The King’s Daughter in Late Medieval London: An Archival Discovery of Monumental Proportions

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The King’s Daughter in Late Medieval London:
An Archival Discovery of Monumental Proportions

Shortly after the remains of Richard III were discovered in a Leicester car park, the whereabouts of another Plantagenet – Katherine, Richard’s illegitimate daughter – was discovered by our chairman, Christian Steer. The findings were published in an article in The Ricardian, which recounted how Katherine Plantagenet came to be identified as having been buried in the London parish church of St James Garlickhithe (or Garlickhythe). Here, Dr Steer revisits this astonishing find, guiding us through the archival detective work that led to it, the importance of locating ‘the Plantagenet in the parish’, and the context of London’s commemorative landscape. Death, politics, and piety all come together in one fascinating story. 

A view of late medieval London, based on an early sixteenth-century woodcut. © Richard Asquith.

What do we know about Katherine Plantagenet? And why is this discovery so important?

Precious little, unfortunately! She’s a shadowy figure in the records. It’s generally accepted that Richard fathered her when he was quite young: sixteen, seventeen, something like that. Who her mother was is in doubt and nobody knows where she spent her childhood. But suddenly she appears on the scene in the 1480s, acknowledged as Richard’s daughter, and married to William Herbert, successively earl of Pembroke and earl of Huntingdon (d.1491). Then she just disappears again. Before I identified her grave, her date of birth wasn’t known, nor was the date of her death: all that was known about her was her marriage.

She was an enigma. There was a companion article in The Ricardian by Hannes Kleineke, Livia Visser-Fuchs, and Anne F. Sutton about the children of Richard III, based on expenditure for clothing the royal children, which offered another layer of information. Peter Hammond very kindly sent me a copy of his book, The Children of Richard III, and the poor girl is discussed in just four pages. There’s no portrait and there’s hardly anything in the archives – or, at least, if there is, she may well be recorded under a different surname, perhaps her mother’s or stepfather’s. I call her ‘Plantagenet’, but she’s not actually recorded as such in any contemporary documents. There could be other things to be found about her: who knows?

Why is this important? It’s important because we didn’t know before! It closes off a question mark, really. I can’t be 100% sure when she died, but certainly it was before the coronation of Elizabeth of York and, given that the sweating sickness swept through London in the autumn of 1485, this seems the most likely date and cause of death. The fact that she was buried in a parish church in London – not in a monastic house elsewhere, such as Tintern Abbey, where her husband would later be buried – suggests that there was a need to bury quickly because of contagion. Nobody had put two and two together before and I think it’s nice that at last we’re able to say with some certainty what became of her.

What process led you to this discovery?

When I was finishing my doctoral thesis on burial and commemoration in late medieval London, it was by then obvious that the aristocracy were buried in religious houses in the City. They seldom chose to be buried in parish churches. In itself, this is not surprising because, for the medieval aristocracy, it was tradition: their ancestors had founded these places. As generation succeeded generation, the peers were building up impressive mausolea to commemorate each other and themselves. They were with their peers – literally – in death as well as in life. It’s only, of course, after the Reformation that we see aristocratic burials in parish churches in any great number, for obvious reasons.

But I was going through my database of London burials and noticed several aristocratic women in parish churches. One was Elizabeth, Lady Bergavenny (d.1500), who was buried at St Martin Outwich, but she was three times a London widow before she married George Neville, fourth baron Bergavenny (d.1492). To me, she wasn’t really an aristocrat, she was a very wealthy London widow – a bit like those American heiresses marrying penniless peers in the late nineteenth century, she brought money to the marriage. But the fact she wanted to be buried with one of her ‘London’ husbands tells me that she identified as a Londoner and not as an aristocrat. Then there was Eleanor Stanley, Lady Stanley (d.1470/1), who was buried at St James Garlickhithe. She was an earlier wife of Thomas, Lord Stanley, and was also commemorated with him on his tomb at the family mausoleum at Bursbough Priory in Lancashire.

Also at St James Garlickhithe were what appeared to be two ladies: Lady Herbert and the Countess of Huntingdon. I looked in the Complete Peerage for Lady Herbert: her identity wasn’t obvious. I looked for the Countess of Huntingdon: this wasn’t obvious either. Then I discovered that after William Herbert, Lord Herbert, had had the earldom of Pembroke taken from him (and given to Prince Edward), he received the earldom of Huntingdon. So, William Herbert was Lord Herbert (comma) Earl of Huntingdon. This lady was his wife. He was married twice: first to Mary Woodville (d.1481), with whom he had a daughter and who was buried at Tintern; and his second wife was Katherine. It was a strange feeling as I felt sure someone would have spotted this before; but they hadn’t. I remember talking about my discovery with Caroline Barron and Joel Rosenthal over dinner a few evenings later – they were encouraging and told me to write it up. So, I did!

Can you tell us more about the sources you used to help piece this together?

Detail of the monument to John Stow (d.1605) in St Andrew Undershaft, London. Photo: Richard Asquith.

I came across it in John Stow’s Survey of London. Stow was a great antiquarian who was obviously troubled by the huge changes going on in the sixteenth century, and the accompanying loss of London’s history; so he created an amazing account – an incredible survey – recording what he remembered, what people told him, what he found in archives, and what he found in situ, of what had existed in London in the past. In his survey, he included an account of every parish church and religious house, and he was especially interested in the people who were buried there.

Burials in St James Garlickhithe recorded by an anonymous herald. College of Arms MS C.G.Y. 647, fol. 24r. Reproduced by permission of the Kings, Heralds and Pursuivants of Arms.

A lot of these places had – of course – gone by the time Stow wrote his survey; like me, he relied on documentary evidence, and particularly heraldic manuscripts. In the beginning of the sixteenth century, the heralds had become really interested in ‘fake’ arms that people were using on their tombs. They started visiting London’s churches and religious houses to check what was going on, who was using them, and whether it was right or wrong. And, in some cases, they removed instances of heraldic transgressions, which is very interesting because it’s an early form of ‘iconoclasm’ of medieval commemoration and tombs. I tracked Stow’s account back to a manuscript in the College of Arms written in the early years of the sixteenth century which describes ‘The Countess of Huntingdon Lady Herbert’ – and I should emphasise that there is no first name, only the title is provided – who was commemorated ‘without a stone’. So, even though St James Garlickhithe was extant at the time Stow was conducting his survey in the late sixteenth century, and I don’t think there was much sepulchral iconoclasm there during the reign of Edward VI (most of the brasses and tombs were stripped out in the Civil War in the 1640s), he couldn’t have seen the tomb he described, because she didn’t have one.

To me that says that Stow just copied out verbatim what was in the herald’s manuscript – and he was the one that caused the confusion because he separated ‘Lady Herbert’ and ‘Countess of Huntingdon’ when, in fact, in the manuscript it’s all on one line. It’s one person.

So, why St James Garlickhithe?

When Eleanor Stanley was buried at St James Garlickhithe during the Readeption, the parish was enjoying unprecedented attention. It was an evolving institution and – spearheading a trend among London’s parish churches more generally during this period – it had become a de facto college. ‘Colleges’ in the middle ages didn’t necessarily have the same education connotations they have today: the designation simply meant that there was an established community of secular (i.e., non-monastic) priests who lived, prayed, worked, and worshipped together, often bound by a set of rules instituted by a benefactor. The aim was to enforce high liturgical standards and to promote the accumulation of high-grade intercessory prayers to draw down the grace of God for the benefit of both benefactors and the wider community. In the case of St James Garlickhithe, this arrangement was formalised in 1481, culminating decades of ecclesiastical development and confirming the existing situation. When Lady Stanley died, the parish church was one of the tip-top and trendy places to be seen dead. St James’ was not, therefore, an unsuitable place to bury and commemorate the illegitimate daughter of a king and the wife of an aristocrat. But – and this is important – Katherine was, in fact, a parishioner of St James Garlickhithe. The Herbert family owned a mansion in the parish (later called Worcester House), and it is extremely likely that Katherine worshipped in the church during her life and attended the commemorations of others.

The parish of St James Garlickhithe, London, showing the parish church and Worcester House. An extract from the Map of Tudor London, 2nd edition, ed. C. Barron and V. Harding.  © Historic Towns Trust 2022.

Now, an argument might be made that the presence of Eleanor Stanley in the church works against the idea that Katherine would also have been buried there. Eleanor was the first wife of Thomas Stanley, who famously turned the tide of Bosworth against Katherine’s father. But this is to read history backwards, which is not a good idea: Eleanor had died in 1470/1, leaving Stanley to marry Margaret Beaufort, which match undoubtedly influenced the events at Bosworth, whereas Eleanor had nothing to do with it. In many ways, the fact of Eleanor’s burial in St James’ was irrelevant to that of Katherine over a decade later, other than providing a precedent of noble burial in the parish. Katherine’s status as parishioner trumped any distant politics, especially if she had died of a contagious disease in her London house. There was, moreover, no room for her to be buried in her husband’s tomb at Tintern, as Herbert’s first wife, Mary, had already been buried there and where the earl and countess were commemorated by a double-tomb. Herbert himself would eventually be interred next to Mary. Nor was there, of course, any chance of her being buried with her father in Leicester. Putting aside the circumstances which led to King Richard’s burial at the Grey Friars church, aristocratic women were rarely buried with patrilineal relatives in any case and, although we sometimes see matrilineal mausoleums (such as at Greyfriars’ church in London), the ties of marriage and residency were a stronger factor in the choice of burial location.

What form did Katherine’s monument take and how might it be explained?

Well, if it wasn’t a stone, what was it? It could have been one of four things. There may have been an early burial register, but I doubt it – I’m not aware of any burial registers at all from the parish churches of medieval London. It could be glazing, an image in glass with an inscription. We have no information on the glazing schemes of St James Garlickhithe. The most obvious option is that heraldic coats of arms were placed on or near her burial location, with which the herald would have been intimately familiar. The fact that she was described as Lady Herbert, Countess of Huntingdon, with no reference to any Plantagenet or royal ancestry, says that her illegitimacy was not referenced on those arms. It was her husband’s symbol, as it were.

Which leads me on to what her commemoration probably was: that her name was included on a hanging tabula. The arms were there, and her name was included, or at least her title was. These hanging boards had the names of the dead written on them, acting as a sort of roll call of the dead, the material form of a bede roll. It was one of those ephemeral symbols of commemoration which, I am convinced, were rampant throughout London. Memory was like a chantry: it could be short-term or perpetual. There were different spending habits for different budgets; when you think about the number of incised slabs and brasses on processional routes, entranceways, and public areas – that whole ‘pray and display’ trend – it only lasts a couple of generations. It’s not forever. The forever is in private space, tucked away with a selected audience. There are different levels of commemoration. For Katherine, her commemoration was to be temporary.

Now, some will argue that the reason for this ephemerality is because Henry VII wouldn’t have allowed it. But I don’t think it has anything to do with Henry VII. She was never going to be queen, she was illegitimate, she was only sixteen or seventeen when she died, and her husband didn’t have a lot of money. If she had died of the sweating sickness, then there would have been a rush to bury her, and William Herbert died just six years later. This tells me that the name on the board was nothing more than a temporary arrangement, with a more befitting memorial to come later. Monuments for the dead were not always built immediately after death, and we shouldn’t forget that the political events of the late 1480s were unstable and not the best of times for Lord Huntingdon to focus on his wife’s tomb monument in London.

How did this unusual set of circumstances fit into London’s broader commemorative landscape?

In London’s parish churches and religious houses we would have seen different things at different times, really. There would have been a lot of brass. We mustn’t forget – and in fact the sun is shining on me now – how the brass plate on the tombstone would have sparkled at different times of the day. I think we’ve lost that knowledge – lost that experience – of the materiality of commemoration and how certain brasses and tomb slabs at different times of the liturgical year would have reacted differently to light and especially when the sun shone through stained glass. Red rays, blue rays, coming down with a blast of colour, which again I think is that ‘wow factor’ of short-term commemoration: a ‘come and look at me’ enticement. Over a generation, the brass would have oxidised and darkened to the sort of colour we see today. Of course, there would have been incised slabs too, and we tend to underestimate their presence thanks to their relatively short-term nature because of footfall and erosion. That is something I think a lot of people just don’t think through.

Monumental brass commemorating William (d.1439) and Alice Markeby, in the church of St Bartholomew the Less, London. Photo: Richard Asquith.

In the religious houses of London, there is a slightly different contrast: we’re talking enormous alabaster effigies; we’re talking recessed arches galore full of figures either sculptured, incised or in brass. They were protected in these spaces. Again, with loads of colour, although not quite as garish as some of these overly restored images in London churches today, which are quite hideous. But many of the tip-top architectural tombs of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were to be found in London’s monasteries and friaries. Henry Yevele, for example, the most successful and prolific master mason of the late fourteenth century, was a huge influence on London’s commemorative landscape. But this was at the top end, so you have different ‘wow factors’ at different layers of society, at different times in the late middle ages, and at different times during the liturgical year.

The other important thing is that it’s not just the tomb: it’s what I’ve referred to elsewhere as the ‘commemorative jigsaw’. In addition to the monument itself – whether it’s an alabaster effigy, with or without colour – you’ve got the size, you’ve got its place in the anniversary commemorations, its proximity to an altar, the chantry that supports it, the glazing, and benefaction to the church in other forms, such as vestments, plate, banners, and so on. All of this is part of that commemorative jigsaw puzzle. We also must consider how it evolves, and flows, and changes over time; how it varies for different types of people and at different times. It wasn’t just one commemorative model that fitted all, and that’s what needs to be remembered. There are some out there who think about commemoration and tomb monuments in splendid isolation, but it was nothing like that. That’s why Katherine is a good example. I think that when our herald visited St James Garlickhithe he saw the Herbert coats of arms and a tabula with her name, although the original plan was almost certainly for her to have a brass. But her husband died before it could be commissioned, and she had no family left to do it for her. If she’s remained in the shadows for 500 years, at least we now know where she was buried and why.

Further reading
Links are provided for texts that are available online.

P. Hammond, The Children of Richard III (Brimscombe, 2018).

R. Marks, ‘Picturing Word and Text in the Late Medieval Parish Church’, in Image, Text and Church, 1380-1600: Essays for Margaret Aston, ed. L. Clark, M. Jurkowski, and C. Richmond (Toronto, 2009), 162-88.

C. Steer, ‘Burial and Commemoration in Medieval London, c.1140-1540’, unpublished PhD thesis, Royal Holloway, University of London (2013).

C. Steer, ‘The Plantagenet in the Parish: The Burial of Richard III’s Daughter in Medieval London’, The Ricardian, vol. 24 (2014), 63-73.

C. Steer, ‘“For quicke and deade memorie masses”: Merchant Piety in Late Medieval London’, in Medieval Merchants and Money: Essays in Honour of James L. Bolton, ed. M. Allen and M. Davies (London, 2016), 71-90.

A. F. Sutton, L. Visser-Fuchs, and H. Kleineke, ‘The Children in the Care of Richard III: New References, a Lawsuit between Peter Courteys, Keeper of Richard III’s Great Wardrobe, and Thomas Lynton, Solicitor of Richard III, 1495-1501’, The Ricardian, vol. 24 (2014), 31-62.