In earlier posts we saw that Holbein painted both our two Princes in 1527/8, aged in their fifties. They didn’t die in the Tower, they fled to Belgium and assumed new identities, returning in the fullness of time and joining the court of Henry VIII, or perhaps that of his father before him. Edward was using the names of ‘Sir Edward Gylford’, and ‘Sir Thomas Godsalve’. Richard of York was using the name ‘Sir Henry Gylford’.
But our story is about to take a bizarre twist. Do you remember the collar that Sir Henry was wearing? His Order of the Garter was adorned not with the Tudor Rose, nor even the Yorkist one. It was adorned with the Lancastrian rose. It was most perplexing. That apart, I was already concerned about something else. A good friend of mine at Bridgeman Art Library had sent me the image of Elizabeth Woodville, remarking on her resemblance to the Gylfords – there was something about the mouth, chin and eyes that suggested they might indeed be related… but – it has to be said – there was also something that did not suggest that. The noses. It did not seem the Gylfords got their noses from Elizabeth.
And so I checked out Edward IV. Apparently the nose did not come from that source either…
Maybe I was reading too much into it, but it was unsettling. And so I looked in the traditional place in Renaissance portraits where one might expect to find the name of the characters’ father – just to be sure. The lettering was unusually faint, but once one had spotted where it started, it was not hard to decipher. What it said, though, left me incredulous. It didn’t begin with the ‘E’ of Edward IV. Indeed, Holbein seemed to be asking that we question everything we thought we knew about this period in history.
It said that the father of both boys was Henry VI.
The idea was downright crazy. Should we really believe that the Yorkist Queen of England would be making babies with her husband’s arch Lancastrian rival? Should we believe that it was even physically possible for them to have met and done it? That her husband would not have known? And even if all that were possible, then how could Richard of York be Henry VI’s son, given that Henry died in the Tower in 1471, and Richard was born in 1473? There has never been a human pregnancy lasting that long, and so Henry could not be the father of Richard of York. I wiped the text, and started again, looking again for ‘Edward IV’, the name that should be there. I couldn’t find it. With quiet determination, the painting was still saying ‘Henry VI’.
I double checked. Edward V was conceived around 2nd February 1470. But from July 1465 to October 1470, Henry VI was a prisoner in the most secure of all prisons in the Realm – the Tower of London. Was it physically possible for Elizabeth Woodville to have gotten into the Tower. Well, anything is possible for a Queen, but it was hardly likely, was it? If he found out, and he likely would, then her husband, Edward IV would have killed her. And why would she, anyway? Henry was a defeated king, mentally unstable, and a prisoner in the Tower, while her husband was healthy, decisive, stable, and on the throne. Quite apart from that, she was most likely devout in her religious beliefs. It made no sense.
Holbein must have been wrong, I decided, clearly the victim of a rumour, perhaps a calculated Tudor one. I felt relieved. It’s not easy passing on outrageous truths to an incredulous public: people think you are crazy, and they tend to shoot the messenger. But just to be sure it was nonsense, I looked out a portrait of Henry VI to check what it said about his year of death. If it confirmed 1471, then Holbein was wrong, and that was an end to the matter.
First, though, I had some repairs to do. The original painting had suffered a mishap at some point in its history: it had split between two of its wooden panels, and a sliver of it had been lost. Then someone had joined it back up as if nothing had happened. Henry was missing a narrow slice through his face. So I did some work in Photoshop and tried to reconstruct how it had originally looked, filling in only the blank crevice and leaving the rest exactly as it was before:
Sure enough, his date of death was there. ‘Morto’ it proclaimed: ‘dead’, and then the year, written not once, but dozens of times over.
Henry VI, the portrait said, died in 1478, not 1471.
While I was digesting that, it struck me that his nose looked vaguely familiar, too. When I adjusted the distortion in the image (it was too high for its width), and then flipped it to its mirror image, the comparison to the two Princes was cause for concern.
It might be outrageous, but one needed to be quite sure that it was impossible. The problems were huge, certainly. First, Henry VI was reported dead on May 21st 1471, his coffin paraded through the streets, and his body displayed in St Paul’s Cathedral with the face uncovered. If he was alive in 1478, though, then it wasn’t him who was buried, and there’s a big problem… there were those who knew Henry through his confinement in the Tower, and if it had not been him, someone would have commented on it. Just one snag with that, though… there was an examination of Henry VI’s remains made in 1910, and the report said that the hair was matted in one place with a darker substance (presumably blood), and that the bones of his head had suffered substantial damage. He had been murdered by blows to the head, and so it was just possible that uncovering the face would not have helped anyone, even family, to recognize him. It was not quite as decisive as I hoped.
So had he escaped? Did someone spring him, and leave some poor unfortunate man in his place to pretend to be him for a few hours, someone who would then promptly be bludgeoned to death? Certainly not easy, I couldn’t think why anyone would agree to do that, but maybe just possible. There was another option, though… could it be that the man captured in July 1465 was not Henry VI? What better way to take get his pursuers off his back than to plant a look-alike in the path of Edward’s forces, and see him locked up in the Tower? If that had happened, then the man murdered in 1471 would not have been Henry, while everyone who saw the prisoner in the Tower over the past six years would think it was. Very conspiratorial, but not totally impossible, and not without precedent. There were two ways then, however improbable, that Henry VI might have survived his funeral in 1471, and fathered Richard of York.
Let’s go back a year, and fill in a little history. Edward was conceived in February 1470, and soon after, in March, a major rebellion began in Lincolnshire in support of Henry VI. On its own it did not have the strength to carry the day, though, and failed. Its leader, Warwick, fled to France on 1 May, met with King Louis XI and his relative, Margaret of Anjou (who happened to be Henry VI’s wife), and returned in September with ample reinforcements. Henry was restored to his throne on 30th October, Edward IV fled to Flanders, and his wife Elizabeth Woodville took refuge in Westminster Abbey – and then, on November 2nd – gave birth to Prince Edward, heir to the throne. Is it odd she remained? Probably not… she would have been seven to eight months pregnant.
Why on earth, though, would Elizabeth Woodville get pregnant by Henry VI? If this crazy new twist in history should prove to be true, then one would need to consider where her allegiances may have lain. Now, if we have to play devil’s advocate, Elizabeth was not a Yorkist. Indeed, she was a relative of the Lancastrian King Henry VI. She was his cousin: you’ll have to write it on a piece of paper to make sense of it, but her mother was Henry’s uncle’s wife – before he died and she remarried. What’s more, her first husband was a Lancastrian, too. He went into battle against her future husband, Edward IV, no less. Would she be disloyal to her Yorkist husband, though? We have to be careful not to judge her by today’s standards. In those days, blood ties were a whole lot stronger in England. Husbands come and go, but one’s blood is one’s blood. Her emotional ties to Lancaster would have been strong, and if one buys the theory of the power of blood ties, perhaps stronger than her allegiance to her Yorkist husband.
Why did she marry him, then? Wasn’t it easier to say no? The fact is that to have a Lancastrian in the heart of the Yorkist camp would be no small coup. To be able to spy on Edward and do what she could to ensure the leader of her clan got the throne back would have been invaluable to the Lancastrians. Are we slandering the good name of a noble lady by even considering the possibility? Maybe not, if her lifelong allegiance was to the Lancastrian cause. If so, then she would have been courageous indeed. But having sex with Henry is something else. Why in Heaven’s name would she do that, as indeed she must have, if Holbein was correct? Henry was unstable, not an ideal love match. And anyway, even though he had an eye for the ladies, he was a devout and pious man, and surely would never have committed adultery?
The fact of the world is that Kings do what Kings have to do, and they square it with God later. And when the survival of one’s clan is at stake, ladies too do what they have to do. This would not have been a flirtation or a bit of illicit fun. For Elizabeth Woodville, Lancastrian, to bear the children of the arch-Yorkist would have flown in the face of her blood ties. To let Edward think that was what she was doing, while making the babies instead with the chief of the Lancastrian clan, though, and thereby ensuring that whatever happened to Edward IV, the throne would surely revert to Lancastrians on his death, that would have been – in Lancastrian eyes, noble indeed.
Let’s step aside for a moment, and ask ourselves whether we believe this actually happened? The truth is we really don’t know, all we can say is it is a possibility. A shocking possibility, but a possibility, and only a possibility. Is there anything we can be sure of, then? Yes, personally I do believe this is what Holbein said, and what he believed. For us to take him seriously, though, would require a lot of confirmation from others, and an inquiry into how he could have known. First, though, there are some consequences we need to consider from this whole line of reasoning.
To have had even one child by Edward would have left the Lancastrian cause in future peril, so… if the two Princes were both Henry VI’s sons, what of Elizabeth of York, their sister? What of Elizabeth who united the Houses of York and Lancaster by marrying Henry VII? Where could we look? Well, we have a good likeness of her, created after her death, in the effigy for her tomb.
One doesn’t need a degree in art history to see there is writing across her forehead. All we need do is look for ourselves, and it is clearly there, even to the most obdurate of art historians. There was never so blatant and overt an inscription. All we need to do is read it, and wonder if anyone but the sculptor would have had the chance to engrave it there.
One reading gives the word ‘Elizabeth’, a second one, lying over the top: ‘York’, but there is a third more disturbing possibility. One might well disagree, but after puzzling for some hours over it, the alternative seemed to me to begin with a ‘B’. The second letter was harder to read, but perhaps an ‘A’, squashed beneath the word ‘de’, meaning ‘of’, and thereafter there follow more clearly the letters ‘STARD’. Who ever put the inscription there seems to say that Elizabeth was illegitimate too…
And on her head above, we see who the ‘of…’ refers to. It says in full ‘Bastard of Henry VI’.
[to be continued…]