Queen Consort of England (1486-1503)
Born 1466 Died 1503

The daughter of a King

Elizabeth of York was the eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, born at Westminster on the 11th February 1466. Naturally as the daughter of a king she was destined to become a dynsastic pawn to be married off to whomsever offered the greatest political advantage to her father.

The first candidate was George Neville, Duke of Bedford the son of the Marquess Montagu, who in early 1470 Edward proposed should marry his daughter in order to curry favour with the politically powerful Neville familly. This plan was obviously abandoned once the Nevilles abandoned Edward in favour of the restoration of Henry VI and in any case both Montagu and his brother the Earl of Warwick were killed at the battle of Barnet in 1471. A few years later in 1475 it was agreed in the Treaty of Picquigny of 1475 that Elizabeth should marry the dauphin Charles. Nothing came of this latter betrothal either, as the French had second thoughts and by the Treaty of Arras of 1482 agreed that Charles would rather marry the daughter of Maximilian of Austria and Mary of Burgundy.

What future plans Edward might have had for his daughter remains unknown as he died on 9th April 1483. Soon afterwards, Edward's brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester staged his little coup d'etat and on the 26th June took the throne for himself as Richard III. Whilst Richard was busy taking control of the country the former king's consort Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters fled into sanctuary in Westminster.

It was whilst they where holed up in sanctuary that the Duke of Buckingham launched his rebellion later that year. It seems reasonably certain that Elizabeth Woodville was party to this conspiracy and that she had agreed to the marriage of Elizabeth to the young Henry Tudor, who had now emerged as the main rival to Richard. (Both Margaret Beaufort, Henry's mother and Buckingham's co-conspirator, and the elder Elizabeth shared a physician named Dr Lewis, who acted as a go-between.) Bad weather and poor planning doomed the revolt to failure and so nothing came of the agreement to marry Henry Tudor.

Elizabeth and Richard

The fact that his predecessor's consort and her family stubbornly remained in sanctuary was something of a political emabrassment for Richard, a fact that was clearly underlined when, on the Christmas day of 1483, Henry Tudor took an oath in Rennes Cathedral to marry Elizabeth of York in the event of his becoming king. Richard responded to this challenge by opening negotiations with Elizabeth Woodville and by a combination of threats and promises was eventually able to persuade her to abandon sanctuary. On the 1st March 1484 they reached an agreement which involved Richard in making a very public and very detailed oath guaranteeing their safety. As a result the young Elizabeth of York was to be found attending Richard's court during the Christmas festivities of 1484.

Much had changed for Richard during the course of the year. His only son Edward of Middleham had died on the 9th April 1484 and his wife Anne Neville was clearly very ill, unable to bear any more children and seemed likely to die in the not so distant future. It appears that at this point Richard began to consider the possibility of marrying Elizabeth himself.1 The Croyland Chronicle reported that "It was said by many that the King was bent ... on contracting a marriage with Elizabeth, whatever the cost, for it appeared that no other way could his kingly power be established or the hopes of his rival put an end to".2 Croyland also made reference to "other matters" which were "too shameful to speak of", remarks that have been interpreted as meaning that Richard and Elizabeth were already engaged in a sexual relationship together and the chronicler Jean Molinet even alleged that they had a child together.

Anne Neville eventually died on the 16th March 1485 and whilst this now left Richard free to marry again, in many ways it made matters worse as as there were now widespread rumours that Richard had poisoned her in order to make way for Elizabeth.

It should be noted however that historians differ in the extent to which they give credence to the account given by the Croyland Chronicle, and the other histories of the period which record details of the plan for Richard to marry Elizabeth3. Some believe that there never was any such plan and that the rumours were deliberately created by Richard's enemies to discredit him. Some believe that whilst Elizabeth desired the match Richard refused her, some believe that it was the other way round, and some such as Alison Weir believe that they were both eager to be married and that only adverse public opinion and the opposition of the privy council persuaded Richard to drop the idea. The precise truth of the matter may never be known as the source materials for the reign of Richard III are pretty meagre and the contemporary and near contemporary accounts are contradictory and often coloured, if not by hindsight, at least by the desire not to offend whoever was in power at the time. However given the beleagured nature of Richard's reign it would be suprising if he had not at least considered the possibility of marrying his niece.

What can however be said with certainty is that; firstly there were widespread rumours that Richard planned to marry Elizabeth and that he had murdered his wife in order to do so; and secondly, that these rumours were regarded as sufficiently damaging to the king's reputation that before Easter 1485 Richard was forced to make a very public denial at the great hall in St John's Hospital, Clerkenwell before the Mayor and citizens of London. What is also notable is that sometime after this very public denial (and certainly before June 1485) that Elizabeth was removed from court and packed off to Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire.

Whether she took any part in the subsequent conspiracy surrounding Henry's invasion later that year is uncertain although The Song of the Lady Bessy was to recount how she wrote to Henry Tudor enclosing her ring to encourage him to come for her.

The Queen of England

With or without the encouragement of his intended bride Henry Tudor duly came for her and defeated and killed Richard at the battle of Bosworth on the 22nd August 1485. As soon as he arrived in London the victorious Henry sent for Elizabeth who arrived in the capital with much ceremony where she was reunited with her mother.

It is worth pointing out that since both of Elizabeth's brothers were now dead4, she was in the eyes of many the rightful Queen of England and should be recognised as the Queen Regnant. Such ideas may well have encouraged Henry to delay fulfilling his promise of marriage, in order to avoid giving the impression that he was only king by virtue of his wife. In any event there were certain legal formalities to be attended, such as the repeal and suppression of Titulus Regius and Henry diplomatically waited until both Houses of Parliament had petitioned him to proceed with the marriage.

It eventually took place on 18th January 1486 although there are some suggestions that it was a little rushed, as the ceremony proceeded without the necessary papal dispensation and relied instead on the verbal assurance of the papal legate that such a dispensation would be forthcoming5. The explanation for this may well be found in the fact that their first child Arthur Tudor was born a mere eight months later on the 20th September 1486. Elizabeth had to wait slightly longer for her coronation, and it was not until the 25th November 1487 that she received the formal recognition of her status.

"The good Queen Elizabeth"

Elizabeth's marriage to Henry was regarded as the symbolic union of the House of York with that of Lancaster and thus the "happy instrument of terminating the wars which deluged this country with blood", bringing to an effective end that protracted dynastic struggle known as the War of the Roses.

From contemporary descriptions it seems that she had long red-gold hair and "large breasts" in the opinion of the Portugese ambassador, whilst his Venetian counterpart described her as a "very handsome woman and in conduct very able". She was able to write French and Spanish, seems to have enjoyed hunting (she kept her own pack of greyhounds and a goshawk) and demonstrated at least a feigned interest in the arts; together with her mother-in-law she sponsored William Caxton's printing of The Fifteen Oes in 1491, and was a patron of the composers William Cornish and Robert Fayrfax.

Elizabeth appears to have been a popular and well liked and Nicholas Harris Nicolas believed that we "may safely ascribe to her most, if not all, of the virtues which adorn the female character" quoting in support the the words of Bernard Andreas, the Poet Laureate;

She exhibited from her very cradle, towards God an admirable fear and service; towards her parents a wonderful obedience; towards her brothers and sisters an almost incredible love; towards the poor, and the ministers of Christ a reverend and singular affection.

Having praised her virtues Nicholas Harris Nicolas dismisses her as a political irrelevance stating that "the moment in which Elizabeth of York became Queen of England her life loses its political interest". Indeed she appears to have been overshadowed by her mother-in-law Margaret Beaufort, a formidable woman who was largely responsible for placing her son on the throne in the first place. One contemporary Spanish report went so far as to state that Elizabeth was "kept in subjection by the mother of the king" and another suggested that she was in "need of a little love".

Which bring us to the question of her relationship with Henry VII. Francis Bacon was to assert that Henry's "aversion toward the house of York was so predominant in him as it found place not only in his wars and councils, but in his chamber and bed". Many have had reasons to since doubt this assessment and clearly Henry's "aversion" did not prevent him from ensuring that Elizabeth fell pregnant at least seven times during their seventeen years of marriage. It is quite possible that Henry did view her with a certain animosity (particularly if the tales of her prior dalliance with Richard were true) but if this was the case it is likely that the shared experience of life together had softened Henry's heart as contemporary accounts show that he was genuinely heartbroken by her death.

Childbirth took its toll of women in the days before modern medicine and it was no different for Elizabeth, who died on her thirty-seventh birthday, the 11th February 1503, just nine days after giving birth to her daughter Katherine who was born premature and herself died within a few days. The former queen laid in state at the Tower of London before being buried at the Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey on the 22nd February after a particularly lavish and splendid funeral paid for by her allegedly parsimonious husband.

It was somewhat ironic that her death took place less than a year after Henry's court astrologer had forecast that she would live to be at least eighty. For many years thereafter her death was cited as evidence of the fallibilty of the science of astrology.


According to Polydor Vergil they had four sons and four daughters although most sources list only seven, being; Arthur, Margaret, Henry, Mary, Edmund, Elizabeth and Katherine. Of these only Margaret, Mary, and Henry were still alive at the time of her death. Margaret Tudor married James IV of Scotland and was thus the ancestress of the later Stuart kings and their successors, whilst Mary married Louis XII of France and Henry of course became Henry VIII.

Elizabeth of York has the distinction of being perhaps the most royal of all the Queen Consorts of England, having been variously, the daughter (Edward IV), sister (Edward V), niece (Richard III), wife (Henry VII) and mother (Henry VIII) of a reigning king of England.

NOTES

1 The marriage between an uncle and his niece fell within the prohibited decrees of the church, but this simply meant that a papal dispensation was required in order for the union to legally proceed.
2 It was said by Polydor Vergil that when these rumours reached the ears of Henry Tudor that the news "pinched him in the very stomach".
3 For example there is the evidence of the Ricardian apologist George Buck who claimed to have seen the original of a letter written by Elizabeth to the Duke of Norfolk indicating her enthusiasm for the match and requesting his assistance. Since no one else is recorded as having seen this letter many doubt its existence whilst others believe that Buck would hardly have invented something that was so obviously disprovable by his contemporaries. Whilst on the other hand Richard Grafton claimed that Elizabeth "detested and abhorred this unlawful and in manner unnatural copulation".
4 Of course there remain those who believe that they were not dead, but the fact remains that they were widely believed to have been dead at the time, which is what mattered. (See the Princes in the Tower.) Although in the absence of any established succession law there were other male heirs (apart from Henry) who might claim that they had priority over Elizabeth; none of these was however, in a position to make good such a claim.
5 Pope Innocent VIII duly issued the retrospective sanction for the marriage in July 1486 and also helpfully threatened excommunication on anyone who opposed Henry's title to the crown.

SOURCES

  • Nicholas Harris Nicolas, Memoir of Elizabeth of York included in his Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York: Wardrobe Accounts of Edward IV
    See http://www.r3.org/bookcase/wardrobe/ward3.html
  • The entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for Elizabeth (Elizabeth of York) by Rosemary Horrox
  • Alison Weir The Princes in the Tower (Folio, 1999)
  • Elizabeth of York at
    http://tudorhistory.org/people/eyork/ and http://englishhistory.net/tudor/elizdeat.html

Images of Elizabeth can be seen at www.npg.org.uk/live/search/person.asp?LinkID=mp01451

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