of her chaplains to the next vacancy in the living of All Saints, Lombard Street, London. She had to apply to the prior because Christ Church held the advowson—the right of a patron to appoint a nominee to a benefice—of that church. In this letter, Elizabeth demonstrated that she had a talent for claiming her right with charm and tact:

  To our right trusty and well-beloved in God, the Prior of the monastery of Christ’s Church at Canterbury.

  Right trusty and well-beloved in God, we greet you well, and as we recently in other letters desired you to grant unto us the living of the parish church of All Saints in Lombard Street in my lord’s city of London, whenever it should fall vacant through the death of Sir Marques Husy [Mark Hussy],64 the late incumbent; whereupon it pleased you, out of your loving and kindly heart, to grant us freedom of the said benefice in writing, to nominate it for whichever of our chaplains we should choose
at its next vacancy, for which we heartily thank you. We have been informed that it is now the case, the said Sir Marques being recently departed out of this transitory life into the mercy of God, so that the said benefice is now vacant.

  We therefore request and require you that, in honouring the said promise, you shall send us under your usual seal the giving of the said benefice, with a blank space on it, with the intention that we shall enter the name of whichever of our chaplains we shall think able and suitable to have charge of the curacy there. We sincerely trust that you will effect this desire of ours, whereby you will greatly deserve our special thanks, to be recalled in connection with any reasonable desires of your own concerning your well-being or that of your office in time to come.

  Given under our signet at my lord’s city of London, the sixth day of June.


  Henry VII had intended to spend the Christmas of 1497 at Sheen, where he was staying “with the Queen and the court,”66 but on the evening of December 21 or 23,67 an alarm was cried because the palace was on fire. The blaze had broken out “suddenly,” either in the Queen’s chamber68 or the King’s,69 around nine o’clock. Raimondo de Soncino stated that it started “by accident, and not by malice, catching a beam,”70 but Trevisano hinted that “a fire was set,” and that the culprit had been Perkin Warbeck, who was “with the King.”71 There is no evidence, however, that Perkin was held responsible by Henry.

  The conflagration quickly spread and raged for three hours, resisting frantic attempts to put it out; and “by violence whereof, much and great part of the old building was burnt,” while hangings, beds, plate, apparel, and many jewels were spoiled or destroyed.72 The fire “did a great deal of harm, and burned the chapel, excepting two large towers recently erected by His Majesty.”73 Henry V’s donjon tower—where it probably started—was certainly spared, although it is not known in what condition, or what other buildings survived.

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