A tantalising glimpse of an ancient passage leading to Abbot’s Court and the steps leading up to Jerico Parlour. The Abbots House and Cheyneygates, later known as The Deanery, was situated to the right of the steps. Photo Dr John Crook Country Life Picture Library.
This updated post was written with the help and input of my friend Sandra Heath Wilson…
Its known well how that old fickle wheel of fortune dealt with Elizabeth Wydville, taking her down. taking her up, whirling her around a couple of times and then dumping her, finally, in Bermondsey Abbey, where she died, impoverished mother in law to the King, Henry Tudor.
What I would like to focus on here is her last stay in Cheneygates, part of the Abbots House complex in Westminster Abbey. It seemed she liked it there, after all it was very convenient being just over the road from Westminster Palace where her daughter Elizabeth of York , now Queen, would sometimes stay, because she took out a 40 years lease which has survived. However as they say man makes plans and the gods laugh because her son-in-law, and his advisers sagely decided to call time on her sojourn there and with another and final spin of that old wheel of fortune off she went to Bermondsey which is yet another story.
How did Elizabeth come to rent Cheyneygates? When Edward IV died suddenly in April 1483, Elizabeth, his bigamous wife and her rapacious family, attempted to take control of her eldest son, the new king, Edward V, in order to maintain their hold on power. This was completely riding roughshod over her very recent deceased husband’s will and with hob nail boots to be precise. The Wydevilles endeavoured, foolishly and unsuccessfully, to outmanoeuvre Richard, Duke of Gloucester, her husband’s only remaining brother, who had been named in Edward’s will as Lord Protector ( 1 ) The Woodvilles would not fare well under Richard, so I imagine their aim was to be rid of him entirely and there is good reason to believe that there was a plot to assassinate him while on his journey to London possibly near the Wydeville stronghold at Grafton Regis. However he confounded her, and on 30 April 1483 took Edward V under his wing besides arresting Elizabeth’s brother, Earl Rivers and her son, Sir Richard Grey. When tidings of this event reach London ‘the following night’ Elizabeth panicked (2 ). For reasons at the time best known to herself, Elizabeth skedaddled over the road to sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, taking her remaining and no doubt confused children with her. In her scramble to take as much stuff her as she could, a hole had to be knocked in the wall separating the abbey from Westminster palace to accommodate all the treasure and other loot she’d grabbed. Not very dignified, but then dignity was not uppermost in her mind at that point. According to More, the Chancellor, Bishop Rotherham also in a rush to take the Great Seal to Elizabeth found ‘much heaviness, rumble, haste and business, carriage and conveyance of her stuff into Sanctuary; chests, coffers, packers, fardels trussed all on mens backs; no man unoccupied, some lading, some going, some discharging, some coming for more, some breaking down the walls to bring in the nearest way, and some yet drew to them that helped to carry a wrong way (I think this means there was a bit of looting going on here..oh the irony!) (3).
And so ensconced there she remained for the foreseeable future. How that played out is well known now but back to Cheyneygates….. On the 10 July 1486 the following lease was drawn up –
THE LEASE TO THE WIDOWED QUEEN. This eindenture made bitwene John by the sufferaunce of god Abbot of the Monastery of seint Peter of Westm' the Priour and covent of the same of the one partie And the most high and excellent Princesse Elizabeth by the grace of god Quene of England late wyf to the moost mighty Prince of famous memore Edward the iiij th late Kyng of Englond and of Fraunce and lord of Irelond on the other partie Witnesseth that the forsaid Abbot Priour and Covent consideryng and wele re- membryng that the forsaid excellent and noble pryncesse in the tyme of her said late husbond our alder liege lord was unto the said Monastery verry especiall good lord aswele in protectyng and defendyng the libertes & ffrauncheses of the same as in bountevous and largely departyng of her goods to the edifying and reparacions of the ffabrice of the said monastery by the hole assent concent & will of all the Captre have
graunted dimised and to ferme letyn unto the forsaid Quene a mansion with in the said Abbey called Cheynegatis Apperteynyng unto the Abbot of the said place for the tyme beyng with all the Howses Chambers Aisiaments and other Appertenaunces therunto belongyng To have and hold the forsaid mansion with Thappertenaunces and other premisses to the said Quene from the fest of Ester last passed before the date herof unto thende of the terme of xl yeres then next folowyng and fully to be complete Yeldyng therfor yerely to the same Abbot or his successor or theire Assignes x w of lawfull money of Englond duryng the said terme to be paid atte festis of Mighelmas and Ester by even porcions And the forsaid Quene at her propre costis and Charge shall sufficiently repaire uphold and mayntene the said mansion and voide dense repaire and make the gutter goyng from the kechen of the same as often as shall be necessary and behovefull And atte ende of her terme the said mansion with Thappertenaunces sufficiently repaired mayntened and upholden yeld up unto the forsaid Abbot Priour and Covent and theire Successours Also it is covenanted and agreed bitwne the parties abovesaid that the said Quene shall in no wise sell lete to ferme nor aliene her said yeres nor eny parte therof in the said mansion with Thappertenaunces to any other person or persones duryng the said terme And the Abbot Priour and Covent and their successours forsaid the said mansion with thappertenaunces to the said Quene in the manner and fourme aboverehersed shall warant ayenst all people by these presents Provided alwayes that yf it shall happen the same Quene to dye within the said terme of xl yeres as god defend that then this present graunt and lees immediately after her decesse be voide and of no strengthe And over this it is covenanted and agreed that yf it happen the said Rent to be behynd unpaid after any terme of the termes abovelymytted in party or in all that is to say the Rent of Mighelmasse terme at seint Martyns day in wynter then next folowyng and the Rent of Ester at Whitsontyde then next ensuyng that then it shalbe leefull to the said Abbot and his Successours in the forsaid mansion with the Appertenaunces to reentre And the said Quene therfrom to expelle and put out this lees and dimyssyon notwithstanding In Witnesse &c Yeven the x day of Juyll the yere of our lord god mcccclxxxvi And the first yere of the reigne ofkyng Henry the vii (4)
Despite scenes in the tv dramatisation, I use the word loosely, of Philippa Gregory’s ‘White Queen’ which portrayed Elizabeth and her daughters languishing in what appeared to be a dank cellar with damp walls, Cheyneygates being part of the Abbots House complex would have been luxurious. Tragically Cheyneygates/Abbots House, later known as the Deanery after the Reformation, was destroyed during the Blitz in 1941. I have been unable to find any illustrations of what Cheyneygates would have appeared like in the 15th century.
Old, atmospheric photo of the Archway in Abbots’s Court leading out and into the cloisters as well as the exit to the outside world. Elizabeth and her family would have gone through this ancient archway which has remained unchanged throughout the centuries to enter and leave Cheyneygates.
Jerico Parlour and Cheyneygates c1910. Illustration by Herbert Railton. It can be seen that even before the bomb destruction the Abbots House and Cheyneygates exterior facade were much altered since the 15th century. However one of the upstairs rooms was still known as My Lady’s Bedchamber in the 18thc. Could this ‘Lady’ have been Elizabeth Wydeville?
This photo shows the Jerico Parlour as it is today, middle of the picture with steps. Cheyneygates would have stood where the modern white building stands on the right. College Hall to the left. No doubt Elizabeth would be able to recognise the scene today although Cheyneygates is sadly much altered.
A different view of the ancient passage way leading to Abbot’s Court. Elizabeth and her entourage, daughters, brother Lionel and small son would have approached Cheyneygates via this passageway and trod these very flagstones..
‘The Abbey of St Peter and Palace of Westminster about the year 1532’. Illustration by A E Henderson F.S.A 1938. The Abbot’s House complex circled in red. College Hall stands to the left, Jerico Parlour at the back and Cheyneygates to the right. Cheyneygates overlooked the Great Cloister.
An old plan of Westminster Abbey showing Abbot’s Court. The Abbot’s House/ Cheyneygates , is here called the Deanery which it became known as after the Reformation. Note the site of the Refectory where Margaret’s Beaufort’s body was taken from Cheyneygates to lie in repose before her burial.
College Hall. Built by by Abbot Litlyngton along with the Jerusalem Chamber c1376. The roof is original. There was a dais at the far end where the Abbot and his guests would be seated. The gallery dates from the 17th century.
It was in College Hall that Dean Stanley writing in the 19th century suggests that Elizabeth and her group would have been met by Abbot Esteney on their hasty retreat from the palace (5). And there she was sat, according to More, when Bishop Rotherham found her ‘ alone, low down on the rushes, all desolate and dismayed'( 6). And who could blame her to be honest as reality kicked in and she realised the game was well and truly up. Rotherham apparently tried to reassure her that all would be well, in fact he left the Great Seal with her. Unfortunately the very next day realising he had done something really silly he sent someone to get it back. Ah – why fools achieve such high status is one of life’s mysteries.
Pretty soon Richard uncovered the depth of Elizabeth’s plotting. The 10 June found him writing in haste to York for extra troops to ‘eide and assiste us ayanst the Quiene, hir blode adherentts and affinitie, which have entended and daily doith intend, to murder and utterly destroye us and our cousyn, the duc of Bukkyngham and the old royall blode of this realme…’ (7). And so begun Elizabeth’s second stay in the Abbot’s house. In time and pragmatically she reconciled with Richard and sent her daughters out of Cheyneygates into Richard’s care, whereupon probably the older ones breathed a massive sigh of relief. The rest is history and after Bosworth having taken out a 40 year lease on Cheyneygates she returned to live there, perhaps she had never left. However the lease came to nothing as a short while later she was sent to live out her days at Bermondsey Abbey by her son in law, a canny Henry Tudor, no doubt comfortable but according to her will impoverished – Sic transit gloria mundi. But wait! She was not the last lady of the nobility to be a tenant at Cheyneygates – Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor’s mother, decided she wanted to live at Cheyneygates too and indeed it was where she died on the 29 June 1509 (8 ). How strange, the richest woman in England with numerous properties had to have the very property where Elizabeth Wydeville resided if only for a short while. Was it that Margaret, Elizabeth’s one time fellow conspirator, just had to have something that the ex-queen once had as she also had to have the prayer book of Richard III or indeed his crown for her own son – or – am I being a tad cynical…? Hmmmm!.
Elizabeth Wydeville, in her glory days before it all went pear shaped. This is the earliest known version of the many copies of a now lost original portrait of Elizabeth which was possibly from a likeness of her taken when she was alive. The Royal Collection.
For those who wish to delve deeper into the history of the Abbots House and Cheyneygates a link to an interesting book The Abbots House at Westminster; J Armitage Robinson 1911 can be found here.
(1). This is complex. For the best and fullest explanation of this situation I would recommend Annette Carson’s Richard Duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector and High Constable.
(2) Richard III The Road to Bosworth p.99 P W Hammond and Anne E Sutton
(3) Richard III The Great Debate p.47 Thomas More.
(4) The Abbot’s House at Westminster. 1911 J Armitage Robinson
(5) Westminster Abbey p411 1869 Dean Stanley
(6) History of King Richard III Thomas More
(7) Richard III The Road to Bosworth p.103 P W Hammond and Anne E Sutton
(8) The King’s Mother p.237. Jones and Underwood.
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