Elizabeth of York: Life Story

Chapter 4 : ...but in Battalions

Edward’s early demise was disastrous. His heir, Prince Edward, was only twelve. Although childhood was shorter in the fifteenth century, and Edward himself had taken full control of the kingdom at only eighteen, the Prince was clearly too young to rule.

The new king was proclaimed as King Edward V two days after his father’s death, but almost immediately there was dissension at court. The Queen’s family held many of the great offices of state, and her brother, Anthony, Earl Rivers, was also Edward V’s Governor in the Marches. The Council immediately dispatched messengers to Ludlow for Rivers to bring the King to London.

Queen Elizabeth, nervous that her son’s youth left him vulnerable to attack, wanted an armed guard to be sent to fetch him, but she was over-ruled. There was also dissension as to the role in the new government that ought to be played by Elizabeth’s uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

The thirty-year-old Duke had acted as Edward IV’s lieutenant in the north for some years, and shown himself to be a diligent and effective deputy – although he had, on occasion, ruffled the feathers of the other great northern magnates. Gloucester was also seen by many as the heir to the patronage of his father-in-law, the dead Earl of Warwick.

Edward IV had probably named Gloucester as Lord Protector, but there was argument as to whether this role should cease on the coronation of the new King, or whether it ought to extend until Edward V’s majority. Queen Elizabeth was eager for Edward to be crowned immediately, but many of the Council, most notably Edward’s closest friend, William, Lord Hastings< and Henry, Duke of Buckingham, thought that Gloucester should be summoned to take control of the government.

Gloucester, receiving word from Buckingham, rapidly marched with an armed escort to intercept Edward V and Rivers en route to London, meeting the King near Stony Stratford. Buckingham, too, raced to the rendezvous. Having dined convivially with Rivers and Buckingham that night, the following morning, Gloucester, who had stopped on the London road ahead of the King’s party, met his nephew on the road. He immediately ordered the arrest of Rivers, and Edward’s half-brother, Sir Richard Grey. 

Edward was horrified, but Gloucester assured him that Rivers and Grey were traitors, and had them sent to immediately to Pontefract Castle under guard. The party advanced to London, Edward continuing to protest that he had trust in his mother’s family.

In London, Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen Dowager, and her eldest son by her first marriage, Thomas, Marquis of Dorset, considered their options. The Woodvilles were not generally popular, and there were few who would think them better placed to rule on Edward’s behalf than Gloucester. But the Dowager Queen was deeply suspicious of Gloucester, for reasons that can never be satisfactorily known after more than five hundred years. Once again, she took refuge in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, along with Elizabeth, her other daughters and nine-year-old Richard, Duke of York.  Elizabeth’s half-brother, Dorset, and her uncle, Lionel Woodville, Bishop of Salisbury, joined them there.

The Archbishop of York, Thomas Rotherham, was sympathetic to Queen Elizabeth, and, in his capacity as Lord Chancellor, brought her the Great Seal of England, without which no official business could be transacted -  in theory, at any rate. He later retrieved the Seal, but was quickly replaced as Chancellor by Thomas Bourchier,

Edward V entered London, dressed in mourning and flanked by Gloucester and Buckingham, three weeks after his father’s death. The coronation was fixed for 24th June and coins were struck in the new King’s name. The Council accepted Gloucester as Lord Protector, although it refused to sanction any proceedings against Rivers or Sir Richard Grey, who remained incarcerated. The Council was also definite that Gloucester’s role would cease when the King was crowned, and that he would only have the role as leader of the Regency Council until Edward came of age.

Elizabeth and her other siblings remained in sanctuary – safe, but trapped. Dorset secretly slipped out, and went into hiding. Meanwhile, Edward V, as was customary for kings awaiting coronation, took up residence in the Tower of London.

Repeated attempts were made to persuade Queen Elizabeth to leave sanctuary, which she just as firmly refused. In early June, Gloucester sent to York for troops to protect him and Buckingham against the Queen and her ‘adherents and affinity’.

There are many contending theories as to what happened next. Some historians believe that Lord Hastings, having been a determined enemy of Queen Elizabeth, and Dorset (who was his rival for the affections of Edward IV’s mistress, Elizabeth (Jane) Shore) now began to have second thoughts about his loyalty to Gloucester and to work with Queen Elizabeth against him.

Others believe that Gloucester was already planning to take the throne and had his friend, Sir William Catesby, sound out Hastings on whether he would support such a coup. According to this theory, Catesby either did not talk to Hastings at all, but, eager to take on Hastings’ offices, told Gloucester that Hastings would work against him or that he did speak to Hastings who was appalled at the notion.

The only thing we can be fairly certain of, is that on the morning of 13th June, at a Council meeting at the Tower, Gloucester accused Hastings, Sir Thomas Stanley, Archbishop Rotherham, and Bishop Morton of treason. Hastings was bundled into the yard and summarily executed. Shortly after, Stanley was ‘forgiven’ and restored to the Council, whilst Morton was imprisoned in one of Buckingham’s castles and Rotherham in the Tower.

Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York

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