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

  It seems significant that the Queen chose to visit the Tower at this time. The rosewater and the charitable gifts may have been genuinely intended, but they might also have been the cover for something of far greater import, because residing in a house within the precincts of the Minories at that time were several ladies who were well placed to know the truth about the fate of Elizabeth’s brothers. Elizabeth Talbot, Duchess of Norfolk and mother-in-law of Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the Princes in the Tower, lived there until her death in 1506. With her was Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Robert Brackenbury, Constable of the Tower at the time of the princes’ disappearance, whose will of 1514 provides for her burial there; Mary, sister of Sir James Tyrell; and one of Tyrell’s cousins, the daughter of John Tyrell.62

  Also living in the house was Joyce Lee, a widow who took the veil and was interred in the church of the Minories in 1507. Her brother Edward later became Archbishop of York, and he was friends with Thomas More; their families lived in the same London parish, and More was to dedicate a book to Joyce Lee in 1505.63 It is conceivable that More visited her at the Minories when he was a young lawyer living at Bucklersbury in London, and that it was there he first heard the truth about the fate of the princes from people who had the means of knowing what had happened to them. Alice FitzLewes must have known Joyce Lee and all the other ladies in the house in the close. She could perhaps have told the Queen much about the fate of her brothers. But Elizabeth was probably at the Tower for another reason entirely.

  She was back at Greenwich on May 2; the next day, Ascension Day, she made her offering at the altar.64 During that first week of May those accused of conspiring treason with Edmund de la Pole were arraigned at Guildhall and condemned for “matters of treason.” Sir James Tyrell was beheaded on May 6, 1502, on Tower Hill.65 Vergil observed that “he paid by his own death the appropriate penalty for his previous crimes.”

  Afterward Henry VII “gave out” that, while in the Tower, Tyrell was “examined, and confessed” to murdering the princes nineteen years earlier.66 Either he let slip something compromising or he was already suspected of having been involved, although Henry was reluctant to believe any ill of him.67 If the King gave out such information, it was probably by a proclamation68 that does not survive. Of the sixty-two extant proclamations of Henry VII, some are lost,69 notably the one proclaiming his accession. Others that are missing are referred to in contemporary documents, such as one issued in 1496 for expanding legislation on conditions of work for laborers;70 no one has ever disputed its existence, although rivers of ink have been spilt in denying that Tyrell’s confession was ever the subject of a proclamation. It is true that no written confession or deposition by Tyrell survives, but that is not unusual or necessarily significant in Tudor treason cases.

  It does seem more than coincidental that Elizabeth had chosen to make a brief visit to the Tower at this particular time, just before Tyrell’s trial; it was perhaps significant too that she was in touch with the Abbess of the Minories during her stay. It is possible that her presence in the Tower had something to do with Tyrell’s confession. Perhaps he made it to her in person, or the King and his examiners deemed it useful to confront Tyrell with the sister of the princes. Or Tyrell, knowing he almost certainly faced death, asked if he could see the Queen, to confess to her his involvement in the death of her brothers—perhaps insisting he would speak to no other.

  Conceivably, Elizabeth’s involvement, or perhaps her reaction, was the reason why Henry VII did not make more of the confession. Henry would surely have done much to secure confirmation that the princes really were dead, and would have sympathized with Elizabeth’s need to know the truth about her brothers. He may have thought it fitting that she was the one to hear the truth. We know she had advance warning of Courtenay’s arrest in February, indicating that the King entrusted her with matters of state that affected her; he might therefore secretly have involved her in this delicate matter too. It does seem significant that Elizabeth had dealings with the Abbess of the Minories, Tyrell’s cousin, who was sheltering his sister and a mutual cousin; possibly they were all linked to her visit in some way, even if it was only in their need for reassurance that Tyrell had at last unburdened his conscience before facing divine judgment.

  This is all purely hypothetical, of course. We will probably never know the truth of the matter, although Elizabeth’s presence in the Tower at this particular time is surely grounds for speculation. More wrote that Tyrell’s horse keeper, John Dighton, one of the murderers, had also been examined and confessed to the murder, while Bacon states that Dighton corroborated Tyrell’s confession. More, whose account was partly based on Tyrell’s confession, probably tracked down and spoke with Dighton later on, for around 1513 he was able to state that “Dighton yet walks on alive, in good possibility to be hanged”—an incorrigible criminal.

  It has been argued that Henry’s announcement of Tyrell’s confession was a fabrication, or that the confession was forced. Certainly it was timely, especially in the wake of Prince Arthur’s death, for a confession that the princes had indeed been murdered must have undermined any new claims by would-be pretenders against Henry’s sole remaining heir; and certainly no other pretenders claiming to be the sons of Edward IV emerged after this time. It is also true that Tyrell was dead, and could not refute what the King “gave out”; Dighton, who escaped unpunished, was unlikely to talk. But if the confession was an invention, why had Henry waited until now, and not come up with something of the kind years earlier, when he was under threat from first Simnel, and then Warbeck, or even in 1499, after the execution of Warwick? It is not beyond the bounds of probability that a man facing death would want to lay bare his guilt in regard to such a crime.71

  Then there is the evidence of More, who stated that he had learned about the murders from “them that much knew and had little cause to lie”—a description that fits Tyrell and Dighton. If the story had not been true, what cause had Dighton to incriminate himself? And what cause had More—no yes-man of the Tudors—to make any of this up?

  It is clear, though, that the bodies of the princes were not found in the wake of Tyrell’s confession, and that may have been the consequence of a deception. More, probably basing his tale on what Tyrell and Dighton confessed, wrote that the murderers had buried the corpses “at the stair foot, meetly deep in the ground, under a heap of stones”—which is precisely where a chest containing the skeletons of two children who were almost certainly the princes was found in 1674 during demolition of a staircase in the entrance forebuilding to the White Tower. But More then says that Richard III had the bodies dug up and “secretly interred” elsewhere, and that he had taken the knowledge of the location to the grave with him. Tyrell, being close to Richard, might well have heard that, and disclosed it in 1502.

  But the story was a fabrication: if they were those of the princes, the bodies had not been moved at all. Without them Henry could not have proceeded against Dighton, for there was a legal presumption of “no body, no murder” until the twentieth century. Bacon says that Dighton, “who it seemeth spake best for the King, was forthwith set at liberty, and was the principal means of divulging this tradition”—which, again, explains how More got much of his information.

  If Tyrell’s confession was genuine—and there seems no good reason to doubt it—Elizabeth was probably shaken by it, whether she heard it in person or not. Discovering the grim truth about how her brothers had met their end would have been traumatic, especially at a time when she was grieving for her own son (who had not been much older than Edward and Richard) and coping with the tragedy that had overtaken her sister. Was this the reason she sent for her confessor on May 17?72 We can only speculate as to her frame of mind when she was rowed two days later to Richmond, where her lodgings had been made ready “against the coming thither of the ambassadors of Hungary.” That day Richard Justice brought to her gowns of russet and purple velvet and a stole covered with scarlet;73 it is unlikely that s
he was ready to put off her mourning garb so soon, and possible that these garments were to be lent to one of her sisters or ladies for the reception of the ambassadors.

  In addition to Elizabeth’s other burdens, she was concerned for her daughter-in-law, and seems to have felt—as the Spanish sovereigns would when they heard the news of Arthur’s death—that Katherine of Aragon “must be removed without loss of time from the unhealthy place where she is now.”74 To this end Elizabeth had sent an escort to bring the bereft and isolated young widow back to London as soon as she was well enough to travel, and she herself provided a litter to convey her convalescent daughter-in-law. Her keeper of the beds, John Coope, had covered it with black velvet and black cloth, and fringed it with black valances, with the two headpieces bound with black ribbon and fringed with black cloth.75

  In this mournful equipage Katherine was brought to Richmond, where the Queen evidently received her with much kindness. Queen Isabella told Ferdinand, Duke of Estrada, that she and King Ferdinand knew very well that, wherever King Henry and Queen Elizabeth were, their daughter “would not lack either father or mother.”76 After a short stay with the King and Queen, Katherine was given the choice of two residences: Durham House, the Bishop of Durham’s palace on London’s Strand, and Croydon Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s residence in Surrey. By May 24 she had taken up residence at Croydon.77 The Queen was perhaps again unwell, for on that day her attendant Eleanor Ratcliffe, Lady Lovell, was dispatched from Richmond to the City to a “Dr. Lathis”; a London surgeon, John Johnson, also attended Elizabeth at Richmond on May 28.78 Katherine of Aragon was in the Queen’s thoughts at this time, and she sent Edward Calvert, her page, to Croydon,79 possibly to check on the princess’s health, and perhaps discreetly to ask her servants if there were any signs of a pregnancy. That there were not was soon to become clear.

  On April 15, unaware of the tragedy that had overtaken their daughter, Ferdinand and Isabella had written to Puebla of how glad they were “to hear that the King and Queen of England, with the Prince and Princess of Wales, are in good health.” When they heard of Arthur’s death they were quick to write again, telling Puebla that the news had caused them “profound sorrow,” painfully calling to mind “the affliction caused” by the recent losses of their own son and eldest daughter. But, they added piously, “the will of God must be obeyed.”80

  The Spanish sovereigns were concerned, naturally, about their daughter. On May 10 they sent another ambassador to England with instructions to preserve the alliance and ask for the immediate return of Katherine and her dowry. “We cannot endure that a daughter whom we love should be so far away from us in her trouble,” they wrote, adding that, if possible, Puebla was to secure Katherine’s betrothal to the new heir, Prince Henry,81 who, at nearly eleven, was five and a half years her junior. Everyone was aware that, if Arthur and Katherine had consummated their marriage, her union with Henry would be incestuous and contravene canon law. Katherine’s chaplain, Alessandro Geraldini, informed the Spanish ambassador that the marriage had been consummated; but Doña Elvira, Katherine’s duenna, was adamant that it had not, and wrote to Queen Isabella insisting that the princess remained a spotless virgin. Immediately Geraldini was recalled to Spain. In July, Isabella informed Henry VII that the princess remained a virgin.82 But although he too wished to preserve the Spanish alliance, Henry was hesitant. Months—and momentous events—would pass before he reached a decision on the proposed betrothal between Katherine and his heir. Meanwhile, it had become clear that Katherine was not pregnant with Arthur’s child,83 and by June 22, when he was made keeper of the forest of Galtres, young Henry Tudor was being styled Prince of Wales.


  “The Hand of God”

  Elizabeth had told Henry that they were still young enough to have other children, and he took her at her word. It was probably at Richmond, around the third or fourth week of May, that she conceived again, not two months after the death of Prince Arthur. At the time she had pressing concerns on her mind. On May 30, doubtless responding to Katherine Courtenay’s worries, she paid Ellis Hilton, her groom of the robes, for warm clothing she had commanded be made for William Courtenay: Holland cloth for shirts, fox fur to line a gown of russet, and a night bonnet. She also paid out for black satin of Bruges and black velvet for covering Katherine Courtenay’s saddle and sable trappings for her horse.1

  The King and Queen were at Richmond for the feast of Corpus Christi, which fell on June 5 that year, and for the celebrations to mark it Elizabeth came briefly out of mourning, sending Richard Justice, her page of the robes, to London to fetch a cloth-of-gold gown trimmed with fur.2

  The next day the court moved to Westminster. The Queen had bought orange sarcenet sleeves to enliven her daughter Mary’s mourning gown, and clearly they were a favorite with the child. When it was found that the little princess had left them behind at Baynard’s Castle, Elizabeth sent her page of the robes from Westminster to collect them. Just before she departed from Westminster, she made an offering at the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, kneeling beside the tombs of her dead infants; she also made offerings in the chapel of Our Lady of the Pew at Westminster and at the Norman shrine of Our Lady of Bow in London.3

  Elizabeth was back at Richmond on July 11, when there was a disguising at court. Her accounts record 56s.8d. [£1,380] paid to William Antyne, coppersmith, for “spangles sets, square pieces, star drops, and points after silver and gold for garnishing of jackets against the disguising.” This may have been “the disguising in the year last past” for which Elizabeth provided coats of sarcenet in the Tudor colors of white and green for the King’s minstrels and trumpeters, which were not paid for until December.4

  By June 17 the Queen was at Windsor, having distributed alms on her journey there, as seems to have been her custom when she traveled. On St. John’s Eve, June 23, she gave money to her grooms and pages for making the traditional bonfires. She made her offerings on St. John’s Day itself, and on July 5 she and her daughter Margaret made offerings before the Holy Cross, St. George, and Henry VI’s tomb in St. George’s Chapel. The next day she sent 66s.8d. [£1,600] to the Abbess of Dartford “toward such money as the abbess hath laid out toward the charges of my Lady Bridget there.” An identical sum was also sent to Bridget herself. During her stay at Windsor, Elizabeth enjoyed an outdoor banquet in the “little park,” where a “harbor” had been made specially for her, and the King’s painters were employed “for making divers beasts and other pleasures for the Queen at Windsor.”5

  That year the King’s mason, Robert Vertue, was building a “new platt [plan] of Greenwich which was devised by the Queen.”6 She wanted a separate brick, battlemented residence for herself on the waterfront, with a great tower in the center, a gallery, a privy kitchen, and a garden and orchard, and building it would cost £1,330 [£650,000] over the next six years.7 She would not, however, live to occupy it. Her involvement in the project probably reflects her love for Greenwich and an interest in Burgundian architecture and court culture that had no doubt been fostered by her father—but it may have had more significance than that.

  Throughout her married life Elizabeth had frequently resided with the King and accompanied him on his travels; apart from going on pilgrimage, there is no evidence for her traveling alone unless there was a pressing reason. Their mutual distress at being apart from each other had been a factor in bringing Henry home from a campaign in France. Yet on July 12, 1502, Elizabeth left Windsor in company with her sister Katherine for the royal palace of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, on the first leg of a solo progress that would take her on a roundabout route to Wales—and away from Henry for much of the coming summer.8 Had we her privy purse expenses for earlier years we might find details of other solo progresses, yet this is unlikely, as there would probably be some other evidence, however fragmentary, for them.

  It is astonishing that a gravid woman in uncertain health, whose life had been despaired of in her pre
vious pregnancy, should decide to travel so far at such a time, especially as it would mean being apart from her husband for two and a half months. It is possible that Elizabeth was not only unwell but in some distress of mind. Maybe Tyrell’s confession had impacted badly on her, especially in the wake of Arthur’s death. Her own loss must vividly have brought home to her what her mother had suffered after her brothers disappeared, while her ever-present grief for Arthur may have prompted a need to get away on her own for a time. Even so, to embark on such an arduous progress and thereby risk her uncertain health and that of her precious unborn child seems strange indeed.

  Possibly there had been a rift between her and Henry. Her plans for a house for herself may reflect a need to have a residence where she could live apart from him. Grief may have led her to blame him for sending their son to Ludlow when he was ailing, although it is inconceivable that Henry would have done so had he known that Arthur was seriously ill. What is likely is that Elizabeth was finding it hard to forgive Henry for the devastation he had wrought upon her sister’s life, for no apparent good reason—and at such a time. It is conceivable that the closeness husband and wife displayed in their shared grief had been fatally undermined by the continued imprisonment of Courtenay and the subsequent plight of Katherine of York—and by the King’s harsh treatment of another of Elizabeth’s sisters.

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