Part IV: Memoir of Elizabeth of York Discussion of the fate of the Princes through the Act of Settlement of Henry VII

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Part IV: Memoir of Elizabeth of York
Discusson of the fate of the Princes through the Actof Settlement of Henry VII

The murder of the young princes at Richard’s commands may be believed, because it was imperatively his interest to remove them, and because there is little doubt that they actually did disappear and were never afterwards heard of. That it was not his interest to marry the Princess Elizabeth, and, consequently, that the strongest testimony is necessary to prove that he intended to do so, is apparent from the following circumstances.

It was the act of the first parliament which he summoned, to bastardize the children of his brother, because their legitimacy would have been an insurmountable bar to his right to the throne by “inheritance,” which was the title he pretended to possess (89). In the only document which has been discovered relative to them, dated March, 1484, they are treated as illegitimate; and on the death of the Prince of Wales in April, the Earl of Lincoln was declared heir to the Crown. It is certain that they were still considered in the same light so late as August of that year, when, with the view of strengthening the alliance with Scotland, Richard promised his niece Anne, the daughter of the Duchess of Suffolk, to the Prince of Scotland, she being his nearest female relation whose blood was not bastardized or attainted. These acts occurred many months after he became aware of the design of marrying the Earl of Richmond to Elizabeth of York; and there seems no greater reason why he should have thought it politic to marry Elizabeth after August, 1484, than previous to that time. Independent of his relationship to her, there were other obstacles to their union. His title to the crown would not have been strengthened by marrying a woman whom the law had declared a bastard; and to have repealed that declaration would be to call into existence her right to the crown and proclaim himself an usurper. A measure so inconsistent with his safety, so contradictory to the whole tenor of his policy, seems incredible; and can it for a moment be believed that he endeavoured to effect it by the murder of a wife, who was fast hastening to the tomb with disease, and by a marriage which even the authority of the Pope could not, it is said, reconcile to the feelings and manners of his subjects?

There is little difficulty in supposing Richard would commit any crime which his interests might dictate; but it is not so easy to imagine that he would imbrue his hands in the blood of his wife to gain an object, which, so far from promoting his interests, must have materially injured them. The worst enemies of the Usurper have contented themselves with representing him as an atrocious villain, but not one of them has described him as a fool. According to the authorities by whom this scheme is attributed to Richard, he entertained the design of raising Elizabeth to the throne about Christmas, 1484, at which time his Queen was taken ill, and when, by the advice of her physicians, he abstained from her bed. It was soon discovered that she was not likely to survive beyond the ensuing February, and she actually died about the 11th of March. Upon the coincidence between the supposed wish of Richard to marry Elizabeth in December, 1484, and Anne’s decease in March, 1485, has her husband been accused of murdering her, a charge which is deserving of attention for no other reason than as it affords a remarkable example of the manner in which ignorance and prejudice sometimes render what is called history more contemptible than a romance.

It appears, therefore, that, if Richard ever seriously contemplated marrying Elizabeth, he was guilty of no greater crimes than extreme folly, and the indelicacy of thinking of a second wife before the death of his first, “a violation of the feelings which,” as Mr. Sharon Turner gravely remarks, in reference to Richard,” society rightly chooses to exact and to make sacred,” but which has been violated by more sovereigns and husbands than Richard the Third. The evidence of his having entertained such an intention will now be examined.

Though asserted by the Chronicler of Croyland, by Grafton, Fabian, Hall, Sir Thomas More, and their copyists, there is only one statement on the subject which has the character of proof. But that statement is by no means sufficiently conclusive to establish a point of history against probability as related by the writers alluded to; and because the article in question was only seen by an historian whose violent prejudices do not sufficiently account for the mendacity for which his work is remarkable.

Buck, in his Life of Richard the Third, says, “When the midst and last of February was past, the Lady Elizabeth, being more impatient and jealous of the success than every one knew or conceived, writes a letter to the Duke of Norfolk, intimating first, that he was the man in whom she most affied, in respect of the love her father had ever bore him, &c. Then she congratulates his many courtesies, in continuance of which, she desires him to be a mediator for her to the King, in behalf of the marriage propounded between them, who, as she wrote, was her only joy and maker in this world, and that she was his in heart and thought; with all insinuating, that the better part of February was past, and that she feared the Queen would never die.

“All of these be her own words, written with her own hand, and this is the sum of her letter, which remains in the autograph, or original draft, under her own hand, in the magnificent cabinet of Thomas Earl of Arundel and Surrey. (90).”

If this letter really existed (91), and if Buck has cited it fairly, it would be in vain to contend against such testimony, and Elizabeth’s fame would be irredeemably affected, not on the ground of her relationship to Richard, but from his being the author of the misfortunes and disgrace of her family, if not the murders of her brothers; and because she had pledged herself but a few months before to marry the Earl of Richmond. The character of Buck as a faithless writer is well known; and even if his notorious inaccuracies and prejudices do not justify the suspicion that the letter itself was never written, it is not too much to suggest that the interpretation which he has given to it is at variance with the truth. As Buck has inserted copies of several documents of much less interest, it may be asked, why did he not give this most important letter at length? Nor is it less remarkable, that even if he were the first person who brought it to light, no other individual should have had sufficient curiosity to copy it. Buck’s work appeared in the days of Dugdale, of Anthony Wood, and of several other eminent antiquaries, who have left imperishable monuments of their zeal in collecting historical materials, yet not a single transcript, much less the original of this extraordinary communication, is known to be extant. No other writer than Buck ever saw it, so that its existence rests upon his authority alone, and every one must form his own judgement as to the degree of confidence to which he is entitled (92). The Chroniclers, who impute to Richard the design of marrying his niece, agree in stating that she resolutely opposed his wishes. Grafton’s words are, “But because all men, and the maiden herself most of all, detested and abhorred this unlawful and in manner unnatural copulation, he determined to prolong and defer the matter till he were in more quietness;” and this is the only explanation he gives, why, when Queen Anne died in March, 1485, Richard did not execute his design. The Croyland Chronicler, however, offers this additional reason, that twelve doctors in theology gave it as their opinion that the Pope could not legalize it by any dispensation. If this be true, it is not very evident from what source the Pontiff derives the power of authoriizing such an alliance at the present day, even if instances cannot be adduced of the practice at the period in question.

For the reasons which have been stated, it may be presumed tha Richard never contemplated a marriage with Elizabeth; that the letter noticed by Buck is grossly misquoted, even if any letter to that purport was ever written by her; and that the whole tale was invented with the view of blackening Richard’s character, to gratify the monarch in whose reign all the contemporary writers who relate it flourished, an opinion which is supported by the fact that not one of them insinuates that Elizabeth consented to the alliance, but agree in stating her utter repugnance to the project.

The materials for a history of the reign of Richard the Third are so very meagre and imperfect, that every thing which is contemporary merits attention. For this reason it would be improper not to notice a kind of metrical narrative of Elizabeth of York’s connection with the revolution in favour of Henry the Seventh, entitled “The Most Pleasant Song of Lady Bessy,” written by Humphrey Brereton, who represents himself to have been a Esquire in the retinue of Lord Stanley, afterwards Earl of Derby; to have been privy to the manner in which that nobleman was detached from Richard’s interests; to have carried the letters to Lord Stanley’s son, brother, and other relatives in Cheshire, urging them to espouse Richmond’s cause; and to have been the bearer of a communication from Elizabeth and Stanley to Henry in Brittany. Of this “Song,” two copies, differing materially from each other, are extant. One of them is a corrupt if not interpolated transcript, in the hand-writing of the reign of Charles the Second, in the possession of William Bateman, Esq., and has been lately printed with a judicious preface and notes by Mr. Heywood. The other transcript, which is in the Harleian MS. 367, has suffered less from the ignorance of the copyist, though it is by no means certain that it is in the same state as the author wrote it. That much historical information is often contained in productions of this nature is well known, for of many events there are no other than metrical descriptions. It is difficult to determine to what extent the statements in this “Song” are to be received as truth; but that they are not wholly imaginary is unquestionable. That Humphrey Brereton was in the service of Lord Stanley; that he was entrusted with letters from his master to the parties he mentions in Cheshire; that he was sent to Richmond; and that the “Song” was written by him soon after the accession of Henry the Seventh, may perhaps be conceded. Many of the facts which he relates are points of history that have never been doubted, hence the outlines of his picture may be relied on; but the nice question is, to what extent did he draw upon his imagination in the grouping, colouring, and filling up? That he has introduced a great deal of fiction in the minor details, especially in reference to himself; that in imitation of the only historians of his times, the Chroniclers, he has put speeches into the mouths of persons which were never spoken; and that he has not hesitated to add to the interest of his story, by introducing circumstances which could not have occurred, –such, for example, as the Princess Elizabeth taking him in her arms, and thrice kissing him, –cannot for a moment be denied. Still these blemishes do not divest his composition of claims to be considered of some historical authority in relation to events in which he was himself concerned; nor does the circumstance of his speaking of Lord Stanley as Earl of Derby lessen his credibility, for though that nobleman did not possess the latter title when the events described took place, it was usual for early writers to allude to individuals by the designations borne by them at the time they wrote. The most probable facts related by Brererton, but which rest on his authority alone, are that Elizabeth was especially recommended to the care of Lord Stanley by Edward the Fourth on his deathbed; that she lodged in his house in London after she quitted sanctuary; that she was privy to the rising in favour of Richmond; that she could write and read both French and Spanish; that Brereton was sent into Cheshire to Stanley’s son, Lord Strange, to his brother, and to other relations, entreating them to support Richmond’s cause; and that he was the bearer of letters to Henry in Brittany, together with a letter and a ring from Elizabeth to him. On his return, he says, that he found her in London; that she shortly afterwards accompanied Stanley to Leicester; and that she was in the neighbourhood of Bosworth when the battle was fought. Whether, as Brereton relates, Lord Stanley was induced to abandon Richard in consquence of Elizabeth’s pathetic remonstrances, and of the picture which she held up to his view of the Usurper’s character, charging him with the murder of Henry the Sixth, and of the two young princes, with poisoning his Queen that he might make her “his leman,” and all the other crimes with which his enemies have loaded his memory, cannot be determined, but perhaps this part of his tale is that which is least worthy of credit. In these particulars, however, the statements of Grafton are closely followed; and if the slightest reliance can be placed on Brereton’s authority, it must be concluded that Henry was indebted to Elizabeth alone for the support of the Stanleys, and consequently for his crown, that Richard sought to obtain, if not her hand, at least her person, that her fidelity to her engagement with Henry remained unshaken, and that she treated the Usurper’s advances with scorn and abhorrence.

Grafton states that Richmond received intimation of Richard’s design to marry Elizabeth, and her give her sister Cecily to “a man found in a cloud and of unknown lineage and family,” and that, despairing, therefore, of becoming the husband of either of Edward the Fourth’s daughters, Henry sought to strengthen his cause by treating for a marriage with the sister of Sir Walter Herbert, a person of an ancient family and great influence in Wales, whose other sister was the wife of Henry Earl of Northumberland, but that his messenger to Herbert found it impossible to proceed. The inconsistency of one part of this story is so great that it is unworthy of credence; for if Richard intended to elevate Elizabeth to the throne, it is highly improbable that he would allow her next sister to contract an obscure marriage.

The concluding events of Richard’s reign do not require to be recapitulated in this work. From the commencement of the year 1483, until the accession of Henry the Seventh, all which is known of Elizabeth is, that it is said she and her cousin the Earl of Warwick were sent to the castle of Sheriff Hutton, in Yorkshire, as soon as Richard heard of Richmond’s invasion (93), but this does not agree with Brereton’s statement that she accompanied Lord Stanley to Leicester and saw the corpse of Richard.

Immediately after Henry arrived in London, Elizabeth was brought to the metropolis with great state, and entrusted to her mother, the Queen dowager. The nation eagerly expected fulfilment of the King’s engagement to marry her, and thus unite the representation of the houses of York and Lancaster; but, from a cause which has never been explained, their nuptials did not take place for five months after his accession.

Upon Henry’s title to the crown some remarks will not be considered misplaced, because a new fact on the subject has been recently brought to light. In discussing it the circumstances will not again be adverted to that he had no hereditary right whatever, because his mother, through whom he was descended from the house of Lancaster, was alive, for in urging his pretension he evidently alluded to those which he derived from her, and it may have been considered that she resigned her claims in his favour, which arrangement the legislature would probably have sanctioned, had Parliament recognized his right by inheritance.

His only pretension by descent, consisted in being the representative of the House of Lancaster, as sole heir of John of Gaunt, and, after the death of Henry the Sixth, the next heir of that monarch. The superior claims of the House of York, from representing Lionel Duke of Clarence, the second son of Edward the Third, do not require to be pointed out. They were too bovious to deceive Henry or his advisers; and though it was contended that the children of Edward the Fourth were illegitimate, that the issue of the Duke of Clarence were incapable of inheriting in consequence of the attainder of their father, and that Richard the Third left no issue, still the sisters of those princes, or their children, as well as many descendents of Isabel, the aunt of Edward the Fourth, were then in existence; and unless they were too bastardized, or rendered incapable by an act of the legislature, they possessed a superior claim to any descendent of John of Gaunt. But Henry’s pretension to be the lineal heir of that personage was impeached; and Richard, in a proclamation dated on 23rd of June, 1484, observed that “his mother was the daughter unto John Earl of Somerset, sone unto Dame Katherine Swynford, and of their in double avoutry gotten (94),” by which was meant that the Earl of Somerset was begotten by John of Gaunt on Katherine Swynford, during the lifetime of his wife and of her husband; and though the Beauforts were legitimated by the King, and by Parliament, in February, 1397, it has hitherto been considered that the instrument for the purpose contained a special exception against its conferring any right to the royal dignity. This, however, was not the fact, but it is extremely doubtful if Henry himself was aware that his maternal pedigree was free from the defect so confidently ascribed to it. The Patent of Legitimation, as it was originally granted, as it was entered in the Patent Rolls, and as it received the sanction of Parliament, rendered the issue of John of Gaunt by Katherine Swynford capable of taking every species of dignity, honour, or office, and removed all objections on the ground of impure birth. A few years afterwards, and before the year 1407, when Henry the Fourth exemplified and confirmed the said grant to John Beaufort Earl of Somerset, the words “excepta dignitate regali” were added to the enrolment on the Patent Rolls, as an interlineation, though they were not inserted in the copy on the Rolls of Parliament, and they were also introduced into the exemplification to the Earl of Somerset. But this alteration has no legal effect, because the operative grant is that which was sanctioned by Parliament, so that the mother of Henry the Seventh was by law the lineal heir of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

Sensible that his title to the Crown, by descent, was too defective to be urged, but being, at the same time, extremely reluctant to acknowledge that he was in any way indebted for the throne to his intended union with the heiress of York, Henry resolved to obtain a recognition of his right by the legislature previous to his marriage. A Parliament met at Westminster on the 7th of September, 1485, and one of its first measures was to settle the crown. When the commons presented their speaker to Henry, he addressed them in a short speech, in which he noticed his accession “as well by just hereditary title as by the sure judgment of God, which was manifested by giving him the victory in the field over his enemy (95).” On the accession of Henry the Fourth, Edward the Fourth, and Richard the Third, the three monarchs in whose favour the lineal order of descent was broken, the Act of Settlement stated their claims to the throne by inheritance; but Parliament appears to have grounded Henry the Seventh’s right on his being King de facto, before it met, and to have considered that all which was necessary for it to do was state that fact, and to settle the royal dignity upon him and the heirs of his body. The Act of Settlement is consequently very concise, and notwithstanding the hint thrown out by Henry, in his address to the speaker of the commons, that his claim to the crown was both by conquest and descent, no allusion to either of these pretensions occurs in it:

“To the pleasure of Almighty God, the wealth, prosperity, and surety of this realm of England, to the singular comfort of all the King’s subjects of the same, and in avoiding of all ambiguities and questions, Be it ordained, stablished, and enacted, by authority of this present Parliament, that the inheritance of the crowns of the realms of England and France (96), with all the pre-eminence and dignity royal to the same pertaining, and all other seignuries to the King belonging beyond the sea, with the appurtenances thereto in any wise due or pertaining, be, rest, remain, and abide in the most royal person of our new Sovereign Lord, King Harry the Seventh, and in the heirs of his body lawfully coming, perpetually, with the grace of God, so to endure, and in none other (97).”