On 11th of February 1466, Elizabeth of York was born at the Palace of Westminster. Exactly thirty-seven years later, at the Tower of London, Elizabeth died shortly after giving birth to her last child.
Elizabeth of York was the eldest child of King Edward IV and his wife Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth was christened in St Stephen's Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Duchess of Bedford, and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, stood as her godmothers and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, stood as her godfather.
Elizabeth's young life was anything but stable. Her father had taken the throne in 1461, capturing King Henry VI and claiming the English crown for himself. Edward IV's choice of wife, Elizabeth Woodville, a widow with two sons, caused some controversy among those at court. In addition to this, the Wars of the Roses still raged on, with people taking sides: Lancaster vs York.
As a young child, Elizabeth was given her own establishment at Greenwich Palace under the supervision of Lady Margaret Berners. Elizabeth's mother gave birth to two more daughters, Mary and Cecily, before war erupted again.
King Edward IV's position was challenged and after a series of battles the King escaped to Flanders, while his wife and daughters fled to Westminster Abbey. It was here at Westminster Abbey that Elizabeth Woodville gave birth to a son, named Edward after his father. In October 1470, Henry VI was restored to the throne. His rule, however, lasted less than a year.
Edward and his supporters returned to England and defeated Henry VI and his men. Edward IV was once more King. Henry was captured and all those that opposed Edward were removed. It is believed that Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London. With Edward IV back on the throne, young Elizabeth was once more a princess and her life returned to normal.
Edward IV died on 9th April 1483 and Elizabeth's younger brother Edward was to succeed as the new king. Edward IV's younger brother, Richard of Gloucester, was named Lord Protector and he sought to place his nephews Edward and Richard in the Tower of London for their protection. A short time later, Richard declared that Edward IV had been betrothed prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and thus their children were proclaimed illegitimate. Parliament petitioned Richard to take the crown and he accepted.
Mysteriously, young Edward and Richard, the Princes in the Tower, disappeared, never to be heard of again. Interestingly, Elizabeth never publicly stated what she believed happened to her brothers.
After spending time with her mother and sisters in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, Elizabeth returned to court under the rule of her uncle, King Richard III. There were rumours that the new king had a romantic interest in his young, very beautiful niece, but these rumours were quickly squashed. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's mother was plotting with Margaret of Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, who was in exile in Brittany. The mothers planned for Henry Tudor and his men to return to England and for Henry to take the English throne and marry Elizabeth of York, uniting the houses of Lancaster of York.In December 1483, in the cathedral at Rennes, Henry Tudor vowed to marry Elizabeth of York. True to his vow, Henry Tudor and his men landed in Wales in 1485 and on the 22nd August 1485 he defeated Richard III in the famous Battle of Bosworth. Henry's coronation was held at Westminster Abbey on 30th October 1485. Then, on 18th of January 1486, after two dispensations to marry were granted by the Pope, Elizabeth and Henry were married at Westminster Abbey.
Although a marriage of political alliance, it would seem that Elizabeth and Henry came to love each other deeply. Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, a son named Arthur, on 20 September 1486, just eight months after her marriage. Either Arthur was born a month early or the young couple were intimate before their marriage! Elizabeth would go on to have six more children: Margaret, Henry, Elizabeth, Mary, Edmund and Katherine. Sadly, with high infant mortality rates in Medieval England, only Margaret, Henry and Mary would live to adulthood.
On 14th November 1501, Arthur, oldest son and heir of Elizabeth and Henry, married Catherine of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. The couple were married at St. Paul's Cathedral. After the marriage, the young couple were sent to live at Ludlow Castle, the traditional home of the Prince of Wales. Tragically, Arthur died less than a year later on 2nd April 1502 aged just fifteen.
When news of the Prince's death arrived, Henry VII was distraught and it was Elizabeth who comforted her husband and king. Elizabeth reassured Henry that they were both young and that they would have more children. After leaving her husband to his grief, Elizabeth broke down in tears and Henry had to come and comfort his wife.
True to her word, Elizabeth became pregnant with her seventh child shortly afterwards. After a long and difficult labour, Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter named Katherine on 2nd February 1503 at the Tower of London. Sadly, little Katherine died eight days later on the 10th February. Elizabeth of York also fell sick and she died on 11th February 1503, on her 37th birthday. It is not known exactly what Elizabeth died of, but having recently given birth it may be possible that she suffered from a post-partum infection such as puerperal fever. Elizabeth of York was greatly loved and her passing was deeply mourned by the people of England.
Personally, Henry VII was grief-stricken at the death of his wife. He ordered 636 masses to be said for Elizabeth's soul. Elizabeth was buried in a lavish ceremony in the Henry VII Chapel, otherwise known as the Lady Chapel, at Westminster Abbey. Shortly after Elizabeth's death, the King fell grievously ill and it was reported that he was heartbroken at the death of his beloved wife. Fortunately, he recovered. On the anniversary of Elizabeth's death every year Henry VII ordered a requiem mass to be sung, bells to be tolled and 100 candles to be burnt in the late queen's honour.
Elizabeth was reported to have been extremely beautiful, pious, and abundantly generous to those in need, kind-natured, patient and deeply loving of her children. She spent a great deal of her time with her children, Margaret, Henry and Mary, at Eltham Palace, where it was reported that she taught her son, the future Henry VIII, to write. She also cared for her sister's children and gave charitable donations to religious houses.
Polydore Virgil reported that Elizabeth was “intelligent above all others, and equally beautiful. She was a woman of such character that it would be hard to judge whether she displayed more of majesty and dignity in her life than wisdom and moderation.”(Weir 2014, p. 200).
Elizabeth of York was the perfect image of a queen, wife and mother. It has even been suggested that the beautiful Queen of Hearts on a pack of playing cards represents Elizabeth of York; perhaps a fitting tribute to a woman who gave so much of her heart to others.
For those interested in learning more about the fascinating Elizabeth of York I would strongly recommend reading Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Queen by Amy Licence.
Sarah Bryson is the author of Mary Boleyn: In a Nutshell. She is a researcher, writer and educator who has a Bachelor of Early Childhood Education with Honours and currently works with children with disabilities. Sarah is passionate about Tudor history and has a deep interest in Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn, the reign of Henry VIII and the people of his court. Visiting England in 2009 furthered her passion and when she returned home she started a website, queentohistory.com, and Facebook page about Tudor history. Sarah lives in Australia, enjoys reading, writing, Tudor costume enactment and wishes to return to England one day. She is currently working on a biography of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
Notes and Sources
- Hughes, Olga (2013) "Elizabeth of York and her Kings – Henry VII" viewed 15 January 2016, http://nerdalicious.com.au/history/elizabeth-of-york-and-her-kings-henry-vii/.
- Hughes, Olga (2013) "The Perfect Queen: Elizabeth of York", viewed 15 January 2016, http://nerdalicious.com.au/history/the-perfect-queen-elizabeth-of-york/.
- Licence, Amy (2013) Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Queen, Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
- Ridgway, Claire (2015), "11 February – Elizabeth of York’s Birth and Death", viewed 15 January 2016, http://www.theanneboleynfiles.com/11-february-elizabeth-yorks-birth-death/.
- Weir, Alison (2014) Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen, Vintage Books, London.
The source for the rumours that Elizabeth of York had a thing for Richard is the gossipy if on the spot Croyland who disapproved of the expensive Christians courts of his time. John Russell who has been identified as the probable author of the Croyland or Crowland was knowledgeable about most events but he was also disapproving, so he can be seen to misinterpret stuff. Elizabeth probably did have a crush on Richard when she came to count. She had been couped up in Sanctuary for months and then a close eye on her mother and her family must been suffocating for a teenager, a blossoming young woman. The visit to court must have brought back memories of the pampering and luxury that she had grown up with at her father’s court. Now she was at court again for some time and she was made a fuss over. Anne Neville, the Queen, her cousin and aunt was only a few years older, she was good company for this charming, beautiful young woman. Richard was not unhandsome and treated her with affection and honour. It is not beyond possibilities that she had some attraction, but that she wanted to marry him or that he had an affair with Elizabeth, no evidence backs this up. You can find someone attractive without having a relationship with them. Elizabeth was of the age when she should have been married and this was a great chance to attract foreign attention and noble attention, for Richard to arrange marriages for her and her sisters. Although the law said that she was illegitimate, Elizabeth was still the eldest daughter of a King and a dowry could be arranged. She was a good catch. With Henry Tudor vowing to marry Elizabeth, Richard iii would want to find her a husband to thwart that scheme. Anne Neville took Elizabeth under her wing and the two women dressed alike at the Christmas banquets. This was a mark of respect and honour, not Richard wanting to dress Elizabeth as his wife as the chronicles suggest. When Anne became ill, rumours about Richard and Elizabeth grew because Richard needed to remarry quickly as his son was dead. He was also advised to stay away from his wife in the last few weeks as she was very weak and it was dangerous. This was misunderstood by his enemies but it was sound advice as her condition could have been infectious. Richard iii should not be condemned for not making love to his dying wife, something that seems caring for her health and need to rest. He did visit and he did communicate with her and saw to her needs. Richard was very upset about his wife’s death. Richard also realized that there were strong rumours that he intended to marry Elizabeth, but he soon made a public proclamation that he did not want to marry Elizabeth. She was his neice and it would have been incest. Elizabeth did write to her uncle expressing devotion and love, but in a temperate way, thanking him for his care and consideration. There is also evidence that Richard iii was planning to marry Joanna of Portugal immediately after Bosworth, plus a letter to Norfolk or from Norfolk suggests that Elizabeth was looking elsewhere for a husband and sought his advice and intervention to achieve this. Henry Tudor may have temporarily believed the rumours as he sought an alternative Yorkist heiress in Maud Herbert to fall back on. That turned out to be unnecessary and in the end Henry was able to fulfil his vow and won the crown and his lady. The delay in their marriage was simply because of the need for a dispensation to arrive, not because he believed any longer that Elizabeth and Richard were lovers. I think that Henry got himself a devoted wife, a good mother for his children, a helpmate, a beautiful, generous, astute, supportive Queen and their marriage was a love match. I believe that Henry made time to get to know Elizabeth and he was devoted to her. He never remarried and there appears to be little evidence that he had a mistress while they were married. Henry Tudor was more charming than historians like to make out. He made a friendship with Katherine Gordon, the widow of Perkin Warbeck, because she found him charming and a good companion. She was not his lover, just a very good friend. Henry missed Elizabeth when she was taken from him, attempting to give him a replacement son. He was not the same person without her.
Richard also kept his word to find Elizabeth a husband, proposing to the King of Portugal that when he married Joanna, known for her piety as Blessed Joanna, that Elizabeth marry her cousin Manuel. This would have made her in time Queen of Portugal as he became Manuel I.
The Princes were not merely placed in the Tower as protection, but as this was the main royal residence at the time and best for their initial status. As Edward was initially preparing for his coronation the royal apartments, not his mother’s apron strings would be more appropriate. Even when their status changed they remained in the royal apartments before moving to the Garden or Bell Tower, under protection.