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The Maligned Queen in the Car Park

Added to the list of monarchs and notables found or potentially to be found beneath car parks, tennis courts, and other such mundane places must be the Queen of Henry III, Eleanor of Provence. Buried in Amesbury Priory after her body was kept in ‘storage’ by the nuns for two months while her son, Edward I, was away at war, the grave was lost, like so many others’, during the Reformation. Quite possibly  the architect Inigo Jones stumbled over the Queen’s gravesite while plans were being drawn up to build a classical mansion on the abbey site. He describes a chest tomb which, when pried open, revealed a skeleton wearing ‘rich garments.’ There are only one or two possibilities as to whom these remains might belong to, and Eleanor is the prime candidate. No further mentions of the remains exist and it is presumed the tomb was resealed and then the site built over and landscaped.

Some years ago, archaeologists did some geophysics on the large open green space in front of the current Amesbury Abbey (the classical mansion.) Nothing showed up of interest–not even buildings, let alone a Queen’s last resting place.

However, bits of lead and medieval glass were recently turned up by the spade in the nearby flowerbeds; presumably these came from the destroyed priory church. Measuring the ground to the approximate length of the church,  the site of the high altar appears to be somewhere between a large tree and a small car park for residents on the private estate. Eleanor’s grave is thought to be in this approximate area.

Eleanor of Provence is one of England’s least known queens, and probably one of the most maligned. In several books about her husband, Henry III, she scarcely gets a mention, save to chastise her for promoting her family members or to recount the notorious incident at London Bridge, when her barge was pelted with stones and rubbish. While the promotion of her family was one of her ‘failings’, in fact Eleanor was a model wife and a medieval mother who really cared about her children, even causing diplomatic issues over their care–for instance, when her son Edward fell ill at Beaulieu Abbey, she insisted upon staying with him, overriding the abbot who said that no woman, not even a queen, could stay in the abbey. There was no hint of any marital infidelities by either King or Queen, and Henry had known no mistresses or illegitimate children. Eleanor was so trusted in her abilities, she was made regent in his absence; she also gathered an army in France when Henry and Edward were taken prisoner.

Maybe, like Richard, her reputation should be up for a revamp.

She is not to be confused with another royal Eleanor buried somewhere in Amesbury–Eleanor, Pearl of Brittany.  That Eleanor was the daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet, son of Henry II, and sister to the unfortunate Arthur of Brittany. She was England’s longest-serving political prisoner; accused of nothing,  her only crime was having royal blood and a strong claim to the throne by strict primogeniture.

There has been some confusion about the actual burial-place of both women, as the local parish church of St Mary and St Melor was once part of an abbey. Many people assumed that is was the church for the vanished priory. In fact, it was part of an earlier monastic foundation–there were TWO religious houses in Amesbury, although St Melor’s became the parish church at a fairly early date. It is most likely that this church IS where Eleanor of Brittany is buried, due to the Breton connection, and geophysics have shown there are several gravecuts before the high altar. However, Eleanor of Provence almost certainly lies  in the priory that stood in the fields to the back of the older foundation.

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Squaring the Circle

Writing The Survival of the Princes in the Tower was an enormously enjoyable project. The book, due out in Autumn 2017, considers the evidence that one, or both, of the sons of Edward IV survived well beyond 1483, when they are traditionally considered to have been murdered by their uncle Richard III. My problem with this almost universally accepted view has always boiled down to one irreconcilable dichotomy. Richard, we are told by writers from Sir Thomas More onwards, killed his nephews to secure his throne and prevent them from being a threat. Then, he kept it secret, so that no one knew they were dead. The fatal flaw in this argument is that unless Richard publicised the deaths of his nephews, the threat did not go away, as Henry VII would find out. If Richard killed them, he did it to prevent them being used as a threat, but unless he made it widely known that they were dead, they did not cease being a potential source of opposition and so the murders were rendered utterly pointless.

If a leap of faith is taken and it is accepted for a moment that the boys were not killed, many otherwise incomprehensible events begin to make more sense. What if Elizabeth Woodville emerged from sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her daughters in March 1484 because the Princes were not dead? Why else would she write to her oldest son Thomas and advise him to come home? Why, many will ask, is there no trace of them in the historical record? Well, there wouldn’t be, would there? It was in Richard’s and Henry VII’s interests to keep their location and maybe even their survival, particularly in Henry VII’s case, a secret, so why would records be left lying around that would point to them? What may be surprising is just how many snippets that just might hint at their survival do remain. There is nothing conclusive, of course, but the clues are there.

Part of the problem becomes the number of different version of the fates of one or both Princes that can be found. They can’t all be true. This is a particular problem in relation to the younger Prince, Richard, Duke of York. There are three theories amongst those relating to Richard that are, at least superficially, mutually exclusive. The career of the young man remembered as Perkin Warbeck is perhaps the most famous example of a pretender to Henry’s throne. It is an important distinction that a ‘pretender’ is very different from an ‘imposter’. A pretender, in this context, is a name derived from the French ‘pretendre’, ‘to claim’, whilst an imposter is a fraud claiming an identity that does not belong to them. In the same way, it is applied to James Stewart, son of James II, who is known as the Old Pretender, the term does not necessarily imply an imposture. There was never any doubt of James’ identity and the term does not infer that Perkin was an imposter either.

There are two other stories of Richard’s survival that are prominent. Jack Leslau’s theory has fascinated me for years. It is very detailed and the evidence is examined in the book, but essentially it asserts that Richard, Duke of York survived as Dr John Clement, a prominent physician and a member of Thomas More’s inner circle. If true, it means that his survival was an open secret at the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII and alters More’s motives in his creation of the story of the Princes’ murder. David Baldwin’s The Lost Prince details a further theory that Richard may have survived at Colchester, where he trained as a bricklayer. A Moyle family legend tells of a bricklayer employed by Sir Thomas during the rebuilding of Eastwell Place who was caught reading a Latin book. After much cajoling, the elderly man identified himself as an illegitimate son of Richard III. He was given a plot of land on which to build a house and live out his retirement and on his death, his name was recorded in the parish register as Richard Plantagenet. Since Richard III recognised his two known illegitimate children, it has been suggested that Richard of Eastwell was, in fact, Richard, Duke of York.

These are just three of the theories, but it raises the question of how they can be reconciled to one another, even if one accepts any of them might be true. It is not impossible, though. There is intriguing evidence that Perkin might have been far more genuine than tradition allows, not least that the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella believed that he really was Richard, Duke of York. There are also contemporary suggestions that Perkin and his wife, Lady Catherine Gordon, had one child and possibly more.

What if Perkin really was Richard, Duke of York? What, then, if one of his sons was raised as Dr John Clement, an identity, based on University records, that might have been meant for his father and was simply transferred to the son? Could the bricklayer at Eastwell have been another son, who added to his age and secured a comfortable retirement with his version of the truth? This is just one possible explanation that allows three of the prominent stories of Prince Richard’s survival to exist alongside each other. There is more detail in the book, which I have no doubt will cause some waves.

One thing became clear as I was writing: All that is required to accept the survival of the Princes in the Tower is a belief that Richard III was not a reckless and disorganised enough monster to kill his nephews and then fail to see his motive realised by keeping it all a secret, that Henry VII was similarly averse to killing his brothers-in-law and possibly their young children for the love of his wife if for no other reason and that Henry VIII, at the beginning of his reign, was self-confident and assured enough to allow Plantagenet relatives to live in peace. None of these is hard to accept. Richard III did not harm Edward, Earl of Warwick or any of his other nieces and nephews. Henry VII did not execute Warwick until adulthood and only under pressure from the Spanish to complete the match between Arthur and Catherine of Aragon. As for Henry VIII, the teenager was very different from the older man. He created Warwick’s sister Margaret Countess of Salisbury, paid for the education of at least one of her sons, Reginald Pole, and was close to his uncle Arthur Plantagenet, an illegitimate son of Edward IV, until his paranoia ran wild.

I hope that the book will cause some to at least pause and consider the possibilities, to question why it is that there is a belief the Princes were killed at all and what it might mean if they did survive. The belief in their murders would be the ultimate propaganda victory of the Tudor era but might also have left them with a threat that lingered almost as long as the Tudors themselves did.

THE LOST PRIORY OF AMESBURY

The palatial 17thc mansion called Amesbury Abbey (now a private nursing home) stands in beautiful landscaped gardens near the curve of the Avon and on the edge of the Stonehenge World Heritage Landscape.

The original monastic building from which it takes its name, the Fontrevraudine Priory of Amesbury, is long gone, a victim of Henry VIII’s Reformation—not one stone remains visible above  ground (although rumours abound that a piece of external wall along the perimeter of the property might be medieval.)   However, painted tiles dating between the 12th and 15th C often turn up when the gardeners do the rose-beds, along with fragments of glass and other relevant debris. This has recently led experts to pinpoint the probable position of the vanished priory church, standing slightly north of the present house.

The priory was originally built as a daughter house of Fontrevaud, after the town’s first abbey, founded in Saxon times by Queen Elfrida, was dissolved in 1177. The old Benedictine nuns were sent upon their way (most of them having supposedly lived scandalous lives!) and 21-24 nuns from Fontevraud in France were moved in, along with some English sisters from Worcestershire.

The early Plantagenets, who had a great affinity with Fontevraud, the final resting place of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard I, greatly favoured the Amesbury daughter-house. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s foster daughter, Amiria, decided to take the veil there, and when Eleanor herself died in 1203, the prioress paid a rent from the Exchequer to the Abbess of Fontevrault to have a chaplain pray for Eleanor’s soul.

It was not all about religion. King John had rather secular dealings with the priory in 1215 when the barons were in revolt. He hid part of the royal treasury in the vaults for safekeeping.

In the reign of John’s son, Henry III, the priory seemed to come to renewed prominence. The king visited personally on several occasions and granted  the priory nuts, firewood, wine, and a communion cup.Henry’s son, Edward I kept a close connection  to the priory  and sent his daughter, Mary of Woodstock, to join the order as a young girl. Mary seemed to enjoy travelling and playing cards more than she enjoyed being a nun, however; she ran up huge gambling debts to the tune of £200 while attending her father’s court. The 7th Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne, also claimed to have had an affair with her. Her burial place is not known but it is very likely in Amesbury.

Mary’s cousin, Eleanor of Brittany also became a nun at Amesbury, but eventually she  migrated overseas to the Abbey of Fontrevrault itself, where she rose in the ranks to  become the abbess. There were a few conflicts with her cousin over the years, possibly because she disapproved of Mary’s less than nunly behaviour. Eleanor the Abbess of Fontevrault is not to be confused with an earlier Eleanor of Brittany, who willed her body to Amesbury after dying in a convent in Bristol. That Eleanor was the sister of Arthur of Brittany, most likely murdered by King John, and she was a prisoner for most of her adult life due to her closeness to the crown. Her remains might be in the older abbey (now the  parish church of St Mary and St Melor) rather than in the lost priory, as it was because of St Melor, whose life story mirrored that of her unfortunate brother, that she wished to be interred at Amesbury.

The most famous resident of Amesbury Priory was Henry III’s widow, Queen Eleanor of Provence, who was Mary and Eleanor’s grandmother. She may never have become a fully professed nun and had her own private quarters built for her use. Eleanor was a strong woman, beautiful but not popular with her English subjects, and had at one time been appointed regent of England in her husband’s absence.

Originally, Eleanor had intended to be buried next to Henry III in Westminster Abbey, when the time came. However, a problem arose. The space had been usurped by the body of Eleanor of Castile, wife to her son Edward I, who had predeceased her; so, when Eleanor died in 1291, the nuns were not quite certain what to do with the body. They waited several months for the king to arrive and decide where she would be buried. When he finally reached Amesbury, he allowed his mother to be interred before the high altar in the priory church,  with all due ceremony and many lords attending.

The last great lady of royal blood to reside in Amesbury priory was Isabel of Lancaster, daughter of Henry 3rd Earl of Lancaster. She arrived there in 1327 and ended up as prioress. She was the granddaughter of Edmund Crouchback, hence great granddaughter of Henry III and Eleanor of Provence, showing that family connections were still strong.

The priory does not feature overmuch in records after the late 1300’s, although some of the floor tiles are 15th c. It is possible it fell on hard times during this period. After the death of her husband, Margaret, Lady Hungerford, resided at the priory between 1459 and 1463. While she was there her lodgings burnt down, destroying £1000 of her personal possessions. The nuns asked that she restore the damaged buildings; the cost to her was £20. In 1463 she Margaret left the convent when her son, Robert, 3rd Baron Hungerford, was executed at Newcastle after the Battle of Hexham. The Hungerford lands were seized by Edward IV,  and divided between Richard of Gloucester and Lord Wenlock.

The priory was, naturally, dissolved in the Reformation. In 1540, it was given to Edward Seymour. A year later, the spire of the church was pulled down and the buildings roofs were torn off to take the lead.

Wind and weather soon took their toll and then later building and landscaping obliterated all that was left of this once-great religious house…which was not only a holy place, but the final resting place of a Queen.

Sources: A History of Wiltshire, Vol 3

 

TO BE CONTINUED

ARTHUR AND ELEANOR-TRAGIC SIBLINGS

A tragic but  often overlooked  story of a prince and princess and a wicked uncle is that of Arthur and Eleanor of Brittany. (Two later boys who may or may not have  been killed seem to elicit much  more sympathy, probably at least in part due to  a certain  play and some maudlin Victorian art!) King John gets a bad rap (“Foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John,” chronicler Matthew Paris wrote in the 1230s!),  but it is interesting that his ineptitude as a ruler seems to be treated as a far greater crime than some of his misdeeds.

Arthur was the son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, younger  brother of Richard Lionheart and  older brother to John Lackland, and his wife the heiress Constance of Brittany. Arthur did not have the best start in life being born posthumously, his father having died shortly before his birth in either an accident at a joust or from a sudden heart attack. Geoffrey was only 27 when he died and was buried in Notre Dame Cathedral  in Paris.

As Geoffrey was older than John, his child was technically in line to the throne of  England and in 1190 Richard I named the three-year-old Arthur as his heir, since he had no sons of his own. This designation  bypassed Richard’s  younger but adult brother, John. Richard  repeated the nomination of Arthur as heir in 1196, at the same time, Arthur’s mother Constance proclaimed her son as duke of Brittany.

Bad luck followed, however—Ranulf de Blondeville, Arthur’s own step-father through his mother’s remarriage,  abducted  his estranged wife Constance,  and King Richard had to advance on Brittany to free both Arthur and his mother. Constance then fled her husband and was granted an annulment.

Later, in 1199, when Richard realised he was dying after being struck by an arrow during the siege at Chalus-Chabrol,  the king  suddenly did a  hasty about-face and changed his nomination for the succession from Arthur to John—he had changed his mind on his deathbed, fearing  that the Duke of Brittany was far too young to rule a country.

John was crowned king, but the French, who preferred Arthur’s claim, rose up to support the young boy of twelve. He marched with an army to Anjou but to little effect.

In 1200, a treaty was signed between King John and Phillip II of France, which finally quashed Arthur’s claims to the throne forever.  Within a short while, the young boy and his supporters were in open rebellion, even besieging Arthur’s own grandmother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, in her castle of Mirebeau.

John arrived at Mirebeau with an army of his own, however, and Arthur was captured and taken to the Castle of Falaise where he was placed in the care of Hubert de Burgh.  It was said that at this time John ordered that Arthur be castrated and blinded. However, de Burgh refused and kept the young prince safe.

A short while later, Arthur was taken from de Burgh’s protection at Falaise and moved on to Rouen castle…and this was where he disappeared in or around April 1203.

The Margam Chronicle states :After King John had captured Arthur and kept him alive in prison for some time, at length, in the castle of Rouen, after dinner on the Thursday before Easter, when he was drunk and possessed by the devil, he slew him with his own hand, and tying a heavy stone to the body cast it into the Seine. It was discovered by a fisherman in his net, and being dragged to the bank and recognised, was taken for secret burial, in fear of the tyrant…

   While some of the above description relating to the murder may be nothing more than monkish exaggeration, it is interesting to note that Maud de Braose,wife of William de Braose, who was working closely with John at the time of Arthur’s disappearance, dared to accuse John to his face of murdering Arthur of Brittany.

    Needless to say, making this open accusation to a man like John did not go well for Maud—or  for her son William. After fleeing to Ireland, where they were eventually captured, they were both imprisoned in a castle, mostly likely Corfe, and starved to death.  Rumours abounded that in a desperate attempt at survival Maud ate her dead son’s cheeks…

Arthur was not the only tragic child of Geoffrey and Constance who suffered at the hands of King John. He had a sister Eleanor who was so beautiful she was known as the Fair Maid of Brittany. Even though she was female and the barons were not particularly supportive of her claim, John feared her closeness to the throne and hence kept her as a prisoner, moving her from castle to castle and displaying her occasionally to prove she was still alive. Her main place of imprisonment seems to have been Corfe; she was in residence there when John starved 22 knights to death when they tried to escape the dungeons.

Although captive, she was not treated particularly badly, having several maids, decent if bland clothes, and was probably able to ride out on occasion although under close supervision.

However, her imprisonment went on for  39 years, long after John’s death and into the reign of his son Henry III, even though she had committed no crime, and had never been tried or sentenced. John had decreed upon his deathbed that she must remain imprisoned for life.

Eventually, however, after her child bearing years were over,  Henry III permitted her  to join a convent and become a nun. When she died, she was first buried in Bristol, but later, in accordance with her own final wishes,  reburied in Amesbury abbey in Wiltshire.

Her final choice of burial site is  interesting. The Abbey Church of St Mary and St Melor has an unusual dedication, seen only in one other place outside Brittany.

St Melor was a young Breton prince, who was first mutilated and then murdered by his uncle. His relics lay on the high altar in Amesbury Abbey, where they had been brought by Dark Age monks.

Choosing to be buried in a church dedicated to this martyred, murdered boy, in proximity to the remains of a saint who had died in circumstances almost identical to those of  her brother, may have been the Fair Maid of Brittany’s last act of defiance.

 

+Today Eleanor’s grave is lost, another victim of the Reformation. However, before the high altar in the church of St Mary and St Melor, geophysics have shown that two grave cuts still exist deep beneath the flagstones.

It is certainly quite possible that one of these belongs to this tragic Plantagenet princess.

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Amesbury Abbey-high altar and corbels.

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