The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England's Most Infamous Family (28 page)

BOOK: The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England's Most Infamous Family
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Aside from those executed, more than 100 men were attainted in Richard III’s parliament for their role in the rebellion.
Richard had met the first serious challenge to his reign, and had survived it.

But the genie of Henry Tudor could not be so easily put back in the bottle, especially with a fresh infusion of English refugees, including Bishop Morton and Dorset, joining the band of exiles. On Christmas Day, 1483, the exiles came together at the Cathedral of Rennes, where Henry swore that he would marry Elizabeth of York as soon as he became king.
He lost no time obtaining the necessary papal dispensation, which was issued on 27 March 1484 for Henry ‘Richemont’ and Elizabeth ‘Plantageneta’.

The dispensation had not yet been signed, however, when Richard at last persuaded Elizabeth (‘urged by frequent intercessions and dire threats’, Crowland tells us) to allow her five daughters to leave sanctuary. On 1 March 1484, the king swore an oath, in front of a distinguished company of lords, churchmen, and the mayor and aldermen of London, that if the girls left sanctuary, he would see to it that they would be in ‘surety of their lives’ and not be ‘imprisoned within the Tower of London or other prison’. Rather, they would be put in ‘honest places of good name & fame’ and would be married to ‘gentlemen born’; the king would provide dowries for them of 200 marks per year. Elizabeth herself (here called ‘Elizabeth Gray late calling herself Queen of England’) was to receive 700 marks per year, to be paid by John Nesfield, who was put in charge of her.
The references to the princesses being in surety of their lives, and the promise not to imprison them, says volumes about what was believed to have befallen their brothers, who are nowhere mentioned in the oath.

Why did Elizabeth allow her daughters to leave sanctuary? For Elizabeth’s modern-day detractors, and Richard III’s modern-day defenders, her actions have variously been interpreted as proof of her indifference to her children’s fate or, more commonly, as proof of Richard’s innocence of the death of his nephews. Paul Murray Kendall, for instance, writing from the comfort of his study in mid-twentieth-century America, thunders:

    That she came to terms with the man who had bastardized and deposed the Princes, driven her son the Marquess into exile, and executed her other son Grey and her brother Rivers is difficult enough to understand; but that she came to terms knowing also that he had murdered the Princes well-nigh passes belief, or is at least incomprehensible.

In fact, the queen’s actions are neither beyond belief nor incomprehensible (to cover both of Kendall’s bases). There were several options open for Elizabeth in March 1484. The first, and safest, would have been for her and her daughters to each take the veil. But that would foreclose any other alternatives if the political situation in England later changed, and it would have likely been anathema to Elizabeth’s older daughters, who had grown up expecting to make grand matches, not to immure themselves in convents. Probably, too, it would have been an admission of total defeat for Elizabeth. Indeed, no source suggests that such a course of action was ever considered.

The second option was to remain in sanctuary. This was an option, however, that was growing more unpalatable each day. Westminster was heavily guarded, a situation that must have been extremely irritating to the monks there, who may have also been tiring of providing sustenance for Elizabeth and her brood. Undoubtedly the abbot and his flock were eager to get back to normal and to get their relations with the Crown back on a good footing. Add to that the fact that six females, two of them adolescents, were cooped up together in a small space, with little to keep them occupied, and the situation must have been a bleak one indeed. With the king a healthy man in his early 30s, and the rebellion of 1483 having failed, the women could be facing a stay of decades in sanctuary.

Flight abroad was the third option. But it would have required help for Elizabeth to leave Westminster undetected, and how easy would it have been for a woman and five girls, ranging from age 3 to age 18, to leave the heavily guarded sanctuary undetected in the first place? Nor could such a party have likely boarded a boat or a ship without being noticed.

The fourth option was to accept Richard’s offer of a pension and good marriages for the girls, with guarantees, sworn under oath in front of numerous witnesses, that Richard would not harm the women or imprison them. This option, the one that Elizabeth ultimately chose, was not without risk. Whatever the fate of the princes in the Tower, it was beyond question that Richard had executed Elizabeth’s son Richard Grey and her brother Anthony Woodville, and oaths could be broken. But the chances of the girls coming to harm were slim. Richard might have put down the rebellion of the previous autumn, but his position was still a delicate one. He was in no position to break his oath that he would not maltreat his five nieces. Moreover, with Henry Tudor vowing to marry Elizabeth of York, it behoved Richard to take her off the marriage market by finding her a partner of his own choosing, which could not be accomplished while she and her sisters languished in sanctuary.

In the end, Elizabeth, faced with a stark choice between a bleak future in sanctuary and a chance for her daughters to make good marriages and recover their footing in society, chose to take the option that carried more risks, but promised more gains. One wonders what some of her detractors, faced with the same dilemma, would have done in her place.

Where Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters stayed – or indeed, whether Elizabeth herself left the confines of Westminster at all – is unknown. Audrey Williamson has related a Tyrell family legend, told to her by a member of that family, that Elizabeth and her royal sons – not her daughters – lived at Gipping Hall, the home of James Tyrell, ‘by permission of the uncle’ at some unspecified time.
This begs the question, however, of why, if Elizabeth and the princes were living at Gipping Hall, did Richard III make no mention of the boys in his 1 March oath? And where were the daughters? And since Nesfield was specifically named by Richard III as the man to be Elizabeth’s attendant, how did Tyrell come into the picture? The legend may be an appealing one, but there seems little of substance to back it up. A purely speculative, but perhaps more likely, residence for Elizabeth and her girls is Hertford Castle, of which Nesfield had been made constable on 31 August 1483. The castle had formed part of the queen’s jointure, so it would have been both familiar and suitable, and having the queen there would have been administratively convenient for Nesfield, as he had been placed in charge of the queen’s annuity.

By 24 April 1484, Richard had also granted Katherine, Duchess of Buckingham, an annuity of £200 per annum, to be taken out of the revenues of Tonbridge in Kent.
Possibly Katherine and her four children joined Elizabeth and her brood, but there is no evidence of the duchess’s whereabouts for the rest of Richard III’s reign.

The king, meanwhile, had suffered a tragedy of his own. In April, close to the anniversary of Edward IV’s death, Richard’s only legitimate son died at Middleton Castle, sending the king and queen ‘almost out of their minds for a long time when faced with the sudden grief’.
Richard and Anne had had only one surviving child together, and their prospects looked bleak for having any more.

The king’s enemies did not do Richard the courtesy of letting him mourn in peace. In July 1483, a Richard Edgecombe was charged with attempting to send money to some of the exiles. Meanwhile, in London, William Collingbourne was conspiring to send a messenger to Henry Tudor to advise him to invade on 18 October. More famously, on 18 July, he pinned his well-known ditty to the door of St Paul’s:

            The cat, the rat, and Lovell our dog

            Rule all England under a hog

The ‘cat, rat, and dog’ were William Catesby, Richard Ratcliffe, and Francis, Viscount Lovell; the ‘hog’ referred to Richard’s emblem of the white boar. Edgecombe fled to Brittany, but Collingbourne was not so lucky, being arrested in the autumn of 1484. On 29 November, a commission of oyer and terminer (the members of which included ‘Lovell our dog’) was set up to try him. In addition to urging Henry Tudor to invade, Collingbourne was accused of ‘devising certain bills and writing in rhyme, to the end that the same being published might stir the people to a commotion against the king’. Sometime in early December, Collingbourne was convicted at the Guildhall of high treason and was sentenced to a traitor’s death. He was drawn on a hurdle to Tower Hill, hanged at a brand new gallows, and cut down while still alive. While he was being disembowelled, he managed to say either ‘Jesus, Jesus’ or the rather understated ‘Oh, Lord Jesu, yet more trouble’ before dying. The
Great Chronicle of London
reported that he was ‘greatly mourned of the people for his goodly personage and favor of visage’.

While England simmered, Henry Tudor and his friends remained dependent on Francis Duke of Brittany, who granted Dorset and his men 400 livres a month and Edward Woodville 100 livres a month.
In September 1484, Richard saw the opportunity to solve his Henry Tudor problem. Duke Francis had fallen ill, leaving his treasurer, Pierre Landais, free to negotiate with Richard.
It seems to have been agreed that Henry Tudor would be seized and taken to England, where it is safe to say he would not have had a long life expectancy. John Morton, however, who was staying in Flanders, got wind of the agreement and warned Henry, who fled to France, evading his would-be captors by just hours.

Henry’s flight left the rest of the exiles, about 410 of them, stranded in Vannes. Francis, however, recovered sufficiently to finance their own passage to France. He summoned Edward Woodville, John Cheyne, and Edward Poynings to him and gave them 100 livres for the expenses. Soon the entire band of exiles was in France. Instead of capturing Henry Tudor, Richard had catapulted him into the arms of England’s traditional enemy, and, it would prove in the long run, ensured the downfall of his own dynasty.

Ironically, Edward IV’s old enemy, Louis XI, had died in August 1483, just a few months after the death of his English rival. He too had been succeeded by a minor, the 13-year-old Charles VIII, who unlike Edward V was neither deposed nor imprisoned, but reigned under the regency of his sister, 22-year-old Anne of Beaujeu.
The French themselves harboured no doubts about the fate of their king’s English counterpart. On 15 January 1484, its chancellor had told the Estates-General, ‘Look [at] what has happened in [England] since the death of King Edward [IV]: how his children, already big and courageous, have been put to death with impunity, and the royal crown transferred to their murderer by the favour of the people’.

The formidable Anne of Beaujeu, herself facing a challenge to her authority from her cousin the Duke of Orléans, quickly realised the value of the newcomers. Assisting Henry Tudor to take the throne would deprive Orléans, who had associated himself with Pierre Landais in Brittany, of the ally he sought in Richard III. Moreover, while Richard had reached a truce with Scotland that September, hostilities between the French and the English at sea continued. It therefore suited the French very well to assist Henry Tudor, even though all they did for now was to lodge about 400 of the exiles at Sens and grant him 3,000 livres to clothe his followers. Charles VIII issued a letter to Toulon on 3 November announcing that the English were in ‘marvellous and great division’ and describing Henry Tudor, strangely, as the son of Henry VI; this is more likely a simple error than a concerted attempt by Henry and the French to misrepresent his lineage, as has been recently claimed. Henry himself never described himself in this manner, and would have made a laughing stock of himself among his prospective subjects, most of whom would have remembered Henry VI’s reign all too well, if he had tried.

The autumn of 1484 brought, in William Collingbourne’s words, yet more trouble for Richard III. Since 1474, the Lancastrian stalwart John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, had been imprisoned at Hammes Castle near Calais.
In 1478, he had leapt into the moat, either to escape or to kill himself – opinions differed. If Oxford had indeed given into a sense of despair and attempted to take his own life, he would soon have enormous cause for gratitude toward whoever had fished him out of the chin-deep water, for in late October or early November 1484, he suddenly found himself a free man.

Richard III, perhaps concerned about the activities of Oxford’s former associates in England, had ordered William Bolton to bring Oxford to England, presumably to move him to the greater security of the Tower or possibly to try and execute him for treason. Instead of handing over his charge, James Blount, the custodian of Hammes, simply walked away from his post, taking his erstwhile prisoner with him. Soon, the pair were greeting a delighted Henry Tudor.

BOOK: The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England's Most Infamous Family
7.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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