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


  There was no effective treatment. All the doctors could do was helplessly prescribe rest, good diet, and a move to cleaner air. A fortunate few did survive; if they lived past the tenth day, they had a good chance of recovering. Nonfatal cases could last up to a month. There is one documented case of a fourteenth-century physician, Guy de Chauliac, suffering an attack of plague that lasted six weeks,34 but he recovered, so for much of that period he would have been convalescent.

  Arthur doesn’t fit the pattern. His illness began with a decline, not a sudden escalation of symptoms like plague. Plague was a disease that manifested itself in warm weather and was largely absent in the winter months. We know that as late as April 1502, the weather was cold and windy. Thus plague is unlikely.

  Possibly it was an influenza-type virus that raged in the region and proved fatal to the prince, especially if he was already ailing. The herald who wrote an account of his funeral states that very few citizens were present in Worcester Cathedral because of the great sickness that prevailed in those parts.35 The fact that Arthur’s body was buried at Worcester, and not taken back to London for burial in Westminster Abbey, strongly suggests that he was thought to have died of something contagious and that it was felt his body should be buried as soon as possible.

  The most convincing theory is that Arthur had “a consumption,” or tuberculosis, perhaps contracted from his father, who would die of it at the age of fifty-two. In the nineteenth century there evolved the perception that this disease was the scourge of three young Tudor males; almost certainly it killed Arthur’s nephew Edward VI, who was also fifteen when he died in 1553. But it did not kill another nephew, Henry VIII’s bastard son Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, who was evidently quite healthy until an acute pulmonary infection carried him off in 1536, aged seventeen.

  Katherine’s physician, Dr. Alcaraz, later explained that she was still a virgin because “the prince had been denied the strength necessary to know a woman, as if he was a cold piece of stone, because he was in the final stages of phthisis [consumption]. Dr. Alcaraz said his limbs were weak and that he had never seen a man whose legs and other bits of his body were so thin.”36

  This might explain Henry VII’s anxiety about allowing the couple to live together. Yet if Arthur had then been in such a decline, and so obviously weak and emaciated, it is surprising that no one else commented on it, and that the marriage was allowed to go ahead. Had he been in that state before his departure for Ludlow, it is unlikely the King would have allowed him to go so far from London, and equally unlikely that the Spanish ambassadors would not have known about his condition, or failed to warn the Spanish sovereigns about it.

  The symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis include coughing bloody sputum, breathing difficulties, fatigue, loss of appetite and weight, night sweats, and chest pain. There was no treatment because antibiotics had yet to be invented. In the late medieval period the disease was common and Dr. Alcaraz would easily have recognized it, so his diagnosis is almost certainly reliable. It is often contracted in childhood, from prolonged exposure to people with active tuberculosis, and symptoms may not appear for some years, if at all; but statistics show that once symptoms do manifest themselves, death occurs after about three years in untreated cases. The disease can also spread rapidly through both lungs and prove fatal, accounting for the short duration of Arthur’s last illness, which might have been exacerbated by making the long journey from London in the depths of winter. Dr. Alcaraz’s report probably relates to the period between Christmas and April, when the prince’s decline would have been most evident. He must have known that Arthur and Katherine had not consummated their marriage prior to arriving at Ludlow, and it was probably obvious afterward that Arthur was already too ill to play the husband.

  An interesting theory has been put forward that he died of a less common form of the disease, testicular tuberculosis, which causes a fibrous mass that can mimic a cancerous tumor. The disease increases libido but inhibits sexual performance, which would explain why he was unable to consummate his marriage.37 That Arthur’s illness affected his testicles has been inferred from the description of his sickness affecting “the singular parts of him inward”—which could mean any organ, however—and it has also been suggested that he died of testicular cancer, which can spread quickly in young victims.38 Diabetes, asthma, or pneumonia are other theories.39

  The weight of evidence favors tuberculosis. The chances are that Arthur, a premature baby, had a weak constitution from birth, which made him susceptible to infection. Henry VII was already anxious about his health when he sent him to Ludlow, but maybe he did not suspect the nature of what ailed his heir; maybe he was in denial; probably Arthur did not show any alarming symptoms or lose weight so dramatically until he was at Ludlow.

  According to an anonymous herald’s account preserved by John Leland, “immediately after [Arthur’s] death, Sir Richard Pole, his chamberlain, wrote and sent letters to the King and council at Greenwich, where His Grace and the Queen lay, and certified him of the prince’s departure.” The Privy Council received the terrible news first, during the night, and “discreetly sent for the King’s ghostly father” and confessor, an Observant Friar, “to whom they showed this most sorrowful and heavy tidings, and desired him in his best manner” to break it to their master. In the morning, the friar went to the King, arriving “before the time accustomed,” and knocked on the door of his chamber. On being admitted, he asked for everyone in attendance to be dismissed, and when he was alone with Henry, “after due salutation,” he gently quoted Job in Latin: Si bona de manu Dei suscipimus, mala autem quare non sustineamus? (“If we receive good things at the hands of God, why may we not endure evil things?”) Then he “showed His Grace that his dearest son was departed to God.”

  For the stricken father, this was a devastating blow, and Henry VII must have struggled to confront the fact that his dream of a new Arthurian age lay in ruins. “When the King understood these sorrowful, heavy tidings, he sent for the Queen, saying that he and his wife would take their powerful sorrow together.” Thus it was that Elizabeth heard the shattering news every parent dreads to hear, that her child was dead in the flower of his youth.

  It is on this occasion that we are afforded a rare and touching glimpse of the private relationship between Henry and Elizabeth. The matrimonial career of Henry VIII had not yet made royal marriages legitimate objects of intense diplomatic interest, and information about the private lives of earlier kings and queens is often sparse. This account of the royal couple sharing their grief and striving to comfort each other gives one of the best insights into their relationship and shows them, after sixteen years of marriage, to have been loving, caring, and mutually supportive. It shows Elizabeth taking the initiative in intimate matters and being quite firm with her husband, although even in private she still addressed him formally. And it reveals that she drew on an inner strength that enabled her selflessly to put his needs first, even at such a time. She would have been painfully aware that he had lost not just his son but also his heir and all the hopes he had invested in him, and that only one young life now stood between him and the loss of everything he had striven so carefully to build. Henry was now forty-five, well into middle age by Tudor standards, and may have feared he would not live to see his remaining heir grow to maturity, let alone a son born now, and he and Elizabeth had good reason for anxiety about the future, for no one knew better what could happen to child kings. And so, setting aside her own grief, Elizabeth hastened to comfort him.

  “After she was come and saw the King her lord in that natural and painful sorrow, she, with full great and constant and comfortable words, besought His Grace that he would first, after God, consider the weal of his own noble person, of the comfort of his realm, and of her.”

  “And remember,” she said, “that my lady your mother had never no more children but you only, yet God, by His Grace, has ever preserved you and brought you where you are now. Over and above, God has left y
ou yet a fair prince and two fair princesses; and God is still where He was, and we are both young enough. As the prudence and wisdom of Your Grace [is] sprung all over Christendom, you must now give proof of it by the manner of taking this misfortune.” Considering that her life had been feared for in her last pregnancy, it must have taken courage to assure Henry that they could have more heirs, but no doubt that was a bravado born of the need to console him—and herself.

  Henry thanked Elizabeth for “her good comfort.” But when she returned to her own chamber, she collapsed. The “natural and motherly remembrance of that great loss smote her so sorrowfully to the heart that those who were about her were fain to send for the King to comfort her. Then His Grace, of true, gentle, and faithful love, in good haste came and relieved her, and showed her how wise counsel she had given him before; and he for his part would thank God for his son, and would [that] she would do in like wise.”40

  Elizabeth rallied. On April 6, when she must have felt raw with grief, she paid for two of William Courtenay’s former servants to ride to the West Country to see his father, the Earl of Devon,41 no doubt to inform him of the tragic news, and perhaps to ask him to send her sister Katherine immediately to court, so that they could comfort each other.

  Elizabeth’s mourning attire conformed to the ordinances laid down by the King: “The Queen shall wear a surcoat with a train before and behind, and a plain hood, and a tippet [shoulder cape] at the hood, lying a good length upon the train of the mantle. And after the first quarter of the year is past, if it be her pleasure, to have her mantle lined; it must be with black satin or double sarcanet; and if it be furred, it must be with ermine, furred at her pleasure.”42

  On April 19, Richard Justice, page of the robes, was paid for mending a gown of black velvet. On May 2 black tinsel (taffeta) satin was purchased as edgings for another and a gown of crimson velvet. On June 7 six yards of black velvet for a gown and a yard of black buckram for stiffening the bodice were delivered for the Queen, and two days later Henry Bryan, a London mercer, supplied eight yards of black damask for a cloak, black sarcenet for the lining, and black velvet for the edging. The bodice of a gown of black velvet of Princess Margaret’s was relined, and “a black satin gown for my Lady Mary.” On June 21 more black damask was bought for a gown for the Queen, and on August 2 payment was made for a black velvet mourning gown with wide sleeves lined with sarcenet.43

  In November we find Elizabeth ordering sixty yards of blue velvet for her own use; this seems to have been for “the covering of a litter of blue velvet lined with sarcanet and bordered with satin figure[s] that was given to a lady of Spain,” probably a member of Katherine of Aragon’s household. Cushions of blue damask were made for the same litter. Elizabeth also bought seven yards of black velvet for a gown, and thirteen yards of black satin for a riding gown, as well as black velvet for the border and cuffs, black sarcenet for the “vents” (slashes), and black buckram and canvas for the lining; she sent Richard Justice to fetch a gown of blue velvet and seven yards of black damask. In December she bought eight and three-quarter yards of black velvet, and at the end of January 1503 blue worsted. Around that time she had a kirtle of black satin lined and hemmed. To pay for these and other items, she had once more to pawn her plate, and the King was obliged to give her money.44

  The Queen remained in mourning for Arthur for most of 1502, although on state occasions she wore her normal queenly attire.45 A contemporary composer, John Browne, wrote a Latin antiphon, Stabat iuxta Christi crucem, which speaks of the grief of the Virgin Mary for her crucified Son, evidently drawing a parallel with Elizabeth’s grief for her own son.46

  Elizabeth’s health—she was reportedly well before the tragedy47—was undermined by the shock of Arthur’s death. The first indication of this comes on April 29, when she paid John Grice, her apothecary, the huge amount of £9.13.4d. [£4,700] for “certain stuff of his occupation.”48 What he supplied was clearly more than something to dull unbearable grief or help her to sleep. Given the other references to Elizabeth’s poor health in the months to come, it would seem there was some more fundamental medical problem.

  “The calamity and the pitiful misfortune” of Arthur’s unexpected death had “touched the entire kingdom.”49 It would have long-reaching repercussions that no one could have envisaged. He had been “the delight of the Britons,” “the glorious hope of the realm,” and “the most renowned heir of our magnanimous King,” but now he was no more, and England had perforce to weep “since your hope now lies dead.”50

  Arthur’s corpse—disemboweled, boiled, cered, and spiced51—lay in state in the great hall of Ludlow Castle until it was carried with mournful pageantry to St. Laurence’s Church nearby on April 20. The prince’s heart and viscera are said to have been buried in the church, where his coffin lay before the altar for three days, but there is no contemporary evidence for this, and heart burial had been in decline in England since 1300.52 On St. George’s Day, conducted by a vast cortege headed by Sir William Uvedale and Sir Richard Croft, Arthur’s body was conveyed to Worcester Cathedral. Katherine did not attend the funeral, as custom would not have allowed the widow to be present, and she was too ill anyway; neither did the King and Queen, Henry represented by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, as chief mourner. The black-draped hearse rested at Tickenhill Palace, Bewdley, on the way, brought there on “the foulest cold windy and rainy day,” and the escort was “in some places fain to take oxen to draw the chair, so ill was the way.”

  At his father’s wish, the prince was buried “with great funeral obsequies”53 on the right-hand side of the chancel. Gruffydd ap Rhys was chief mourner; he would later be buried near his young master. There was “weeping and sore lamentation as Prince Arthur was laid to rest.” Thomas Writhe, Wallingford Pursuivant, “weeping, took off his coat and cast it along over the chest right lamentably.”54

  A beautiful chantry chapel was erected over Arthur’s plain granite tomb, but Elizabeth did not live to see it built. Half a century after her death, her grandson Edward VI ordered it to be despoiled along with the other chantries that were swept away by the Reformation; but among the ruined stone carvings that remain can be seen Tudor roses, Beaufort portcullises, Katherine of Aragon’s pomegranate, and the Yorkist falcon and fetterlock. The arms of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York appear on the south screen of the chantry.

  The reaction of Arthur’s siblings to his death is not recorded. Margaret was to name one of her sons after him, in the year when he would have succeeded his father to the throne. Possibly Henry did too: the names of two short-lived boys borne by Katherine of Aragon are unrecorded. But Henry cannot but have found some satisfaction in the knowledge that, with Arthur gone, he was now, as his father’s next and only surviving son, heir to the throne. He was not immediately given his brother’s titles since it was not yet known whether Katherine of Aragon was with child.55 It is unlikely that the two boys had known each other well, or were close, as they had grown up apart, with Arthur at Ludlow and Henry usually at Eltham.

  Cardinal Pole, the son of Margaret of Clarence, was later to claim that Henry VII disliked his second son intensely, “having no affection or fancy unto him.”56 Pole had little that was good to say about Henry VIII, so this may be an exaggeration, but Pole’s mother had known both kings, so there may be some truth in what he wrote. But in 1502 young Henry was barely eleven, and may not yet have aroused the antipathy of his father—unless Henry VII resented him for being alive when Arthur, in whom so many of his ambitious hopes had been vested, was dead.

  Arthur’s death did have an unfortunate consequence for his younger brother. The previous summer the King had considered giving young Henry his own household at Codnore Castle, Derbyshire (then vacant due to the death of its owner, Henry Grey), once Arthur was married,57 which would have given him a degree of independence. The King, perhaps having the boy’s measure, may also have reasoned that, living so far from court, his younger son would pose less of a threat to Arthur. Wha
t Elizabeth thought of this beloved child being sent to live such a distance from her is not recorded. But now the boy, the sole heir, would stay at court, or with his sisters, heavily protected, even isolated, and would not enjoy any independence while his father lived.

  There were the garter ceremonies to get through; the annual calendar of the court did not allow for private grief. Elizabeth paid “Friar Hercules” £5 for golden fabric and silk from Venice, and gold damask, which he made into laces and buttons for the King’s garter mantle.58

  On April 27 she left Greenwich by barge for the Tower, where she lodged for five days. During her visit she was in contact with Alice FitzLewes, Abbess of the Minoresses’ convent at Aldgate; Alice had been a nun at “the Minories” since about 1493, and was elected abbess by 1501.59 On May 1, Elizabeth rewarded her with 6s.8d. [£160] for sending a present of rosewater. She also gave 11s. [£270] for the succor of “Dame Katherine and Dame Elizabeth, nuns of the Minories in almshouse, and to an old woman servant to the abbess and a daughter of William Crowmer, also a nun there.”60

  During her sojourn at the Tower, Elizabeth may well have met with the abbess, whose convent was a stone’s throw away; this was probably how she learned of these needy cases. They must have known each other already, because Alice FitzLewes was cousin to Elizabeth’s aunt, Mary FitzLewes, Lady Rivers, the widow of Anthony Wydeville, and Elizabeth appears to have been close to her aunt, who is known to have attended her on several occasions. Interestingly, the abbess’s mother, Joan FitzSimon, widow of Philip FitzLewes, was a cousin of Sir James Tyrell, the man named by More as the murderer of the Princes in the Tower, who was then in the Tower awaiting trial for abetting the de la Poles.61

 
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