Sunday 3 November 2019

Coventry Guildhall Tapestry

On 27 September,  a number of Society members were present for a fascinating day exploring the tapestry at St Mary’s Guildhall in Coventry, organised by Tudor Coventry CIC and Medieval Coventry. This tapestry depicts a king and queen kneeling either side of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. There are an assortment of men behind the king, and women behind the queen and a row of saints above them. It was made in the early sixteenth century and was long thought to depict a Tudor court. However, Christian Liddy has argued that it depicts the mid fifteenth century when Coventry became the home of Henry VI’s court in the wake of Richard duke of York’s second protectorate.[1]

There has also been more recent speculation that one of the figures represents Richard III.[2] The character in question holds an item that has clearly been rewoven in an attempt to alter the image which looks to have been a snake originally. This has been interpreted as ‘an emblem of evil and deviousness’, according to an article on the guildhall website. The figure also holds a small item which has been identified as a coin and thus a symbol of Judas.

When the Society Conference was held in Coventry two years ago, member Fred Hepburn persuasively argued that the striking figure was much more likely to represent Richard duke of York than his son. Fred explained that the idea specifically of a ‘serpent of discord’ was popular in both mid-fifteenth and sixteenth-century literature and Richard duke of York would chronologically make more sense as an adult at the court of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. Polydore Vergil, most likely writing as the tapestry was being designed, was clear that ‘this general disturbance [the Wars of the Roses] took its origin from Duke Richard of York’. The smaller object in the figure’s hand, Fred suggested, was actually a gambling die, emblematic of York’s risk taking. Under Henry VIII, who was rather more proud of his Yorkist lineage, it might have seemed politic to remove the serpent.

Fred was among the speakers again at Coventry this autumn, along with Jonathan Foyle discussing the iconography of the window above the tapestry (which definitely does depict Henry VI but in an unusually military fashion), Kate Giles explaining the context of guildhalls more widely, Maria Hayward investigating the making of the tapestry, Mika Takami reporting on it from a conservationist point of view and myself talking about Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI’s time in Coventry. The talks began with Mark Webb from Historic Coventry Trust giving the local historic context and David Starkey introducing the political context of the period in which the tapestry was made. It was an excellent opportunity for sharing ideas and has set up considerable further discussion.

It has long been recognised that the top central figure in the tapestry – justice enthroned - was a late addition, presumably replacing an earlier image of the Trinity, but few of us had noticed until Maria’s talk that a rosary seems to have been embroidered out on one of the women’s dresses. Yet the saints and the Virgin Mary were allowed to survive, unlike in so many churches. It really is a wonderful relic from the last years when such art could be made before the Reformation. Maria also pointed to banderoles in each corner of the tapestry (which I’ve never been able to make out in the poor light there) which appear to have the initials H and M on them, presumably for Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou.

Much debate centred on the dogs at the feet of some of the courtiers and the question of whether they might be talbots, which was the emblem of the earls of Shrewsbury, or, as a questioner from the floor proposed, Tudor/Richmond greyhounds, or merely domestic dogs. The male figure beside the dog has an ample purse which might have made him a candidate for identification as John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury and Treasurer of England, if we could find a logical reason for him being so very prominent in the tapestry (Fred Hepburn suggested). If instead it is a Tudor emblem then it might depict Henry VII’s father, Edmund Tudor (as Jonathan Foyle was the first to point out). If so, might we start identifying the elderly man touching ‘Edmund’s’ shoulder as Owen Tudor? Then we might consider some of the possible parallel women as ancestresses of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York too: the very small figure near a white dog as Margaret Beaufort, more prominent women as the queen’s grandmothers. Or is it over ambitious to imagine sixteenth-century guildsmen wanting to weave so much specific history into their design? The debate will continue!

It is fair to say that not everyone was persuaded that the figure with the ‘serpent’ was Richard duke of York. One query was whether it was really a serpent at all or perhaps another rosary? Another was why put such a discordant figure in the tapestry in the beginning? Moreover, serpents could also be symbols of wisdom, something that might have seemed less obvious at a later date and so prompted the over-embroidery (an image of Elizabeth I currently hanging in Kenilworth castle clearly once held a serpent which has been painted over with a posy of flowers). What was clear in the final discussion is that none of the speakers thought it plausible that Richard III was depicted on the tapestry.

J L Laynesmith
Images provided by Mark Webb

Monday 29 April 2019

Elizabeth Woodville as Plague Victim


Queens' College Cambridge Portrait 88 

There were several newspaper headlines last week along the lines of ‘White Queen died of plague, claims letter found in National Archives’. Their authors are drawing on an article in this month’s issue of Social History of Medicine by Euan Roger, who is a historian at The National Archives.[1] The newspaper articles online seem to have caused some confusion and scepticism on social media. So, having read Roger’s fascinating article, here’s what I think it might mean for understanding Elizabeth’s death and much-debated funeral.

The focus of Roger’s research was an early-sixteenth century codex from St George’s College, Windsor, containing regulations about quarantine for plague (really interesting stuff – but you’ll have to read the article if you want to know more!). In the course of this, he investigated Henry VIII’s exceptional anxiety about the plague. He picked up on an intriguing letter written by the Venetian ambassador, Andrea Badoer, in July 1511. The ambassador observed ‘the Queen-Widow, mother of the late King Edward, had died of plague, and the King was troubled’.[2]

No one who might answer the description of ‘queen-widow’ had died in 1511, or even remotely near that date. Hitherto, scholars who came across the curious reference seem not to have been interested in trying to unravel its mystery, until now. Euan Roger persuasively concluded that the ambassador’s remark was meant as an explanation for Henry VIII’s particular fear of the plague – the king knew (or, at least, believed) that a close relative had died of it. (Do check out the sources and logic for this in his article).

Elizabeth Woodville was not the only mother of a king Edward to have died within living memory. The most recent was Edward IV’s mother, Cecily duchess of York, whom some on Twitter have suggested might have been the subject of the ambassador’s remark. Cecily was indeed the woman most commonly referred to as the ‘mother of King Edward’. She died when Henry VIII was four, so he is unlikely to have remembered her in person. However, she must have been part of his sense of his family because she bequeathed him three Arras tapestries and many of her lands had passed into his possession as duke of York (which was his title before his elder brother’s death). At first sight Cecily seems a possible candidate, except that she was never a queen.

Cecily’s status was contentious. Her husband, Richard duke of York, had claimed that his right to the throne was superior to Henry VI’s. During the reigns of her sons Edward IV and Richard III, Cecily called herself ‘king’s mother and wife of the rightful heir to the thrones of England and France and lord of Ireland’. In Henry VII’s reign, however, it appears that she tactfully dropped much of this claim. She usually described her husband only as ‘the right noble prince Richard duke of York’. In so far as Henry VII had any blood right to the throne, it came from his relationship to Henry VI. Consequently, suggesting that Henry VI’s claim was false would not have played well with the Tudor family. So, it would make no sense for anyone at Henry VIII’s court to call Cecily ‘queen-widow’.

Moreover, what we know of Cecily’s death does not suggest that she was a plague victim. She was living in rural Berkhamsted which was a much less likely site for plague to strike than the congested capital. She was already 80 years old and the long preparation for her death reveals that it was not a hurried affair. On 1st April 1495 she began making her last testament. She did not finish it until 31st May, the very day of her death. On that day she sealed and signed the document. After her death, a papal indulgence was tied around her neck with a silk ribbon and her body was transported 60 miles for burial at Fotheringhay College.[3] This would have caused a serious contagion risk if she had died of plague.

The only other relevant mother of a king Edward was Elizabeth Woodville, mother of Edward V and wife of Edward IV. She had very definitely been a queen-widow. We might have expected the ambassador to call her the king (Henry VIII)’s grandmother, rather than the mother of his uncle. Nonetheless, the description was entirely accurate for Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth had died three years before Cecily. She was only in her early fifties and lived at Bermondsey Abbey, near the Thames in Southwark. This was a much more vulnerable location for the plague. Crucially, as Roger argues, her exceptionally low-key funeral has long been a matter of speculation.  If her hasty burial was a consequence of fears about plague infection, this would offer a new perspective on the event.

Elizabeth Woodville had composed her last testament on 10 April 1492, exactly nine years and one day after her husband, Edward IV’s, sudden death, ‘seeing the world so transitory and no creature certain when they shall depart from hence’ (TNA PROB 11/9). It seems from this line that she had no specific reason to expect that two months later she would be dead. In this testament, she requested that she be buried with Edward IV at Windsor, ‘without pomp entering or costly expenses done thereabout’.

A description of Elizabeth Woodville’s funeral has been preserved in a sixteenth-century herald’s book that is now in the British Library.[4] The author drew attention to the use of ‘old torches and torch ends’, tapers ‘of no great weight’, and a ‘low hearse, such as they use for the common people’. He also noted that several of the traditional solemn services were omitted and that the poor men holding torches had not been provided with black mourning wear. It is impossible to be sure whether the author’s emphasis on the minimal ceremony was meant as a criticism of her executors, a lament on her poverty or praise for her austere piety. However, his opening explanation suggests that it was the last. He had recorded that the queen wished to be taken by river to be buried at Windsor ‘in all goodly haste, without any worldly pomp’. Euan Roger’s investigation suggests that some elements of this simplicity were actually a result of anxious, rather than ‘goodly’, haste.

One of the most surprising aspects of the funeral is the fact that the body did not lie on the hearse throughout the ceremonies but was buried immediately on arrival at the castle ‘privily about 11 of the clock in the night’. Only one priest and one clerk had greeted the tiny party accompanying the body ‘privily through the little park’. This would entirely fit with a desire to avoid contagion from the plague. Intriguingly, however, there is no hint that the author of the description was himself aware of the cause of death which may suggest that, if she did die of plague, it was not entirely public knowledge at the time.

It is also worth noting that we do not seem to have any records of plague in London in 1492. Nonetheless, plague was endemic by this period to the extent that many sources seem not have considered it worth noting every small outbreak. Records for Oxford University indicate that the students would be evacuated each time plague struck, but sometimes only a couple of students were affected. Such evacuations occurred in both 1491 and 1493.[5] It is not improbable that a small outbreak occurred in London between these years.

Last week’s newspaper reports implied that the letter at the heart of the revelations had only just been discovered. The truth is actually more impressive – records that have been publicly available for decades can still yield surprising new information when examined by a historian who is asking new questions in the context of the appropriate background knowledge. An investigation into why a sixteenth-century king was so concerned about plague has indicated that Elizabeth Woodville’s family believed that she had died of that disease in 1492.

J L Laynesmith

[1] Euan C Roger , “‘To Be Shut Up’: New Evidence for the Development of Quarantine Regulations in Early-Tudor England”, Social History of Medicine,
Published: 11 April 2019
[2] Item come la Raina Vedova, fò madre dil Re Edoardo, erra morta da peste, et il Re era fastidiato. See
[3] Her will stated a preference for burial at Fotheringhay but acknowledged that this would be an expensive undertaking and allowed that the king might recommend she be buried elsewhere. Her relationship with her local church in Berkhamsted was close – in her will she left gifts to three incumbents as well as to the church itself – so it would have been the sensible alternative if she had actually died of plague. J. L. Laynesmith, Cecily duchess of York (Bloomsbury, 2017).
[4] Transcribed and discussed in Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs with R. A. Griffiths, The Royal Funerals of the House of York at Windsor (Richard III Society, 2005).
[5] Charles Creighton, A History of Epidemics in Britain (CUP, 1891), I:283.
Image from Wikmedia Commons,

Monday 22 April 2019

Archaeology at Collyweston Palace

In February this year exciting news emerged about archaeology on the site of Lady Margaret Beaufort’s home at Collyweston in Northamptonshire. I recently found out that the Collyweston Historical and Preservation Society are looking for support in this project: see here. The preliminary geophysical services have been completed to guide the digs this summer. They plan to reveal their findings at a celebratory weekend on 7th and 8th September.

What makes this so exciting? Collyweston was one of the first brick manor houses in the region and its early grandeur was the work of the Yorkist Ralph Lord Cromwell, who was a major political figure through the fifteenth century. He fought at Agincourt and was Treasurer of England for a decade during which time he amassed considerable wealth. He stepped down because he opposed the policies of William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk. He was a member of Richard duke of York’s affinity from 1441, which was not always good for his political career. However, it has been speculated that his late arrival for the First Battle of St Albans was a consequence of misgivings at York’s violent approach. Unlike Collyweston, his great building projects at South Wingfield and Tattershall are still testament to his power and influence. He died at South Wingfield in January 1456.

Lady Margaret Beaufort acquired the palace in 1499, fourteen years into her son's reign. She made extensive improvements both to the gardens and buildings in 1502-3 including bay windows decorated with the Beaufort arms. It was during this time that Margaret offered refuge at Collyweston to Edward IV’s daughter, Cecily, who had been banished from court by an enraged Henry VII for secretly marrying a mere esquire, Thomas Kyme. But in 1503 the court came to Collyweston for three weeks of midsummer festivities. These were to mark Princess Margaret’s final days with her family before she departed for Scotland and marriage with James IV. It was probably the most spectacular period in Collyweston’s history and it marked what was to prove a turning point in British history. It will be wonderful to be able to reimagine the space in which these celebrations occurred.