Written by Marnie Camping-Harris
Throughout history, mistresses have proven themselves to be influential figures and important to the history of their respective kings, some even becoming queens. However, Jane Shore was significant in the fact that she conspired with her ex-lover Edward IV’s wife, against the new king, Richard III. To understand how Jane got into this position, we shall begin her story at the beginning.
Born to John and Amy Lambert in 1445, Jane was actually named Elizabeth. Her name change was most likely first used and popularised by the seventeenth-century playwright, Thomas Haywood, however, it would have been helpful as Edward’s wife, mistress and daughter were all called Elizabeth. According to historians, Jane’s upbringing in her father’s popular London shop would have brought her into contact with many wealthy and high-status ladies, especially those of the court. This experience would have had a significant impact on her mannerisms and behaviour, helping her emulate a lady of noble station. Scholars and contemporaries have also commented on her outstanding education, with Sir Thomas More describing her as incredibly intelligent despite being a woman and of a lower class. No specific date is given, but we do know that before 1469 she was married to William Shore, a goldsmith who was roughly fifteen years older than Jane. Although described as handsome, he never won Jane’s heart and the couple produced no children – most likely due to the latter fact. This arrangement has been attributed, according to scholars, to her father wanting to rid his daughter of the male attention she was receiving. However, the marriage would not stop this, as Jane would soon meet King Edward IV.
The dates surrounding Jane and Edward’s meeting are also of debate. The common theme is that they met after Edward’s return from France, either in 1469 or 1476. However, it was most likely in 1469, as in 1476 Jane’s marriage to William Shore was annulled on the grounds of impotency. Jane’s desire for her marriage to be annulled might have simply been for the fact that her husband was unable to produce children, or because she fell in love with someone else. Nevertheless, Edward and Jane began an affair, but unlike any of his previous or future mistresses, Jane was never discarded or showered with gifts. The latter fact could be attributed to Jane not using her close and personal relationship to the king for her personal gain. Instead, it has been noted by contemporaries that she would use her newfound status to bring those out of favour to the king, in the hopes for a pardon. Surprisingly, Jane and Edward never had any children together, another reason as to why she was likely kept around in comparison to his other mistresses. At this time, it was believed that having intercourse with a pregnant woman would damage the baby, therefore, by never getting pregnant during their relationship, Jane could ensure that her and Edward’s affair would continue. At court, Jane was also the mistress to Edward’s right-hand man, Lord William Hastings; some scholars believe that it was actually Hastings who introduced the two, hinting that maybe Hastings was one of the men Jane’s father was trying to protect her from. Alongside Hastings, Jane continued to be mistress to Edward until his death in April 1483 – this is when Jane’s life as a mistress takes a surprising turn of events.
After the sudden death of Edward IV, his widow, Elizabeth Woodville, took her daughters and younger son into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. This was in response to the new king, Richard III, abducting her elder son and the rightful heir, Edward V, and holding him in the Tower of London. Eventually, Elizabeth would be coerced to give up her other son, Richard Duke of Shrewsbury, to the king, and the two boys would become known as the Princes in the Tower. However, during this time, Jane began a new relationship with Thomas Grey Marquess of Dorset, while continuing her affair with Hastings. Thomas was not only the son-in-law of Hastings but also the son of Elizabeth Woodville from her first marriage. Through these relationships, Jane was able to bring both the Woodville/Grey and Hastings factions back together – as Elizabeth feared that Hastings was now on Richard III’s side. She would pass secret messages between Elizabeth, Thomas, Hastings and Anthony Woodville (Elizabeth’s brother and another possible suitor of Jane), all against Richard III in an attempted escape plan for Elizabeth’s sons in the Tower. Unfortunately, this plan was not successful, and Jane’s treason was eventually discovered by Richard. For her crimes of conspiracy and harbouring a fugitive (hiding Thomas in her home after Richard placed a warrant on his head), Jane was ordered to perform a public penance as a harlot in June 1483. After this, Richard had her placed in Ludgate Prison. Although appearing harsh, Jane’s punishments were far from the fate of the others. Richard Grey (Thomas’ brother), Anthony Woodville, and Lord William Hastings were all beheaded, also in June 1483.
Yet this was not to be the end of Jane’s story. While in prison, Jane attracted the attention of Thomas Lynom, who was none other than Richard III’s solicitor general. As Thomas More wrote, men were more attracted to Jane for her intelligent, literate, merry and playful personality, hopefully explaining how she was able to seduce so many. Despite being warned by the king, Lynom advocated for Jane’s release and once liberated the two were married. The marriage is recorded to be a happy one, producing a daughter. After the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and the subsequent accession of Henry VII, Lynom lost his position as solicitor general. Instead, Henry appointed him to a place on the Welsh Marches and was eventually made clerk controller for Arthur, Prince of Wales at Ludlow Castle. Her husband’s position was able to offer Jane the life she was somewhat used to, and she was able to live out the rest of her years in high society, until she passed away at the ripe old age of eighty-two – a feat shocking to those in the Middle Ages.
Nonetheless, Jane’s story is not one to be simply defined as a mistress. She crossed boundaries of sex, class and power, constantly coming out on top. Within literature, Jane’s narrative was heavily romanticised during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with playwrights making her a central character to their depictions of Edward IV. However, she was most notably the central figure in Nicholas Rowe’s play The Tragedy of Jane Shore (1714), demonstrating how she was more than just Edward IV’s mistress.
Mary Clive, The Sun of York: A Biography of Edward IV (London, 1973)
Thomas More, The History of King Richard III (Cambridge, 1883)
Cora L. Scofield, The Life and Reign of Edward the Fourth: King of England and of France and Lord of Ireland (London, 1967)
C.J.S. Thompson, The Witchery of Jane Shore, the Rose of London: The Roman of a Royal Mistress (London, 1933)
Featured image credit: Royal Mistress Jane Shore Walked Streets of London in Her Underwear. Accessed via ancient-origins.net: https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/jane-shore-0011174.