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


  Gone was the glorious youth of Edward’s earlier years. The father Elizabeth came to know as she grew up, and to whom she became close, was losing his handsome looks. By 1475 the athletic warrior was “a little inclining to corpulence,”2 and thereafter he would become increasingly obese, thanks to a life of unbridled excess and gluttony. “In food and drink he was most immoderate; it was his habit to take an emetic for the delight of gorging his stomach once more. For this reason, he had grown fat in the loins, whereas previously he had been not only tall, but rather lean and very active.”3 Elizabeth, herself fond of good living, would also put on weight as she approached her thirties.

  Despite his overindulgent habits, Edward did not lose his grip on affairs. “This prince, although he was thought to have indulged his passions and desires too intemperately, was still a most devout Catholic, a most unsparing enemy to all heretics, and a most loving encourager of wise and learned men, and of the clergy. Men of every rank and condition wondered that a man of such corpulence, and so fond of boon companionship, vanities, debauchery, extravagance, and sensual enjoyments should have had a memory so retentive in all respects.”4

  Edward kept three mistresses during these later years. Two were “greater personages” than the third, and “content to be nameless,” suggesting that the King’s affairs with them were conducted with discretion. “But the merriest was Shore’s wife, in whom the King therefore took special pleasure, for many he had, but her he loved.”5

  Elizabeth must have known “Shore’s wife,” for she was prominent at court and had captivated the Londoners’ imagination, probably because she was one of them. Elizabeth (often inaccurately called Jane) Lambert had been born in the City and was “well married, somewhat too soon,” to “an honest citizen,” a goldsmith called William Shore. The marriage was annulled in 1476 on the grounds of his being “frigid and impotent,” which probably “the more easily made her incline unto the King’s appetite when he required her.” Edward experienced no difficulty in “piercing” Mistress Shore’s “soft, tender heart. Proper she was, and fair,” if rather short in stature, “yet delighted not men so much in her beauty as in her pleasant behavior, for a proper wit had she, and could both read and write. She never abused to any man’s hurt, but to many a man’s comfort and relief.”6 Sir Thomas More asserted that the Queen hated Elizabeth Shore, which would be understandable, although there is no record of her showing any animosity toward her in public.

  Elizabeth could hardly have grown up unaware of her father’s promiscuity, since it was notorious. Her undoubted virtue may have masked a sensual nature like his, since she clearly enjoyed the finer things in life—good food, conspicuous display, rich clothing, jewelry, and courtly revels. But no one ever accused Elizabeth of promiscuity.

  Edward IV had “many promoters and companions of his vices, the most important and especial [being] the relatives of the Queen, her two sons and one of her brothers.”7 This brother, Anthony Wydeville, Earl Rivers, was generally lauded as “a man of great valor.”8 Although elegantly fashionable and an accomplished jouster, he “was always considered a kind, serious and just man, and one tested by every vicissitude of life. Whatever his prosperity, he had injured nobody, though benefiting many.”9 That is debatable, for Rivers, like his father, Richard Wydeville, could be ruthless in the pursuit of his ambitions.

  He was a complex man, ambitious yet deeply pious, to the extent of wearing a hair shirt beneath his fine attire. He traveled in Italy and made pilgrimages to Rome and the shrine of St. James at Compostela, and it was his unfulfilled life’s ambition to go on a crusade against the Infidel. Such was his reputation that Pope Sixtus IV appointed him Defender and Director of Papal Causes in England. Rivers was also an able military commander and diplomat.

  An erudite scholar, the earl was to patronize William Caxton, who set up the first English printing press at Westminster in 1476. Caxton would print three devotional works that Rivers had translated, including The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, the first book ever printed in England. Elizabeth would have grown up familiar with Caxton’s work, for her father was also his patron and took the royal family to visit his shop, which originally stood south of Westminster Abbey’s Lady Chapel, but was moved in 1482 to premises in the Abbey Almonry, and became known as “the Red Pale.” No doubt Elizabeth grew up to have much respect and admiration for her highly cultivated and multitalented uncle, Rivers, and he must have been an early inspiration to her.

  Elizabeth’s half brothers—Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, and Sir Richard Grey—the King’s other companions in his debaucheries, were the sons of her mother’s first marriage to Sir John Grey of Groby. William, Lord Hastings, the King’s chamberlain and loyal friend, “was also the accomplice and partner of [Edward IV’s] privy pleasures. He maintained a deadly feud with the Queen’s sons,” and not just over Mistress Shore, after whom Hastings and Dorset both secretly lusted.10

  The Wydevilles were riding high, and that was the way they intended things to continue. From the first, the young Prince Edward’s household was in their control. The Queen appointed Elizabeth, Lady Darcy, lady mistress of the King’s nursery, with responsibility for the prince and a large staff of attendants.11 Lady Darcy had been born Elizabeth Tyrell (c.1436–1507), the daughter of Sir Thomas Tyrell (a distant relation of the Sir James Tyrell who was to play a fateful role in Elizabeth’s life); as the widow of Sir Robert Darcy, after November 1469 she remarried; her second husband was Richard Haute, esquire (1434–87), son of Sir Richard Haute of Ightham Mote, Kent, a cousin of the Queen; in 1473 the elder Haute was to be appointed one of the councilors of the Prince of Wales and controller of the prince’s household.

  In June 1471, Avice Welles, a widow, was appointed nurse to the infant prince. The baby had his own household officers, and his chamberlain, Thomas Vaughan, was deputed to carry his young master at public ceremonies. The Queen’s brother, Lionel Wydeville, was appointed chaplain to the heir. That June young Edward was created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, and on July 3, King Edward made his privy councilors swear an oath of loyalty to the little boy as the “very undoubted son and heir of our sovereign lord”; foremost among those who did so were young Edward’s uncles, the dukes of Gloucester and Clarence.

  The King might have been immersed in debauchery, but unstained virtue was expected of his womenfolk, and his daughters were brought up to be pious and morally irreproachable. The “blind poet”12 and friar, Bernard André, Henry VII’s admiring chronicler and court poet, could not “pass over in silence the praiseworthy and commendable acts of [Elizabeth] while she was still a girl. She had manifested from her infancy an admirable fear and devotion toward God; toward her parents a truly wonderful obedience; toward her brothers and sisters an unbounded love; and toward the poor and ministers of Christ a reverent and singular affection, instilled in her from childhood.” This was no mere flattery, for these were qualities and bonds that were to be plainly evident all Elizabeth’s life.

  By five or six she had begun her formal education, which followed a conventional pattern. Girls, even princesses, were traditionally destined to be wives and mothers, and they were educated to that end. As women were held to be morally and intellectually inferior to men, honesty and chastity were considered far more important than learning. Only slowly was the idea becoming accepted that an educated woman could also be a virtuous one. It was royalty and the aristocracy who led the way: in an age in which most women were illiterate, privileged well-born girls were taught to read and write. Thus they were better equipped to run the great castles and houses of which they would one day be mistress. They could write their own letters and wills, and their minds were broadened by reading manuscripts and the new printed books.

  Edward IV was a noted collector of richly illustrated manuscripts and books, and it was arguably he who founded the royal library, or at least reestablished it. He encouraged in his eldest daughter a love of books. A devotional volume, now in the British Libr
ary, is inscribed in her own hand: “This book is mine, Elizabeth, the King’s daughter.”13 As has been noted, Edward IV, the patron of Caxton, was also deeply immersed in the Arthurian legends and the cult of St. George, both of which underpinned English court culture; he was interested too in the history of ancient Rome and the medieval science of alchemy. His intellectual influence on his daughter was clearly pivotal.

  Elizabeth grew up to be “learned and wise.”14 She and her sisters were taught the skills and accomplishments that were considered appropriate for future queens, skills that would enable them to grace royal courts and equip them to run great households and extensive estates. Much of this was acquired by observing and learning from their mother, their lady mistresses, and the gentlewomen in charge of them. They had to learn what today we would call managerial skills: the ability to wield authority over their servants, manage budgets, and delegate to the officers who assisted them in their vast responsibilities. To do this they needed to be literate and numerate.

  Elizabeth was taught to read and write. Her signature bears a strong resemblance to her mother’s, suggesting that Elizabeth Wydeville took an active role in her education, much as her daughter would when it came to her own children. Elizabeth seems to have been more literate than her sister Cecily, whose handwriting and spelling were atrocious,15 even in an age in which spelling and grammar were not uniform.

  A much later source, “The Song of Lady Bessy” (see Chapter 6), asserts that Elizabeth could “indite” (compose) and “full well read both English and also French and also Spanish,” but this was an exaggeration, if not an invention. In 1488 a Spanish ambassador reported that she could not read letters in Spanish, and ten years afterward she insisted that her future daughter-in-law spoke French when she came to England, as she herself did not understand Latin (which was not taught to women before the reign of her son, Henry VIII), much less Spanish.16 French was seen as a desirable accomplishment among the upper classes, but the evidence suggests that Elizabeth understood it better than she spoke it, for when she received Italian ambassadors in 1497, she struggled to converse with them in French and needed an interpreter.17

  Her daily curriculum was probably similar in many respects to that laid down by her father in 1473 for her brother, Prince Edward. Edward was to spend his days “in such virtuous learning as his age shall suffer to receive” and be read “such noble stories as behoveth a prince to understand and know.” Afternoons were to be spent at lessons or in such recreation as was suitable for “the eschewing of idleness.” Elizabeth would not have been expected to practice the “convenient disports and exercises” thought necessary for a prince, but she would have been taught dancing, horsemanship, music, and needlework instead.18

  Elizabeth Wydeville would also have exercised some intellectual influence on her children, especially her daughters. A patron of education and poor scholars, she refounded Queen’s College, Cambridge, in 1465, when its name was changed to Queens’ College.19 She also patronized William Caxton, who dedicated The Knight of the Tower to her in 1484. Books were luxury items, often bequeathed in wills, and Elizabeth Wydeville owned or commissioned several, notably Caxton’s Receuil of the Histories of Troy, his tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece (which she gave to the Prince of Wales), and an illuminated book of devotions, “The Hours of the Guardian Angel,” dedicated to a queen called Elizabeth. It was once thought that this book was presented to Elizabeth of York, but it has been dated on artistic style to 1475–83.20

  At Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, there is a beautiful illustrated vellum manuscript of the “Hours of Our Lady,” dating from 1470–85; it is signed “Elysabeth Plantaegenet” and inscribed in a later hand “the Queen.” It has been suggested that it was once owned by Elizabeth Wydeville and passed by her to her daughter, but Elizabeth Wydeville would not have used the surname Plantagenet, which is how Elizabeth of York might have signed herself before her father’s death. Thus it probably came into the latter’s possession prior to 1483; her signature also appears on another page.21

  Elizabeth may jointly have owned “The Romance of the San Graal,” a costly illuminated manuscript of French romances that included the legends of King Arthur. It dated from ca.1315–25 and had once been in the library of King Charles V of France. Acquired by the Roos family, it was bequeathed in 1482 by Sir Richard Roos to his niece, the Queen’s damsel and kinswoman, Eleanor Haute. It bears four signatures: one is that of Joan, Elizabeth Wydeville’s sister; another is “E. Wydevyll,” who was probably their brother, Sir Edward Wydeville, as the Queen is unlikely to have signed herself in this way. The other signatures are those of “Elysabeth the kyngys dowther” and “Cecyl the kyngys dowther,” probably written before April 1483. Since it is unlikely that the book was owned by all four signatories, it may have been shared by Edward Wydeville with his sister and nieces.22

  Elizabeth owned another manuscript, the “Testament de Amyra Sultan Nicchemedy, Empereur des Turcs,” which tells the story of the sultan’s attempted conquest of Aleppo and subsequent death and obsequies. It bears the date “12 Sept. 1481” on the title page, and is bound in dark leather stamped with a fleur-de-lis, an appropriate emblem, considering that Elizabeth was then Dauphine of France. The title page also bears the signatures “Elysabeth the kyngys dowghter Boke” and “Cecyl the kyngys dowghter.”23

  Elizabeth was thus inculcated from childhood not only with devotional works, but also with the precepts of chivalry and courtly love, which informed the popular romances and histories of the age and heavily influenced aristocratic and court culture. Yet there was laughter as well as learning in the young princess’s life. No doubt she and her siblings enjoyed the antics and jests of her father’s fool, the disreputable John Scoggin, as much as the King and Queen did.24

  Meanwhile the royal family was expanding. On April 10, 1472, Elizabeth Wydeville bore a fourth daughter, Margaret, at Windsor Castle.25 Three months later, at Westminster, the Duke of Gloucester married Warwick’s daughter and co-heiress, Anne Neville, the widow of Prince Edward of Lancaster. Her sister and co-heiress, Isabella, was already the wife of Richard’s older brother, George, Duke of Clarence.

  Richard and Anne had probably known each other as children, as he had been raised in Warwick’s household for some years. She was a great prize in the marriage market, for she brought with her half of the vast Warwick estates. After her first husband was slain at Tewkesbury, Richard asked the King for her hand, “but this did not suit his brother, the Duke of Clarence, who caused the damsel to be concealed, as he was afraid of a division of the earl’s property, which he wished to come to himself alone in right of his wife. Still, however, the craftiness of Gloucester so far prevailed that he discovered the young lady in the City of London, disguised in the habit of a cook-maid.” Then “violent dissension” arose between the brothers, but the King ruled that Gloucester should marry Anne and that the Warwick estates were to be divided by arbitrators.26 The settlement Richard received on his marriage gave him a great landed inheritance—much to Clarence’s fury.

  In September 1472, Elizabeth, now six, was at Windsor Castle, one of the foremost royal residences in England. A great fortress had stood here since the days of William I, the Conqueror, and successive monarchs had embellished and enlarged it, converting it into a splendid palace. In the fourteenth century, Edward III had built a stately and luxurious range of stone lodgings on the north side of the quadrangle in the upper ward, and converted the old ones in the lower ward into a college dedicated to St. George. To achieve this and create the perfect setting for his court and his new Order of the Garter, he spent unprecedented sums.

  Edward III’s palace was rather outdated now, and soon to be modernized by Edward IV. To the south of the main quadrangle, which served as the tournament ground, stood St. George’s Hall, a masterpiece of Gothic splendor with its seventeen tall arched windows and the Royal Chapel. To the north there were separate sets of first-floor “Great Chambers” for the King and Queen, arr
anged around two inner courtyards, Brick Court and Horn Court. Their children were probably lodged in separate apartments overlooking the quadrangle.27 In 1475, Edward IV gave orders for work to begin on a new chapel dedicated to St. George, inspired perhaps by the collegiate church at Fotheringhay, a Yorkist foundation—and by the desire to eclipse Henry VI’s sepulchre at Chertsey.28 It was here that Edward intended to be buried.

  Elizabeth was present with several great lords and ladies at a banquet given at Windsor by the Queen in honor of Louis, Lord of Gruthuyse and Governor of Holland, who had offered the King shelter and hospitality in Bruges during his exile. When Edward brought Gruthuyse to her mother’s withdrawing room, Elizabeth was among the ladies with whom the Queen was playing at marteaux (marbles) and “closheys” (ninepins), “which sight was full pleasant.” Then “King Edward danced with my Lady Elizabeth, his eldest daughter.”

  The following evening, after the King had dined with his guest, “the Queen did ordain a grand banquet in her own apartments, at which King Edward, her eldest daughter [Elizabeth], the Duchess of Exeter [Edward IV’s sister Anne], the Lady Rivers [Elizabeth’s aunt, Mary FitzLewes], and the Lord of Gruthuyse all sat with her at one mess [course]; and at another table sat the Duke of Buckingham, my lady his wife [Katherine Wydeville], my Lord Hastings,” and other nobles. “And when they had supped, my Lady Elizabeth danced with the Duke of Buckingham.” This was her cousin, seventeen-year-old Henry Stafford, who was descended from the youngest son of King Edward III. He was to play a fateful role in Elizabeth’s future.

 
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