Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Their effigies in Westminster Abbey. Artist Pietro Torrigiano. Photo westminster-abbey.org
I was recently reading an excellent article in the Ricardian discussing Henry Tudor’s enthusiasm, or lack of it, for his marriage to Elizabeth of York by David Johnson entitled Ardent Suitor or Reluctant Groom? It’s pretty much an eye opener and is in two parts – part 1 Ardent Suitor covers the positives, if you can call them that – that is to try to understand why Henry, who in Rennes Cathedral on Christmas Day 1483 had vowed to marry Elizabeth of York, seemingly developed a serious case of cold feet in 1485 after his success at Bosworth. This seems a major volte-face from a man who was reported by Vergil as being ‘pinched by the very stomach’ when rumours had reached him that Richard III was ‘amynded’, having been recently widowed, to marry Elizabeth himself. Love was not of course the issue to Henry at the time, Elizabeth was but a stepping stone to cement his usurpation of the throne and to gain the loyalty of dissatisfied Yorkists that had joined him in Brittany. The rumour, as it turned out, was false. Richard was negotiating a double foreign marriage for himself and for Elizabeth to members of the Portuguese royal family. However it is a helpful indication of Henry’s mindset at that time that he or someone close to him suggested a Plan B – that was if a Plantagenet bride was not available, he would marry Maud, the daughter of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. To add to his angst some time later came the collapse of the ‘Beaufort/Woodville alliance’ after Elizabeth Woodville’s rapprochement with Richard and her older daughters attending Richard’s court. Henry’s carefully laid plans were in tatters. Was it at this point he was changing his mind about marrying Elizabeth should he be successful in taking the throne? David Johnson points out a change in strategy and instead of ‘emphasising the political necessity of marriage with Elizabeth of York, as he had in 1483, Henry according to the Burgundian chronicler Jean Molinet was urged by the Earl of Oxford, and from England, by the Lord Stanley to use the title of king’ which he did henceforth, beginning his letters with the customary royal salutation ‘By the King. Right trusty and well beloved, we greet you well’ and signing off his letters as HR (Henricus Rex). David Johnson points out that Rosemary Horrox has noted that ‘None of Henry’s predecessors who seized the throne by force made such an early and explicit declaration of their sovereignity (1).
This ‘bold’ change in strategy ‘conveniently dispensed with Elizabeth of York and instead promoted his royal title as heir of Lancaster(2)’. Richard’s response was swift and a proclamation was issued in December 1484 condemning Henry and his brass necked gall. Describing Henry’s ‘ambitious and insatiable covetousness …. encroacheth upon him the name and title of Royal estate of this Realm of England, whereunto he hat no manner interest, right or colour…’
What Elizabeth Snr or Elizabeth Jnr made of all this is unfortunately lost to us. Perhaps Elizabeth Woodville, who was about to dump Margaret Beaufort basically, and cast her lot in with Richard, felt some foreboding? On the other hand perhaps she felt confident all would be well. Indeed she did send word to her son, Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset, who was with with Tudor at that time, to come home and he would be treated well. Maybe, ever pragmatic, she had concluded it was better to be in tune with the King at the moment and not a mere faux king over in Brittany. However this reneging on her deal with Margaret Beaufort would cast a long shadow over her future.
Part two: Reluctant Groom covers the period commencing from the beginning of Henry’s reign after the decisive day of Bosworth. Henry won, much to everyone’s surprise, including probably his own. The battle was decided by treachery and the betrayal of the Stanleys. Much has been written about Bosworth and I won’t go into it here. After the battle the ugly subject of Henry keeping to his word and marrying Elizabeth of York reared its head. Initially, according to Bacon, Henry, perhaps carried away by the euphoria of having survived Richard knocking his block off at Bosworth ‘renewed his promise’ to take Elizabeth for his wife. David Johnson describes how October came, and instead of the double coronation the dissenting Yorkists were expecting and hoping for ‘Henry attended his Coronation as a bachelor king conspicuously devoid of a queen consort. He was crowned God’s anointed in a ceremony that made no reference to Elizabeth of York or his promised marriage. While many believed the matrimonial union of Lancaster and York provided whatever appeared to be missing in the kings title, Henry’s coronation effectively repudiated any such claim. He was determined to establish his title in its own right irrespective of the proposed union with Elizabeth. This did not of course accord with his earlier pronouncements or the wishes of many of his adherents’. Not a man easily abashed, on the 7 November, Henry in an address to his first Parliament failed to mention any marriage to Elizabeth and instead asserted his Lancastrian right of inheritance which had been upheld in battle by verdict of the Almighty (3). As far as Henry was concerned he was king and he was going to do what he wanted to do including, in an act described as transparent chicanery, predate his reign to the 21 August, the day before Bosworth – thus anyone fighting for Richard III at Bosworth would now be traitors (4). Even Crowland Chronicler, that old misery guts who had been rather hostile to the late and rightful king, thought this unwise and that the remedy lay in the long promised marriage with Elizabeth of York.
However on Saturday 10 December 1485 the commons of the realm of England put their foot down. Feeling safety in number Speaker Thomas Lovell came swiftly to the point reminding Henry that Parliament ‘had decreed and enacted’ his royal title in the expectation that he should take to himself that illustrous Lady Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward IV as his wife and consort’. As Lovell completed his address ‘the lords spiritual and temporal being in the same Parliament, rising from their seats and standing before the king sitting on the royal throne, bowing their heads voiced the same request’. Henry’s bachelor days were over. He had no choice other than to accede to his Parliament. However Henry was not going to roll over completely at this stage and take this lying down. Absolutely not. What did he do? The couple had already acquired a dispensation of marriage from the Roman Curia as far back as March 1484. In one last desperate roll of the dice Henry inexplicably applied for a second dispensation. Was he hoping that an impediment might rise in the nick of time permitting a legitimate escape from the marital committement he had given to Parliament? Alas, for Henry, this second one was also granted and moreover repeating the terms of the first one. Henry’s last hope was dashed. Henry and Elizabeth were married on 18th January 1486.
What was behind Henry’s clear attempts to wriggle out of marrying Elizabeth will never be known. Perhaps it was not a dislike of the idea of marrying Elizabeth who could hardly have been repugnant to him but more down to the fact that Henry knew that in overturning Titulus Regius, the act that legitimised his bride, a whole and nasty can of worms would be opened. For not only would Elizabeth be legitimised but so would her missing brothers. No doubt the very thought of it caused many a sleepless night to Henry. Annoyingly it was suggested that Bishop Stillington be cross examined further on the act. This was the last thing Henry wanted and he remained adamant that he had ‘pardoned him and therefore didn’t want any more to put it to him’. After the passage of over 500 years you can still hear the grinding of Henry’s teeth! Clearly the last thing Henry wanted was Titulus Regius being scrutinised and resurrecting the new Queen’s bastardy, Richard III’s legitimacy and Henry’s tenuous hold on power. David Johnson sums things up very succinctly: ‘Despite Polydor Virgil’s nostalgic panegyric recalling a marriage made in heaven, it is clear that the dynastic union of Lancaster and York owed more to the intervention of Parliament then the intervention of the Almighty. The ardent suitor truly become the reluctant groom’.
Elizabeth Woodville/Wydeville. Royal Window Canterbury Cathedral.
And so the nest of vipers spawned from the madness that was the Wars of the Roses, and that Elizabeth Woodville herself was a part of, chewed her up, regurgitated her and spat her out…poof! It would hardly be surprising if neither Henry or his mother would have forgiven Elizabeth after she reneged on her deal with them and put all her eggs into Richard’s basket. The time between Henry taking the throne and marrying her daughter must have been a worrying period for her although of course we are not privy to all the minutiae that was going on behind the scenes. Indeed she may even have not been able to communicate with her daughter who was living in the custody – ooooops – care of Margaret Beaufort at her London home, Coldharbour, since she had been taken there, with her young cousin, Warwick, after Bosworth (Warwick was later moved to the Tower where he would live out his sad life). If Elizabeth Woodville breathed a sigh of relief when at last her daughter was married and crowned, it was to prove short lived. On 12 February 1487 Elizabeth Woodville was sent, for what would be the remainder of her life, to live in Bermondsey Abbey and her son Thomas Grey arrested and not to be released until after the Battle of Stoke. This is despite the fact that Elizabeth had only just taken out a 40 year lease on Cheyneygates, Westminster Abbey. Shortly after a council meeting at Sheen on the Ist May 1487, important decisions were made including on ‘thadvise of the lords and other nobles of our counsaill’ that Henry have Elizabeth’s jointure lands transferred to her daughter, the new queen consort It is surely no mere coincidence that these events coincided with the Lambert Simnel rebellion nicely bubbling away in the background at that time, so that it is reasonable to deduce that Elizabeth and Thomas were implicated in that plot. For those that question why Elizabeth Woodville would get involved in a rebellion that would have turfed her daughter off the throne it’s well to remember that the quashing of Titulus Regius had legitimised both her missing sons, arguably the eldest one being once again the legal king. There are intriguingly clues that suggest that Edward V was all the while living incognito under the name of John Evans at Thomas Grey’s manor at Coldridge, Devon. Had Elizabeth and Grey actually managed to hoodwink Henry? Did she die knowing that at least one of her sons had survived and was living in safe obscurity in a backwater in Devon? However, casting that aside, it would appear Elizabeth’s involvement in the rebellion was the last straw for her son-in-law and no doubt he breathed a sigh of relief as his mother in law was trundled off to Bermondsey. Finally Elizabeth’s scheming chickens had come home to roost. For Elizabeth it was not to be as it was for other aristocratic ladies who opted to retire to religious houses such the Abbey of the Minoresses of St Clare without Aldgate known as the Minories. These ladies had all sustained devastating losses and, oh the irony, had been dealt a harsh hand by Elizabeth’s husband Edward IV but shared a camaraderie that would have strengthened and sustained them. Elizabeth on the other hand, although her apartments at the abbey would have been very comfortable, was left to live in what can only described as, if not penury, definitely straitened circumstances. Her funeral as we know was frugal and even her coffin was made of wood without the usual lead liner so that when Edward’s tomb was explored in the 18th century all that remained of the ex queen was a skull and a small pile of bones.
Portrait of Edward V, Coldridge Church, Devon. Clues in the church suggest that John Evans buried in the church, may have been Edward V incognito.
ELIZABETH OF YORK
Elizabeth’s wooden effigy that would have been placed regally dressed and crowned upon her coffin. Very possibly modelled from Elizabeth’s desk mask.
So Elizabeth found herself finally Queen. I wonder if she ever remembered her uncle, King Richard III and Queen Anne, his kind wife who had swapped outfits with her one Christmas not so long ago? What were her feelings when it became abundantly clear that Henry was trying his best to abandon their nuptials? However whatever the reasons were for her delayed marriage there are clear signs in their privy purse accounts that affection, if not romantic love, did grow between the couple. We can also deduce from Elizabeth’s accounts she was kind, generous and loved by the commons. She did not make much of a wave but was successful in that she fulfilled her duties as a king’s wife to provide heirs.
Henry VII and his children in mourning for Elizabeth of York. An idealised presentation of Henry, his children, Margaret and Mary sitting in front of the fire while a young Henry jnr weeps into his mother’s empty bed. From the Vaux Passional, a 15th century manuscript.
Henry VII on his deathbed – Wriothesley’s Heraldic Collection Vol I Book of Funerals
Henry died in 21 April 1509, pleading that if it would ‘please God to send him life they should find him a very changed man (6). Too late! According to Holinshed Chronicle
“….he was so wasted with his long malady that nature could no longer sustain his life and so he departed out of this world the two and 20th of April’.
No one, except his mother, appeared much saddened by his death but joyful they had a new, young, vibrant and handsome king. What’s not to like! Yes well…. the least said about Henry Jnr the better and another story altogether.
For those who might like to read David Johnson’s articles here are link 1.
and link 2.
1. Henry Tudor’s letters p.156. Horrox.
2. Tudor Dynasty p.139 Griffiths and Thomas
3. Henry VII: November 1485. Presentation of the Speaker: Parliament Rolls of Medieval England ed Chris-Given Wilson et al (Woodbridge 2005).
4. The Reign of Henry VII p.59 R L Storey
5. The Winter King p.339 Thomas Penn
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