The Young Elizabeth
By Alison Plowden
The History Press Copyright © 2011 The estate of Alison Plowden
All rights reserved.
A Gentleman of Wales
The story of Elizabeth Tudor began just over a hundred years before she was born. It began with a love story – with the romance of a young widowed queen and 'a gentleman of Wales'.
Katherine of Valois, called 'the Fair', daughter of the King of France, had been married to that notable warrior, King Henry V of England, hero of Agincourt, in June 1420 – a marriage designed to seal the Treaty of Troyes which was to inaugurate 'perpetual peace' between the two countries. Two years later, on the last day of August 1422, Henry died of dysentery at the Castle of Vincennes just outside Paris. Katherine became a widow shortly before her twenty-first birthday, and her son, 'Harry born at Windsor' who was destined to lose all the glory his father had gained, became King Henry VI at the age of nine months.
The youthful Queen Dowager, stranded in a foreign country and probably both bored and lonely, presently found diversion with one of the gentlemen of her household, Owen Tudor, her Welsh Clerk of the Wardrobe. 'Following more her appetite than friendly counsel and regarding more her private affections than her open honour', as the chronicler Edward Hall put it. Understandably perhaps, for Owen is described by Polydore Vergil as being 'adorned with wonderful gifts of body and mind', and by Hall as 'a goodly gentleman and a beautiful person garnished with many godly gifts both of nature and of graces'. Another (earlier) chronicle was less complimentary, referring to him tersely as a man of neither birth nor livelihood.
Years later, Owen's grandson, the first Tudor king, was to be somewhat embarrassed by certain 'reproachful and slanderous assertions' about the deficiencies of his pedigree, and felt it necessary to appoint a commission consisting of the Abbot of Valle Crucis, Doctor Owen Poole, canon of Hereford, and John King, herald, to enquire into the matter. After visiting Wales and consulting the bards and other authorities, these seekers after knowledge drew up their masters 'perfect genelogie' from the ancient Kings of Britain and Princes of Wales. The Tudors, they said, could prove lineal descent by issue male, saving one woman (an artistic touch), from Brute the Trojan – mythical first King of the Britons, who was supposed to have given his name to the land.
In actual fact, however, the founder of the family fortunes appears to have been Ednyfed Fychan, who served the rulers of Gwynedd – the principality of North Wales – as seneschal or steward, from approximately 1215 to his death in 1246. Ednyfed was evidently highly thought of by his employers, for they rewarded him with extensive grants of land in Anglesey and Caernarvon. He also acquired estates in West Wales, and he and his relatives were allowed the unusual privilege of holding their lands free from restriction, excepting homage and military service in time of war.
The conquest and subjugation of Wales by England in 1282 does not seem to have adversely affected Ednyfed's descendants. On the contrary, by the middle of the next century, the seneschal's great-great-grandson, Tudurap Goronwy, had emerged as a considerable landowner. Like a number of other Welsh magnates, he probably supported the English crown and Goronwy, eldest of his five sons, served with the army in France. It was the unsuccessful revolt of Owen Glendower in the early 1400s which brought about the family's downfall. Through their mother, Tudur's sons were first cousins to Glendower. Old loyalties reasserted themselves and the remaining four brothers (Goronwy had died in 1382) threw in their lot with the rebel chieftain. The consequences were disastrous. Rhys, the middle brother, was executed in 1412 and all the family estates were confiscated; though the property at Penmyndd in Anglesey was later returned to Goronwy's heirs.
Owen Tudor was the son of Maredudd, youngest of the brothers, who held some office under the Bishop of Bangor and was escheator of Anglesey. He was born most probably some time in 1400 and despite the ill-judged activities of his relations later contrived to enter the English royal service. It is not known exactly how or when this happened, although he may have followed Glendower's son, who was officially pardoned in 1417 and became a Squire of the Body to Henry V. There is no evidence to support the tradition that Owen was present at the battle of Agincourt, but he may have been in France in 1421 on the staff of the distinguished soldier and diplomat Sir Walter Hungerford. Sir Walter was one of the executors of Henry V's will and in 1424 became steward to the infant Henry VI, so it is at least possible that he was the means of finding the promising young Welshman a job in the Queen's household.
The circumstances surrounding Owen's courtship of the Queen Dowager are unfortunately obscure. As Clerk of the Wardrobe, his duties would have included guarding Katherine's jewels and buying and paying for the materials for her dresses – duties which no doubt provided plenty of opportunity for them to get acquainted. It is said that on one occasion he was called upon to dance before the Queen and her ladies. He overbalanced and fell into Katherine's lap, and her reaction to this familiarity led the onlookers to suspect there was something between them.
No record survives of when or where they were married; but, as Katherine bore her second husband three sons and one, possibly two, daughters before her death in 1437 and their legitimacy seems never to have been questioned, the ceremony cannot have taken place much later than 1429, the date generally assigned to it.
It would be fascinating to know more about the private life of this oddly assorted couple. Katherine's own early childhood had been unsettled, with a background of disruption and war. Her father, Charles VI of France, was subject to long and recurring fits of insanity, during which he was liable to tear his clothes, smash the furniture and imagine himself to be made of glass, so that he dared not move for fear of breaking. Her mother, Isabeau of Bavaria, acquired a considerable reputation for loose living and general bad character. She is said to have neglected her younger children to such an extent that for a time they went ragged and hungry. Katherine's short-lived marriage to Henry V was a matter of high politics and one hopes she found happiness with her Welshman.
Their wedding took place without the knowledge or consent of the Duke of Gloucester – Protector of the realm during the King's minority – and several accounts declare that it was not discovered until after Katherine's death. It is straining credulity somewhat to believe that the Queen Dowager could have successfully concealed at least four pregnancies, even if she was living away from the court. A more probable explanation seems that her unsuitable marriage was tolerated by tacit consent during her lifetime, rather than precipitate a scandal involving the King's mother. Owen may also have had influential friends, for in 1432 he was granted letters of denizenship which relieved him of some at any rate of the penal legislation then in force against the Welsh people. Towards the end of 1436, however, the family broke up. Katherine retired into the Abbey of Bermondsey, where she died the following January at the age of thirty-five – possibly giving birth to a daughter who did not survive. The Abbess of Barking took charge of the other Tudor children – Edmund and Jasper, then about six and five years old, Owen, who later became a monk, and a girl of whom nothing is known except that she, too, entered the religious life.
Their father's subsequent career contains all the ingredients of an old-fashioned adventure-story. Deprived of his wife's protection, he evidently thought it wiser to remove himself from the vicinity of the Duke of Gloucester. He was at Daventry when, not long after Katherine's death, a summons was issued by the Council requiring 'one Owen Tudor the which dwelled with the said Queen Katherine' to come into the King's presence. Suspecting a trap, Owen refused to obey unless he was given an assurance in the King's name that he might 'freely come and freely go'. According to a minute of the Privy Council's proceedings dated 15 July 1437, a promise to this effect was conveyed to him by a certain Myles Sculle, but Owen was not entirely satisfied. He came to London 'in full secret wise' and took sanctuary at Westminster, where 'he held him many days'. This despite the fact that 'divers persons stirred him of friendship and fellowship to have comen out thereof, and some in especial to have disported him in [the] tavern at Westminster gate'. Owen, no doubt wisely, resisted these persuasions. However, some time later, hearing that the King was 'heavily informed of him', he suddenly appeared in the royal presence and
declared his innocence and his truth, affirming that he had nothing done that should give the King occasion or matter of offence or displeasure against him, offering himself in large wise to answer as the Kings true liege man should to all things that any man could or would submit upon him. And so submitted himself by his said offer to abide all lawful answer.
He was allowed to depart 'without any impeachment' but shortly afterwards was arrested and committed to Newgate. The Council felt it necessary to justify their action in a somewhat specious memorandum, saying that Owen's 'malicious purpose and imagination' were not known to the King or the Duke of Gloucester when the safe conduct was issued. They added piously that it was 'thought marvellous' that one of the King's liegemen should desire any such surety before coming to his presence, and anyway Owen had been allowed to go free – for a time.
Polydore Vergil says that he was committed to ward by order of the Duke of Gloucester, 'because he had been so presumptious as by marriage with the Queen to intermix his blood with the noble race of kings', but there is nothing to support this assertion in the Privy Council minutes. In fact no specific charge is mentioned, but from the very meagre information which does exist it would appear that Owen was involved in some private quarrel – probably of a financial nature – with an unnamed adversary.
An entry in the Chronicle of London for the sixteenth year of the King's reign records that Owen 'brake out of Newgate against night at searching time, through help of his priest, and went his way, hurting foul his keeper; but at the last, blessed be God, he was taken again'. This was probably in February. He was recaptured by Lord Beaumont and temporarily consigned to the dungeons of Wallingford Castle in Berkshire, but later returned to Newgate with his servant and the priest. On 4 March 1438, Lord Beaumont received twenty marks to cover his expenses, and the sum of eighty-nine pounds which was found on the priest was handed over to the Exchequer. It would be interesting to know if this enterprising cleric was the same priest who had married Owen and Katherine.
When Henry VI reached his majority the fortunes of the Tudor family improved. The gentle, devout king took a constructive interest in the welfare of his Welsh relations and provided for the education of his two elder half-brothers. As soon as they outgrew the Abbess of Barking, Edmund and Jasperwere brought up 'chastely and virtuously' by discreet persons. Their father also received a pension of forty pounds a year which the king, moved by 'certain causes', paid out of the privy purse 'by especial grace'. Owen, who had finally been released from prison in 1439, was now a respected member of the royal household and presently found it convenient to adopt an English style patronymic, Owain ap Maredudd [or Meredith] ap Tudur becoming Owen Tudor.
On Christmas Day 1449 Edmund and Jasper Tudor were knighted. Four years later they were created Earls of Richmond and Pembroke respectively. The king was also apparently instrumental in providing a wife for the Earl of Richmond and in 1445 Edmund married twelve-year-old Margaret Beaufort – a union which was to have far-reaching consequences.
The Beaufort family was the result of a long-ago liaison between John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, third son of Edward III, and Katherine Swynford, a lady of Flemish extraction who had been governess to the Duke's daughters. Their four children were indisputably born on the wrong side of the blanket, but after the death of his second wife John of Gaunt proceeded to make an honest woman of Katherine. His Beaufort progeny (so called after the castle in France where they were born) were legitimated by the Pope, by Letters Patent granted by Gaunt's nephew Richard II, and for good measure by Act of Parliament. The Beauforts grew rich and powerful – Cardinal Beaufort, the last survivor of Katherine Swynford's brood, had governed England with the Duke of Gloucester during Henry VI's long minority – and after the King and his heirs they represented the royal and ruling family of Lancaster. Margaret, heiress of her father, John, Duke of Somerset, great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt and later to develop into a remarkable personality in her own right, was a matrimonial prize by any standards – especially for the son of an obscure Welsh squire.
Their marriage coincided with the outbreak of that long-drawn-out dynastic struggle among the all too numerous descendants of Edward III, which is known to history as the Wars of the Roses. The quarrel had its roots in the coup d'état of 1399, when Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt's eldest son, wrested the crown from his cousin Richard II; and it became progressively more bitter and more complicated – as family quarrels usually do. It was fought out on one side by the pathetic Henry VI's tigerish Queen, Margaret of Anjou; and on the other, first by the Duke of York and later his son, Edward, Earl of March, representing a senior branch of the royal house, but whose descent had twice passed through the female line.
Edmund Tudor did not live to see the outcome. Neither did he live to see his son. He died at Carmarthen early in November 1456, at the age of twenty-six, leaving his young wife six months pregnant. Jasper at once took his brother's widow under his protection, and Margaret Beaufort's child was born at Pembroke Castle on 28 January 1457. He was given, prophetically as it turned out, the royal English name of Henry but at the time the birth attracted little attention. Henry Tudor was said to be a delicate baby. His future looked uncertain.
Meanwhile the deadly power-game of York and Lancaster continued unabated. The Duke of York was killed at Wakefield in December 1460, but his son remained to carry on the struggle. Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, brave, energetic and loyal, was a leading supporter of the Lancastrian cause; so, too, his father, quite an old man by this time. Nevertheless, Owen Tudor was present, fighting under Jasper's banner, at the battle of Mortimer's Cross near Wigmore on 2 February 1461. The Lancastrians were defeated by the young Earl of March, and Owen, not quite so spry as he had once been, was among those captured. He was brought to Hereford and executed there in the market-place. It seems he could not believe his luck had turned at last for, one old chronicle says, he trusted
all away that he should not be headed till he saw the axe and the block, and when that he was in his doublet he trusted on pardon and grace till the collar of his red velvet doublet was ripped off. Then he said 'that head shall lie on the stock that was wont to lie on Queen Katherine's lap' and put his heart and mind wholly unto God and full meekly took his death.
Afterwards his head was displayed on the highest step of the market-cross and 'a mad woman combed his hair and washed away the blood of his face and she got candles and set about him burning more than a hundred.' It was a sad but perhaps suitably bizarre end for the adventurous gentleman of Wales who had sired a dynasty of kings, whose great-granddaughter's descendants occupy the English throne to this day, and whose great-great-granddaughter was to be the most complex and fascinating personality ever to occupy it and give her name to a whole glittering epoch of English life.
1461 was a black year for the House of Lancaster. On 4 March the nineteen-year-old Earl of March was acclaimed as King Edward IV in Westminster Hall, and his victory over Queen Margaret at Towton at the end of the month confirmed his position. Margaret fled to Scotland, taking Henry VI and their young son with her. For a while she succeeded in keeping the fight alive, but four years later King Henry, reduced by this time to a wandering fugitive in the North Country, was betrayed to his enemies and deposited in the Tower. The Queen and the Prince of Wales sought refuge abroad. The Yorkists appeared triumphant.
Jasper Tudor, who had inherited all his father's slipperiness, escaped after Mortimer's Cross and was reported 'flown and taken to the mountains'. For the next few years he led the life of an underground resistance-leader, moving from one safe house to another in Wales, then turning up in Ireland, then Scotland, over in France, back in Wales again. 'Not always at his heart's ease, nor in security of life or surety of living' he remained unswerving in his devotion to the cause of Lancaster, and lost no opportunity, however slight, of stirring up trouble for the new régime. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Young Elizabeth by Alison Plowden. Copyright © 2011 The estate of Alison Plowden. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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