The Merriest Harlot

Jane Shore is the second person and the first woman we meet in The Protector, as she waits with members of Edwards IV’s Privy Council for an opportunity to speak to the dying king.  She has been his favorite mistress, but from the start it is evident that William, Lord Hastings, Edward’s close friend and confidante, is infatuated with her and longs to become her next lover.  His hopes are quickly but temporarily dashed when Jane instead finds comfort in the arms of Richard Grey, Marquis of Dorset, a member of the notorious Woodville family and Hastings’s nemesis.  Unfortunately for Hastings, the eventual fulfillment of his long-held desire to possess Jane will lead directly to his downfall.

The character of Jane Shore is based on a real woman who was born Elizabeth Lambert to a prosperous London merchant family about 1445. (The name “Jane” seems to have been a later invention, but I have continued to use it as that is how she is now known to history.)  She seems to have been both highly intelligent and better educated than most women of her class.   Her beauty and flirtatious personality attracted the attention of many men, including possibly a younger Lord Hastings.   Apparently worried about her reputation and her virtue, her anxious father married her off to William Shore, a goldsmith and banker 14 or 15 years her senior.  Though advantageous, the marriage was not a happy one.  Eventually, Jane petitioned to have it annulled on the grounds that her husband was impotent, thus preventing her from bearing children.

How and when Jane came into contact with Edward IV is lost to history, but she seems to have become his mistress sometime in 1476, the same year her annulment was granted by Pope Sixtus IV.  (This may not have been a coincidence.)  She was one of the few women he did not ultimately cast off when he tired of them.  He called her his “merriest harlot,” leading to the speculation that it was her carefree nature and ability to make him laugh that held his interest as much as her physical charms.

In fact, there seems to have been much more to Jane than mere beauty or sexual appeal, and more ways that she exercised influence over the world around her than the obvious ones.  The fact that she dared to seek an annulment of her unhappy marriage reveals that she was willing to take agency for her own life.  Going to the pope to relieve herself of this unhappy burden was something almost unheard of at the time, especially for a non-noble woman.  There was something else about her that was notable:  She seems to have been kind-hearted.  As Edward’s mistress, she didn’t use her considerable influence for personal gain but instead to help men who had fallen out of the king’s favor to gain pardons.

Her behavior after Edward’s death appears to have been more calculating.  When Hastings becomes concerned about the ambitions of his once-great-and-good friend Richard, Duke of Gloucester, she is there to offer a plan to redress his grievances by acting as a go-between him and his old enemies, the Woodvilles.   This is historically accurate, as is the mutual antipathy between her and Richard based on their striking personality and character differences.  Whether or not she was truly in love with Dorset as I have depicted is an open question, but I see that possibility as a likely motivation for her behavior.  In fact, I have taken very few liberties with the character of Jane in my book.  Real life provides quite enough drama from this “lady”!

Her involvement in the plot to take Richard down did not go unpunished.  She was made to do public penance dressed only in her “kirtle,” a type of undergarment, and was jailed for several months in Ludgate Prison. Yet her story ended happily when Richard’s solicitor general, Thomas Lynom (who was probably several years younger than she) fell in love with her and made her his wife, thereby granting her middle-class respectability.  Unlike her first marriage, this one seems to have been happy.  She bore him a daughter, Alice, and lived to be about 82 years old, quite a remarkable feat for the time.  Even in her old age, Thomas More, who apparently saw her on the street, said of her that “an attentive observer might discern in her shriveled countenance traces of her former beauty.”

Quite a woman indeed!

Categories: History

1 reply

  1. Quite a lady, and a wonderful telling of her story.


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