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


  Thwarted of Burgundy, Clarence had forsaken the court and become aggressive and provocative, showing scant respect for his brother or the law, and before long he and Edward had “each begun to look upon the other with no fraternal eyes.”59 On June 10, 1477, amid rumors that Clarence was again plotting rebellion, Elizabeth learned that her uncle had been arrested on her father’s orders and imprisoned in the Tower of London. She was probably too young to understand how he threatened the King politically, but she may have been aware that her father hated and feared him, and she would certainly have heard talk or gossip of the scandals that preceded his arrest. The year before, Clarence’s wife, Isabella Neville, died in childbirth, but he had subsequently accused the Queen of poisoning her by means of a servant, Ankarette Twynho. Elizabeth Wydeville was beyond his reach, but he had the unfortunate—and innocent—servant hanged. Then, when one of his affinity was executed for using sorcery against King Edward and the Prince of Wales, Clarence provocatively defended the man before the council, disparaging the King’s justice. That was a step too far for Edward, who responded accordingly. Clarence was to languish in the Tower for seven months.

  Elizabeth and her sisters Mary and Cecily were present at yet another splendid royal occasion when, on January 15, 1478, their brother Richard, Duke of York, aged four, was married to the late Duke of Norfolk’s daughter and heiress, Anne Mowbray, aged five. By this marriage King Edward secured for his son the rich Norfolk estates. The wedding took place in St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. This narrow but beautiful Gothic chapel, built in the late thirteenth century in emulation of St. Louis IX’s La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, was two stories high, and the upper chapel, which was used by the royal family, had a vaulted ceiling of sky blue with numerous gold stars, which soared a hundred feet above the tiled floor. For this occasion, the chapel walls, adorned with murals of angels, kings, and religious scenes in vivid scarlet, green, and blue, had been hung with azure cloth embroidered with gold fleurs-de-lis.

  The Queen escorted her son to the marble altar, where he waited beneath a cloth-of-gold canopy with the bride’s mother, Elizabeth Talbot, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Then Lord Rivers and the King’s nephew, John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, led in red-haired Anne Mowbray.60 Elizabeth sat with her parents, her brother Edward, her sisters Mary and Cecily, and her grandmother of York beneath another cloth-of-gold canopy while the papal dispensation permitting this marriage of cousins was read out. Then the King gave away the bride and the marriage service commenced.

  Afterward Gloucester showered gold and silver coins upon the crowds outside, then spices and wine were served to the wedding party. There were jousts and a lavish banquet in the vast Painted Chamber, at which the little bride was named “Princess of the Feast.” Apart from the incarcerated Clarence, the entire royal family was present, as well as foreign ambassadors, lords, ladies, knights, squires, and guards and servants in the mulberry and blue livery of the House of York. All but the latter took part in the dancing that lasted until the Kings of Arms entered and asked the bride if she would present the prizes that would be won at the jousts to be held the next day. Elizabeth was appointed to assist her, and a council of ladies was convened to decide what share in the ceremony each should take.

  After the tournament on January 16, the Kings of Arms gave Elizabeth the prizes: gems set with the golden letters A, M, and E, standing for Anne, Mowbray, and Elizabeth; Clarencieux Herald presented her with the A, set with a diamond, saying: “Right high and excellent princess, here is the prize which you shall award to the best jouster of the jousts royal.” Norroy Herald gave her the E, set with a ruby, for the best runner in armor, and March Herald the M, set with an emerald, for the best swordsman.

  Elizabeth handed the A to the little “Princess of the Feast,” who bestowed it upon Thomas Fiennes, who had won first prize. The others went to Sir William Truswell and William Say, to the delight of the noble company.61

  Darker deeds were brewing. Less than a month after the wedding festivities, on February 8, 1478, Clarence was condemned in Parliament. The Act of Attainder passed against him stated that he had “falsely and traitorously intended and purposed firmly the extreme destruction and disinheriting of the King and his issue.” It accused him of spreading “the falsest and most unnatural-colored pretense that man might imagine.” He had “falsely and untruly noised, published, and said that the King our sovereign lord was a bastard and not begotten to reign upon us.”62

  The King himself sat in judgment on his brother, but the Queen—in the deaths of whose father and brother Clarence had been complicit—was thought to have brought pressure to bear, as she had “concluded that her offspring by the King would never come to the throne unless the Duke of Clarence were removed, and of this she easily persuaded the King.”63 This Parliament included an influential Wydeville presence—Earl Rivers was one of the four “triers”—which was “easily the most powerful faction.”64 Clarence’s attainder deprived him of his life, titles, and estates, and the rights of himself and his heirs to the succession. On the face of it, he was condemned for crimes for which he had already been pardoned and forgiven; but it is possible, of course, that he had recently reiterated his calumnies.

  Although the Wydevilles were seen as being responsible for Clarence’s fall, Edward long had reason to believe that Clarence had designs on his throne; he had, after all, joined Warwick in rebellion and in spreading that tale of Edward’s bastardy, something the King could neither have forgiven or forgotten, and recently Clarence had questioned the validity of Edward’s marriage. Years later, when Elizabeth of York was Queen, the historian Polydore Vergil asked Edward IV’s surviving councilors about the reasons for Clarence’s execution, but they were not forthcoming. Possibly they were reluctant to repeat anything Clarence had said that cast doubt on Elizabeth’s legitimacy. Clarence’s recent scheme to marry the heiress of Burgundy had alone represented a major threat to the King, and he had publicly impugned Edward’s justice. All in all, he was a deadly troublemaker, and had proved himself a threat to the realm’s stability.

  Because the Duchess Cecily had protested against her son being executed in public, Clarence was put to death privately on February 18, 1478, in the Tower of London. It was said that, allowed to choose how he would die, he opted to be drowned in a butt of Malmsey (Madeira) wine.65 He left behind a three-year-old son, Edward, Earl of Warwick, who was barred by his father’s attainder from ever inheriting the throne or any of Clarence’s lands and titles, and also a five-year-old daughter, Margaret, who would wear a tiny wooden wine butt on a bracelet all her life in commemoration of her father; it can be seen in her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The wardship and custody of Warwick were granted to Elizabeth Wydeville’s son, Dorset,66 and Edward IV arranged for the boy to go to Sheen to be brought up with Elizabeth and the other royal children.67 It is likely that Margaret of Clarence was sent there too.

  Elizabeth cannot have had a good opinion of her uncle. To her, raised under the influence of the Wydevilles, he was no doubt the bête noire of the family; like her mother, she probably saw him as a threat. He bore half the blame for the executions of her grandfather, Earl Rivers, and her uncle, John Wydeville, in 1469, and had accused her mother of compassing his wife’s death by sorcery. But the impact on a twelve-year-old of the judicial killing of her uncle by her father must have been considerable, and a brutal reminder of the dangers inherent in being of the blood royal in this turbulent period of history.

  Mancini states that Gloucester was “overcome with grief” at his brother’s execution, and vowed to avenge it. Yet, while he would in time exact a fearful vengeance on Elizabeth Wydeville, there is evidence to suggest that he colluded in, and condoned, Clarence’s fate. Some of his retainers had sat in the Parliament that condemned the duke, and he himself appears to have supported Edward’s proceedings.68 He profited too, more than anyone else. Even before his brother’s death, he had requested Clarence’s share o
f the Warwick inheritance, and his son, Edward of Middleham, had received Clarence’s forfeited earldom of Salisbury, while he himself was appointed Great Chamberlain of England in place of Clarence and granted lands belonging to the latter. It is possible, though, that knowing that Clarence’s fate was a foregone conclusion, and that half the Warwick inheritance was at stake, he gave the King his tacit support, then moved quickly afterward to preempt any designs the Wydevilles may have had on that inheritance. That he was affected by his brother’s fall is suggested by a letter he sent much later to James FitzGerald, Earl of Desmond, in which he recalled how he had to keep his “inward” feelings hidden.69 Those inward feelings may very well have included hatred for the upstart Wydevilles, who had destroyed a prince of the blood. If Richard really felt such hatred and resentment for the Queen and her kin, it would make more sense of his actions in five years’ time.

  Mancini states that “thenceforth Richard came very rarely to court. He kept himself within his own lands and set out to acquire the loyalty of his people through favors and justice. The good reputation of his private life”—in contrast to his brother Edward’s—“and public activities powerfully attracted the esteem of strangers. By these arts, Richard acquired the favor of the people, and avoided the jealousy of the Queen, from whom he lived far separated.” Richard’s main political focus was the North, where he had his power base, and his responsibilities there tended to isolate him from the court anyway. He did spend most of the last years of Edward’s reign in the North, as Mancini states, and although he visited the court in London on state occasions, it is unlikely that Elizabeth and her siblings ever got to know this often absent uncle very well.

  Mancini’s testimony—which may have owed something to hindsight, although he used as sources people who would surely have known the truth—is often taken to mean that Richard deliberately avoided the Queen after Clarence’s fall. But it is clear that avoiding her jealousy was the consequence of his good reputation, while Mancini merely observes that she lived a long ways away, implying that this was to his advantage. Maybe Richard did fear her influence, having seen what it could do, while her behavior later on might suggest that she had his measure and distrusted and feared him. However, working relations between Richard and her brother, Earl Rivers, remained amicable after 147870—although the catastrophic events of 1483 were to show that Richard saw Rivers too as a threat.

  Edward IV “inwardly repented, very often” of having Clarence executed,71 and reproached his nobles for not suing for mercy.72 But ultimately he himself had to bear the responsibility for it; and the young Elizabeth had to come to terms with the knowledge that not even ties of blood were a guarantee against disaster.

  It was a superstitious age. Apart from the other reasons for Clarence’s fall, Edward had apparently been swayed by a prophecy that G should follow E as King of England.73 If true, it seems not to have occurred to him that his other brother was Gloucester—or that executing one of his blood had set a dangerous precedent for slaughter within his own house.74

  That month of February 1478, Elizabeth turned twelve, the age at which she was to go to France and be married. Her dowry was already settled, and it had been agreed that King Louis should meet the expenses of her conveyance into his realm. Soon afterward, Mary, Duchess of Burgundy, appealed to Edward IV for aid against Louis XI, but Edward ignored her pleas, for he would allow nothing to compromise Elizabeth’s prospects of marriage with the Dauphin.

  On August 11 the King sent Dr. Thomas Langton to France, to press Louis XI to conclude the espousal without further delay, and to ask him to endow Elizabeth with her jointure immediately, in advance of the wedding. Louis—by no means as committed to the match as Edward—stalled. In December his ambassador told the King that he must not expect immediate payment of her jointure, insisting that his proposal was contrary to reason and French custom: Elizabeth could have her jointure only when the marriage took place, but the Dauphin, at eight, was too young to be wed at present, and it was usual for a jointure to be paid only after the consummation of a marriage. Edward’s councilors expressed great indignation and urged him to break the treaty, but he refused, being determined to force Louis to keep to its terms. But the writing was on the wall: France was then relying on England not to intervene on Maximilian’s behalf in Burgundy, and if Louis could treat his ally so dismissively when he needed him, clearly he was not committed to the marriage.

  There was grief in March 1479 when Elizabeth’s two-year-old brother George died at Windsor Castle and was buried in St. George’s Chapel. After his death, his nurse, Joan, Lady Dacre, became lady mistress to Princess Mary.75 The loss of her youngest son must have been hard for the Queen, who was pregnant again; on August 14, 1479, she gave birth to a healthy sixth daughter, Katherine, at Eltham Palace. It was here that the infant princess was christened. Joanna Colson was appointed her nurse.76

  Arguments about Elizabeth’s jointure grumbled on through the spring and summer of 1479. Edward’s envoys warned the French that if there was any further prevarication, England would ally itself with Maximilian. In August the Burgundians won a victory over the French, and Maximilian and Mary declared that they would not betroth their heir, Philip, to anyone except Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth. In the face of this, late that year Louis instructed his envoys to offer 10,000 crowns [£1,261,500] as a maintenance grant for Elizabeth, but Edward, who had been greedily anticipating the £60,000 [£30 million] agreed to at Picquigny, angrily turned down the offer because it was contrary to the terms of the treaty.

  By now there were doubts in England as to Louis’s sincerity. In January 1480 the Milanese ambassador at the French court shrewdly observed that Edward was not deceived by the French king’s procrastination, and concluded that Elizabeth’s marriage to the Dauphin depended on Maximilian’s ability to repel the French. He reported that the English envoys had been told “to press in and out of season for the conclusion of the marriage. The King here stands in fear of the King of England, on the supposition that if he will not pay him any heed while the Flemings still flourish, England will not be able to get his desire when this king has accomplished his purpose”—the conquest of Burgundy—“and so diamond cuts diamond.”77

  While Edward continued to put pressure on Louis, French envoys were instructed to divert him by discussing only superficial details, such as the timing and manner of Elizabeth’s journey to France; if she did not come, they said, King Louis would pay 20,000 crowns [£2,520,000] for her maintenance while she remained in England. But Edward insisted that he would accept only the £60,000 agreed as her jointure. In May 1480, John, Lord Howard (later Duke of Norfolk), and Dr. Langton were sent to France to remind Louis of the terms of the marriage contract, but they made little progress. In the wake of this, Edward began seriously considering an alliance with Burgundy against France.

  Unknown to Edward IV, Louis, fearing that England would unite with the Habsburgs against him, had begun making overtures to the Scots, England’s enemy, for the marriage of James III’s daughter Margaret to the Dauphin. Early in 1480, Edward learned of this and threatened James with war, thwarting Louis’s schemes. At times like these it may well have seemed to Elizabeth that her marriage would never take place.

  In February 1480 she reached her fourteenth birthday. She was growing up to be “very handsome.”78 According to Giovanni de’ Gigli, prebendary of St. Paul’s, writing in 1486, she was “the illustrious maid of York, the fairest of Edward’s offspring, deficient nor in virtue nor descent, most beautiful in form, whose matchless face adorned with most enchanting sweetness shines.”79 It was almost obligatory for queens to be praised for their looks, but that Elizabeth grew up to be beautiful is borne out by her surviving portraits and her tomb effigy—which reveal a strong resemblance to her mother, especially about the large eyes, a straight nose, and what must have been a rosebud mouth in youth; while the inscription on her tomb, placed there by her son, Henry VIII, describes her as “very pretty.” If her to
mb effigy is an accurate representation, she grew up to be a graceful woman of five feet six inches.

  In the fifteenth century it was seen as highly desirable for queens to have blond hair, for the Virgin Mary was increasingly being idealistically portrayed thus in art.80 Elizabeth conformed to this ideal: she had a fair complexion and long “golden” or “fair yellow hair,”81 although it looks reddish-gold in her portraits, and may have been the same color as her daughter Mary’s, a lock of which (taken from Mary’s coffin) is preserved in Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St. Edmunds.

  In April 1480, Elizabeth’s sisters Mary and Cecily were made Ladies of the Garter, and robes were provided for all three princesses for the annual festival.82

  That year, Cecily, Duchess of York, now sixty-five, enrolled herself as a Benedictine oblate and retired to her castle at Berkhamsted to pursue a life of religious devotion. As an oblate, she wore sober secular robes and embraced the spirit of the Benedictine vows in her life in the world, dedicating herself to the service of God. Daily, she observed the canonical hours, prayed, and read the Scriptures, leaving only a little time for enjoying wine and recreation with her ladies. Elizabeth, at an impressionable age, was probably influenced by her grandmother’s piety, and would herself grow up to be sincerely devout.

  On November 10, 1480, Elizabeth Wydeville gave birth to her tenth and last child at Eltham Palace. It was another girl, who was called Bridget, an unusual choice of name that had no royal precedent but was perhaps chosen by Cecily, Duchess of York, who cherished a special devotion to St. Bridget of Sweden, foundress of the Bridgetine order, in which the duchess took a particular interest.83 Again Cecily’s influence can be detected, for Elizabeth herself would grow up with a deep reverence for St. Bridget, a fourteenth-century visionary who was celebrated for her piety and charity.

 
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