Morning all! Today, I am thrilled to welcome to the blog one of my favourite writers, Anne O’Brien, who is going to talk about a lost Plantagenet princess…
Some years ago I was invited by a local historical society here in the Welsh Marches to give a talk on the life of Elizabeth of Lancaster, together with a guided tour to the tomb of the ‘Plantagenet Princess’ at Burford, just over the county border in Shropshire, near Tenbury Wells. Being a recent incomer to the area at that time, and before I was writing about medieval women, I was forced to admit that I knew nothing about this princess buried in the depths of the Welsh Marches. I soon discovered who she was, but still knew very little about her other than her Plantagenet connections, her illustrious parentage – younger daughter of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster – a sister who became Queen of Portugal, and that the famous – or infamous – Dame Katherine Swynford had been employed as her governess.
And so I went on a private visit to the Church of St Mary at Burford. The church is very small, set in a hamlet of a few houses, next door to Burford House and Gardens. It dates from the 12th century with additions over the centuries and a Victorian make-over. It is worth a visit in its own right, with a magnificent roof and the tombs of the Cornewall family, but I was in search of a Plantagenet princess.
She took my breath away.
Clad regally in red with a purple cloak trimmed with ermine, she is every inch a Plantagenet Princess. Her hair is fair, her face oval and her nose long. Plantagenet features, I suppose. She wears a ducal coronet and her hands are raised in prayer, two angels in red and white supporting her pillow and a little dog holding the edge of her cloak in its mouth. The cloak is allowed to fall in folds over the edge of her tomb. She is quite lovely. And here is the inscription carved around the edge of her tomb:
Here lyeth the body of the most noble Princess Elizabeth, daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, own sister to Henry IV, wife of John Holland, Earle of Huntingdon and Duke of Exeter, after whose death she married John Cornewayle, Kt. of the Garter and Lord Fanhope, and died in the 4th year of the reign of Henry VI, 1420.
The date of her death is wrong – Elizabeth died 24th November in 1425 – and she had been ‘repainted’ in the Victorian ‘improvements’, but it is sensitively done and believed to be accurate.
So here she was: the subject of my next novel in vivid colour. I knew that I must write about her as soon as I saw her life-size effigy.
Why was Elizabeth, a member of the most illustrious family in England, buried in this little church, far from Kenilworth Castle where she was born, the royal palaces around London and Dartington Hall in Devon, all places where she spent most of her life? Because her third husband was Sir John Cornewall, Lord Fanhope, who owned the manor of Burford. Although Elizabeth died at Ampthill Castle, which was built for her by her husband, a notable soldier, from the money he made from ransoms in the campaigns of Henry V’s reign, it seems that she chose to be buried here at Burford.
After more research, Elizabeth proved to be a worthy heroine for me. Hers was the story of a family ripped apart by war and rebellion, with Elizabeth in the thick of it. A story of love and betrayal, of ambition and war and bloody deeds, of treason and ultimate redemption, with Elizabeth torn between those who meant most to her.
This was to become Elizabeth’s story as ‘The King’s Sister.’