Treason and plots – a tale of 1468
Lady Eleanor Butler (born Talbot) probably knew that she was dying. In the early months of 1468, she transferred the lands that were hers to transfer to her sister, Elizabeth, Duchess of Norfolk. Where these lands came from is something of a mystery. John Ashdown-Hill has demonstrated that they were not dower lands, could not have been inherited, and were almost certainly not bought by Lady Eleanor, as she lacked the resources. The most probable origin of this mysterious land is that it was a gift from Edward IV. As King Edward was not in the habit of gifting land to random females this is suggestive of a connection between them. Of course, some people have pointed out that the land was not particularly valuable. Oh, well that makes it OK then! The point is that land – even small amounts of it – was not just handed out for no reason. No one has satisfactorily explained where the land came from if it did not come from the King.
Anyway, no sooner was this sorted than King Edward appointed Duchess Elizabeth to go to Burgundy with his sister, Margaret of York, on the occasion of the latter’s wedding. This involved the Duchess being in charge of the whole female side of things – no mean responsibility when around one hundred women and girls were attached to Margaret’s train. The reason for Elizabeth’s selection was probably that she was the most senior English lady who was not either a member of the royal house or a Woodville, or both. It may also have been intended as a mark of favour to her husband, John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, who, although apparently not the sharpest knife in the drawer by a long way, was at least a loyal Yorkist.
So off they popped to sunny Burgundy, to the celebration and pageantry that John Paston felt there were no words to describe. Elizabeth’s brother, Sir Humphrey Talbot, went with her. The unfortunate Eleanor was left behind in Norfolk to die without any of her birth family around her, although one would like to think that Norfolk himself visited with the occasional bunch of flowers. She was buried in the house of the White Carmelites at Norwich.
Elizabeth had scarcely set foot back in England (round about July 1468) when two of her servants John Poynings and Richard Alford, were charged with having treasonable dealings with the agents of the Lancastrians in Kouer-La-Petite. Brought to trial, they were found guilty and were hanged, drawn and quartered.
Now, as I mentioned above, Elizabeth’s husband, Norfolk, was a loyal Yorkist. So why should his servants have been suspected of intrigue with the Lancastrians? It makes no obvious sense. Elizabeth herself – though one of the most charming individuals to appear in the Paston Letters – was in no position to do anything of significance for the Lancastrian cause even if she was that way inclined. She did not control her husband’s retainers, or his castles, or anything helpful.
One of the Lancastrian exiles present in Flanders was, however, Somerset, Elizabeth’s first cousin, and brother to her good friend Lady Anne Paston. It is possible that she sought to pass on family news to him – but if this is the explanation, the treatment of her servants was extremely severe.
So was this a shot across the bows, to warn Elizabeth to keep her mouth shut about – certain matters? Who knows.
What can be said is that on 8 December 1468 the Duchess took out a pardon for all offences before 7 December. It is quite unusual for a married woman to take out a pardon without the inclusion of her husband. In civil matters she had no separate legal standing, she was under coverture. It may simply have been an insurance for any errors or omissions committed while serving in the office of Margaret’s Principal Lady-in-Waiting. There was, after all, potentially a lot to go wrong, jewels to go missing, whatever. But it could also indicate something more sinister.
On 28 January 1469, the Duchess’ brother, Sir Humphrey Talbot also received a general pardon.
It looks to me as if in the autumn/early winter of 1468, Elizabeth and Humphrey were under royal suspicion for something. The question is, was it something they did, or something they knew?