Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Death of Ursula Pole, Baroness Stafford


A month before Queen Elizabeth I celebrated her thirty-seventh birthday, her distant kinswoman Ursula Pole, Baroness Stafford died at the age of sixty-six. Where the wealthy baroness died is unknown, although it is possible that she passed away at one of the properties of her disgraced father-in-law Edward Stafford, the late duke of Buckingham. 

Born about 1504, Ursula was the youngest child and only surviving daughter born to Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury, by her husband Richard Pole, a loyal friend to Henry VII. The countess was the daughter of George, duke of Clarence, who was brother to the two Yorkist kings Edward IV and Richard III. Thus Ursula was both the duke of Clarence's granddaughter and the grandniece of two kings. She was related to Henry VII by his marriage to her relative Elizabeth of York. Margaret, countess of Salisbury was held in high esteem by Henry VII. She was close to Katherine of Aragon, whose household she served in during the princess's short marriage to Arthur Tudor. When Ursula was probably less than one year old, her father died. This impacted negatively on her mother, for the countess was left in difficult financial circumstances given how meagre her jointure was and because her husband's salary had come to an end. When Henry VIII became king in 1509, Margaret's position improved somewhat, for she became a member of Queen Katherine of Aragon's household and she was restored to the earldom of Salisbury in 1512. Her lands were worth worth over £2000, a significant sum in those days.

Unknown woman, formerly known as Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury from NPG retouched.jpg
Above: Ursula's mother, Margaret Pole, countess of Salisbury. By virtue of her mother, Ursula was grandniece of both Edward IV and Richard III.

Ursula spent her formative years at Warblington Castle in Hampshire, a residence that had been granted by Henry VIII to her mother around 1513. Her four brothers were Henry (later first Baron Montagu); Reginald (later a cardinal and vocal opponent of Henry VIII); Geoffrey; and Arthur. Whether or not Ursula was close to her siblings cannot now be known. Historian Hazel Pierce has conjectured, however, that Ursula was close to her second brother Reginald. Certainly it is possible that she both loved and admired her mother. Margaret, countess of Salisbury was pious and learned, dignified and gracious. Unfortunately for her, however, the Tudor dynasty was suspicious to the point of paranoia when it came to the subject of the house of York. While Margaret had enjoyed good fortune during the reign of Henry VII, and prospered early on in the reign of his son, events were to take a dark turn following Henry's decision to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. The countess came to be viewed by Henry as a double threat, on account of both her royal blood and her position as Katherine's close friend and confidant. Ursula, who was a married gentlewoman during these turbulent years, must have been well aware of the king's dark suspicions that were directed towards her mother's family.

In the autumn of 1518, aged fourteen, Ursula made an excellent marriage. Her husband was Henry Stafford, son and heir of the duke of Buckingham, who would be executed for treason in the spring of 1521. Her father-in-law's disgrace impacted negatively on Ursula and her husband, although they managed to obtain several of the duke's confiscated lands and manors in both 1522 and 1531. Ursula and Henry seem to have enjoyed a contented marriage, in which Ursula gave birth to fourteen children. One daughter, Dorothy (born in 1526) would later serve as Mistress of the Robes to her kinswoman Elizabeth I. Baroness Stafford appears to have been on good terms with her sister-in-law Elizabeth Stafford, duchess of Norfolk, for the duchess later bequeathed to her several costly items of jewellery and apparel.


Above: The remains of Warblington Castle. Ursula grew up here during the 1510s.

By the later 1530s, however, Ursula's natal family found itself in dire straits. Henry VIII became convinced that the Poles, on account of their Yorkist blood, intended to unlawfully seize the throne from him and his heir Edward. This paranoia was fed in part by the king's hostility towards Cardinal Reginald Pole, who had vocally condemned Henry's decision to break with the Roman Catholic Church. In the summer of 1538, Geoffrey Pole was arrested on account of the discovery that he had been in communication with his brother Reginald, an unforgivable act in the eyes of Henry VIII given his belief that Reginald was a traitor. Henry Pole was executed in January 1539 alongside the marquess of Exeter.

In November of that year, Ursula's mother, the countess of Salisbury, was interrogated. She convincingly attested to her innocence, to the grudging admiration of her interrogator William Fitzwilliam, earl of Southampton. Margaret's steadfastness proved, however, to be of no avail. In November 1539 she was incarcerated in the Tower of London, and she was found guilty of aiding and abetting her sons Henry and Reginald and of committing 'detestable... treasons'. In May 1541, the countess was executed in the most appalling manner. She was literally hacked to death by 'a wretched and blundering youth', a grisly death that shocked even the hardened courtiers at Henry VIII's court. 

In the space of two years, Ursula had lost both her mother and her eldest brother. It was fortunate for her that her brother Geoffrey was pardoned and managed to escape abroad; notwithstanding this fortune, Ursula surely experienced considerable grief and emotional turmoil. The impact of knowing that her mother had been brutally massacred in the most appalling of circumstances can only be imagined. Luckily, Ursula managed to escape the bloodbath of the Pole family. 

Ursula died on 12 August 1570. Her life had been eventful, but she managed to keep her head at a time when Tudor fear and paranoia was rife. She enjoyed greater fortune in the reign of Edward VI, when her husband was promoted to the barony, and as aforementioned her daughter was warmly received at the court of Elizabeth I. Ursula seems to have died in obscure circumstances. We cannot even be sure of where she was buried. She is one of the forgotten royal women of Tudor England, a Yorkist lady perhaps regarded by some as the rightful princess of England. 

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Edward IV's Secret Bride

Elizabeth Woodville (c.1437–1492), 2nd Foundress of Queens' College, Wife of Edward IV
Above: King Edward IV's secret union with Lady Eleanor Talbot was to have a serious impact on the legality of his marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville (right).


Before he married the beautiful widow Elizabeth Wydeville, King Edward IV of England is said to have secretly married Lady Eleanor Talbot who was, like Elizabeth, a widow. In his study of Eleanor, historian John Ashdown-Hill speculates that the couple wed in secret in the spring of 1461, shortly before the first Yorkist king's coronation. Rumours of Edward's secret first marriage gained momentum following his unexpected death in 1483. His younger brother Richard duke of Gloucester, as is well known, seized the throne that summer, claiming that Edward's bigamous marriage to Queen Elizabeth rendered their children illegitimate. By virtue of the late king's first marriage to Eleanor Talbot, his children by Elizabeth were bastards, and as such had no right to inherit the crown. The majority of modern historians have dismissed this allegation, viewing it as evidence of Gloucester's depravity as well as his remorseless desire to attain kingship at whatever the cost, but Ashdown-Hill takes these allegations seriously. He concludes that King Edward probably did clandestinely marry Eleanor some three years before he wed Elizabeth. 

Following his unexpected accession to the throne, Richard III's first Parliament was responsible for passing an Act that declared that 'King Edward was and stood married and troth plight to one Dame Eleanor Butler, daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury'. The Burgundian diplomat Philippe de Commines was to report in c. 1490 that Robert Stillington, bishop of Bath and Wells, 'married them [Edward and Eleanor] when only he and they were present'. Indeed, the eminent nineteenth-century historian James Gairdner found the extant evidence so compelling that he was to conclude that the marriage between Edward and Eleanor cannot be regarded 'as a mere political invention... Perhaps rather an evidence of the truth of the story is the care afterwards taken to suppress and to pervert it'. It is also entirely possible that Queen Elizabeth herself eventually discovered that her husband had married another before her. Dominico Mancini was to report that Elizabeth was well aware of 'the calumnies with which she was reproached, namely that according to established usage she was not the legitimate wife of the king'. 

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence.jpg
Above: If Edward IV truly was married to Eleanor Talbot before his marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville, then the true king of England was, by right, his younger brother George duke of Clarence (left) and, following George's execution, Richard duke of Gloucester (right). 

Who was Lady Eleanor Talbot, the woman who was allegedly Edward IV's secret bride? Born perhaps in 1436, Eleanor was perhaps the fourth child of John Talbot, first earl of Shrewsbury, by his second wife Lady Margaret Beauchamp, a formidable and enterprising woman who was not afraid to ensure the protection of her rights. Eleanor's childhood was probably entirely orthodox. She learnt the fundamental female skills of embroidery and housewifery, and was perhaps taught to both read and write. She was probably taught to dance, to sing and to play a musical instrument. Certainly, that she attracted Edward IV indicates that she possessed the requisite social graces and accomplishments viewed at the time as desirable. As the daughter of an earl, Eleanor's education would not have been neglected. She almost certainly learnt French, although it is less likely that she would have been taught Latin. Eleanor's relationships with her siblings is unknown, although evidence suggests that she was close to her younger sister Elizabeth, later duchess of Norfolk. We have no knowledge of Eleanor's appearance, although Commines later described her as 'a beautiful young lady'.

At the age of thirteen, Eleanor married Sir Thomas Butler, son of Ralph Butler, lord Sudeley. We have virtually no evidence of their married life together. As an arranged marriage, personal feelings would have counted for very little, but that is not to say that Eleanor and Thomas did not grow to love one another. At an unknown date (certainly before 1460), Sir Thomas died, perhaps from injuries sustained at the battle of Blore Heath, as Ashdown-Hill conjectures. Eleanor herself died at the age of thirty-four on 30 June 1468. She was buried in Norwich in the monastic church of the white Carmelites, to whom she had supported during her lifetime as benefactress. 

Whether Eleanor Talbot truly married Edward IV in about 1461 is an issue of considerable historical importance. If she was, then she was the king's true wife and any subsequent marriage he made was invalid. His second marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville would have been bigamous and their children illegitimate. Historians, however, have largely regarded Richard's suggestion that Edward was legitimately married to Eleanor Talbot with scepticism. John A. Wagner explained that 'most modern historians believe the precontract to be a fabrication devised to give Richard III's usurpation a veneer of legitimacy. The betrothal cannot be documented beyond the account rehearsed in Titulus Regius, and Richard never attempted to have the precontract authenticated by a church court, the proper venue for such a case'. However, as we have seen, there is indeed evidence beyond the act of 1484 for Edward's marriage to Eleanor. 

Historian Anne Crawford believes that Edward IV did not truly marry Eleanor Talbot. She draws attention to the fact that Eleanor Talbot did not come forward when news of Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Wydeville became public. Crawford also noted that it is significant that the Talbot family failed to support Richard of Gloucester's claims about the precontract. If Edward was truly married to Eleanor before his later union with Elizabeth, then he could have applied for a papal dispensation that would have invalidated the match with Eleanor. Modern historians remain divided as to whether Eleanor was truly Edward's wife. It seems certain, however, that she was the king's lover at some point early in his reign and unknowingly provided the basis for which Richard seized the crown in the aftermath of his brother's death, leading to the eventual overthrow of the Yorkist dynasty.