Bridget of York: A Royal Nun

A while back, I wrote a blog post about the christening of Bridget, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville’s youngest child. Here are a few more details about her life.

Bridget, as my post indicated, was born on November 10, 1480, and was christened the next day at Eltham. Her paternal grandmother, Cecily, Duchess of York, and her oldest sister, Elizabeth, were her godmothers at the baptismal font. Margaret, Lady Maltravers, a younger sister of Elizabeth Woodville, served as godmother at the confirmation. William Waynefleet, Bishop of Winchester, was the baby’s godfather. Bridget was most likely named after St. Bridget of Sweden. This may have been at the prompting of her grandmother Cecily, a deeply pious woman, but her parents might have chosen the name on their own: Edward IV had patronized the Brigittine house at Syon and had made use of the saint’s Revelations to support his claim to the throne.

The first mention of Bridget after her birth comes in 1483, when she is recorded as “being sick in the same wardrobe” and as receiving “two long pillows of fustian stuffed with down and two pillow beres of Holland cloth” for her use. The record is included with those related to the coronation of Richard III and Anne Neville, but Anne Sutton and Peter Hammond, following the interpretation of Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, point out that it probably dates to the period between Edward IV’s death on April 9 and Elizabeth Woodville’s flight into sanctuary on April 30-May 1. The Great Wardrobe, as they note, had its own site at Castle Baynard Ward and had been used to lodge members of the royal family in the past, including Margaret of York in 1468 and Edward IV himself in July 1480. Alternatively, perhaps Bridget, falling sick in sanctuary, was allowed to spend her illness in the greater comfort of the wardrobe.

Bridget certainly was with her mother and sisters in sanctuary, for on March 1, 1484, Elizabeth agreed with Richard III that her five daughters, Elizabeth, Cecily, Anne, Katherine, and Bridget, would leave their refuge. Richard swore that they would be “in surety of their lives” and that he would not imprison them “within the Tower of London or other prison”; he promised that he would “marry such of them as now being marriageable to gentlemen born.”

Richard III was killed at Bosworth before he could get around to arranging any match for Bridget, whose sister Elizabeth married the new king, Henry VII. Instead of making her own marriage, Bridget ended up entering the priory of Dartford, where she became a nun. It was unusual, but not unprecedented, for the daughter of an English king to take the veil: Edward I’s daughter Mary had taken the veil at Amesbury. Bridget’s own first cousin Anne de la Pole, whose parents were John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, and Elizabeth, a sister of Edward IV, took the veil at Syon and became its prioress. According to C.F.R. Palmer, Bridget entered Dartford in 1490, an event he associates with her mother’s withdrawal into Bermondsey Abbey, but in fact Elizabeth Woodville had gone to Bermondsey in 1487.

Why Bridget became a nun is unknown. It has been suggested that her veiling was part of Henry VII’s supposed attempt to suppress the line of the house of York, but as Henry allowed all of Bridget’s older sisters to marry, there would seem little point in preventing Bridget’s own marriage. Perhaps Bridget had been intended for the life of a nun from a young age, or perhaps she had some disability that ruled out marriage and children. Another possibility, of course, is that Bridget was a deeply pious girl who desired to take the veil.

A Dominican house located sixteen miles outside of London in Kent, Dartfort Priory is described by Paul Lee as one of the ten wealthiest and largest nunneries in England. During Bridget’s time at Dartford, the nunnery was under the charge of Elizabeth Cressner, who served as prioress from 1489 to 1536. The nunnery, the only house of Dominican nuns in England, observed the Rule of St. Augustine, which as Paul Lee notes “detailed a life of strict poverty, chastity, communal charity and obedience.” Lee also notes that “[e]nclosure of the nuns was strict, in principle, and there is no hint of scandal involving nuns leaving the monastic confines.” The priory did allow secular boarders, however, and both girls and boys were educated there.

In 1492, Bridget emerged from Dartford to attend the funeral of her mother; her older sisters Anne and Katherine participated in the services as well. Three years later, Bridget’s paternal grandmother, Cecily, Duchess of York, made her will. She left Bridget three books: a copy of the Legenda Aurea, a life of St Katherine of Sienna, and “the boke of St Matilde,” all of which, as Alison Spedding points out, figured in the “Orders and Rules” drawn up by the duchess for her own religious observances.

Elizabeth of York’s household accounts for 1502-03—the last year of the queen’s life—indicate that the queen sent money to her younger sister at Dartford; accounts for previous years do not survive. On July 6, 1502, a servant of the queen’s delivered 66 shillings and eight pence (3l 6s 8p) to the prioress. In September, the queen paid for the costs of another servant who had ridden from Windsor to Dartford “to my Lady Bridget.” Another payment of 66 shillings and eight pence was made to Bridget in March 1503.

Bridget did not live long enough to see the dissolution of Dartford. According to John Weever in Ancient Funeral Monuments, Bridget died around 1517 and was buried at Dartford: “She took the habit of religion when she was young and so spent her life in contemplation unto the day of her death.”

One question remains: did Bridget bear an illegitimate daughter, known as Agnes of Eltham, as claimed on some Internet sites? When this assertion (which has since been removed) appeared in the Wikipedia entries for Bridget and Agnes, I checked the two sources named and found that neither even mentioned Bridget or Agnes, much less substantiated the Wikipedia editor’s allegations. Nor do Elizabeth of York’s published privy purse expenses show any payments to Agnes of Eltham, despite claims to the contrary. Given these circumstances, it seems most likely that the allegations about Bridget arose from someone’s attempt to claim a fraudulent descent from Edward IV–at the cost of the reputation of a royal nun.

Sources:

C.A.J. Armstrong, “The Piety of Cecily, Duchess of York,” in his England, France and Burgundy in the Fifteenth Century (1983) (reprint of a 1942 article).

Mary Anne Everett Green, “Bridget, Seventh Daughter of Edward IV,” in her Lives of the Princesses of England, vol. 4.

Paul Lee, Nunneries, Learning and Spirituality in Late Medieval English Society: the Dominican Priory of Dartford (2001).

Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York: Wardrobe Accounts of Edward the Fourth: With a Memoir of Elizabeth of York, and Notes (1830).

C.F.R. Palmer, “History of the Priory of Dartford, in Kent.” Archaeological Journal, vol. 36 (1879).

Pauline Routh, “Princess Bridget.” The Ricardian (June 1975).

Alison J. Spedding, “‘At the King’s Pleasure’: The Testament of Cecily Neville.” Midland History (Autumn 2010).

Anne F. Sutton and P. W. Hammond, The Coronation of Richard III: The Extant Documents (1983).

Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs with R. A. Griffiths, The Royal Funerals of the House of York at Windsor (2005).

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8 Responses to Bridget of York: A Royal Nun

  1. Esther says:

    Great article. Wonder why someone wanting to claim descent from Edward IV would give Bridget a (fictional) illegitimate child; since Edward IV was known to have had several mistresses and at least one bastard, why not just give him another one?

    • boswellbaxter says:

      Indeed! Or they could claim a descent from his daughter Grace, about which almost nothing is known–all they need to do is find her a husband, and they’re in business! Thanks!

      • Sonetka says:

        Perhaps it was taken from a novel? People will often assume that the “major” incidents in historical novels are factual unless they’re told otherwise (I recently had an exchange with someone who believed implicitly in Hilary Mantel’s account of Smeaton et al being involved in the anti-Wolsey masque. She was really shocked that something that “big” could be invented). I’m not saying it wasn’t done by someone claiming descent from Edward IV — though as you’ve said, he certainly had enough real illegitimate children that it seems rather roundabout — but I also wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere out there is an old paperback entitled “The Royal Nun’s Secret” or something similar.

  2. Anne Barnhill says:

    Fascinating! THanks. Funny how these rumors get started, isn’t it? I am in awe of your constant research, etc. How do you have the time?? Would love to do lunch again–I’ll message you.

  3. Esther says:

    Sorry for the multiple posts, but I just thought of something … is anything known about the life Bridget may have had while in sanctuary? I wonder if her becoming a nun may have had some connection to that experience.

    Esther

    • boswellbaxter says:

      No problem with multiple posts at all! No, I don’t think anything is known about her life or that of her sisters in sanctuary, other than the fact that Richard III surrounded Westminster with guards while Elizabeth and her children were living there.

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