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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