Now, it is no secret that the British Royal Mail Service has had a troubled history. In recent years, the closures of local post offices, late and delayed deliveries have led to significant inconvenience for businesses and individuals alike. It has become a standing joke that holidaymakers invariably arrive home before their postcards and long lost parcels sometimes turn up weeks after a birthday has been celebrated. But this time, the service really has surpassed itself.
This week, Westminster Abbey took delivery of a rather battered, yellow-looking missive bearing a seal in red wax. The letter, addressed to King Richard, Westminster Palace, bore several marks that told of its unusual travels. Among the various stains and scratches, it had been postmarked three times: in Paris in 1789, in Lucknow in 1857 and finally, in St Petersburg in 1917. Yet experts insist that the letter was written on paper dating from the 1480s and its neat secretary hand confirms this dating.
Historian Elison Weird is very excited by the find. “There is no doubt in my mind,” she enthuses, “that this is the missing piece of the jigsaw; a letter written by Elizabeth of York to her uncle Richard III, in the early months of 1485. Its survival is a miracle. I think it was hidden away in some family papers until the eighteenth century, when someone attempted to post it and the letter began its remarkable journey.” If Weird is correct, this letter sheds fresh light on one of the most controversial relationships of the fifteenth century. Scholars have known about the existence of another letter from Elizabeth to Richard since the seventeenth century, when it was published by George Buck the younger in an imperfect form, after having been kept among the Howard family papers for years. Buck’s version suggested that Elizabeth was urging Richard to marry her, as his Queen Anne lay on her death bed, but other historians have argued the evidence is inconclusive, or points to Elizabeth’s imminent Portuguese marriage.
Queen Anne died on March 16 and tongues must have been wagging at court. Richard did issue a public declaration to quash rumours that had arisen regarding a marriage between him and his niece. He sent Elizabeth north to his castle at Sheriff Hutton and probably never saw her again. He was killed in battle at Bosworth Field that August and she married his conqueror, Henry VII. Yet this new letter shows in shocking detail that the affair was real. Historians will have to rewrite Elizabeth’s character, previously whitewashed as a paragon of passive virtue, to take her passionate words into account.
Thank you to the Houses of Parliament and to Elison Weird, who have assisted me and given their kind permission for the letter to be quoted here in full. The punctuation is a modern addition, to assist meaning.
I commend me unto you, in the memory of your promises, with all I have, body and soul, and all that I am, is all for you. Since our last meeting, when my gracious King was so kind as to show me great favour, things have been well with me according to the will of God. But I wax impatient for the time when I can be in your arms again, and we can make arrangements for our future together. You have been the kindest uncle and best friend a girl might ever ask for. You have been my treasure, my uncle Dicky, my dear one. You have raised me from desperation into the reach of the throne. Nothing less than your love would have convinced me to deny my mother and refuse her sanctuary, or to ignore the pleas of Lady Margaret and her rat-faced son, or to give the orders for the smothering of the brats. Do not forsake me, darling Dicky. Speed to your wife’s side and fill her cup with the brew the apothecary gave you. Make her last hours comfortable then hurry to my bed again. I will keep it warm for you, against the dawn of our coronation. Yours in devotion and blessed hope of eternal love, Elizabeth.
The descendants of Elizabeth of York have yet to comment, and we await their decision regarding compensation.
Westminster Abbey, insider contacts with the Special Records Office.
The Idylls of the King Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Blog, Elison Weird
The King and I film
The Precipice Eileen Dover
Jeff R Vescent has embarked on a study of historical responses to satire as a superior manifestation of wit and concealed super powers.
He is a proud member of the Secret League of Jeffs, seconded from real life in the name of services to history and humour.