Richard III - Jacob Abbott

Taking Sanctuary

When the news reached London that the king had been seized on the way to the capital, and was in Gloucester's custody, it produced a universal commotion. Queen Elizabeth was thrown at once into a state of great anxiety and alarm. The tidings reached her at midnight. She was in the palace at Westminster at the time. She rose immediately in the greatest terror, and began to make preparations for fleeing to sanctuary with the Duke of York, her second son. All her friends in the neighborhood were aroused and summoned to her aid. The palace soon became a scene of universal confusion. Every body was busy packing up clothing and other necessaries in trunks and boxes, and securing jewels and valuables of various kinds, and removing them to places of safety. In the midst of this scene, the queen herself sat upon the rushes which covered the floor, half dressed, and her long and beautiful locks of hair streaming over her shoulders, the picture of despair.

There was a certain nobleman, named Lord Hastings, who had been a very prominent and devoted friend to Edward the Fourth during his life, and had consequently been upon very intimate and friendly terms with the queen. It was he, however, that had objected in the council to the employment of a large force to conduct the young king to London, and, by so doing, had displeased the queen. Toward morning, while the queen was in the depths of her distress and terror, making her preparations for flight, a cheering message from Hastings was brought to her, telling her not to be alarmed. The message was brought to her by a certain archbishop who had been chancellor, that is, had had the custody of the great seal, an impression from which was necessary to the validity of any royal decree. He came to deliver up the seal to the queen, and also to bring Lord Hastings's message.

"Ah, woe worth him!" said the queen, when the archbishop informed her that Lord Hastings bid her not fear. "It is he that is the cause of all my sorrows; he goeth about to destroy me and my blood."

"Madam," said the archbishop, "be of good comfort. I assure you that, if they crown any other king than your eldest son, whom they have with them, we will, on the morrow, crown his brother, whom you have with you here. And here is the great seal, which, in like wise as your noble husband gave it to me, so I deliver it to you for the use of your son." So the archbishop delivered the great seal into the queen's hands, and went away. This was just before the dawn.

The words which the archbishop spoke to the queen did not give her much comfort. Indeed, her fears were not so much for her children, or for the right of the eldest to succeed to the throne, as for herself and her own personal and family ascendency under the reign of her son. She had contrived, during the lifetime of her husband, to keep pretty nearly all the influence and patronage of the government in her own hands and in that of her family connections, the Woodvilles. You will recollect how much difficulty that had made, and how strong a party had been formed against her coterie. And now, her husband being dead, what she feared was not that Gloucester, in taking the young king away from the custody of her relatives, and sending those relatives off as prisoners to the north, meant any hostility to the young king, but only against her and the whole Woodville interest, of which she was the head. She supposed that Gloucester would now put the power of the government in the hands of other families, and banish hers, and that perhaps he would even bring her to trial and punishment for acts of maladministration, or other political crimes which he would charge against her. It was fear of this, rather than any rebellion against the right of Edward the Fifth to reign, which made her in such haste to flee to sanctuary.

It was, however, somewhat uncertain what Gloucester intended to do. His professions were all very fair in respect to his allegiance to the young king. He sent a messenger to London, immediately after seizing the king, to explain his views and motives in the act, and in this communication he stated distinctly that his only object was to prevent the king's falling into the hands of the Woodville family, and not at all to oppose his coronation.

"It neyther is reason," said he in his letter, "nor in any wise to be suffered that the young kynge, our master and kinsman, should be in the hands of custody of his mother's kindred, sequestered in great measure from our companie and attendance, the which is neither honorable to hys majestie nor unto us."

Thus the pretense of Richard in seizing the king was simply that he might prevent the government under him from falling into the hands of his mother's party. But the very decisive measures he took in respect to the leading members of the Woodville family led many to suspect that he was secretly meditating a deeper design. All those who were with the king at the time of his seizure were made prisoners and sent off to a castle in the north, as we have already said; and, in order to prevent those who were in and near London from making their escape, Richard sent down immediately from Northampton ordering their arrest, and appointing guards to prevent any of them from flying to sanctuary. When the archbishop, who had called to see the queen at the palace, went away, he saw through the window, although it was yet before the dawn, a number of boats stationed on the Thames ready to intercept any who might be coming up the river with this intent from the Tower, for several influential members of the family resided at this time at the Tower.

The queen herself, however, as it happened, was at Westminster Palace, and she had accordingly but little way to go to make her escape to the Abbey.

The space which was inclosed by the consecrated limits, from within which prisoners could not be taken, was somewhat extensive. It included not only the church of the Abbey, but also the Abbey garden, the cemetery, the palace of the abbot, the cloisters, and various other buildings and grounds included within the enclosure. As soon as the queen entered these precincts, she sank down upon the floor of the hall, "alone on the rushes, all desolate and dismayed." It was in the month of May, and the great fireplace of the hall was filled with branches of trees and flowers, while the floor, according to the custom of the time, was strewed with green rushes. For a time the queen was so overwhelmed with her sorrow and chagrin that she was scarcely conscious where she was. But she was soon aroused from her despondency by the necessity of making proper arrangements for herself and her family in her new abode. She had two daughters with her, Elizabeth and Cecily—beautiful girls, seventeen and fifteen years of age; Richard, Duke of York, her second son, and several younger children. The youngest of these children, Bridget, was only three years old. Elizabeth, the oldest, afterward became a queen, and little Bridget a nun.

[Illustration] from Richard III by Jacob Abbott


The rooms which the queen and her family occupied in the sanctuary are somewhat particularly described by one of the writers of those days. The fire-place, where the trees and flowers were placed, was in the centre of the hall, and there was an opening in the roof above, called a louvre, to allow of the escape of the smoke. This hearth still remains on the floor of the hall, and the louvre is still to be seen in the roof above. The end of the hall was formed of oak panneling, with lattice-work above, the use of which will presently appear. A part of this panneling was formed of doors, which led by winding stairs up to a curious congeries of small rooms formed among the spaces between the walls and towers, and under the arches above. Some of these rooms were for private apartments, and others were used for the offices of buttery, kitchen, laundry, and the like. At the end of this range of apartments was the private sitting-room and study of the abbot. The windows of the abbot's room looked down upon a pretty flower-garden, and there was a passage from it which led by a corridor back to the lattices over the doors in the hall, through which the abbot could look down into the hall at any time without being observed, and see what the monks were doing there.

Besides these there were other large apartments, called state apartments, which were used chiefly on great public occasions. These rooms were larger, loftier, and more richly decorated than the others. They were ornamented with oak carvings and fluting, painted windows, and other such decorations. There was one in particular, which was called the Jerusalem chamber. This was the grand receiving-room of the abbot. It had a great Gothic window of painted glass, and the walls were hung with curious tapestry. This room, with the window, the tapestry, and all the other ornaments, remains to this day.

It was on the night of the third of May that the queen and her family "took sanctuary." The very next day, the fourth, was the day that the council had appointed for the coronation. But Richard, instead of coming at once to London, after taking the king under his charge, so as to be ready for the coronation at the appointed day, delayed his journey so as not to enter London until that day. He wished to prevent the coronation from taking place, having probably other plans of his own in view instead.

It is not, however, absolutely certain that Richard intended, at this time, to claim the crown for himself, for in entering London he formed a grand procession, giving the young king the place of honor in it, and doing homage to him as king. Richard himself and all his retinue were in mourning. Edward was dressed in a royal mantle of purple velvet, and rode conspicuously as the chief personage of the procession. A short distance from the city the cavalcade was met by a procession of the civic authorities of London and five hundred citizens, all sumptuously appareled, who had come out to receive and welcome their sovereign, and to conduct him through the gates into the city. In entering the city Richard rode immediately before the king, with his head uncovered. He held his cap in his hand, and bowed continually very low before the king, designating him in this way to the, citizens as the object of their homage. He called out also, from time to time, to the crowds that thronged the waysides to see, "Behold your prince and sovereign."

There were two places to which it might have been considered not improbable that Richard would take the king on his arrival at the capital—one the palace of Westminster, at the upper end of London, and the other the Tower, at the lower end. The Tower, though often used as a prison, was really, at that time, a castle, where the kings and the members of the royal family often resided. Richard, however, did not go to either of these places at first, but proceeded instead to the bishop's palace at St. Paul's, in the heart of the city. Here a sort of court was established, a grand council of nobles and officers of state was called, and for some days the laws were administered and the government was carried on from this place, all, however, in Edward's name. Money was coined, also, with his effigy and inscription, and, in fine, so far as all essential forms and technicalities were concerned, the young Edward was really a reigning king; but, of course, in respect to substantial power, every thing was in Richard's hands.

The reason why Richard did not proceed at once to the Tower was probably because Dorset, the queen's son, was in command there, and he, as of course he was identified with the Woodville party, might perhaps have made Richard some trouble. But Dorset, as soon as he heard that Richard was coming, abandoned the Tower, and fled to the sanctuary to join his mother. Accordingly, after waiting a few days at the bishop's palace until the proper arrangements could be made, the king, with the whole party in attendance upon him, removed to the Tower, and took up their residence there. The king was nominally in his castle, with Richard and the other nobles and their retinue in attendance upon him as his guards. Really he was in a prison, and his uncle, with the people around him who were under his uncle's command, were his keepers.

A meeting of the lords was convened, and various political arrangements were made to suit Richard's views. The principal members of the Woodville family were dismissed from the offices which they held, and other nobles, who were in Richard's interest, were appointed in their place. A new day was appointed for the coronation, namely, the 22d of June. The council of lords decreed also that, as the king was yet too young to conduct the government himself personally, his uncle Gloucester was, for the present, to have charge of the administration of public affairs, under the title of Lord Protector. The title in full, which Richard thenceforth assumed under this decree, was, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, brother and uncle of the king, Protector and Defender, Great Chamberlain, Constable, and Lord High Admiral of England.

During all this time the city of London, and, indeed, the whole realm of England, as far as the tidings of what was going on at the capital spread into the interior, had been in a state of the greatest excitement. The nobles, and the courtiers of all ranks, were constantly on the alert, full of anxiety and solicitude, not knowing which side to take or what sentiments to avow. They did not know what turn things would finally take, and, of course, could not tell what they were to do in order to be found, in the end, on the side that was uppermost. The common people in the streets, with anxious looks and many fearful forebodings, discussed the reports and rumors that they had heard. They all felt a sentiment of loyal and affectionate regard for the king—a sentiment which was increased and strengthened by his youth, his gentle disposition, and the critical and helpless situation that he was in; while, on the other hand, the character of Gloucester inspired them with a species of awe which silenced and subdued them. Edward, in his "protector's" hands, seemed to them like a lamb in the custody of a tiger.

[Illustration] from Richard III by Jacob Abbott


The queen, all this time, remained shut up in the sanctuary, in a state of extreme suspense and anxiety, clinging to the children whom she had with her, and especially to her youngest son, the little Duke of York, as the next heir to the crown, and her only stay and hope, in case, through Richard's violence or treachery, any calamity should befall the king.