Vic Keegan’s Lost London 111: Elizabeth Woodville’s Westminster Abbey sanctuary

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 111: Elizabeth Woodville’s Westminster Abbey sanctuary

When you enter Westminster Abbey’s gift shop you are unlikely to notice the stone building peeping above it. Yet the right hand side of this turreted wall – where the tops of four windows are visible – has a tale to tell. It occupies one of the least know parts of the Abbey precincts and is not open to the public. It looks like the smaller version of an Oxbridge college hall and is used by the pupils of Westminster School for meals during term time and for the rest of the year reverts to its historic owner the Dean of Westminster.

It forms part of his private suite of rooms known as Cheyneygates, which is claimed to be the oldest residence in London in continuous occupation. It was to this room that Queen Elizabeth I would come to hear pupils of Westminster School perform plays in Latin, as stipulated by her as the school’s founder. But its bigger claim to fame is from a much earlier time. What happened there then changed the course of history. William Shakespeare is our witness.

It was here where the formidable Elizabeth Woodville took refuge to avoid the wrath of Richard III. The Abbey was one of London’s sanctuaries, providing a space anyone from a criminal to a poet could enter but where the Crown could not trespass.

Elizabeth was a queen in her own right as the wife of Edward IV. She was also the mother of another king, Edward V, who was born in the sanctuary and had a daughter who married to yet another king, Henry VII, which resulted in Elizabeth being declared Dowager Queen. But it is for her stay at the Abbey – to which she twice repaired to avoid prison during the Wars of the Roses – that she is chiefly remembered.

After Edward IV was forced to flee the country, Elizabeth escaped from the Tower of London at night and claimed sanctuary in the Abbey on 1 October, 1470. Edward V later became notorious as one of the Princes in the Tower who were – almost certainly – murdered on the orders of Richard III, who was desperate to eliminate rival claimants to his throne. This is the story told so dramatically by Shakespeare in his play Richard III.

Elizabeth was duped into letting her son leave the sanctuary during her second stay there, in order to join his brother in the Tower, on the spurious grounds that he would be looked after and that sanctuaries were for criminals, not innocent children.

As the Duke of Buckingham put it to Cardinal Bourchier in Shakespeare’s play:

“This prince hath neither claim’d it (sanctuary) nor deserv’d it,

And therefore, in mine opinion, cannot have it.

Then taking him from thence that is not there,

You break no privilege nor charter there.

Oft have I heard of sanctuary men,

But sanctuary children ne’er till now.”

This gives only a fleeting glimpse of an extraordinary life. Elizabeth retired to the royal apartments in Bermondsey Abbey in 1490, where she died two years later, apparently destitute. She is buried beside her husband in St George’s Chapel at Windsor.

 All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London are archived here

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Categories: Culture, Lost London

8 Comments

  1. Glenis Brindley says:

    I think you need to do some proper research and get your facts right Mr Keegan.
    Elizabeth was never queen in her own right, only because she married Edward lV, so she was his consort.
    We also know that Edward had a previous marriage so had committed bigamy, and all their children were illegitimate.
    There is no proof that the two princes died, either by the hand of Richard lll or any other.
    If Richard had wanted to eliminate other potential claimants, what didn’t he start with the children of his other brother, George, Duke of Clarence?
    William Shakespeare was not a witness to anything, as he didn’t start writing until over a hundred years later. Not what I’d call a credible witness.
    Shakespeare was a playwright, not a historian.

  2. Alison Prater says:

    “Elizabeth was a queen in her own right as the wife of Edward IV.”

    She was a queen as the wife of Edward IV, NOT in her own right. The first woman to be crowned as ‘queen in her own right’ in England was Mary I, Elizabeth Woodville’s great-granddaughter.

    “What happened there then changed the course of history. William Shakespeare is our witness.”

    William Shakespeare is most definitely NOT our witness. He wasn’t born until over 1oo years after Elizabeth Woodville’s death. He didn’t witness any events which occurred during the fifteenth century. In any case he was a playwright, not an historian and didn’t let facts get in the way of his storytelling.

    “Edward V later became notorious as one of the Princes in the Tower who were – almost certainly – murdered on the orders of Richard III”

    We don’t even know if they were murdered or not.

    “Elizabeth was duped into letting her son leave the sanctuary during her second stay there, in order to join his brother in the Tower”

    She later let her daughters leave sanctuary, which was pretty stupid of her if she believed that her sons had been murdered by Richard III. Or maybe she knew that he hadn’t murdered them.

  3. Glenis Brindley says:

    I’m really sorry that you’ve not seen fit to print my comments regarding your article. I can only assume that you don’t like being corrected regarding our history. Maybe as I suggested you could do some proper research of your own to verify what I said, and maybe, just maybe you might alter your article so as it tells the true history of our land. Then again, you possibly think it’s quite alright to teach people wrongly, seeing as what you’ve written is spurious lies.
    If you disagree with my assumptions, then maybe print my response for people to see for themselves, and be able to make up their own minds.

    1. Marie Zimmerman says:

      No one in our time can even begin to imagine what it was like for a woman especially a woman that Richard Neville took an instant dislike to as she took his power to rule through Edward IV she certainly wasn’t a stupid woman and had other children to look out for it’s easy to say in our day and age that we would’ve done different we just don’t know what it was like to live in those long gone times but to say that she was stupid she was far far from that, read into her life from a historical perspective not what you would do in this day and age. Anyone that bases a historical period or person on Shakespeare really should really try to read maybe something by Alison Weir who has written as true to the period and person as she possibly can.

      Interesting comment though of course I never said or hinted that she was stupid (VK)

  4. Joanne Larner says:

    I can’t believe you are basing your historical posts on Shakespeare! You say he was a witness to the events described but he certainly wasn’t – he was writing about 100 years later. This error leads you to make several other mistakes: Elizabeth was not Queen ‘in her own right’ – only because of her marriage to Edward IV, and that was declared invalid which makes her no queen at all. She wasn’t most famous for going into sanctuary either, although she did twice, as you say. She was famous for marrying Edward, being a beauty with silver gilt hair, plotting against Richard III, being Elizabeth of York’s mother, to mention a few.
    Her sons were not ‘almost certainly’ murdered by Richard III; there is no evidence they were murdered at all, and it was the Tudors who were desperate to eliminate rivals, not Richard. As evidence just look at the fate of the children of George (the other brother of Edward IV and Richard III). Richard took care of them and even knighted Edward of Warwick, George’s son. Henry Tudor imprisoned him, aged 10, in the Tower for about 15 years, then executed him on trumped up charges and his evil son executed Margaret of York when she was an elderly lady, because her son was rebelling.

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