Part III: Memoir of Elizabeth of York: Birth through discussion of the alleged letter to Norfolk

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Memoir of Elizabeth of York,


Eldest Daughter of King Edward the Fourth, and Consort of King Henry the Seventh.


Inerat illi ab unguiculis Dei timor et servitum admirabile; in parentes vero mir observantia; erga fratres et sorores amor ferme incredibilis; in pauperas Christique ministors, reverenda ac singularis affectio.” Bernard Andreas, Poet Laureate to Henry VII.

If a comparison be made between the Memoirs of important personages who flourished in former ages, and those individuals of far less consequence, the singular fact will be apparent, that the particulars which are recorded of, and the research bestowed in collecting information about them, is in the reverse proportion to the space which they filled in the estimation of their contemporaries.

Of Elizabeth of York, the daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother, and progentrix of the Kings of England, the legitimate heiress to the throne, the happy instrument of terminating the wars which deluged this country with blood, and who, to such powerful historical pretentions to be commemorated, united those claims which beauty, virtue, and goodness confer, no Memoir, deserving of the name, has been hitherto written.

This illlustrious woman was the eldest child of King Edward the Fourth by his Queen Elizabeth Wydeville. She was born at Westminster on the 11th of February, 1463-4 (74), and was baptized in Westminster Abbey with great solemnity, her sponsors being her grandmother, the Duchess of York, the Duchess of Bedford, and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. No sooner was a royal infant born than its marriage became a subject of consideration, and according to the statement of Grafton, but which is very doubtful, it was intended to bestow Elizabeth on George Neville, who was created Duke of Bedford in 1469. The earliest authentic notice of her after her birth is, however, in the 7th Edward IV., 1467, when the manor of Great Lynford, in Buckinghamshire, was granted her for life (75). On the 9th October, in the following year, the Treasurer and Chamberlains of the Exchequer were commanded to pay the Queen 400l. annually, in consideration of the expenses which she incurred about the Princesses Elizabeth and Mary, which sum was to be paid until they were otherwise provided for (76).

In June, 1475, Edward the Fourth invaded France with a large army, and previous to embarking he made his will (77), which is dated at Sandwich on the 20th of that month, wherein he noticed his sons, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, and thus alluded to his daughters.

“Item we wil that owre doughtre Elizabeth have xM marc towards her mariage and that owre doughtre Marie have also to her mariage xM marc soo that they may be gouverned and riueled in thair mariages by owre derrest wiff the Quene and by owre said son the Prince if God fortune him to comme to age of discrecion. And if he decease afore such age as God defende then by such as God disposeth to bee owre heire and by such Lords and other as then shal bee of thair Counsaill and if either of owre said doughters doo marie thaims self without such advys and assent soo as they bee thereby disparaged as God forbede that then shee soo marieng her self have noo paiement of her said xM but that it be emploied by owre executours towards the hasty paiement of owr debtes &c.”
“Item to the mariage of our doughtre Cecille for whom we have appointed and concluded with the King of Scotts to be maried to his son and heere,” &c.

The expedition into France speedily terminated in a peace, one condition of which was that the Dauphin should marry the Princess Elizabeth, but if she died before she became of proper age, then that he should marry her sister Mary, the agreement for which was signed in August, 1475 (78). Three years afterwards, on the 26th of August, 1478, her dowry was settled, and it was determined that the expenses of her jounrey to France on her marriage should be defrayed by the French monarch (79). On the 12th of May, 1480, when she was in her sixteenth year, Lord Howard and Dr. Langton were appointed ambassadors, to settle the ceremony of her journey to France, and some other points, as well as to obtain a continuation of the truce then subsisting with that counrty, during the lives of the two monarchs (80); but Lord Howard discovered that Louis had no intention of fulfilling his engagement, and Edward did not live to punish his treachery in the way he contemplated. It is hinted by Bernard Andreas (81), that subsequent to his disappointment, her father offered Elizabeth’s hand to the young Earl of Richmond, afterwards Henry the Seventh, but that the Earl suspected it was merely a bait to induce him to place himself in the King’s power.

On the death of Edward the Fourth, which took place on the 9th of April, 1483, at Westminster, the crown devolved upon his eldest son, Edward Prince of Wales, who was then at Ludlow; but the suspicious conduct of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, in gaining possession of his person, and his treatment of the Queen’s relations during the young monarch’s journey to London, alarmed his mother to such a degree that she immediately threw herself into sanctuary at Westminster, being accompanied by her five daughters, Elizabeth, Cecily, Anne, Katherine, and Bridget, and by her brother, Lionel Wydeville, Bishop of Salisbury (82). At that time, the Princess Elizabeth was little more than eighteen, and her youngest sister Bridget not quite three years old. Edward the Fifth arrived in the metropolis on the 4th of May, about which day his mother took refuge from the machinations of her brother-in-law. On the 16th of June, Richard, who on the 27th of May was declared Protector of the Realm, succeeded, through the eloquence of Cardinal Bourchier, in inducing the Queen to resign the Duke of York into his hands. That the Duke perished in the Tower with his brother, Edward the Fifth, though doubted by some writers, seems nevertheless to be as conclusively proved as, in the absence of positive evidence, any fact can be established; for a few months, during which Edward the Fourth’s widow and daughters continued in sanctuary, the Usurper enjoyed the throne, undisturbed by conspirators or rivals.

Early in October, however, whilst at Lincoln, Richard was astonished to learn that his friend and supporter, the Duke of Buckingham, whom he styled with some justice, “the most untrue creature living,” had renounced his allegiance, and was taking measures to dethrone him. The Duke’s motives, though variously stated, appear to have been, in the first instance, the hope of attaining the crown, his claim being founded upon his descent from Thomas Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of Edward the Third (83); for, however absurd in the eyes of others may be the pretense, there is nothing too vague for ambition to lay hold upon, when accompanied by what is deemed sufficient power and influence to enforce its desires. But finding that his party would not support so preposterous an object, the Duke espoused the cause of the Earl of Richmond, who it was resolved should marry Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Edward the Fourth, and the lawful heiress to the throne. If such a transition, as from being himself the claimant he became the aider of another pretender to the crown, actually occurred, Buckingham’s real motives are undoubtedly a desire to revenge some affront or injustice which he received from Richard, and his overthrow does not merit the slightest sympathy.

The proposed union being communicated to the Countess of Richmond, by Sir Reginald Bray, she heartily approved of the design, and sent her physician, Dr. Lewis, to Westminster, to discuss the subject with the late Queen. Her assent was easily obtained; and she promised that if Henry would solemnly pledge to marry her daughter, she and her friends would support the attempt in his favor. At that moment the Earl of Richmond and his uncle, Jasper Tudor Earl of Pembroke, were in Brittany, whither they fled after the battle of Tewksbury, and Christopher Ureswick, chaplain to the Countess of Richmond, together with Mr. Conway, were sent to that province with intelligence of the plot. The rebellion began to assume a formidable character, but Richard was neither ignorant of, nor indifferent to the proceedings, and made vigorous preparations to suppress them. On the 12th of October, he wrote to the Chancellor from Lincoln, informing him of Buckingham’s treachery; and desiring that the great seal might be sent him, in case he was too infirm to come himself, adding, in his own hand, that he hoped it would not be long before he was in the neighbourhood of the Duke to subdue his malice (84). On the 24th of September, Buckingham sent to Richmond, appointing the 18th of October for the general rising, and urging him to land on that day at Plymouth (85). So much of the plan as depended on the confederates in England was promptly executed, but it was met by equal promptitude on the part of the King. A heavy fall of rain, by swelling the Severn, prevented Buckingham from crossing that river and joining his other forces; and his followers, being perhaps intimidated by Richard’s proclamation, which was issued from Leicester on the 23rd of October, became disheartened, and deserted. The Duke sought safety in flight, but, being betrayed by one of his servants, he was apprehended, conveyed to Salisbury, and beheaded on the 2nd of November, 1483. Richmond sailed from Brittany on the 12th of October with 5000 Breton soldiers, and arrived off the coast, but doubting whether the troops which were ready to receive him were friends or enemies, he did not land. Richard having marched into the western counties, his appearance struck terror into the Earl’s supporters; and their leaders fled to Brittany, whither Richmond retired, on hearing of the execution of Buckingham. On Christmas-day following, the Earl of Richmond, accompanied by the Marquess of Dorset, went to the cathedral at Vannes, where they solemnly pledged themselves to each other, and Richmond swore to marry Elizabeth of York immediately after he ascended the throne.

Richard returned to London before the 1st of December, and in the Parilament which met at Westminster on the 23rd of January, 1484, his right to the crown was admitted, the marriage of Edward the Fourth was pronounced void, and his children were bastardized. The Earl of Richmond, the Earl of Pembroke, the Duke of Buckingham, the Queen’s son, the Marquess of Dorest, and her brothers, Sir Richard Wydeville, and Lionel Bishop of Salisbury, with Morton Bishop of Ely, the Bishop of Exeter, and several other persons were attainted for high treason. The Countess of Richmond was declared to have merited a similar punishment, for “sending writings, tokens, and messages, to the Earl her son, stirring him to invade the realm;” but in consideration of the services which her husband, Lord Stanley, had rendered the King, he forbore to attaint the Countess, but the act declared her lands to be forfeited, degraded her from all titles of dignity, and settled her property on her husband for life, with remainder to the crown (86).

It would appear that Queen Elizabeth and her children remained for several months in sanctuary; and the sudden disappearance, if not murder, of her sons, as well as the attander and flight of her brothers and friends, were calculated to increase the fears which made her seek protection. On the 1st of March, 1484, ten months after they entered it, Richard solemnly bound himself by a written engagement, on the word of a King, that if the daughters of the Queen, whom he styles “late calling herself Queen of England,” would quit their place of refuge, and submit to his direction, their lives and honour should be secured to them; that they should not be imprisoned, but be supported in a manner suitable to his kinswomen, and that he would marry them to gentlemen of birth, giving each an estate in lands of the yearly value of two hundred marks; and that he would strictly charge their husbands to treat them as his relations, upon pain of his displeasure. He moreover promised to allow their mother 700 marks, £200. 13s. 4d. a year, and to discountenance any reports circulated to their prejudice. The document itself is of so much interest that it is proper a literal copy should be inserted:

“M{d}, that I Richard by the Grace of God King of England and Fraunce, and Lord of Irland, in the presens of you my Lords spirituell and temporell, and you Mair and Aldermen of my Cite of London, promitte and swere verbo regio upon these holy Evangelies of God by me personelly touched, that if the doughters of dame Elizabeth Gray late calling her selff Quene of England, that is to wit, Elizabeth, Cecill, Anne, Kateryn, and Briggitte, well come unto me out of the Sanctwarie of Westminster and be guyded, ruled, and demeaned after me, than I shall see that they shalbe in suertie of their lyffs, and also not suffre any manner hurt by any maner persone or persones to them or any of theim or their bodies and persones, to be done by way of ravissement or defouling contrarie their willes, nor them or any of theim emprisone within the Toure of London or other prisonne; but I shall put theim in honest places of good name and fame, and theim honestly and curtesly shall see to be founden and entreated, and to have all things requisite and necessary for their exibicion and findings as my kynneswomen; and that I shall do marie suche of them as now ben mariable to Gentilmen born, and everiche of them geve in mariage lands and tenements to the yerely valewe of cc. marcs for term of their lyves; and in lilkewise to the other doughters when they come to lawfull age of mariage if they lyff. And suche gentilmen as shall happ to marie with them I shall straitly charge, from tyme to tyme, lovyingly to love and entreate them as their wiffs and my kinneswomen, as they woll advoid and eschue my displeasur.
“An for this that I shall yerely fromhensfurth content and pay, or cause to be contented and paied, for th’exhibicion and finding of the said dame Elizabeth Gray during her naturall liff at iiij. termes of the yere, that is to wit at pasche, midsomer, michilmasse, and christenmesse, to John Nesfelde, one of the squiers for my body, for his finding, to attende upon her, the summe of DCC. marcs of lawfull money of England, by even porcions; and moreover I promitte to them, that if any surmyse or evyll report be made to me of them, or any of them, by any persone or persones, that than I shall not geve therunto faith ne credence, nor therfore put them to any maner of ponysshment, before that they or any of them so accused may be at their lawfull defence and answer. In witnesse wherof to this writing of my Othe and Promise aforesaid, to your said presences made, I have set my sign manuell the first day of Marche the first yere of my Reigne (87).”

If this document be genuine, and that it is so cannot reasonably be doubted, ample evidence is afforded of the interest which the country felt about the children of Edward the Fourth; and it may be inferred that they quitted the sanctuary in March, 1484. Mr Sharon Turner’s remark, that “there was indeed an unworthy jealousy of power in not calling them Princesses in his oath, and in the idea of marrying them as private gentlewomen merely(88),” is not well founded because the marriage of their mother had just before then been declared invalid, and they were bastardized by the Act of Settlement; hence, if Richard styled them “Princesses,” or treated them in any other way than as private gentlewomen, he would have contradicted the act of Parliament, and impeached his own title to the crown.

The death of the Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Richard the Third, on the 9th of the following April, plunged the Usurper into profound grief; and if he were accessary to the murder of his nephews about the same time in the preceeding year, the blow must have fallen with additional force from the suggestions of his conscience that it might have been directed as an act of retributive justice. No change was produced by this circumstance in the situation of the children of the late monarch; but as it became necessary to name a successor to the crown, Richard selected his nephew the Earl of Lincoln, son of his sister Elizabeth Duchess of Suffolk. From the time when the instrument by which their safety was guaranteed was issued, little is known of them; and though they are presumed to have lived in the Court, the only notice of the mother or daughters is the remark of the Chronicler of Croyland, that at the celebration of Christmas by the Court, in 1484, Elizabeth of York was “dressed in clothes of the same form and colour as those of Queen Anne, Richard’s consort, from which circumstance many people supposed that he intended to free himself from his wife either by a divorce or by her death, and to marry his niece Elizabeth.” This fact could not warrant such an hypothesis, and the only rational conclusion to be drawn from the coincidence is, that Richard strictly fulfilled his engagement that his nieces should be supported as became his kinswomen.

The question, whether Richard intended to marry Elizabeth in the event of the death of his wife, is important to his character; and the truth of the assertion, that before Queen Anne’s decease he was not only accepted, but eagerly courted, by Elizabeth, is no less material to her fame.

Richard’s detractors have insisted, that after he discovered the intentions of the friends of Elizabeth, and of the Earl of Richmond, to blend their respective pretensions to the crown by their marriage, he was impressed with the policy of strengthening his own title by making her his Queen; that this became apparent in the similarity of her costume to the dress of her Majesty, as early as Christmas, 1484; that to promote his wishes he actually poisoned his wife; and that after her death, which took place on the 11th of March, 1485, his design was abandoned in consequence of the representations of his advisers, that a union between an uncle and niece was so unnatural, that if it occurred, the disgust of his subjects would, in all likelihood, drive him from the throne.

It will tend to simplify the discussion of these points, if the horror with which such a marriage is said to have been viewed be first examined.

Following the example of almost every writer who has treated English history, in the fatal error of estimating conduct by the standard of morality and customs of the present day instead of that of the period alluded to, the violent assailants of Richard have found a source of obloquy in the very possibility of so incestuous a union. The legality or illegality of a marriage of relations must depend upon the rules of the church to which the parties belong. It was undoubtedly forbidden by the canon law; but the same law forbade a marriage between persons within the fourth degree of kindred. The Pope was, however, considered to possess a dispensing power, and though, as a matter of feeling, there is a material difference between the union of first or second cousins, and the marriage of a niece to her uncle, each alliance was illegal without the exercise of that power. The Pontiff not only might, but often did, authorize the marriage of uncles and nieces; and where would have been the crime, if Richard, as a son of the chruch of Rome, had sought to fortify his throne and prevent a civil war by availing himself of an indulgence which then, as now, is held in all Catholic countries to be strictly legal? It is true that in England relatives so closely connected seldom married, and, excepting under urgent circumstances, it might not have been wise to deviate so much from the general custom; but all which is contended is, that an act which was not unusual in other countries, which was not forbidden by the common law, and which could be rendered lawful in the eyes of the church, might have been contemplated by Richard the Third wthout rendering him the incestuous monster he has been represented.

It is next desirable to inquire whether Richard actually did wish to marry the Princess Elizabeth. With the exception of a letter cited by Buck, from her to the Duke of Norfolk, there is no evidence that he ever entertained such an intention. The Chronicler of Croyland, Buck, More, Grafton, and those who followed them, certainly assert that such were his views. Their statements, however, not only require to be supported by proofs, but are open to violent suspicion, on the ground that it could not have been Richard’s policy to form an alliance with either of Edward the Fourth’s daughters.

In the absence of conclusive evidence upon a point of history, the obvious interests of the individual concerned must be allowed great weight; and if a statement which stands on very dubious authority cannot be believed without assigning to him to whom it relates conduct directly at variance with that which the public records shew he pursued; and if credence in that statement can only be given by imputing to the person an inconsistency so great, and a change of opinion so flagrant, that his political existence must have been endangered, there is just cause for rejecting every thing short of positive proof.