Medieval mistresses seem to get a raw deal from most contemporary and near-contemporary chroniclers, being seen as falling ‘outside the accepted norm’ in regards to sexual mores. Prim Victorian authors also enjoyed making moral judgments on them, and even modern historians, while less interested in the prurient details, often paint them as scheming she-wolves or similar.
Some famous mistresses who at one time suffered slights to name or reputation include:
Katherine Swynford. Although she did marry her lover John of Gaunt in the end, she had to had to temporarily part from him for several years, due to their relationship ‘tarnishing his reputation’ (I do love how when they later made it legal, Katherine boldly told the Pope how the middle-aged newlyweds had spent their wedding night having sex!)
Alice Perrers. Much younger than Edward III, Alice was known as greedy and grasping, with claims made that she had yanked off Edward s rings and gold collar when he lay dead and fled with them.
Rosamund Clifford. The lover of Henry II, Fair Rosamund’s bones were cast out of the abbey church at Godstow on the orders of St Hugh of Lincoln, who told the nuns a whore should not be allowed to lie before the High Altar. Later, it was claimed these words were written on her tomb: (“Here in the tomb lies the rose of the world, not a pure rose; she who used to smell sweet, still smells–but not sweet.”)
Jane Shore, however, seems the exception to this general rule. Although of common stock, and mistress to at least three powerful men (possibly several at once!) she was supposedly loved by all the ordinary folk of London, who looked at her with admiration and refused to jeer at her as she was forced upon her ‘cruel’ penance for harlotry (walking in her kirtle holding a taper in her hand) by the heartless Richard III.
Jane was said to be witty, intelligent, kind and generous, and often interceded with her lover Edward IV on the behalf of those who had fallen afoul of the King, hence the love borne her by the ordinary Londoners. According to one version of the legend, after Jane had been released from prison, Richard decreed no one was to aid her, and finding herself destitute because Richard had confiscated her belongings, she eventually fell down in a ditch, withered and starving and tragically expired.
However, how much of this is fact?
Reading posts and internet biographies on Jane, certain myths come up repeatedly, often presented as fact. What do we really know about this amazing woman whose sexual exploits with the rich and powerful were almost overlooked by those who wrote about her, even in more morally repressed eras, to be replaced instead by fulsome praise of her kindly and generous qualities as if she was almost a modern day St Theresa?
1) Jane is not her real name; she was born Elizabeth Lambert to John and Amy Lambert. The name Jane starts appearing the writings of the 1700’s, along with more melodramatic versions of her story.
2) She was married to a William Shore but managed to get an annulment on the grounds of his impotence the same year she began her affair with Edward. (As the proof needed for impotence could be terribly embarrassing to all concerned, it does not make her sound as terribly kind as she was supposed to be.) Some rumours purport William Shore was old, but it seems in reality he was not much older than she was. Despite the annulment, she still was still often known as Shore’s Wife.
3) One of Richard’s lawyers, Thomas Lynom, fell in love with her while she was still cooling her heels in Ludgate prison (not the Tower as some writers make it) after the Hastings incident. For all his supposed harshness towards her, Richard agreed to the match if Lynom could not be persuaded otherwise. Records appear to show she did indeed marry Lynom, and went on to have a daughter Julian(a) with him (so the idea of her coming out of prison and dying shortly thereafter of neglect is clearly false.)
4) Many writers state she was accused of ‘witchcraft’ over the ‘withered arm’ incident described in More and Shakespeare…well, we now know Richard had no withered arm, so if Jane was indeed accused of sorcery, that incident was not the origin. The prominence of the ‘witchcraft’ accusation seems to come mainly from later Tudor authors especially the notoriously unreliable Holinshed, who provided source material for many of Shakespeare’s plays.
5) Richard was a mean-spirited prude who forced her to walk about the city in scanty clothes. Richard did not do anything of the sort. Jane’s ‘penance’ was decreed via an ecclesiastical court held by the Bishop of London and was the standard punishment for harlotry. Her imprisonment came from her associations with Hastings, Dorset and Elizabeth Woodville, to whom she carried messages; you could say she was something of a minor spy. That was why she was imprisoned, not for sleeping with Edward IV and his friends, nor for any alleged witchcraft (for which she was never formally charged.)
6) Jane may have well died in penury but her death happened many years after the events of 1483 so could hardly be blamed on Richard III. As mentioned above, she did indeed marry the enamoured Thomas Lynom, who, although he lost his position after Bosworth, went on to work for Henry Tudor, including having a place at Ludlow in Prince Arthur’s household. So, unless the marriage came to an unrecorded end or Lynom met extreme financial hardship, it is highly likely that a penniless Jane collapsed dead in a ditch! Possibly, she outlived her husband and then fell upon hard times. Thomas More claimed to have seen her when she was ‘old’ (so her death is clearly in no wise attributable to any harsh treatments by Richard III!)
Jane’s story often reads like bad melodrama, and it seems her true story actually declined into such quite rapidly. One Victorian author, realizing that she (supposedly) died in poverty in HenryVIII’s reign, quickly made haste to defend the Tudor king and his father as to negligence regarding Jane’s unhappy end. He insisted that it was not up to Henry to look after her, and her misfortunes were all down to Richard’s vendetta against her and by his confiscation of her possessions. Never mind that either of the Henrys could have (had they so wished) given these meagre goods back …let alone that Richard had been dead a good forty years when Jane herself passed away.
Thomas More’s account of Jane is so sugary it almost makes your teeth ache. Indeed, as has been noted, all the people ‘maltreated’ by Richard in More’s book are portrayed as kind and perfect and noble, but beautiful Jane gets a double-dose of sickly platitudes. More does manage to get in a bit of moralizing, though, about the transience of beauty and misspent youth, when he describes her wretched appearance at the end of her life!
Overall, it seems like Jane Shore was given the role of fair though fallen womanhood, innocence subverted, mainly so that Richard III could be further demonized for his supposed ‘ill treatment’ of her (which amounted to very little, to be honest.) If authors such as More and Holinshed did not have a ‘drum to beat’ regarding Richard, I would imagine Jane would have met the fate of most other royal mistresses in the writings of their time and later, and been described, realistically or not, as an immoral, grasping and inconstant woman.
Instead, she ended up the ultimate medieval ‘tart with a heart.’