The History behind The Godmother’s Secret

Last week, I featured a review of Elizabeth St. John’s new novel The Godmother’s Secret. Today, Liz tells us the fascinating story behind the story and includes an excerpt.

The Godmother’s Secret opens in 1470 when Lady Elysabeth Scrope is sent into the protection of Westminster Abbey’s Sanctuary to witness the birth of Edward IV’s child by his queen consort, Elizabeth Woodville. If the child lived, Elysabeth was to serve as its godmother. The baby was born at a time when there were two kings fighting for England’s throne at the tail end of the Wars of the Roses – Lancastrian Henry VI and Yorkist Edward IV. When Edward IV reclaimed the crown, Elysabeth’s godson became Prince Edward, the heir to the throne.

In medieval times, a godmother was considered a blood relative, and was responsible for the spiritual wellbeing and security of their godchild. Where it gets interesting is that Elysabeth was also the half-sister to Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor – at the time of Prince Edward’s birth, the exiled Earl of Richmond. Elysabeth’s husband, John Scrope, 5th Baron Scrope of Bolton, was a close ally of Richard III. So not only was Elysabeth (a Lancastrian) godmother to the York heir, she was also aunt to the Tudor claimant (and future Henry VII). Talk about family feuds! Margaret was also married to Lord Thomas Stanley, a powerful follower of Richard III, until the Battle of Bosworth. And we all know how that ended.

The Godmother’s Secret revolves around Elysabeth’s vow as godmother and her desperate efforts to protect her 12-year-old godson, Edward V, from the intrigue and betrayal that surrounds him after she delivers him to the Tower of London for his coronation.  He was automatically king upon the death of his father Edward IV (“the king never dies”). However, he had yet to be anointed when the Duke of Buckingham moved Edward into the Tower for his own safekeeping and to prepare for his coronation. In my novel, Elysabeth is navigating her own conflict, upholding her loyalty to both her husband and her sister as competing factions battle for the throne. More than anything, Elysabeth defies the bounds of blood and loyalty to make her own decisions for her godson’s survival in a hostile medieval world where women had little authority.

When I was looking for inspiration for The Godmother’s Secret, I literally entered my own name into our digitised family tree to see who else was recorded. About half a dozen Elizabeths appeared—Victorian, Georgian, and Tudor women; some who had lived at court, others who led simple lives in the English countryside.  But I was intrigued to find Elysabeth St.John who lived in the 15th century – and over the moon when I discovered she was the godmother to Edward V – the eldest brother of the missing Princes in the Tower. I had a new family story to investigate! And surely Elysabeth, above anyone else, would know what happened to those poor boys?

Elysabeth Scrope’s appointment as godmother

What was fascinating as I started digging deep into the research were the layers upon layers of rumours, gossip and myths that surrounded Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York. Our common perception today is very often “Richard III killed his nephews, the Princes in the Tower” (a name for them that only came into being in the Victorian times). Most of what we think about Richard is derived from Shakespeare’s eponymous play, which in turn drew from Thomas More’s account, written during the reign of Henry VIII. As I read further, firsthand accounts from foreign diplomats and letters between English merchants revealed only that the boys were not seen after the summer of 1483; later rumours were reported that Richard III had murdered them.

The princes vanished. Their bodies were never discovered, and no one was ever found guilty of murdering them. Even the bones that are claimed to be theirs in Westminster Abbey are not authenticated. Their disappearance is the biggest mystery in English history. And that is where I landed as a historical fiction novelist. I could weave in genuine family facts and create my version of their story. About halfway through the first draft I came across a piece of family history (basically a dynastic marriage) that made my story plausible, which was really exciting. 

Westminster Abbey from Sanctuary at Cheyneygates

As far as if my version is true? It’s historical fiction. We create narratives from the known facts, sift through rumours and gossip until we find the source – or can dismiss them. Until the next fact comes along.

Many thanks, Liz. Your novel is a wonderful blend of fact, fiction, and art. And for readers out there, just imagine what you might discover in your own family history! Below the book description is an excerpt from The Godmother’s Secret.

The Godmother’s Secret by Elizabeth St. John ~~ If you knew the fate of the Princes in the Tower, would you tell? Or forever keep the secret?

May 1483: The Tower of London. When King Edward IV dies and Lady Elysabeth Scrope delivers her young godson, Edward V, into the Tower of London to prepare for his coronation, she is engulfed in political turmoil. Within months, the prince and his brother have disappeared, Richard III is declared king, and Elysabeth’s sister Margaret Beaufort conspires with her son Henry Tudor to invade England and claim the throne.

Desperate to protect her godson, Elysabeth battles the intrigue, betrayal, and power of the last medieval court, defying her Yorkist husband and her Lancastrian sister under her godmother’s sacred oath to keep Prince Edward safe. Bound by blood and rent by honour, Elysabeth is torn between King Richard and Margaret Beaufort, knowing that if her loyalty is questioned, she is in peril of losing everything—including her life.

Were the princes murdered by their uncle, Richard III? Did Margaret Beaufort mastermind their disappearance to usher in the Tudor dynasty? Or did the young boys vanish for their own safety? Of anyone at the royal court, Elysabeth has the most to lose–and the most to gain–by keeping secret the fate of the Princes in the Tower.

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.

Available on Kindle Unlimited. Buy links: Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon CA, Amazon AU. Universal buy link

The Godmother’s Secret – Chapter 1

November 1470 | Westminster Abbey

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.” My voice competes with a dripping gutter and gets lost under the pitter-patter.

At the foot of the steps, my stepdaughter, Meg Zouche, hums with a redhead’s restless energy; her curly hair springs wildly from her hood, laced with jeweled droplets of Thames mist. “The queen thinks to defy fate with a barred door.” Meg scowls at the blank and blackened oak. 

“She will admit us. Eventually. Even one such as she cannot birth her child alone,” I reply. “I may not be her choice for an attendant, but a captive has no say in their guard.” Temper’s blood warms my cheeks. I stand resolute at the door, ignoring the invisible eyes taking my measure. If this time in sanctuary is to be the battle of wills I anticipate, then I must win the first foray. I plant my feet in the composting leaves, ignore the damp seeping from the stone into the soles of my boots, and wait. 

Bolts grate top and bottom, and the door creaks open. I swallow a last breath of rain-washed air, hoarding the fresh scent for the stifling weeks to come, for the queen’s confinement shapes my own prison sentence. Reaching for Meg’s warm hand, I cross the threshold into the abbot’s house. The splashing steps of our guard fades, his duty done, mine just beginning. And if I fail and the child dies, I will be shown no mercy from Henry, the king that rules, nor Edward, the king in exile. 

We are herded like moorland sheep into the cramped entry corridor, and the steward squints down his drip-tipped nose and sniffs. Meg glares back at him until he drops his gaze. She may be only nineteen, but she has been mine since she was two years of age, and I have trained her to run a great household. She will brook no truck with an insolent servant. Let Meg practice her learnings on the poor man; he is, after all, the enemy.

“Escort my mother to the queen,” Meg commands, “and then show me our lodgings.”

He grudgingly dips his head. “Wait here, Dame Zouche.” 

So the household expects our arrival. They just don’t choose to welcome us. Of course, there is little that will escape the queen, for certainly she has her spies and informers even as she invokes sanctuary to protect her unborn child. 

“This way, Lady Scrope.” 

I kiss Meg’s warm cheek. “Make friends with him, Meg,” I whisper. “We’re going to need all the help we can muster. I’ll return shortly.”

She grins and winks. “Bon chance, Belle-maman.” 

The steward sets off at a brisk trot through a passage that runs alongside the entry courtyard. He does not look back to see if I keep up nor to extend me the courtesy of a deferential bow nor even a head tilt that my rank demands. So. This is how we will engage. 

He leaves me at the open door to a dim chamber, and I pause to let my eyes adjust to the shadows and to reclaim my dignity. I am aware that whoever is in the room sees me before I see them. 

The Abbot’s House – Westminster

The lofty wood panelling is underlit by half-burned candles struggling in the damp air. At the end of the chamber is a diamond-paned window, beyond which the Abbey lurks, blocking the waning light. Resting in a high-backed chair before the hearth, her pure profile dark against the blue flames of a meagre fire, is Queen Elizabeth—I still think of her as Elizabeth Woodville—her belly swollen under a beaver-fur mantle. Three little girls huddle on red velvet prayer cushions at her feet, the youngest child perhaps eighteen months.

So this is the commoner queen and her brace of healthy children. Yet still no male heir to claim the throne. What are the odds this next child is a boy? High, I reckon. Especially given the wellspring of prayers God must be receiving daily from the queen and her followers.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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