Upon Turning Eighteen
Elizabeth, the king's daughter,
Child of beauty, child of laughter,
Schooled in the pageantry of court,
Danced across the castle floor,
Delighted eyes and ears and hearts
So skillfully she played her parts.
By direst misery now beset:
Her old troth hath wed another,
Death claimed sister, father, brothers,
A bastard pauper by courts decree,
Prays: God, what shall become of me?
I composed "Upon Turning Eighteen " for the Duke Gyrth Oldcastle Memorial Smackdown at the 2011 Kingdom Arts and Sciences Festival. That year, we each adopted a historic persona (mine was Queen Elizabeth of York) and wrote from her perspective. Everyone who entered the contest needed to write one poem with the words "old" and "castle" in it; this is mine.
Elizabeth of York, who was later to become Queen of England as the wife of Henry VII, had miserable sixteenth and seventeenth years of life. In May 1482 her sister Mary, eighteen months her junior, died. In December 1482 King Louis XI of France ignored the betrothal agreement forged when Elizabeth was age nine, and instead of marrying his son to her, married Prince Charles to the daughter of Maximilian. In April 1483 her father died and her uncle Richard took control of her 12-year-old brother Edward V, who was to be the king. The dowager queen and her 5 other children, Elizabeth included, immediately took refuge in Westminster Abbey. In May Richard seized his deceased brother's property, effectively leaving Elizabeth's family penniless. In June her 9-year-old brother Richard was forcibly taken from his mother. By September at the latest, both her brothers - Edward and Richard - were dead. Also in June, Richard moved to have Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville's marriage invalidated (on very shaky and unproven grounds), meaning that Elizabeth of York went from eldest princess to whispered bastard in two terrible months. In July, Richard was crowned Richard III. By February of 1864, as Elizabeth of York was turning 18, the Parliament declared her parents' marriage voided. Can you imagine the teenage angst?
I founded this poem on two extant inscriptions, written in Elizabeth's hand, from books she owned. One, inscribed before these awful years, says "Elysabeth, the kyngys dowghter Boke." Another, written between her father's death and her marriage to King Henry VII, says "Elysabeth" in clear practiced hand, while "Plantaegenet" is written far more shakily.
The poetic forms of the time period (1484 to Elizabeth's death 1503) were, to post-Elizabethan sensibilities, rough. Although they commonly formed rhymed couplets (AABBCC etc.) or quatrains (ABAB) and many poems had vaguely consistent syllable counts per line, the lines did not proceed with metrically consistent feet or patterns of emphasis. Some famous poetry of the time, when republished later in the sixteenth century, was "polished up" a bit, regularizing lines and meter.