On the Trail of the Missing Princes: A birth in Sanctuary at Westminster Abbey

Elizabeth Woodville (c.1437-1492)

Walking into the private sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, I retraced the journey my ancestress made almost six hundred years ago. Then, Lady Elysabeth Scrope was ordered by the king to watch over his enemy queen, Elizabeth Woodville. On my visit, nothing quite so dramatic. But still, to know I was treading in her steps and gazing from windows that she stood by was an extraordinary connection. Westminster Abbey’s sanctuary is a private space, not open to the public, and is still in everyday use. The Jerusalem Chamber, where Edward V was born and Elysabeth stood watch, exists today. (The name, by the way, was given so knights who weren’t able to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land before they died could pass their last hours before death “in Jerusalem”).
As part of my research for my novel, I visited Westminster for three crucial locations: the Abbot’s House (“Cheyneygates”), Westminster Abbey, and Westminster Hall. I was fortunate to meet with the Abbey’s Almoner, who kindly took me “behind the scenes” into the Jerusalem Chamber and other locations where Elizabeth Woodville sought sanctuary and Elysabeth St.John Scrope joined the queen as she gave birth to Edward V.  As godmother to the young prince—which in medieval times was equivalent to a blood relative—Elysabeth was responsible for his spiritual wellbeing and would have played a crucial role in his early years.

A Medieval Birthing Girdle, Wellcome Museum

One of the areas of historic research that fascinates me is that of medicines and curatives, many of which were based on superstitions and religious beliefs. While I was interpreting what Elizabeth Woodville’s confinement in sanctuary must have been like, I came across the medieval references to a “birthing girdle” and its protective powers. Because they were so fragile (fine parchment or linen) there is only one on record in England, in the Wellcome Library in London. According to tradition, “ the day that you look upon the roll or carry it with you, no wicked spirit will have power over you, and it offers protections from all kinds of sudden death, adding that if a woman ‘in travell’ (labour) lays the image of this cross on her womb, she will be safely delivered without peril and the child will have ‘cristendome’ (be baptised) and the mother receive ‘purification’.” Without baptism or purification, the child and mother would suffer endlessly in Purgatory. I used this research to inform the birthing scene in The Godmother’s Secret.

Excerpt from The Godmother’s Secret: Chapter 1
A secret has been conceived . . .
“Entry, in the name of God and King Henry!” My guard clouts the iron-clad door of Cheyneygates, challenging the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. “The Lady Elysabeth Scrope demands entry!”
A murther of crows startles from the gables, cawing and whirling around my head and circling up into the clouded heavens. I join three fingers in the holy trinity and cross myself; head, chest, sinister and dexter. These ancient purveyors of death do not disturb me, for I have not survived this war to be hindered by a superstition. If there were a crow for every dead soldier, England would be a huge raucous rookery. But it never hurts to invoke God’s protection. The crows swoop and squabble and alight singly among the gargoyles on the parapets of the soot-stained Abbey. Like the granite tors of my Yorkshire home, these walls are impenetrable and inaccessible. And just as hostile. God offers protection to all who claim sanctuary. And men erect walls to keep them safe.
No stirring from within. I sigh. Not unexpected. “Knock again,” I command the guard. “Let them know their visitors will not leave.”
The waning October afternoon trickles shadows into the well of the courtyard. I pull my cloak closer, thankful I had chosen my finest weave to keep the warmth in and the damp out. The sun had shone golden when we rode out from London, but upon reaching Westminster we collided with the rain clouds streaming in from the west.
Fallen mulberry leaves clog the stone steps rising before me, rotting unswept in the hollows. Someone isn’t taking care of the abbot’s house. It is clear that no one has left nor entered for a while. The guard’s hammering is unanswered, and yet to the right of the door a candle flame glimmers through a browed window and a shadow flits elusively.
I push back my hood, and a spatter of rain needles my face. Here, gatekeeper. Here’s reassurance I bear your fugitive no threat. I am of middling age, graceful, fair of face, my countenance pleasing, I’ve heard say. Hardly a threat.
The rain unfurls in sheets. I raise my voice. “I am not asking the queen to break sanctuary.” God knows the wretched woman would make it easier on all of us if she did. I motion the guard aside and edge up the slippery steps to the door. “I am here to join her.”

“One of the best books I’ve read in ages.” Richard III Society
Inspired by England’s most enduring historical mystery, Elizabeth St.John blends her family history with known facts and centuries of speculation to create an intriguing story about what happened to the Princes in the Tower. 

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