By Nancy Bilyeau
Published Online (2012)
On November 11th, 1480, a child was baptized in the Palace of Eltham with all solemnity and grandeur, as was fitting for a royal princess of the House of York. The child was named Bridget, after the 14th century Swedish saint who wrote of personal visions of Christ and founded a religious order.
On baptism day Lady Margaret Beaufort, the Lancastrian heiress who was nonetheless in high standing at court, carried the one-day-old princess, a singular honor. Designated godparents were Bridget’s oldest sister, the 14-year-old Elizabeth, and Bridget’s grandmother, Cecily, duchess of York and mother of King Edward IV. No one could have foreseen how profoundly this trio of women would influence the destiny of Bridget of York.
After the Bishop of Chichester completed the baptism, the party carried the tiny princess to her waiting mother, with “great gifts” borne before her in procession. Bridget was the tenth and last child of Elizabeth Woodville, now 43 years of age.
History has not been kind to the consort of Edward IV. She is seen as an icily beautiful conniver who ensnared a love-struck king into a mismatch. There is another side to Elizabeth Woodville, that of a pious and diligent queen who produced a bevy of heirs as she did her best to ignore her husband’s continual infidelities. But no one could deny her stubborn devotion to her own family, the Woodvilles, a myopia that cost her the trust of the kingdom’s nobility.
During the first years of Bridget’s life, her parents were much occupied with matchmaking diplomacy for their older children in the courts of Europe. Everyone assumed glittering futures for the two princes and six princesses.
The family’s Christmastide in 1482 awed chroniclers. Like his grandson Henry VIII, the strapping King Edward loved fashion and splendor. He was “clad in a great variety of most costly garments, of quite a different cut to those which had usually been seen hitherto in our kingdom,” said one. The king presented a “distinguished air to beholders, he being a person of most elegant appearance, and remarkable beyond all others for the attractions of his person.” The beauty of the daughters who surrounded him was “surpassing.”
Less than four months later, King Edward caught a chill and died of his illness. Bridget’s golden future darkened. She was now set on a path of troubling obscurity, tinged with rumors of madness and even, far in the future, sexual scandal.
It all happened very fast. A few weeks after the death of the king, the prince of Wales was seized by Edward’s younger brother, Richard of Gloucester, and Queen Elizabeth fled with the rest of her children to the sanctuary of Westminster. There she was observed “all desolate and dismayed.” The most powerful in the land supported Richard, not Elizabeth. Conditions were not comfortable for the new widow and her children. But she refused to leave the Church-sanctified protection of sanctuary.
Bridget stayed with her mother through this harrowing time. After months of pressure the queen broke down and turned over younger son, Prince Richard, to men who promised he would be kept safe. The two princes disappeared from view shortly after; their fate is one of history’s saddest and most tantalizing mysteries.
Richard III proclaimed the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville invalid because of an obscure pre-contract to another English woman. All the children were now illegitimate. On March 1, 1484, Elizabeth Woodville finally emerged with her daughters from sanctuary and appeared to be amenable to the new king. But in reality she was deep in conspiracy with Lady Margaret Beaufort to marry her oldest daughter to Margaret’s son in exile, Henry Tudor.
In 1485 Henry Tudor claimed the throne after winning the battle of Bosworth. He revoked the illegitimacy of the children, including Bridget, now five years old. He married the oldest girl, Elizabeth of York, as he’d promised.
But the status of the entire York family was uneasy in the infancy of the Tudors. In the court and country, grumblings turned to conspiracy. Pretenders emerged. Rebellions flared.
Rather suddenly, Elizabeth Woodville retired from public life to a suite of rooms in Bermondsey Abbey, a Benedictine order in the London borough of Southwark. Some believe her son-in-law forced the duplicitous queen dowager into monastic life because he thought she was plotting against him, though there is no evidence of it. Said one biographer, “Nineteen years as queen had cost her three sons, a father, and two brothers sacrificed to the court’s bloody politics. Elizabeth Woodville now sought solace and peace in service to her God.”
But what about Bridget? Did she go with her mother to the abbey–or find a place with her sister the queen or another sibling? No one knows. The next time Bridget appears in historical record is in 1490, when she, too, left the public arena for religious life. But the youngest child of Edward IV was sent to live not at Bermondsey but at Dartford Priory, a Dominican order in Kent. No one knows if this was because of her own piety, her mother’s wish to devote a child to God or the sad fact that Bridget had become an inconvenience to her family.
There were no 10-year-old nuns, not even in the late medieval age. Only adults could take vows. But abbeys accepted boarders and this might have been what happened to Bridget.
There is a theory to Bridget’s rustication. Perhaps an unhappy childhood had unbalanced her. Ponders a historian: “Bridget was excluded because she had mental incapacities and was hidden away to save the royal family any embarrassment.” However, a priory such as Dartford was far from a mental hospital. The sole Dominican convent in England was known for its library and its members’ intellectual achievements. To be considered, a woman must be able to read or be capable of learning.
Another more probable explanation is that Bridget’s grandmother, Cecily of York, had a hand in choosing Dartford. The priory attracted women of aristocratic background, often connected to the House of York. Prioress Joan Scrope, who oversaw Dartford in the 1470s, was the granddaughter of Cecily’s sister, Margaret Neville. Cecily also bequeathed three beautiful devotional books to Bridget, including a tome of the life of Catherine Siena, a Dominican mystic. These seem unlikely gifts to a young woman with “mental incapacities.”
Elizabeth Woodville died in her sleep on June 8, 1492. Her youngest child, 12-year-old Bridget, attended the funeral, a simple one at the express wish of the queen. She was buried beside her beloved husband Edward at Windsor.
The Tudor regime continued to gain strength. Bridget’s sister, the new queen, gave birth to four children who survived childhood. Elizabeth of York quietly did what she could to protect her sisters and promote their interests. She supported Bridget with funds from her own privy purse: “On the 6th July, 1502, 3l. 6s. 8d. were paid by her sister the Queen to the Abbess of Dartford, towards the charges of Lady Bridget there; and in September following, a person was paid for going from Windsor to Dartford to Lady Bridget, with a message from her Majesty.”
At some point Bridget took vows and became a sister of Dartford. One writer says: “Her whole adult life had been dedicated to God, within the walls of the nunnery, where her family had made little or no effort to see her.” However, this is something of a misunderstanding of life in an enclosed order. Visitors, family or otherwise, are rare; the sisters form a sealed-off community dedicated to prayer and intercession for the souls of the dead, with time set aside for study, embroidery, gardening, music and the more menial tasks of the priory.
Elizabeth of York died in childbirth in 1503; her husband died in 1509, to be succeeded by young Prince Henry. It is not known if Henry VIII ever met his Aunt Bridget. Certainly he gave no thought to sparing Dartford Priory in the break from Rome. It was demolished along with all of the other monasteries of England in the late 1530s.
But Bridget did not live through the Dissolution; she did not suffer yet another wrenching change in her fate wrought by others. Sister Bridget of York died of unknown causes in 1517. She was only 37.
A new theory has come to light. One source believes she gave birth to an illegitimate child, a girl named Agnes, in 1498. Pregnancies were obviously very unusual at a priory and the cause of great scandal, though they did happen. There are no confirmed births to any of the nuns of Dartford. Still, this girl supposedly became a ward of the priory, her expenses paid by the queen. She was called Agnes of Eltham, a reference to the palace where Bridget was born. According to Wikipedia: “Agnes later left the Priory and was married Adam Langstroth, the head of a landed family in Yorkshire (the ancestral home of the Yorks and refuge of York loyalists in the early Tudor period) with ‘a considerable dowry.’”
The leading book on the priory, Paul Lee’s “Nunneries, Learning and Spirituality in Late Medieval English Society: The Dominican Priory of Dartford,” contains no mention of a child of Bridget. Instead, the book says: “Sister Agnes Roper, daughter of Henry VIII’s attorney general John Roper of Eltham … was a nun at Dartford from the 1520s until the time of Dissolution.” Were there two women named Agnes, or have historical records become muddled?
I traveled to Dartford while researching my novel “The Crown,” a historical thriller whose heroine is a fictional nun of the priory, Sister Joanna Stafford. On a quiet afternoon I walked north of the town’s center and discovered the site of the ruined convent. All that remains is a large gatehouse built by Henry VIII from the rubble in 1540—now, ironically, used for wedding receptions — and a long, low wall that ran the perimeter of the Dominican sisters’ home. This wall kept Bridget of York in — and the world out.
Did she find peace and fulfillment in her vocation? Perhaps Bridget created a family for herself, to replace the one she lost to death and political strife, the last violent cataclysms of the Wars of the Roses. Or did she rebel against the strict, chaste life of a Dominican sister and take a secret lover and give birth to her own baby?
Six hundred years later, as I lingered by the crumbling medieval wall that now hugs a modern road, there is no way for me to know what happened to Bridget of York, what her life was like. But in that moment, I sensed a lingering sadness.
Nancy Bilyeau’s is the author of The Crown, and The Chalice. To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com