Authors: David Starkey
The greatest, the richest, the most splendid of such clerical ministers was to be Henry’s own cardinal-chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, who did more, built more and impressed himself more vividly on his contemporaries than any of his predecessors.
But he was also the last – and in part for reasons that were already present in the kind of sophisticated, Latinate education which was even now being planned for Henry’s elder brother, and was in time to be enjoyed by Henry himself.
Alcock was thus part of an Indian summer. Born in about 1430, he was the son of a burgess of Hull. He received his early education at the grammar school attached to Beverley Minster, and then continued to Cambridge, where he stuck through the whole programme of degrees, from bachelor to doctor. By then he was about twenty-nine. The result, however, was anything but otherworldly. Hardly any of Alcock’s contemporaries opted for theology; instead, like him, they chose law.
The result was honed, organized, hungry minds.
But Alcock had to wait over ten years for the first crumbs of patronage. Then it fell like manna from heaven. The turning point was the crucial year 1470–71, when Alcock, then an up-and-coming lawyer, seems to have been one of the select group who showed kindness to Elizabeth Woodville and her children when they took refuge in the Westminster sanctuary. Neither Edward IV nor Elizabeth Woodville ever forgot
it. In quick succession Alcock became dean of St Stephen’s, Westminster, master of the rolls or deputy chancellor, and bishop of Rochester.
This was the prelude to the decision in 1473 to give Alcock joint custody of Edward, prince of Wales and the presidency of his council at Ludlow. His co-adjutor was Elizabeth Woodville’s brother, Anthony, Earl Rivers. Rivers had ‘the guiding of our son’s person’, Alcock the responsibility for managing his household as well as presiding over his council. He had also probably had a major hand in drafting the ‘ordinances’ which laid out their joint roles.
Understandably, in view of his closeness to the Woodvilles and Edward V, Alcock was marginalized by Richard III. But Henry VII restored him to full favour. He was acting lord chancellor at the beginning of the reign and, as a notable preacher (one sermon to the University of Cambridge lasted more than two hours), he became the principal propagandist for the new regime in the pulpit.
Now he, the former guardian of the Yorkist prince of Wales, had been chosen to name and baptize the new Tudor prince. Probably he still had records of the upbringing of Prince Edward; if not, as a seasoned administrator, he knew where to find them.
Alcock’s knowledge clearly informed Henry VII’s decisions about the rearing of his own son. But Alcock’s episcopal colleague, Peter Courtenay, bishop of Exeter, who had just
confirmed Arthur in the second half of the ceremonies in the cathedral, also had an important part to play in how the new prince would be brought up.
Courtenay’s career was a bolder, bigger version of Alcock’s. He was a cut above socially, as a member of the cadet line of the earls of Devon. He had also studied abroad, at Cologne and Padua, the latter then the most famous law school in Europe. There he became rector, and put the finances of the faculty on a sound footing. In the 1460s he had been Edward IV’s proctor or legal agent at the papal court; in the 1470s he acted as Edward’s own secretary.
Then, in 1483 he took the most important decision of his career. He joined in the risings against Richard III, and after their failure fled to join Henry Tudor in Brittany. With his position, talents and combination of top-level administrative and political experience, he immediately became one of Henry Tudor’s most influential advisers. He was with him at Bosworth, when he was described (rather strangely for a bishop) as ‘the flower of knighthood of his country’. A fortnight later he was made lord privy seal, alongside Alcock as chancellor. And he supported the new king’s right hand throughout the coronation service.
Now, in Winchester, he was about to get his reward.
Or rather, he was about to get Winchester. William Waynflete, the scholar-bishop who had held the see for almost forty years, had died at his palace at Bishop’s Waltham, five miles to the south-east of Winchester, on 11 August, only
three weeks before the arrival of the court in the city. Winchester was the plum of the English church, with an income of
4,000 a year – almost three times that of the Earl of Oxford, who for all the antiquity of his title had only
1,400 a year. And it had buildings to match. There was a splendid town palace, Winchester House, in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames opposite St Paul’s, and three grand country residences, apart from Bishop’s Waltham, at Farnham, Wolvesey and Esher.
The formalities of Courtenay’s ‘translation’ to Winchester, as it was known, were not completed till April 1487. But the king had probably taken the decision to appoint him on the spot. Part of the deal seems to have been that Courtenay should make Farnham Castle available as a nursery residence for Arthur.
It was ideally suited to the purpose. It was on the way back to London; it was near, but not too near, the city; it had extensive parkland; and it had recently been extended and beautified by Waynflete, who was a great builder.
The king and queen left Winchester in the third week of October, and arrived at Farnham on the twenty-sixth. Arthur, with his nurse Catherine Gibbs and his little household headed by his lady mistress, Lady Darcy, was settled into his new home, and the court continued to Greenwich to celebrate the great feasts of All Saints and Christmas. His mother visited him in January 1487 to make sure that all was well. And in February the townsmen of Farnham successfully
petitioned for permission to set up a chantry or endowed chapel with a priest to pray for the king and queen and Arthur himself, who was ‘now being nursed’ in the town. The same month the king assigned 1,000 marks (
) for the expenses of the household of his ‘most dear son the prince’.
It was the kind of solitary upbringing that befitted the heir. And it was one that Henry would never experience.
But even before the final details of Arthur’s household were in place, the political settlement which had been dramatized by his christening had crumbled. One of his godparents had been the great Lancastrian stalwart, the earl of Oxford; the other was the principal survivor of the Yorkist political establishment, the queen dowager Elizabeth Woodville. This was the union of the red rose with the white as it was intended to be.
It lasted for less than six months.
On 2 February 1487, Henry celebrated the feast of the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, colloquially known as Candlemas because of the lavish deployment of candles in the ritual, at his favourite palace of Sheen. Candlemas was one of the ‘days of estate’ or unusual ceremony at court. Large numbers of nobles were in attendance on such occasions, and now Henry took advantage of the fact to call a ‘great council’. A ‘great council’ was, in effect, a parliament without the commons, and this one had more impact, both on the country and on Henry’s family, than most parliaments.
The background was a sudden escalation of Yorkist opposition. This had never entirely died away, but now it took on disturbing echoes of Henry Tudor’s own successful campaign for the throne. An impostor appeared in Ireland, and was successfully passed off as a Yorkist prince. Survivors of Richard III’s regime offered support in England, and the Duchess Margaret in the Netherlands gave refuge and help to Yorkist exiles, just as Brittany had done to Lancastrian émigrés a few years earlier.
The great council agreed a series of counter measures. Most dramatic was the decision to strip Elizabeth Woodville of her recently regranted dower lands. These were given instead to her daughter the queen, while Elizabeth Woodville herself withdrew from court to live in retirement at St Saviour’s Abbey, Bermondsey, on a comfortable pension.
Did Henry VII really fear that Elizabeth Woodville might join in the developing Yorkist conspiracy? That she was on the point of turning against her own daughter and grandson, to whom she had just stood as sponsor at his christening? It seems hard to believe. On the other hand, he may have simply decided it was better to be safe than sorry.
Whatever the case, the effect was the same. With Elizabeth Woodville’s retirement, followed by her death in 1492, Lady Margaret Beaufort emerged as the unchallenged matriarch of her son’s court. Henry would have only one grandmother. Bearing in mind Lady Margaret’s imperious character, he was probably grateful.
* * *
The great council had another important result: it flushed out John de la Pole, earl of Lincoln. Lincoln was the son and heir of the duke of Suffolk; he was also, through his mother Elizabeth Plantagenet, the nephew of both Edward IV and Richard III. He was especially close to the latter, who may have nominated him as his heir. Despite this, Lincoln had accommodated himself to the new Tudor world. He presented his aunt, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, with the towel after her ceremonial washing at Arthur’s christening, and a few months later he was one of the ornaments of the court at the celebration of All Saints’ Day at Greenwich.
He had attended the great council too. But the Yorkist revival had tested his allegiance too far. Immediately after the council, he absconded from court and fled to join the other Yorkist émigrés in the Netherlands.
It was the beginning of a deadly feud between the Tudors and the de la Poles that only ended thirty years later. Part of the trouble was that the de la Poles proved only too adept at copying Henry Tudor’s tactics in exile. Lincoln raised a force of professional German troops in the Netherlands, sailed with it to Ireland, crowned the impostor as Edward VI and then invaded England at the head of an army swollen with Irish soldiers.
For the second time in two years, Henry VII had to prepare to fight for his crown in battle.
He took as his base the mighty fortress of Kenilworth in Warwickshire. Thence, in May 1486 he wrote to the earl of
Ormond, the queen’s lord chamberlain, to order him to escort Elizabeth of York and Lady Margaret Beaufort, who were staying at Chertsey Abbey in Surrey, to join him.
A month later, the king and queen separated once more. Henry VII moved east to Coventry as he prepared to close in on the rebels. But the queen, accompanied by Peter Courtenay, bishop of Winchester, hastened back to be with her son Arthur at Farnham, where she arrived on 11 June. It also looks as though a detachment of the household was sent ahead to Romsey Abbey, eight miles north of the Solent, to prepare an escape route abroad for the queen and prince if things went badly.
It proved an unnecessary precaution. Henry met the rebels at Stoke, near Newark in Nottinghamshire, on 16 June. The royal army was much larger and the Yorkists were crushed. Lincoln was killed in the battle, while the pretender was captured, uncrowned and, in an act of ironical mercy, sent to spend the rest of his life in the royal kitchens.
Stoke had confirmed the result of Bosworth, and Henry’s crown sat that much more firmly on his brow. To celebrate he had a new one made – a ‘rich crown of gold set with full many rich precious stones’ – which he wore for the first time on 6 January 1488, the feast of the Epiphany and the most important of the four ‘crown-wearing’ days at court.
This, almost certainly, was the diadem later known as the Imperial Crown. In the fullness of time, the Imperial Crown would become the supreme symbol of Henry VIII’s own
monarchy and of his revolutionary claims to authority over church as well as state. For his father, on the other hand, it was much more straightforward: a second victory in battle had made his claim to the throne more solid, and he would wear a crown of unusual size, weight and richness to prove it.
Another royal visit to Arthur’s nursery at Farnham followed in March 1489. By this time Elizabeth of York was pregnant again. Once more the birth and baptism would be made to symbolize Tudor power, this time in a setting that was even more magnificent than that chosen for Arthur: Westminster.
Since the thirteenth century the palace of Westminster had been the principal seat of the English monarchy – being, at one and the same time, the king’s main residence and the headquarters of royal government, where parliament, the law courts and the exchequer all sat.
The royal birth was to be only one element in an autumn of ceremony. On 14 October, parliament, which had been prorogued on 23 February, reassembled. A meeting of parliament brought together everybody who mattered in Tudor England: nobles and knights, clergy and layfolk. The opportunity was too good to miss. Not only would the lords and commons provide a ready-made audience for the birth of the second royal child, they would also, the king decided, dignify the creation of his first-born as prince of Wales.
The decision to invest the three-year-old Arthur was taken soon after the assembly of parliament; the date was set for St Andrew’s Eve (29 November), and summonses were sent out. It is clear that this date was expected to coincide quite closely with the birth of the king and queen’s second child. But was it assumed that the birth and baptism would take place before the creation? Or afterwards?
No one, however, would have been bold enough to predict what actually happened – unless, perhaps, one of Henry VII’s astrologers had worked his apparent magic again.
On Halloween, 31 October, the queen commenced her confinement with the ceremony known as ‘taking to her chamber’. ‘The greater part of the nobles of the realm present at this parliament’ were in attendance. A month later, on 29 November, the rituals of Arthur’s creation began. First he was to be made a knight of the Bath. The ceremonies started ‘when it was night’ and lasted to the following morning.
But, just as the ceremonies got under way, the queen went into labour. As the king was giving his son ‘the advertisement [or solemn admonition] of the order of knighthood’, the chapel royal were reading psalms for Elizabeth of York’s safe delivery. At a quarter past nine that night a healthy daughter was born.