Read an Excerpt
“The Most Illustrious Maid of York”
The royal palace of Westminster extended along the Thames shore, southwest of the City of London. A royal residence had stood on this site opposite Westminster Abbey since the sainted King Edward the Confessor had rebuilt both in the eleventh century, and the magnificent Westminster Hall had been completed by William II in 1099; in the late fourteenth century, Richard II increased the height of its walls and added the splendid oak hammer-beam roof. The sprawling palace in which the Queen was to be confined was the work of successive medieval kings, and the chief seat of royal government until much of it was destroyed by fire in 1512. Parliament often met within its walls, usually in the Painted Chamber, the White Hall, or St. Stephen’s Chapel. Westminster Hall was used for state occasions and ceremonies, and also for coronation banquets. Daily, it was a hive of industry, housing the busy law courts and stalls selling books and other goods.
The rambling old palace was much in need of upgrading, and Edward IV had set about converting part of it into new royal lodgings, which Elizabeth of York would come to know very well. They included a privy kitchen for the preparation of royal meals, a wardrobe for the storage of royal possessions, and something very traditional in royal domestic arrangements: separate ranges of private apartments for the King and Queen.
The creation of a new “Queen’s side” for Elizabeth Wydeville, which was begun in 1464, may have come about because the King’s mother, the disapproving Cecily Neville, was living at court and appropriate accommodation was needed for both ladies. The apartments built for Queen Elizabeth included a withdrawing chamber and wardrobe; a great chamber would be added in 1482.1 It was in these new lodgings that the Queen was to bear her child.
For married women in those days, pregnancy was often an annual event, with all the risks it entailed. Contraception was rudimentary and would not have been practiced by royal couples, for whom a large family meant sons to secure the succession and daughters to forge political marriage alliances. It was a son, naturally, that the King wanted, and although, by medieval custom, male physicians did not attend pregnant women, Dr. Dominic de Sirego, Elizabeth Wydeville’s physician, was determined to “be the first that should bring tidings to the King of the birth of the prince,” for messengers conveying such glad news often received “great thanks and reward.” Only women were allowed into the birth chamber, so when the Queen went into labor, Dr. Sirego had perforce to wait in the “second chamber.” The baby was a girl: “this year , the eleventh day of the month of February, was Elizabeth, first child of King Edward, born at Westminster.”2 She was the first princess born to an English monarch in over a century.
The waiting physician, hearing the child cry, “knocked or called secretly at the chamber door” and asked “what the Queen had,” whereupon her attendants, much amused, called back, “Whatsoever the Queen’s Grace hath here within, sure it is that a fool standeth there without!” Whereupon Dr. Sirego hastily “departed without seeing the King that time.”3
That same month, “my Lady Princess” was baptized “with most solemnity” in a new font set up in St. Stephen’s Chapel in Westminster Palace by her kinsman, George Neville, Archbishop of York,4 just as if she had been the desired prince. She was given her mother’s name; it was a happy coincidence that the Queen had a special devotion for St. Elizabeth.5 The name Elizabeth was not new in the royal line: it had been given to daughters of Henry I and Edward I, and to a granddaughter of Edward III. It had also been borne by Elizabeth de Burgh, the heiress who married Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence (Edward III’s second son), and brought the rich Ulster inheritance to the royal House of York.
Tradition decreed that the King and Queen did not attend the christening, but Edward IV made it the occasion for a show of solidarity, even though the players were privately at odds or disapproved of his marriage. The baby princess’s sponsors were her grandmothers, the Duchesses of York and Bedford, and the Earl of Warwick. Walter Blount, Lord Mountjoy, Treasurer of England, received 1,000 marks [£152,250] for his diligence at the baptism, then was promptly told to resign his office to the Queen’s father, Lord Rivers.
The King bought his wife a jeweled ornament costing £125 [£62,550] “against the birth of our most dear daughter Elizabeth.” Even though she had only borne a daughter, Elizabeth Wydeville’s churching ceremony that followed in late March was attended by great magnificence. The Queen left her childbed that morning and went to church in stately order, accompanied by many priests bearing relics and by many scholars singing and carrying lights. There followed a great company of ladies and maidens from the country and from London. Then came trumpeters, pipers, and players of stringed instruments. The King’s choir followed, forty-two of them, who sang excellently. Then came twenty-four heralds and pursuivants, followed by sixty earls and knights. At last came the Queen, escorted by two dukes. Above her was a canopy. Behind her were her mother and maidens and ladies to the number of sixty. Then the Queen heard the singing of an office. Following the service of purification that marked her return to society after her confinement, “she returned to the palace in procession, as before. Then all who had joined the procession remained to eat.” So many guests were present—clearly a prince had been anticipated—that they “filled four great rooms” of an “unbelievably costly apartment.”6
Elizabeth Wydeville might have been deemed an unsuitable bride for the King, but she was determined that no one should remember it, and the etiquette that surrounded her on this occasion was rigorous. “The Queen sat alone at table on a costly golden chair. The Queen’s mother and the King’s sister [Anne, Duchess of Exeter] had to stand some distance away. When the Queen spoke with her mother or the King’s sister, they knelt down before her until she had drunk water. Not until the first dish was set before the Queen could [they] be seated. The [sixty] ladies and maidens and all who served the Queen at table were of noble birth, and had to kneel so long as the Queen was eating; the meal lasted for three hours. The food which was served to the Queen, the Queen’s mother, the King’s sister, and others was most costly. Everyone was silent and not a word was spoken.” Afterward, no doubt to everyone’s relief, there was dancing, with the ladies curtseying elegantly to the silent Queen, and glorious singing by the King’s choristers. A foreign observer noted: “The courtly reverence paid to the Queen was such as I have never seen elsewhere.”7
Like all babies in those days, the infant princess was swaddled in tight bands with a close-fitting cap on her head, and she would have remained swaddled for the first eight or nine months of her life to ensure that her limbs grew straight. She was assigned a stately household that included a nurse (each of the royal children had a separate nurse) and a wet nurse, for queens did not suckle their children. The household was under the charge of a lady mistress, or governess, Margaret, Lady Berners,8 who received a salary of £100 [£50,000]. Under her were pages of the chamber, a “knight of the trencher,” and rockers to watch over the princess in her cradle.
The kingdom into which Elizabeth of York was born was a land of prosperity, according to an Italian observer writing in 1500: “The riches of England are greater than those of any other country in Europe. This is owing, in the first place, to the great fertility of the soil, which is such that, with the exception of wine, they import nothing from abroad for their subsistence.” The export of tin brought large sums into the realm, “but still more do they derive from their extraordinary abundance of wool. And everyone who makes a tour in the island will soon become aware of this great wealth, for there is no small innkeeper, however poor and humble he may be, who does not serve his table with silver dishes and drinking cups, and no one who has not in his house silver plate to the amount of £100 [£50,000]. But above all are their riches displayed in the church treasures . . . You may therefore imagine what the decorations of these enormously rich Benedictine, Carthusian, and Cistercian monasteries must be. These are, indeed, more like baronial palaces than religious houses.”9 And all, of course, would be swept away within seventy years of Elizabeth’s birth, on the orders of her son. But for now, England was celebrated as “the ringing isle” because of its many churches, abbeys, and priories.
Much more of the land was covered by forest and woodland than it is now. The country was largely rural and given over to agriculture; as the Italian perceived, it had become prosperous through the export of wool and, latterly, woolen cloth. The people were often turbulent, unruly, and vociferous—especially when it came to new taxes—and it was said that while the French vice was lechery, the English vice was treachery. The latter were perceived to be lazy—“it is received as a prescript that they should sweat by no means”—and gluttonous: “though they live in hovels, they eat like lords.” Most people lived in the country, and society was generally localized. It was the upper classes and merchants who traveled.
Elizabeth would have learned early in life that she was a very special little girl. Her father was the King, whose person was regarded as sacred. Divinely appointed to rule, he had been invested at his coronation with a sanctity that set him apart from ordinary mortals and bestowed on him the grace to govern with a wisdom denied to others. The royal prerogative was believed to be the will of God working through the will of the King.
The court over which King Edward presided, and in which Elizabeth grew up, was a magnificent one—“the most splendid court that could be found in all Christendom.”10 The royal family was its central focus, so Elizabeth would have grown up with a sense of her importance in the world. It would have seemed a crowded world to a young child—Edward IV’s household numbered about eight hundred persons or more, not counting the members of his queen’s separate establishment. The court was itinerant, with the King dividing his time between a dozen of his palaces (most of them in the Thames Valley), according to the demands of state, the hunting to be had, or the need for cleansing a house after hundreds of courtiers and servants had tested its capacity for drainage to the limits.
Elizabeth would have become used to travel from infancy. The royal household would regularly wend its cumbersome way about the country, taking with it a long train of servants, carts, and packhorses laden with furniture, tapestries, personal belongings, and state papers, all packed in chests, coffers, and bags. The royal women and children traveled either by barge—the Thames being the main highway through London—or in covered horse-drawn coaches, like wagons, with four wheels, which could not have been very comfortable, as they were unsprung; or in smaller versions called litters, chariots, or “chairs.” A household could travel an average of twenty-six miles a day, depending on the state of the roads. Most were little more than tracks, with a few surviving Roman exceptions, and their condition depended on the weather and the public-spiritedness of the parish authorities or landowners who were supposed to maintain them. It was for this reason that royalty often preferred, where possible, to travel by river.
In his tastes, King Edward followed the dictates of the court of Burgundy, which at that time led the rest of northern Europe in art, architecture, style, dress, manners, and court ceremonial. He understood the value of magnificence that underpinned Burgundian court culture, and spent lavishly on clothing, jewels, plate, and tapestries from the Low Countries, but it was not until later in his reign that he was able to patronize the arts and indulge his passion for building. Today, the Perpendicular-style glory of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and the great hall at Eltham Palace, bear witness to the largely vanished splendors of his reign.
Elizabeth grew up to know these places well, especially the Palace of Westminster. Opposite stood Westminster Abbey, where kings were crowned and many of her royal forebears were buried. Elizabeth would have grown up knowing the neighboring City of London well too. “All the beauty of this island is confined to London,” wrote the anonymous Italian in 1500.11 It was one of the greatest cities in Christendom, prosperous and teeming, its skyline dominated by the soaring Gothic edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the spires of over eighty churches. About 60,000 to 75,000 of England’s estimated population of three or four million people lived in the City, which possessed “all the advantages to be desired in a maritime town” and was a flourishing mercantile center. “On the banks of the Thames are enormous warehouses for imported goods; also numerous cranes of remarkable size to unload merchandise from ships . . . Whatever there is in the City, it all belongs to craftsmen and merchants,”12 such as would supply Elizabeth with luxury goods all her life.