As if there are not beguiling mysteries enough out there, I must press upon your patience once more to relate a little adventure of mine, which has uncovered yet another unexpected truth at the heart of Yorkist family politics. On awakening one morning, I decided to take a stroll and set out from Piccadilly after breakfast with little more than a potted-meat sandwich tucked away in my inside pocket. By teatime I found I had wandered across several county borders into Norfolk, and I came to my senses amid the bulrushes of the Fens with a pair of curlews engaged in some ritual mating dance at my feet. Seeking a bed for the night, I was fortunate enough to find the Biggerump Inn, standing alone in the falling darkness, where I was offered the corner of a stable. Dining on braised lamb in the Inn’s delightful parlour, my fancy was taken by a shelf of old-looking books, which I fell to perusing once my meal was finished. One of the smallest, and most battered, was a little book in a leather binding (see above); a funny little foible, but I have a taste for funny little foibles and, as I turned its pages, it was clear that the content pre-dated the cover by some centuries.
I flicked through the pages. It seemed to be some sort of prayer book, written in a fifteenth century secretary hand, with the occasional illuminated initial letter in red and gold. I have seen many similar books before. The first page bore many inscriptions, dating through from the 1400s to the seventeenth century, and one name in particular caught my eye. I had heard of Severus Larke on a previous occasion: the Larkes were a well-known Suffolk family, connected with Wolsey and the court of Henry VIII. Yet this individual’s hand was quite distinct; he had made a few notes in the margins beside prayers, initialling them with an elongated “S” and a small bird with distinctive stubby wings. And as I traced his comments, most of which were amendments to prayers or names of individuals to pray for, I recalled where I had heard his name before. Severus Larke had, for a brief period during the autumn of 1483, acted as confessor to Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV.
By this point, Elizabeth was a widow. She had fled into sanctuary with her children following the death of her husband. Her sons had been taken and Richard III had been crowned, so her future looked very uncertain. Larke was working in the service of one of the Pastons, I believe, which had taken him to London for a few months on legal business and, somehow, he ended up lodging in Westminster. As I yawned before the roaring fire, I passed the hours in trying to decipher something of his hand, and form an impression of his character. It was but fancy, and I met with little success, until I reached the end pages, which he had used to record his thoughts. Mostly they took the form of prayers and lists, payments owing and in one case, the number of his master’s dogs that needed feeding. And then, there was a strange line. Strange in that it was dated, very specifically to September 29, 1483. The line read “Prayers to be said for the Princess for the safe arrival of her child.” The word “Princess” was scored through in ink of a lighter colour.
This threw me into a state of bafflement. I could not recall a Princess that might have been pregnant in the autumn of 1483. Elizabeth Woodville was too old, having borne her last child three years earlier. Richard III’s Queen, Anne Neville, had borne a single son, who was then somewhere between the ages of seven and ten and there were never any reports of a second pregnancy. Equally, she would have been referred to in the text as “Queen” or “widow” or “dowager,” but not Princess. The only Princesses I could think of were the daughters of Edward IV, then in sanctuary with their mother. The eldest, Elizabeth of York would have been seventeen. Within months, Richard would pass an act of Parliament, Titulus Regis, declaring them illegitimate. This might account for the word being scored through, as Elizabeth’s royal status was retracted. Could it have been possible that it was she to whom Larke’s prayers referred?
So I twiddled with my pipe and thought about the dates. Elizabeth and her daughters had entered sanctuary in June 1483 and left it on March 1, 1484. This was a period of nine months but it couldn’t have corresponded exactly with a pregnancy, as Elizabeth of York must have been well enough, recovered and churched, to emerge on March 1. Nor is it likely that she conceived in the cramped confines of sanctuary, under the watchful eye of her mother. Therefore, she must have been pregnant when she entered sanctuary and given birth late in 1483 or early in 1484. And I began to wonder who the father of this child might be, this hypothetical child, whose absence from the records suggests it did not survive. The only man in London to whom Elizabeth’s name was attached prior to her marriage to Henry VII was her uncle Richard, the future Richard III. Tracing back his movements, I discovered that Richard was present in the city early in 1483 to attend a session of Parliament, leaving for the north in February. If he had impregnated Elizabeth of York that month, he would then have departed without being aware of her condition. We know that he had two acknowledged bastards; the scarcity of records about them suggests there may have been more, about whom we do not know. Yet perhaps not even Richard ever knew about this other child.
Elizabeth’s pregnancy would have become apparent by late March or early April. In the light of this, Edward’s early death can be interpreted in a different way entirely. I never accepted the theories that the robust Edward, even with all his feasting and whoring, had succumbed to a chill caught whilst out fishing. The possibility now arises that Edward was informed by his wife of his favourite daughter’s condition and the shock broke his health. Such a scandal was unprecedented and must be covered up. After Edward’s death, Richard began to travel south. Aware that he was the father of the child, Elizabeth Woodville could not allow him to know about the pregnancy, so before he was even half way, she fled to sanctuary, which she knew would offer the cover she needed until the child was born. If it was conceived in February, the delivery date would have been in November 1483. If it had been a boy, the child would have been an important Yorkist heir, a replacement for the lost Princes in the Tower. It also meant that the potential match being proposed between the Princess and the exiled Tudor was not anticipated to become a reality in the immediate future, suggesting that Elizabeth Woodville had no faith in Henry’s planned invasion of the autumn of 1483. Either that, or Henry had been informed of her condition and was coming to avenge her honour, in the style of his favourite French Romances. But he failed to live up to these legends. The weather drove his ships back and the next thing we know is that Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters emerged at the start of March. If Elizabeth of York carried her child to term, in this world where still births, miscarriages and infant mortality, were common, it seems most likely that it did not survive. Only one or two servants would have known of its existence, including confessor Severus Larke.
This theory also makes sense of the oath Elizabeth Woodville required Richard to swear in 1484. Before she set foot outside the safety of Westminster, she required him to make a public promise to protect her daughters and arrange suitable marriages for them. Of course she did, given that she knew Richard had already seduced her eldest girl. Richard was probably unaware of the pregnancy but had his deflowering of his niece on his conscience. This also makes sense of the rumours that date from Christmas 1484 about a potential flirtation between Richard and his niece. Except this was not a new flirtation, it was the tail end of a dangerous affair from early 1483, which the oath had firmly put an end to. To Richard, Elizabeth of York was but a conquest from his days as the Duke of Gloucester. Now that he was King, he had his own reign and wife to concern him, and Elizabeth was relegated to the status of an old flame, whose future he must arrange, to a Prince of Portugal. No doubt Elizabeth felt used and rejected. It is no surprise then, that she was eager to go along with her mother’s plan to wed her to Henry Tudor. She had borne her uncle’s child in secrecy and, but for the prayer of the royal confessor, jotted indiscreetly into his book, the matter would never have come to light.
It was that very indiscretion that led to the dismissal of Severus Larke from the royal profession. The emergence of the women in March 1484 coincided with Larke’s return home; first to Ipswich, then on to a position of confessor in a noble Norfolk household. No efforts were made by the royal family to retain his services and, ten years later, he appears in the Assize court records as living a profligate life, keeping a mistress who bore him a bastard. He was in danger of losing his position, in addition to the payment of a large fine but the case was never concluded. Only two weeks later, in October 1495, he was granted a royal pension by none other than the new Queen, Elizabeth of York, and retired to Bungay in Norfolk, just two miles east of the Biggerump Inn. He retained this pension and the queen’s favour until his death in 1498. Perhaps it was in recognition of his services in the past, or perhaps it was made to ensure his silence. With this thought, I strolled out into the deep Norfolk night and smoked a particularly good pipe of woody tobacco, musing on the inconsistencies of history and the eternal frailties of woman.
Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Geoffrey Willans, Shakespeare, Tobias Smollett, Jonathan Swift, George Orwell.
Jeff R Vescent is now accepting marriage proposals.