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

  We learn of the cheering entertainments enjoyed by Elizabeth during the twelve days of Yuletide from her accounts and other sources. She drank Rhenish wine she had ordered, and was given 100s. [£2,450] for “her disport at cards” on St. Stephen’s Day. She gave rewards to Princess Margaret’s minstrels, who entertained her, and to a Spanish dancing girl, who had probably come to England in the train of Katherine of Aragon. On New Year’s Eve ten more does were brought to her from the park at Odiham, Rutland. She gave gifts on New Year’s Day, rewards to those who had sent presents, among them the servant of Margaret Beaufort, and alms to the poor. The recipients of her gifts were numerous, and included several servants of the King, the royal minstrels, “the children of the privy kitchen,” and “the lord of misrule,” who traditionally held sway over the revels at court.44 Henry gave her 10s. [£240] out of his privy purse, to pay for disguisings, and £20 [£9,700] for furs. His expenses also record rewards to “the Abbot of Misrule,” the players of St. Albans and Essex, and “the children of the King’s Chapel for singing of Gloria in excelsis.”45

  On January 4, 1503, Elizabeth made a donation to the fraternity (guild) of St. Clement by Temple Bar, the western entrance to the City of London. Three days later, now heavy with child, she was conveyed with her ladies by her bargeman, Lewis Walter, “in a great boat with twelve rowers” from Richmond to Hampton Court. Here she retreated to a “cell” to spend time in private prayer before she was confined,46 which suggests that her health was still giving her cause for concern. She was placing much faith in astrologers, who had promised her “this year to live in wealth and delice.”47 At New Year the court astrologer, Dr. William Parron, had presented the King with his annual almanac; this year’s was an exquisitely bound manuscript, the Liber de optimo fato (Book of Fortunes),48 in which Parron prophesied that Elizabeth would live until she was eighty or ninety, and would bear the King many sons.

  Elizabeth stayed at Hampton Court until January 14, when Lewis Walter rowed her and her ladies back to Richmond.49 Preparations were still apace for her confinement there, and on January 20 the King sent one of his grooms to fetch Robert Taylor, her surgeon, to Richmond,50 possibly because she was again unwell. As male surgeons were excluded from obstetrics, Taylor may have performed bloodletting—a common function of his profession—to balance the humors in her body, according to the prevailing belief that an imbalance caused illness. Of course, if Elizabeth was anemic, bleeding her would only have exacerbated the problem.

  At this time Elizabeth was thinking of her aunt, Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk, mother of the unfortunate Edmund da la Pole, and the Courtenays. Her privy purse expenses record: “Item, for a pair of buskins for the Duchess of Suffolk, 4s. [£100]. Item, to William Gentleman, page of the Queen’s chamber, for carrying of two bucks from Windsor to London, the twenty-fourth Day of [January], one to the Duchess of Suffolk, &c., 5s.4d. [£130].” That month also, hearing that Lord Henry Courtenay had fallen sick, Elizabeth outlaid 10s. [£250] to a surgeon, Richard Bullock, for medicines.51

  Henry VII, having a “singular and special devotion” to the Virgin Mary, had decided to build a splendid new Lady Chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey as a shrine for Henry VI, whom he had tried—so far unsuccessfully—to have canonized. It was not originally intended as a mausoleum for the Tudor dynasty, for from 1496 the King had made payments for the rebuilding of Henry III’s thirteenth-century chapel of St. Edward at Windsor Castle as a “tomb house” for the anticipated shrine to Henry VI; and here, he had decided, he and his Queen and their royal descendants would be laid to rest. The old chapel at Windsor lay to the east of the new St. George’s Chapel, which was begun by Elizabeth’s father, Edward IV, and continued by Henry VII, who completed the choir and nave.

  But in 1498, in response to a protest by the monks of Westminster, who wanted the relics of Henry VI moved from St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, to their abbey, the King agreed that his uncle should be buried there. Between 1498 and 1502 he had the thirteenth-century Lady Chapel at Westminster demolished, along with the chapel of St. Erasmus—founded two decades earlier by Elizabeth Wydeville—in which lay Anne Mowbray, Duchess of York.52

  In July 1501, Henry commissioned his tomb at Windsor, and work proceeded there until January 1503, when he changed his mind and decided that he and Elizabeth would rest in a tomb in the center of the new Lady Chapel at Westminster, before the principal altar; and that he would have Henry VI’s remains moved to a new shrine at the east end as soon as the saintly king had been canonized.

  In his will of 1509,53 Henry gave the reason for his change of heart as the fact that his grandmother, Katherine of Valois, widow of Henry V, was buried at Westminster: she had been laid to rest in the original Lady Chapel. Yet when that chapel was demolished, and her open coffin placed aboveground beside the tomb of Henry V, Henry VII made no effort to have it reburied or to erect a new monument. In fact, as Stow noted in 1598, her remains “remaineth aboveground in a coffin of boards behind the east end of the presbytery,”54 where they stayed on public view until 1777. But Henry VII had a more important reason for wishing to be buried in Westminster Abbey. It was the church in which English sovereigns had been crowned since 1066; it housed the shrine of the sainted King Edward the Confessor, around which many kings and queens were buried; and interment there would serve to reinforce the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty. Here, according to a Latin inscription placed later around the tomb built for him, he “established a sepulchre for himself, and for his wife, his children, and his house,” where he and his descendants would lie in glory for eternity.

  Accordingly the building materials were moved from Windsor to Westminster, where, on January 24, 1503, the foundation stone of the new Lady Chapel was laid on the King’s behalf by Abbot John Islip, whereupon construction began, probably to the design of Robert Janyns and the brothers Robert and William Vertue, three of the King’s most accomplished master masons.55

  Henry took a great interest in his new chapel; he wanted it to be as sanctified a place as the chapel of St. Edward the Confessor, which lay behind the high altar and housed the shrine and the abbey’s most precious relics. In his will he gave orders that “the walls, doors, windows, arches and vaults, and images of our chapel, within and without, be painted, garnished, and adorned with our arms, badges, cognizants, and other convenient painting, in as goodly and rich a manner as such a work requireth”;56 these may be seen today—the leopards of England, Tudor roses, the red dragon of Cadwaladr, crowned fleurs-de-lis, Yorkist falcons and fetterlocks, Richmond greyhounds, Lancastrian collars of SS knots and broom pods, Beaufort portcullises, crowned yales, antelopes and marguerites (for Margaret Beaufort), and hawthorn bushes to commemorate the finding of the crown on Bosworth field, indeed the whole panoply of contemporary royal imagery—adorning every surface. Elizabeth’s badge is among the Tudor emblems that embellish the gates to the chapel. Henry obtained two relics, a piece of the True Cross and a leg bone of St. George, for the small altar that originally stood at the foot of the tomb but was destroyed in 1643.

  No effort was spared to make the new Lady Chapel a magnificent resting place for the founder of the Tudor dynasty and his Queen. When it was finished—the main structure was completed by 1509, and the rest by ca. 1512—it was a marvel of late Perpendicular architecture and one of the most splendid royal chapels ever built. Henry VII lavished great gifts on it—tapestries, furnishings, plate, and crucifixes—making it a fittingly sumptuous burial place. Awed by its wondrous fan-vaulting, its intricate sculpture, and its elegant bay windows filled with brilliant glass painted by the royal glazier, Bernard Flower, which echo the oriels in King Henry’s Tower at Windsor, John Leland was to call it “this orbis miraculum”: this “wonder of the world.”

  But the Queen would not live to see it.

  As Elizabeth’s baby was not due until the middle of February, the King decided they would spend Candlemas together at the Tower. On January 26, Elizabeth and her sister Katherin
e came by river from Richmond to Westminster,57 where the King was waiting for them. Later that day they were all taken by barge to the Tower.58

  The Tower must have held mixed memories for Elizabeth. It had been her father’s favorite palace, and a place of refuge to her and her relatives in childhood and in recent years, yet it must also have been associated in her mind with danger and uncertainty—and with the disappearance of her brothers. Here, the previous May, Tyrell had made his confession before going to the scaffold. Here, on Tower Green, Lord Hastings had been done to death in that distant, turbulent summer of 1483. Here, the doomed Stanley had been held, as well as Warbeck and her cousin Warwick. Here, now, her brother-in-law Courtenay was a prisoner.

  The fourteenth-century royal apartments were in the Lanthorn Tower, and overlooked the River Thames. In 1501, Henry VII had begun extending these lodgings, adding a bedchamber, a privy closet, and a square new tower—the “King’s Tower”—with a private chamber, a library, and large windows over the river.59 The medieval Queen’s Lodgings, where Elizabeth stayed in 1503, lay at right angles to the Lanthorn Tower, extending south from the Wardrobe Tower by the White Tower. Timber-framed, with brick foundations and gable ends, they included a great chamber, dining chamber, bedchamber, and an outer chamber adjoining the jewel house to the west, with the Queen’s arraying chamber next to it on the east side; at the north end, steps led down to a privy and an outer entrance.60 At the south end this range connected with the King’s apartments and the new tower, completed only six weeks before the royal couple’s arrival.

  The Queen was expected to pay £10 [£4,860] to the officers of the royal mint at the Tower, which was customary whenever a member of the royal family stayed there, but she did not have the money and so had to borrow it from one of the King’s gentleman ushers.61 A carpenter, William Trend, was paid 10s. [£240] for making a chest and armoire (cupboard) for the Elizabeth’s council chamber in the Tower, so she could store her books and papers. Henry Roper, page of the Queen’s beds, was paid 16d. [£30] for the work he did over two days to prepare her apartments for her coming. Her chamber was hung with blue tapestries embellished with fleurs-de-lis of gold.62 On January 31 a poor woman came to the Tower with some fine capons for the Queen, and was rewarded with 3s.4d. [£80]. Elizabeth gave her fool Patch 6s.8d. [£160] to buy some very costly oranges, pomegranates, and other fruits. She sent a man to make an offering on her behalf to Our Lady of Willesden. Late in January she was at Coldharbour, where she paid the keeper for “wine and fire.” Possibly she had hoped to see Margaret Beaufort, but found her absent.63

  Elizabeth was still at the Tower when her baby came ten days early, on February 2, 1503. It was Candlemas Day, when the King and Queen customarily donned robes of state and went in procession to Mass to celebrate this feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Elizabeth’s privy purse expenses record that she made her offering at the high altar that morning, probably in the Norman chapel of St. John the Evangelist in the White Tower, and that a doe had been delivered for her “against Candlemas Day,”64 so it must have been later in the day that she “travailed of child suddenly.”65

  Her premature labor clearly took everyone by surprise, for “she had intended to have been delivered at Richmond.”66 If it was a consequence of iron-deficiency anemia, that would account for the absence of any record of the Queen taking to her chamber. Fortunately, Alice Massey, her usual midwife, was able to attend her, having probably already been installed in her household. As usual, Alice received £10 [£4,860] for her services.67 There was also a nurse in attendance, to whom the King paid £3.6s.8d. [£1,620]. This was the first royal birth to take place in the Tower since that of Blanche de la Tour, a short-lived daughter of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, in 1341, and no royal baby would be born there after this one.

  Henry VII, who had lost two of his three sons in less than two years, must have been anxious to have another, but “upon Candlemas Day, in the night following the day, the King and Queen then being lodged in the Tower of London, the Queen was delivered of a daughter.”68 It had apparently been a difficult birth: Thomas More wrote soon afterward that the Queen’s pleasure in her honor and wealth was “doubled with pain” and that she had “endured more woe than wealth” in great sorrow and distress.69 It is clear from the rest of his verses (reproduced in full in Chapter 18) that he was referring to her confinement, and not to her life in general, as he represents that as full of joy and prosperity.

  On the day of his daughter’s birth Henry VII made an offering of 6s.8d. [£160] to Our Lady of Barking70—the Royal Chapel of Our Lady in the churchyard of All Hallows Barking by the Tower, a church founded by Barking Abbey in Saxon times; the chapel had been founded by Richard I and made a royal chantry chapel by Elizabeth’s father, Edward IV, and it contained a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary that was said to work miracles.71

  The baby, who was evidently weak, was “upon the Saturday following christened within the parish church of the Tower and named Katherine,”72 possibly after Katherine of York,73 then in attendance on Elizabeth, or Katherine of Valois, the King’s maternal grandmother, or Katherine of Aragon.74 The new princess’s baptism in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula is not described by any source, so was probably of necessity low-key. On February 8 the King ordered a woolen mattress and down pillows for the cradle of “Katherine, our right dear daughter,” as well as furnishings for the bedchambers of her nurse and rockers.75

  On February 9, a week after the birth, Elizabeth became ill. The following day the King summoned a physician all the way from Plymouth,76 so evidently there was thought to be no urgency at this stage. The Queen was perhaps developing puerperal fever, then known as “childbed fever,” a common—and often dangerous—ailment of postpartum women in those days. It was a bacterial infection of the placental site caused by poor hygiene during childbirth—dirty hands, instruments, and cloths—and if untreated could invade the bloodstream and cause puerperal sepsis, a form of septicemia. Sufferers could experience severe pelvic pain, a rising or recurring fever, headaches, insomnia, an offensive discharge, and increasing debility. Without antibiotics, there was no effective treatment. One could only wait for the crisis to pass.

  Another possibility is that Elizabeth was suffering the consequences of iron-deficiency anemia, which could have accounted for her premature labor and the fact that her baby was frail, and left her at risk of postpartum hemorrhage, another possible effect of the condition. This can occur up to six weeks after delivery, even if the mother is not anemic; other causes are infection or retention of the products of conception. Anemia can also cause fever, rigors, and an abnormally accelerated heart rate. In those days—as in undeveloped countries today—it would have been a major cause of maternal mortality. Anemia can also lead to circulatory shock and death in a newly delivered mother.

  The Queen’s condition quickly worsened. On the night of February 10 the King ordered one James Nattres to hasten down to Kent to summon her physician, Dr. Hallysworth (or Aylesworth) from his home at Gravesend, and paid for boat hire, watermen to wait for him at Gravesend, and horses and guides “by night and day” to speed his way with lighted torches.77 Worsening fever, postpartum hemorrhage, or the symptoms of shock would explain the desperate urgency suggested by these entries in the Queen’s accounts. Hallysworth came hastening through the night, but he arrived too late. Elizabeth of York, “the most virtuous princess and gracious Queen,” died while “lying in childbed” early in the morning of Saturday, February 11, her thirty-seventh birthday.78

  She would not have been alone at her passing: besides her husband, a chaplain would have been summoned to give her the last rites and to read devotional texts, and her attendants and servants would have gathered around the bed, it being customary for the dying to be continuously watched over. But it is unlikely that her children were present.

  The Queen’s “departing was as heavy and dolorous to the King as ever was seen or heard of, and likewise to all estate
s of his realm, as well citizens as commons, for she was one of the most gracious and best-beloved princesses in the world in her time being.”79 Having delegated his mother, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Sir Richard Guildford, Comptroller of the Household, to arrange the funeral,80 Henry ordered a barge to convey him to Richmond. He “took with him certain of his secretest, and privily departed to a solitary place to pass his sorrow, and would that no man should resort to him but such [as] His Grace appointed.”81 Tradition dictated that he would not attend his wife’s funeral. On March 15 he ordered a new velvet cloth of estate of blue, the color of royal mourning. He had books bound in blue velvet, and mourning attire of blue and black, and he came only gradually out of mourning well after a year had passed.82

  Coming just ten months after the death of his son, the loss of the wife who had comforted him after bearing the child who was to have been their mutual consolation, was a heavy blow to bear. And if there had indeed been a rift between them during the last months of her life, his grief may have been tinged with guilt or remorse. He would now abandon the Tower, where she had died, ensuring its decline as a royal residence; in the future, monarchs would only lodge there prior to their coronations, as tradition decreed. The ancient fortress became more of “an armory and house of munition, and a place for the safekeeping of offenders, than a palace royal for a king or queen to sojourn in,”83 and within a hundred years of Elizabeth’s death the apartments she had occupied were ruinous. Only the remains of stone walls survive today, while the present Lanthorn Tower is a late Victorian reconstruction, the original having been gutted by fire in 1774.

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