Authors: David Starkey
Elizabeth of York, in short, may not have been a hands-on mother, but she was close at hand. And at moments of crisis she could – and did – take charge of Henry herself.
But the choice of Eltham was probably impelled by sentiment as much as convenience. It had been a favourite residence of Elizabeth of York’s father and Henry’s grandfather, Edward IV, who had carried out extensive building works there including the great hall, with its magnificent hammer-beam roof, and the stone bridge. Nowadays most of Eltham is ruinous, though Edward IV’s hall and bridge survive. In Henry’s day, when Edward IV had been dead for only a
decade, his grandfather must have been a vivid memory. Men who had been his servants probably still worked at Eltham; items of his household stuff were perhaps still in use.
By the choice of Eltham, Elizabeth had made sure that her second son would be brought up in the shadow of the grandfather he so much resembled.
In this little world of the nursery at Eltham, Henry was undoubtedly king of the castle. He was the real king’s second son; he was also, for almost all of the time, the only boy in a household of women, and as such was probably spoiled outrageously. But, despite his primacy, he was always aware of his siblings. His elder sister Margaret was a given in his life. Though slight in stature, like her godmother and namesake Lady Margaret Beaufort, she was (also like Lady Margaret) a formidable character and well able to secure her share of attention.
Then there was the excitement, which Henry experienced at least three times, of the arrival of a new baby, with its nurse and rockers. Room had to be made for a fresh face in the circle and a new name had to be learned. Or, equally mysteriously, it must have seemed to Henry, a playmate would disappear. A temporary hush would descend on the noise of the nursery, and perhaps he would glimpse a black-robed procession bearing a tiny coffin.
This first happened in autumn 1495, when Elizabeth, the then youngest child, suddenly sickened and died. Infant mortality was heavy under the Tudors, and the death of
children was all too common an affliction. But this was the first time that Henry’s parents had had to bear it. They were deeply affected. The enormous sum of
318 was spent on the funeral of ‘our daughter Elizabeth, late passed out of this transitory life’. A monument was erected to her in the chapter house at Westminster Abbey. The epitaph spoke wistfully of her childish beauty.
Henry was then four years old. Old enough for the death of a pretty young sister to have made an impression, but too young for it to have been a serious blow.
And in any case, a replacement soon arrived, as his mother was already pregnant with another child. She was delivered on 18 March 1496 of a daughter who was christened Mary – presumably in honour of the Virgin, to whom her father bore a special devotion. In the course of the next year, the wording of the warrants for wages for the staff of the nursery was adjusted to reflect the new arrival, and the name of ‘Mary’ replaced ‘Elizabeth’ as one of Henry’s two ‘sisters’.
Finally, on 21 February 1499, Henry at last acquired a baby brother, named Edmund, after his grandfather Edmund Tudor, earl of Richmond. Edmund’s wet-nurse was Alice Skern, who had previously suckled Mary, the next youngest child. In 1499–1500 Alice, together with Edmund’s two rockers, duly figured in the list of wage-payments for the nursery, alongside the attendants on Henry, Margaret and Mary.
A younger brother would have had a much greater impact on Henry’s life than the arrival of another sister. He
would have been a rival for attention in the nursery; he might have been a political rival when they grew up. But (as we shall see) it was not to be.
Also important in defining Henry’s social world were the servants of the nursery, led by his wet-nurse and lady mistress. Nurse Uxbridge’s parting from Henry some time in the first half of 1493 was probably tearful. But it was sweet sorrow, as the success of Anne’s nursing led to a lifetime of royal patronage that was the making of her and her second husband. The patronage was started by Henry’s father, and was continued on an even more generous scale by Henry himself. Clearly he felt affection, even love, towards her. And while there is no record of reunions between Anne and her former charge during Henry’s boyhood, she was to have an honourable place at his coronation.
But his feelings for Anne seem to have been eclipsed by his regard for his lady mistress, Elizabeth Denton. Anne, after all, had left him while he was still only an infant and well below the age of memory. Elizabeth Denton, on the other hand, was the dominant figure of Henry’s early boyhood and beyond. This would not necessarily have been to her advantage. Henry, I would guess, was not always an easy child to handle: he was royal and knew it, yet Elizabeth was required to keep him in bounds. In the event, she seems to have got the balance right and Henry was to cherish an abiding affection for her, which he would show by rewarding her lavishly when he became king.
* * *
But is there a darker side to the story? Was the scale of these rewards a sign that Henry, neglected by his parents, turned to the women of his nursery for the love that should have come from his own father and mother? Hardly. It was entirely conventional for a king to reward his former wet-nurse and the others who had looked after him in infancy: even Henry’s own son, Edward VI, who was the coldest of young fish, did so. Moreover, as so much depended on the royal offspring, their parents would have been mad to neglect them.
Henry VII and Elizabeth of York were not mad. Instead, according to their own lights, they were conscientious and loving parents. If a criticism can be made, it is that they tried too hard, especially with Arthur. They were also bound by the conventions of their times. But these were less harsh than the more schematic historians of the family have assumed. For writers like Lawrence Stone, parental love was an invention of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie: in earlier centuries and higher social classes it scarcely existed. Henry’s parents would have been astonished to hear this: the king’s feelings about his family entered into his calculations about the French war in 1492, and the royal couple’s grief for the death of their daughter Elizabeth in 1495 is palpable. And when their eldest son also died seven years later, they were nearly broken by the event.
What really shaped their parents’ attitudes to the upbringing of Henry and his elder brother was not indifference or
neglect, but precedent. As a usurper, Henry’s father was more than usually anxious to do the right thing. And the right thing was generally defined as what Edward IV, Henry VII’s most recent predecessor to be recognized as legitimate, had done. This is why, as has often been pointed out, the upbringing of Henry VII’s eldest son, Arthur, was so closely modelled on that of Edward IV’s first son, Edward, prince of Wales.
Much less remarked on, however, is the fact that Henry in turn as second son was being groomed to follow the path blazed by Edward IV’s younger son, Richard, duke of York. It was almost, Henry must have felt as soon as he was old enough to understand such things, as though he had a ghostly mentor in whose steps he was fated to tread.
But was Richard, duke of York, so young and handsome, and of whom memories were still so green, a ghost at all? Was he
dead? Or was Henry, and still more his father, stepping into shoes that rightfully belonged to another? Were they a king and a prince? Or a usurper and his whelp?
These questions – and others just as inconvenient and seditious – were raised by the campaign of 1492. Henry VII had sent an army into France; the French would riposte by launching a pretender into England.
. TNA: E 404/81/1 (31 December 1491); for Anne and her first husband, Geoffrey Uxbridge, see
CPR Henry VII I
(1485–94), 212, 214, 242, 276, 281, 294 and
CPR Henry VII
II (1494–1509), 11. Anne was widowed between 1494 and 1496 and remarried Walter Luke by 1504 (ibid., 46, 345).
I, 306, 336–7.
. See above, p. 51–2;
. TNA: E 404/80, warrants dated at Greenwich, 1 and 29 June and 3 July 1491.
. TNA: E 404/81/1 (31 December 1491 and 20 July 1492).
Queens of England
, II, 369–70, 436;
PPE Elizabeth of York
, p. lxxxv.
. TNA: E 404/81/3 (17 September 1493).
CPR Henry VII
I (1485–94), pp. 401, 407–8; M. M. Condon, ‘An Anachronism with Intent? Henry VII’s Council Ordinance of 1491/2’, in R. A. Griffiths and J. Sherborne, eds,
Kings and Nobles
(Gloucester, 1986), 228–53.
CPR Henry VII
I (1485–94), pp. 434, 438–9, 441, 453; F. Hepburn, ‘Arthur, Prince of Wales and Training for Kingship’, in
55 (1997), 4–9.
. TNA: E 404/81/3, warrants dated 17 September 1493 and 13 March 1494;
LP Hen. VII
I, 391, 393;
. TNA: E 101/414/8, fos. 11, 32, 43; E 101/413/11, fo. 31.
. TNA: E 404/81/3, warrant dated 13 March 1494; E 404/82, warrants dated 12 April 1496, 29 July 1497 and 15 March 1498.
. TNA: E 101/414/8, fo. 27;
PPE Elizabeth of York
, 88, 99.
. TNA: E 404/82, warrant dated 26 October 1495;
II, 439; J. Stow,
A Survey of London
, ed. C. L. Kingsford, 2 vols (1971) II, 109.
. The ‘Beaufort Hours’, 278, gives the date as ‘xv. kl Apr … 1495’, that is 18 March 1496 as the compiler of the calendar in the ‘Hours’ follows the usual practice of starting the new year on 25 March; TNA: E 101/81/4 (3 February 1495), E 101/82 (23 March 1497).
. The ‘Beaufort Hours’, 278, gives the date as ‘ix. kl Mar … 1498’, that is, 21 February 1499. The date is confirmed by the fact that the Canterbury font was sent for on 20 January 1499 (S. Bentley, ed.,
(1831), 120. TNA: E 101/83, warrants dated 20 December 1499 and 26 July 1500).
CPR Henry VII
II (1494–1509), 46, 345;
I i, 82 (p. 38); I i, 132/39, 1221/18.
. See below, p. 331–2.
, French-speaking Fleming called Perkin Warbeck had an awkward confrontation with a group of townsmen in Cork, the major port on the south coast of Ireland. Not surprisingly, for he cut an exotic figure. Most people then, men and women alike, wore thick, drab, serviceable woollens. But Warbeck was clad from head to foot in shimmering silk. The clothes were not his own, but belonged to his master, a Breton merchant called Pregent Meno. Warbeck had just landed in Ireland with Meno, and was modelling the fine stuffs Meno had imported to sell to the Irish elite.
Such details did not concern the crowd, who had eyes only for Warbeck’s impressive appearance. Wasn’t he the earl of Warwick, son of the executed George Plantagenet, duke of Clarence? they cried. They were so persistent that Warbeck could only shake them off by swearing on the
gospels and a crucifix before the mayor that he was no such person. Next two men, one English, the other Irish, appeared. Surely he was the bastard son of Richard III, they said, ‘swearing great oaths that they knew well I was [he]’. Once again Warbeck answered, also ‘with high oaths’, that he was not.
At this point the pair revealed their hands. They were Yorkist conspirators against Henry VII. If Warbeck would act as their figurehead, they would offer him powerful support. Reluctantly, he claimed, he acquiesced. Then his grooming began. He was taught English and ‘what I should do and say’. Finally, his assumed identity was changed: from Richard III’s bastard to Richard, duke of York, the younger of the two princes in the Tower.
Meanwhile, almost six hundred miles away at Eltham, at the other extremity of his father’s dominions, the six-month-old Henry lay in one of his grand cradles. His status too was denoted by magnificent fabrics and furs. And he also was destined by his parents to follow in the wake of his murdered uncle, Richard, duke of York. But Richard’s name, title and inheritance were now in contention. Who would gain them? Henry? Or Warbeck?
The scenes in Cork were not spontaneous. In mid-November, Charles VIII of France had financed and equipped a Yorkist expedition to Ireland. This had landed at Cork just before Warbeck, setting the town on edge and creating the
explosive atmosphere to which Warbeck’s dazzling appearance was the spark.
But equally, Warbeck’s epiphany was the fulfilment of the wildest dreams of the expedition’s leaders, for in him they had found the most promising Yorkist impersonator yet. Others had tried before, but Warbeck was in a different league. Despite his relatively modest birth as son of a bourgeois of Tournai, he was handsome, literate and affable. He also had the right experience, being widely travelled, multilingual and familiar with the ways of courts from his time in service to the royal house of Portugal.
The conspirators wrote to Charles VIII with news of their good luck. Charles responded by sending an embassy to ‘Richard, duke of York’. It bore a courteous invitation to him to take up residence in France, and was accompanied by a fleet to carry him there. Warbeck accepted, and landed in France in March 1492. Charles VIII ‘received [him] honourably, as a kinsman and friend’.
‘Richard, duke of York’ had made his entry on to the European stage. And the stage would prove a broad and resonant one. As Warbeck put it himself, ‘thence [from Ireland] I went into France, and from thence into Flanders, and from Flanders into Ireland, and from Ireland into Scotland, and so into England’. It was also a saga that would twice seem to threaten Henry’s life and lead his mother to seek safety for her son, first in the Tower and then in the remote extremities of Norfolk.
* * *
Warbeck is – and was – an enigma. Prince? Pretender? Puppet? Pawn? He meant different things to different people; there may have been times when he himself was unsure who and what he really was.
Above all, he assumed a very different importance on either side of the Channel. For Henry VII, Warbeck was a dagger thrust at his very heart. For Charles VIII, he was a mere counter in Anglo–French relations. The result was that each monarch misjudged, almost comically, the reactions of the other. Charles’s initial support for Warbeck had been intended to deter Henry from interfering with his takeover of Brittany by marrying its young duchess, Anne. Instead, it drove the English king to his full-scale invasion of France in 1492. Henry’s peace terms of course required Charles to renounce all aid to Warbeck. But this too backfired. Fearing that they might be handed over to the English, in early December Warbeck together with his handlers and followers managed to escape across the French border to Malines (Mechelen in Flemish) in the Netherlands. There they found, to their delight and Henry VII’s chagrin, a very different patroness to the fickle and calculating Charles VIII.
For Malines was the principal residence of Duchess Margaret of York. Her husband Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, had died in 1477, leaving her childless, rich and unfulfilled. But her life found new meaning with the fall of the house of York in 1483–85. Thereafter, the grand passion of her life, which she pursued recklessly and with unrestrained partisanship, became the restoration of her family to
the English throne. To achieve this, she would do anything and use anybody.
Now providence, it seemed, had placed the ideal weapon in her hands, and she greeted Warbeck’s arrival like manna from heaven: ‘[I] embraced him,’ she wrote, ‘as an only grandson or an only son’ – the son, of course, that she had never had. She gave him a bodyguard, clad in the Yorkist livery of murrey and blue, an official residence and a high-ranking official to manage his affairs.
Relations between England and the Netherlands were close, and news of Warbeck’s reception as duke of York spread like wildfire in England. If Margaret believed him to be her nephew Richard, it seems to have been reasoned, his claims must be true. And if Warbeck’s claims were true, then he, and not Henry VII, was rightful king of England.
Even the leading officers of Henry VII’s own household were persuaded, and by early 1493 were giving their support to Warbeck’s cause. John Ratcliffe, Lord Fitzwalter, the lord steward, committed himself in January. Then, in March, Sir William Stanley, the lord chamberlain and Henry’s saviour at the battle of Bosworth, threw his massive weight behind the conspiracy.
Henry VII, who had at least an inkling of these machinations, now faced a pincer movement as domestic treason threatened to combine with foreign invasion. One of his first responses, strikingly, involved Henry.
On 5 April 1493, Henry, as the king’s
(‘second-born’) son, was made lord warden of the Cinque Ports and constable of Dover Castle. The joint position, which was responsible for England’s first line of defence against cross-Channel invasion, had been left vacant since the death of the previous holder, the earl of Arundel in 1487. It is easy to see why it needed filling as a matter of urgency to deal with Warbeck. But why the not-yet-two-year-old Henry? Was he simply a suitable dignified front for his deputy, Sir Edward Poynings, who was one of the strongmen of the regime and would do the real work?
Or had it already been decided that the Tudors would deploy second son against pseudo-second son: Henry against Warbeck?
In fact the feared invasion did not happen, since Margaret alone did not have the resources to support one. She was rich and influential, but she was not the acting ruler of the Netherlands. That was Maximilian von Habsburg, archduke of Austria and, as king of the Romans, quasi-elective ruler of the confederation of German states known as the Holy Roman Empire. As if all that were not enough, Maximilian had married Charles the Bold’s only child by his first marriage, Mary. Mary had died in 1482 at the age of only twenty-five, leaving two children of the union: Philip the Fair, for whom Maximilian was acting as regent of the Netherlands, and Margaret.
Maximilian was Henry VII’s intended ally in the war against France. Indeed, it was Maximilian, rather than Henry, who had been personally injured by Charles VIII’s coup in seizing Brittany. The Duchess Anne, whom Charles had married, had already been betrothed to Maximilian; similarly, Maximilian’s daughter Margaret was herself betrothed to Charles, and on the strength of that had already been sent to live at the French court as the prospective queen of France. But, despite the double insult of losing a wife and having his daughter repudiated and returned home like unwanted goods, Maximilian came to terms with Charles. Instead, his venom over the affair was redirected against his erstwhile ally, Henry VII.
This meant that when Warbeck was sent to meet Maximilian in Germany, he got almost as warm a welcome from him as he had from Margaret herself, and was received with royal honours. These were redoubled the following year when Maximilian returned to the Netherlands to present his son Philip, who at sixteen had attained his majority, to his subjects as their duke. Ceremony after ceremony unrolled, each grander than the last: at Malines in August, at Louvain in September and finally at Antwerp on 24 October 1494. Throughout, Warbeck was treated as king-to-be of England. It was at Antwerp that the display reached its peak: his bodyguard of twenty archers wore the badge of the white rose, while the façade of his lodgings was hung with the royal arms of England, with an explanatory Latin inscription underneath: ‘The arms of Richard, prince of Wales and duke
of York, son and heir of Edward IV, sometime by the grace of God, king of England, France and lord of Ireland.’
This insolent display was too much for a couple of Englishmen loyal to Henry VII. They armed themselves with a pot filled with night-soil and flung the stinking contents at Warbeck’s lodgings, before making good their escape.
This small, if highly effective, piece of private initiative set Malines in uproar, and an innocent English bystander was stabbed to death for no other reason than his nationality. Across the Channel, however, Henry VII was preparing a much weightier official response.
‘Oyez, oyez, oyez!’ cried the heralds in early October 1494 as they issued the challenge to two days of martial sport: the first day to be a joust, in which the opposing knights charged at each other with wooden lances; the second a tournament, in which they fought, also on horseback, with heavy swords. A third day’s sport was soon added, making the tournament the most ambitious to be held in England since the palmy days of Edward IV’s reign. The heralds’ cry went up in three several places: in the king’s great chamber at the ancient royal palace of Woodstock, to the north of Oxford, where the court was then staying; at the fair in the town; and again in the city of London.
But the cry was also intended to echo round Europe, and ‘all comers of what nation so ever they be, as well [Henry VII’s] subjects as other’ were challenged to respond. For the joust was to celebrate the forthcoming creation of the
duke of York, as opposed to the mere pretender of Malines.
Henry, the second son had acquired a dynastic purpose at last.
The background was the disputed inheritance of Richard of Shrewsbury, second son of Edward IV. Before Richard, the usual title of the king’s second son was not York but Clarence. The title of duke of Clarence had first been given by Edward III to his second son Lionel in 1362. It had been revived for Henry IV’s second son Thomas in 1411, and again for Edward IV’s next brother, George, in 1461.
But with the birth of Richard of Shrewsbury the tradition was broken. George, duke of Clarence was still alive and had a son, the earl of Warwick, who could be expected to inherit the dukedom. Edward IV, who was the son, great-nephew and great-grandson of successive dukes of York, and had briefly borne the title himself before his accession, was also anxious to preserve the family ‘name’. The result was the decision to create Richard of Shrewsbury duke of York at the age of only eight months.
The ceremony took place on 28 May 1474, the day after parliament had been prorogued for Whitsuntide, and was followed by a splendid joust. A year later, the boy was made, in quick succession, knight of the Bath and knight of the Garter. In 1478, following his child-marriage to the heiress of the Mowbrays, he was given the great and ancient office of earl marshal, which his wife’s family had held in hereditary succession. Finally, in 1479, he followed in the footsteps of
his namesake and grandfather Richard, duke of York, and was made lord lieutenant of Ireland.
The reasons for following the single precedent of 1474 and creating Henry duke of York, rather than the many and making him duke of Clarence, can be summed up in one word: Warbeck. But perhaps there were more positive motives at work as well. For, as the success of Warbeck’s impersonation showed, loyalties to the house of York were still alive and well. Why not make a fresh attempt to incorporate them within the house of Tudor? And who better to do it than Henry? He was close to his mother, Elizabeth of York; he took after his Yorkist grandfather, Edward IV; even his principal residence, Eltham, was one of Edward IV’s favourite palaces. At least it was worth a try – after all, in the face of the threat posed by Warbeck, almost anything was.