Proper she was and fair…yet delighted not men so much in her beauty, as in her pleasant behaviour. For a proper wit had she, and could both read well and write, merry of company, ready and quick of answer, neither mute nor full of babble, sometimes taunting without displeasure and not without disport. – Charles Ross, Richard III
All through history, many a famous or important man has met his downfall through careless or indiscreet relations with whores; I’ve featured the stories of many of them in these columns, and I’m sure you can think of a few on your own without my assistance. But sometimes it happens the other way around, and a whore is ruined by her association with the wrong client; Elizabeth “Jane” Shore was one such case, though the beauty and charm which had placed her in harm’s way eventually secured her escape from it again.
She was born in London about 1445 to John and Amy Lambert; her father was a wealthy dry-goods dealer who helped to finance King Edward IV’s wars against his Lancastrian cousins, and so the future courtesan was exposed from a young age to noblewomen from whom she learned courtly manners. She was also well-educated, and though these preparations may seem to have been meant to prepare her for her future profession, it was actually unintentional; in fact, the constant and ardent attention paid her by wealthy and important (but married) men (including William Hastings, later King Edward’s Lord Chamberlain) seems to have inspired the Lamberts to choose a husband for her hastily and unwisely. She was married sometime after 1460 to a wealthy goldsmith named William Shore, but the marriage was a loveless one; in fact, it appears to have been a sexless one as well, because the grounds for her eventual annulment was that the marriage was never consummated. Given his wife’s beauty and the fact that he never remarried, it seems safe to conclude that Shore was a closeted homosexual; he certainly never interfered with Elizabeth’s social life, and sometime soon after Edward’s restoration to the throne in 1471 she became his mistress.
Though Edward IV was a notorious womanizer, Elizabeth quickly became his favorite; he described her as “the merriest harlot in the realm” and after the annulment of her marriage in 1476 he formally extended his protection to William Shore. This favor was probably asked of him by Elizabeth, who unlike most royal mistresses used her influence not to gain favors or gifts for herself, but instead to win mercy for deserving men who had incurred the royal wrath. As Sir Thomas More wrote of her many years later, she “never abused [her influence] to any man’s hurt, but to many a man’s comfort and relief.” Even the Queen, whose name was also Elizabeth, liked and accepted her; in fact, it is likely that she changed her name to Jane around this time as a show of deference to her. This nobility of character won the lasting respect of the King; though he generally discarded his mistresses as soon as he tired of them, he remained close to Jane until his death on April 9th, 1483.
It was after that death that her troubles began, however. She briefly became the mistress of the late King’s stepson, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, but it was not long before William Hastings renewed his two-decade-old suit and she took up with him instead. She also remained friendly with the Queen, and carried messages between her and Hastings. The subject of these messages was undoubtedly her brother-in-law, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who had been declared “Lord Protector” over her young sons (and the kingdom) by the dying Edward IV. Anyone who is familiar with Shakespeare knows why the Queen was afraid: Richard immediately imprisoned the young princes “for their own protection”, then had them declared illegitimate and set about destroying everyone whom he thought might be loyal to his brother and the boy Edward V. On June 13th he accused Jane and the Queen of trying to destroy him via witchcraft at Hastings’ request; the women were imprisoned, while Hastings was immediately beheaded in the courtyard of the Tower of London. In some way which is unclear to history, Richard was persuaded to relent slightly on the witchcraft charges; they were never pursued against the Queen, and Jane’s charge was reduced to “promiscuity”. She was forced to do penance by walking through London barefoot in her petticoat, carrying a candle and singing hymns. But if Richard hoped to humiliate her by this treatment, he was sorely disappointed: the crowds who had gathered to gawk were instead struck by her beauty, moved to pity by her condition and impressed with the dignity she displayed during her ordeal.
One of the admirers she won that day was Thomas Lynom, Solicitor General to the newly-crowned King Richard III. After her penance Jane was confined in Ludgate prison, where Lynom visited her often and soon fell in love with her. He asked the King to free her so he could marry her, and though Richard tried to dissuade him from what he considered a foolish action (and even wrote a letter to John Russell, the Lord Chancellor, asking him to persuade Lynom to give up the idea), he eventually gave his permission; Jane was pardoned, married Lynom, and bore him a daughter named Julianne. And though Lynom lost his high position in August of 1485 (after Henry Tudor defeated Richard and became Henry VII), he got a new (though lower) government job, and Jane lived the rest of her days in middle-class comfort. Sir Thomas More met and befriended her in her old age, and wrote that she was still a merry companion with a quick mind and a tender heart, and that one could still discern traces of her youthful beauty.
She died at last in 1527, at about the age of 82, and was buried at Hinxworth Church in Hertfordshire. Some biographies erroneously claim that she spent her declining years in poverty, but this is not so; it is the fate of her character in an Elizabethan play named The True Tragedy of Richard III, which predated Shakespeare’s treatment by several years. This confusion of historical dramas with history is not unusual; historians are still trying to untangle the historical Richard III from his wholly-villainous portrayal by Shakespeare and other Tudor dramatists. Jane is mentioned frequently (as “Mistress Shore”) in the Richard III of Shakespeare, and is a major character in many other works of the period (plays, novels and even poems). There was also an 18th-century drama about her life, and three different silent movies (though oddly enough, no talkies). But as we have so often seen in the lives of the courtesans, truth is stranger than fiction, and real historical events more fascinating than the attempts of authors to improve on them.