Sunday, February 22, 2015

What happened to Elizabeth of Lancaster after the last page of 'The King's Sister' has been turned?

by Anne O'Brien

The Final Years

For any lover of history, the final years of Elizabeth of Lancaster, younger daughter of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, are most unsatisfactory.  Information is sketchy, and what exists is tragic.

After the emotional and physical upheaval that ended her second marriage to John Holland, Duke of Exeter, Elizabeth took a step back into the shadows of history.  We know that in the summer of 1400 she married Sir John Cornewall, a knight from the west country, son and heir of a second son so with a future and fortune to make.  One chronicler tells us that he took Elizabeth's eye at a tournament held at York where she was seduced by his prowess in the lists, thus implying that her marriage to Cornewall, a bare six months after she was widowed, was the consequence of her lustful character.

This is the lovely Georgian house that today stands on the site of the manor of Burford near Tenbury Wells, owned by John Cornewall.  Remnants of the orignal manor have been found beneath this one.  Elizabeth must have lived here for some of her later years.

What we do know about this marriage is that it was a marriage not promoted merely by Elizabeth's character, but by her brother Henry, now King Henry IV.  After the overthrow of King Richard II, Henry's position was not an easy one.  With enemies in Scotland and France and rumours rife that Richard was still alive, rebellion was always on the cards to threaten the peace of England as well as Henry's own life.  Henry needed to build alliances with English noble families and men of ability;  Elizabeth was part of this rebuilding.  And so she married John Cornewall.  She was about 36 years old, her husband much younger at 25 years.

This is a 17th Century etching of Elizabeth and John by Wenceslaus Hollar.  We have no contemporary images of her other than her tomb.

The couple were soon in royal favour, and Elizabeth was able to carry out her mission to regain control of the Holland properties, forfeited on the execution of John Holland for treason.  Henry was obviously pleased to listen to his sister and granted her and her new husband a large part of the Holland estates, particularly in Devon, and also the new house built there, Dartington Hall.  In 1404 Elizabeth received her dower: a life annuity of 1000 marks.  Thus she made Sir John Cornewall a valuable bride.  Sir John was created Baron Fanhope.

This is a Victorian stained glass window of Elizabeth in the church at Burford.

And then we know so little of her remaining life.  In 1405 she gave birth to a son John, to whom Henry stood godfather, a boy who followed in his father's footsteps as a good soldier, both of them taking part in the English offensive in France in the reign of Henry V.  Sir John made a name for himself and a fortune by capturing and ransoming valuable prisoners.

Tragically his son - and Elizabeth's - was killed at the siege of Meaux late in 1421, fighting at the side of his father.  Sir John lost his heir and the end of his legitimate line.  We can only guess at Elizabeth's grief.  It is not on record.

The couple also had a daughter, Constance, who had no issue and was dead by 1429.

Elizabeth herself died at Ampthill Castle in Bedfordshire on 24th November 1425 at the age of 61 years and was buried in the splendid tomb in the little church of St Mary in Burford in Shropshire.  Sir John lived on until 1443 and was buried, not in Burford, but in a chapel he had founded in the cemetery of the Friars Preacher near Ludgate in London.

All that remains today of the great Ampthill Castle.

Thus for the last twenty years of her life Elizabeth faded into obscurity. What did she do with her time? I cannot imagine her living in rural domesticity in Burford or Devon. Or in the magnificent Ampthill Castle that Sir John built for her out of the fortune he made at war. Sir John's absence in France would mean that she was left to her own devices. Perhaps she spent her time between her restored properties and the royal court of her brother and then her nephew, Henry V. I hope that she found some element of peace at last in what was an adventurous life, but I doubt it.

Elizabeth's magnificent tomb in the church at Burford, showing her as the epitome of a Plantagenet princess.

How I wish history allowed us a few more windows into Elizabeth's later years.

To mark the release of 'The King's Sister' in Paperback in the UK and Australia on 26th February, 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Considering how tempestuous the lives of royalty and upper nobility could be back then, it sounds like she had peace if not totally devoid of heartache in her later years. It is frustrating to have the gaps.

    Nice summation!


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