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

  That was enough for Henry. Late in February, Courtenay was suddenly seized—taken without night clothing, body linen, or cloaks6—and imprisoned in the Tower on charges of conspiracy. But as Hall makes clear, Courtenay was “rather taken of suspicion and jealousy than for any proved offense or crime.” Probably he was dealt with severely because he was married to a Yorkist princess and might conceivably have had designs on the throne; Katherine, his wife, was said to have disparaged Henry VII’s claim to the throne,7 but this seems unlikely.

  Courtenay was to be attainted for treason in 1503, and his estates given to his father, after whose death they were to revert to the crown. He escaped the death penalty, perhaps because the King did not want his brother-in-law made a public spectacle on the scaffold.8 But for Katherine his imprisonment was cataclysmic. She had as yet no guarantees that Henry would spare her husband. Impoverished by the confiscation of his property, with her children likely to be disinherited, the depths of her distress can be imagined. Despite her own trials, Elizabeth offered strong support to her sister during the coming difficult months, unhesitatingly welcoming Katherine into her household and succoring her both emotionally and financially.9

  We know this from entries in Elizabeth’s account book for the period March 24, 1502, to March 15, 1503, which survives in the National Archives and has many pages checked in her own hand.10 It contains details of purchases made by her during that time, from minor items such as a pair of small enameled knives, to payments to French embroiderers working all hours on hangings for her great bed of state. During this period, Elizabeth kept herself solvent, which had not always been the case. Her chamber receipts amounted to £3,585.19s.10½d. [£1,743,150], and her expenditure was £3,411.5s.9¼d. [£1,658,230]. Most fascinating of all, these accounts give us invaluable and detailed insights into the last months of her life and the daily existence of a queen.11

  Elizabeth was already paying Katherine a pension of £50, but she now augmented that with gifts.12 She must have had some warning of Courtenay’s arrest—proof that Henry did confide some state secrets to her—because on February 1, nearly a month beforehand, she had taken charge of the Courtenay children, Henry, Edward, and Margaret, paying for them to be brought from Devon and installed in Sir John Hussey’s country seat, Dagenham’s Manor, a pretty moated courtyard house not far from the royal manor of Havering, Essex. There, Elizabeth established a nursery household under the care of a governess, Margaret, Lady Cotton, with nurses and rockers for Edward and Margaret, two women servants, and a groom. Lady Cotton was already in charge of a child the Queen had taken under her wing, one Edward Pallet, whose schooling, diet, and clothing Elizabeth funded; he was a companion for the Courtenay children. In June 1502 the Queen’s accounts show that she was providing 4s.4d. [£110] a week for the children’s food and servants, and that month she paid 4s. [£100] to her tailor for making two coats of black camlet (a valuable fabric woven from goat’s hair) for her young nephews, and the same amount for velvet ones.13

  How Elizabeth felt about the King’s decision to imprison Courtenay and so plunge her sister into deep trouble when she herself was anxious about Arthur’s health is unrecorded, but her kindness to all the Courtenays implies that she felt sympathy for her brother-in-law. Such charitable acts were expected of a queen, in emulation of Christ’s exhortation to comfort those in prison, but—as subsequent events tend to suggest—Elizabeth may have resented Henry allowing mere suspicion to subvert family loyalties.

  Sir James Tyrell was charged with treasonably corresponding with the disaffected Edmund de la Pole. Tyrell had prospered under Richard III, and at the time of Bosworth had been serving abroad as Governor of Guines in the English-held Pale of Calais; but soon afterward he was deprived of his offices and estates by Henry VII. However, in 1486 he received two pardons and was reappointed to his former post and given land in Calais, where he remained for the next sixteen years. Vergil suggests that Tyrell aided Edmund de la Pole, Edward IV’s nephew, out of guilt at having murdered Edward’s sons, the Princes in the Tower, whom he could easily, “without danger to his own life, have spared, and carried to safety.”

  Tyrell refused to obey the order recalling him to England in 1502 for questioning about his association with the de la Poles. At length he was lured out of Guines Castle on the promise of a safe conduct, but arrested once he had boarded ship. On arrival in England he was hauled off to the Tower.

  Later evidence that will shortly be discussed shows that Prince Arthur’s health was now in serious decline, and bulletins on his progress must have been sent to the King and Queen. In March, Elizabeth paid two priests, Sir William Barton and Sir Richard Milner, to make pilgrimages and offerings on her behalf at no fewer than thirty-five important religious shrines.14 The number of intercessions they were to make to the Virgin Mary, patron of mothers, bears testimony to the Queen’s desperate fears for her son’s health.

  Barton was sent to “Our Lady and St. George” and “the holy Cross”—the “Cross Gneth,” said to be a splinter of the True Cross—in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and to the tomb of Henry VI, who had a reputation for saintliness and whose tomb was already visited by many pilgrims. Barton’s pilgrimage continued to the college of “Our Lady of Eton,” and the “Child of Grace” of Reading Abbey, an ancient image of the infant Christ given by Henry I in the twelfth century, of which it was said that “everyone who prostrates himself in its chapel always obtains by the grace of God the fulfillment of his devout prayer in any trouble.”15

  Barton also offered at the ancient, silver-plated image of Our Lady of Caversham; Our Lady of Cockthorpe;16 the shrine of the Holy Blood at Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire; “Prince Edward,” meaning the grave of Henry VI’s son, Edward of Lancaster, at Tewkesbury Abbey; Our Lady’s shrine in Worcester Cathedral; the Holy Rood—a cross said to have been found buried at the site of the Crucifixion—in St. Gregory’s Church, Northampton; the image of Our Lady of Grace in the church of the Austin Friars, Northampton; Our Lady of Walsingham, where the largest offering, 6s.8d. [£160] was made, demonstrating that shrine’s importance to the Queen; Our Lady’s shrine in the chapel of the College of St. Gregory, Sudbury; the popular image of Our Lady of Woolpit, Suffolk; Our Lady of Grace of Ipswich; and the chapel of the Blessed Virgin in the College of Stoke-by-Clare, which was under the patronage of the queens of England. It took Barton twenty-seven days to visit all these shrines.17

  At this time, Henry VII was doing his best to have Henry VI canonized. Elizabeth’s offerings at Eton College, Henry VI’s own foundation, St. George’s Chapel, his burial place, and Tewkesbury Abbey, where his son’s tomb was also attracting pilgrims at this time, were an acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the Lancastrian line that her husband represented, and a tribute to the sanctity of her father’s rival. Ten years earlier, Caxton had included an oration to Henry VI in his book, The Fifteen Oes, commissioned by Elizabeth and Margaret Beaufort.18 Elizabeth, suffering anxiety and fear over her son’s health, was perhaps haunted by thoughts of the last Lancastrian heir, who had met his untimely death at eighteen.

  Father Milner spent thirteen days visiting the shrine of Our Lady of Crowham; the mechanically moving Rood of Grace in Boxley Abbey, Kent; the shrine of the martyred St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, to whom, as we have seen, Elizabeth’s devotion had been fostered in childhood by her mother; Our Lady of the Undercroft at Canterbury Cathedral; the shrines of St. Augustine and St. Adrian in St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury; St. Mary de Castro in Dover Castle; the great rood over the north door of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London; the image of Our Lady of Grace in St. Paul’s; images of St. Ignatius, St. Dominic, St. Peter of “Melayn,” and St. Francis at unidentified locations in or near London; St. Saviour’s Abbey, Bermondsey; Our Lady of the Pew in Westminster Abbey; Barking Abbey, Essex; and the shrine of the Black Madonna in St. Mary’s Church, Willesden (now in northwest London),19 which had been founded in 938 by the Saxon king Athelstan. This image had been famed s
ince before 1249 for working miracles, and was a popular destination of pilgrims throughout the later Middle Ages.20 One day, less than forty years hence, Henry VIII would sweep away these shrines to which his mother had been so devoted, and in which she had invested so much faith.

  Arthur was well enough to wash the feet of fifteen poor men on Maundy (or “shire”) Thursday, which fell on March 24, 1502,21 but thereafter his deterioration was rapid. Elizabeth must have been in torment when, on Maundy Thursday, at Westminster, she participated in the usual ceremonies, giving money and 105 yards of cloth to thirty-six poor women, to the number of her years. Bowls, baskets, and flowers were bought for this occasion. Payment for the material was made on December 1, and for three yards of cloth delivered on an unspecified date “by the commandment of the Queen to a woman that was nurse to the prince, brother to the Queen’s Grace”—probably Richard, Duke of York. Again, the untimely death of a royal heir was in Elizabeth’s troubled mind. She was at Greenwich on Good Friday when she made her offering in the chapel, and at Richmond for Easter Sunday. Who knows with what fervency she offered to the Cross on the high altar after Mass?22

  On Monday, March 28, she paid the gifted composer, Dr. Robert Fairfax, the princely sum of £1 [£490] “for setting an Anthem of Our Lady and St. Elizabeth,”23 which would invoke not only the protection of the Virgin Mother but, unusually, also that of the mother of the Virgin. Fairfax was the organist of St. Alban’s Abbey, and also the first Oxford scholar to obtain a doctorate in music; he had been a member of the Chapel Royal since 1497. The anthem, or votive antiphon, he composed for the Queen was a five-part motet entitled Eterne laudis lilium, in which the name Elizabeth features prominently, while the first letter of each line spells out the name elisabetha regina anglie.24

  That same day, Elizabeth set out from Greenwich to stay for a few days at the Thames-side manor house of Hampton Court,25 owned by the military Knights Hospitalers of St. John of Jerusalem. It was on this site that Cardinal Thomas Wolsey would later build Hampton Court Palace. The Order of St. John, founded to succor wounded crusaders and protect the Holy Land from the Turks, had grown very wealthy. In the twelfth century the Hospitalers maintained an agricultural estate office at Hampton, selling produce to increase revenue. The manor house had been built before 1338, and was now a substantial property in the middle of an eight-hundred-acre estate growing crops and supporting two thousand sheep. From the fourteenth century it served as a grand guest house for visitors to the court at Sheen and, later, Richmond, and also provided accommodation for royal pensioners.

  The Hospitalers’ house stood in a walled enclosure surrounded by a rectangular moat. It boasted a great hall (traces of which remain beneath Henry VIII’s great hall of the 1530s), a chamber block with a tower lodging, and a separate chapel; it also had a garden and a pigeon house. In 1494 the house was leased to Henry VII’s loyal chamberlain and friend, the powerful Giles, Lord Daubeney, who had been in exile with his master and fought valiantly for him at Bosworth. The lease gave Daubeney the right to “take, alter, transpose, break, change, make, and new build,” and immediately he started converting Hampton Court into a great courtier house, making extensive changes. He erected a new courtyard range, a gatehouse, and a great hall, all of brick. North of the hall he built a new kitchen with a massive fireplace, which survives today as the Great Kitchen at Hampton Court Palace. By the time Henry VII visited in October 1500 and July 1501, the house was a fashionable mansion sufficiently grand for entertaining royalty. Elizabeth had probably accompanied the King on these visits, and evidently she enjoyed the hospitality of Lord Daubeney, whose epitaph in Westminster Abbey describes him as “a good man, prudent, just, honest, and loved by all.”26

  Elizabeth seems also to have regarded Hampton Court as a place of spiritual refuge, one to which she could retreat at times of trial, for it still retained aspects of its monastic past. Daubeney was required by the Knights Hospitalers to appoint a priest to “sing and minister divine service” in the chapel on their behalf (the bell from the chapel tower is probably the one that survives today in Hampton Court’s inner gatehouse). In 1503, Elizabeth would retreat into a cell at Hampton for eight days, the word “cell” then meaning a room in the monastic sense. It is likely that she went for the same purpose in 1502, so she could pray for her son’s restoration to health.

  During her stay, Elizabeth received visitors, and rewarded a poor woman who gave her some almond butter,27 a gift given during Lent, when animal fats were eschewed by the devout.28

  She left Hampton Court on April 2, when Lewis Walter, her bargeman, rowed her to Greenwich. Even at this anxious time Elizabeth was thinking of others. On Friday, April 4, she sent John Duffin, her groom of the chamber, to the Duchess of Norfolk “to warn her to receive [Margaret Scrope] the wife of Edmund de la Pole, late Earl of Suffolk.” She also sent her barge to collect her gentlewoman, Elyn Brent, from Hampton Court, and row her to London. Possibly Mrs. Brent had remained behind to pack up some of the Queen’s stuff. On May 12 payment was made to two men sent from Richmond to Hampton Court to collect Mrs. Brent, which took two days.29 This suggests that more of the Queen’s belongings remained to be fetched. The delay is accounted for by the dreadful news that arrived during the night of April 4.

  “In all the devices and conceits of the triumphs of [Prince Arthur’s] marriage,” there had been “a great deal of astronomy,” with jubilant predictions that the prince would emulate his illustrious forebear, “King Arthur the Briton. But,” reflected Bacon, “it is not good to fetch fortune from the stars,” for between six and seven o’clock on April 2,30 Arthur’s “lively spirits finally mortified,” and “the young prince that drew upon him the hopes and affections of his country” commended “with most fervent devotion his spirit and soul to the pleasure and hands of Almighty God,” aged fifteen years and seven months. “His celebrated virtue equaled, if not surpassed, the fame of all former princes,” lamented Bernard André. “If only the Fates had granted him a longer stay in this world.”

  It was said that Arthur expired “of a malign vapor that proceeded from the constitution of the air.” A Spanish contemporary, Andres Bernaldez, curate of Los Palacios, wrote in his manuscript chronicle of the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella that “Prince Arthur died of the plague a little while after his nuptials, at a place they call Pudlo [sic]. In this house was Doña Catalina left a widow, when she had been married scarcely six months.” Arthur had not mentioned his wife in the will drawn up just before he died, in which he left all his robes and household stuff to his sister Margaret. This suggests that he and Katherine were never close.

  The contemporary herald’s account in The Receyt of the Lady Katherine describes the prince as suffering from “the most pitiful disease and sickness that with so sore and great violence had battled and driven in the singular parts of him inward; that cruel and fervent enemy of nature, the deadly corruption, did utterly vanquish and overcome the pure and friendful blood, without all manner of physical help and remedy.”

  In favor of the plague theory is the fact that Katherine fell ill too at this time, although she later recovered. But if Arthur had died of the plague, or the rarer but equally feared “sweating sickness,” there would surely be other reports of it.

  In 1502 there are references to an epidemic in some parts of the country, but it is unlikely that this was the dreaded sweating sickness, because people regarded that as distinct from plague. The sweating sickness was a highly virulent disease that manifested itself in England in a series of epidemics between 1485 and 1551. The cause of it is still uncertain, but its onset was sudden and dramatic, unlike Arthur’s illness, and it struck with deadly force: it was said that anyone who survived the first twenty-four hours would recover. Usually death occurred within hours; one could be “merry at dinner and dead at supper.”31

  But Arthur was ill for over seven weeks, and had been ailing for up to two months before that; there had been concerns about his frailty as far back as Ju
ly 1500. Even without that new evidence, modern writers who state that his illness was sudden and brief have overlooked the testimony of Suffolk and St. John in 1529, that the prince had fallen sick at Shrovetide after sharing a bed with Katherine, and the account in The Receyt that he was in decline since Christmas. All were quite specific, and Suffolk and St. John’s evidence could have been corroborated—or disputed—by other witnesses who remembered Arthur’s death. The prince’s capacity to bed his bride might have been exaggerated in 1529, but Suffolk had no reason to lie about the long duration of his final illness—rather the opposite, for it was in his, and his master Henry VIII’s, interests to show that Arthur was romping in bed with Katherine throughout the five months of his marriage.

  There was no epidemic of the sweating sickness in 1502, but there was a “great sickness” in the Ludlow area,32 thought by some historians to have been plague. Although the great plague of 1499–1500 was over, evidence from local wills shows that, between harvest 1501 and harvest 1502, mortality was above average in the diocese of Hereford, with the most deaths—fifteen—occurring at Ludlow; the figures are even higher for the following year.33

  The onset of the plague was sudden too. There were three types: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. The latter two developed rapidly and invariably proved fatal. Few recovered from the commonest form, bubonic plague, either: untreated, its victims usually died within five days; even today, eighty percent of patients who do not receive antibiotics die within eight days. It was caused by the bite of an infected flea, or by contact with another sufferer. A disease of the lymphatic system, it first manifested itself by a headache, weakness, high fever, confusion, aches, and chills. By the third day the lymph nodes in the neck and armpit would swell painfully, ooze pus, and bleed. This was followed by gangrene of the fingers, toes, nose, and lips, which turned black; it was this that gave bubonic plague its more common name, “the Black Death.” The victim suffered pain, muscle cramps, seizures, and lung infections, which might cause them to vomit blood incessantly; in the final stages, they lapsed into delirium and a coma as the nervous system collapsed. Death often occurred with terrifying suddenness.

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