Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth was the oldest child of the controversial marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. At the time of her birth, her father had been King for some five years, and looked secure on his throne. However, when Elizabeth was four, the machinations of Edward’s cousin, Warwick the Kingmaker, and her uncle, George, Duke of Clarence, led to a brief resurgence of the House of Lancaster.

Elizabeth and her sisters were quickly whisked into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey by her mother, and it was during this period that Queen Elizabeth bore her first son, named Edward for his father.  King Edward returned in triumph, routing the Lancastrians at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury and seemingly establishing the York dynast permanently.

Brought up as a favoured elder daughter, Elizabeth was surrounded by the luxury and sophistication of a court which her parents modelled on the Burgundian style – considered the pinnacle of taste and style. As well as the sumptuous clothes and jewels they favoured, much emphasis was placed on the arts of music, and literature. Elizabeth’s parents, and her uncle, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, were great patrons of Caxton and his new printing press.

Aged nine, Elizabeth was betrothed for a second time (an earlier arrangement with her cousin, George Neville was allowed to lapse), to the Dauphin of France. This was the result of the 1475 Treaty of Picquigny between England and France. It was agreed that Elizabeth would marry the Dauphin Charles when she was about sixteen. This was a glorious prospect – Queens of France ranked only after the Holy Roman Empress in Europe and the country was growing in wealth and power.

This future was shattered in January 1483, when news came that King Louis XI intended his son to marry Anne, Duchess of Brittany, instead of Elizabeth. The public jilting of his daughter was thought to have had a damaging effect on Edward’s health. Whether it was that, or his notorious gluttony that weakened him, Edward died suddenly on 9th April, 1483, aged only 40.

Elizabeth’s younger brother was immediately proclaimed as Edward V, but faction fighting broke out between her Woodville relatives, and the supporters of her uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as to who should act as Regent or Protector for the twelve-year-old King. En route to London, Edward was met by his uncle Richard, who immediately arrested Elizabeth’s other uncle, Earl Rivers, and her half-brother, Sir Richard Grey, sending them to Pontefract Castle.

Once again, Queen Elizabeth took her other children into sanctuary at Westminster.

Edward was brought to London and took up residence in the Tower, as was customary, to await his coronation. Richard was appointed as Protector by the Council. There was dissension as to whether such a protectorate would lapse when the King was crowned, and if it did, how the country would be governed.

Pressure was put on Queen Elizabeth to release her second son, Richard, Duke of York, into the Protector’s care. Reluctant to do so, she was eventually persuaded, by a mixture of promises, and the presence of Richard’s soldiers. Elizabeth and her sisters remained in sanctuary.

In early June, it was announced that the marriage of Elizabeth’s parents had been invalid, and that consequently, she and her siblings were illegitimate, and thus ineligible for the throne. Richard of Gloucester was crowned as Richard III, and Elizabeth’s brothers disappeared from the records.

Later that summer, there was the first rebellion against Richard III. His former ally, Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham (who was of Lancastrian descent, and unhappily married to Elizabeth’s aunt, Katherine Woodville), began a revolt. Buckingham’s motives are hard to fathom, as, ostensibly, he was supporting the distant Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. It may have been a cover for his own ambitions. It is hard to imagine that any alternative monarch to Richard could have been more generous to Buckingham than Richard had been.

The rebellion failed, Buckingham was executed, and Richmond remained in exile in Brittany. However, behind the scenes Elizabeth’s mother and Richmond’s mother were talking of a marriage between their offspring to unite York and Lancaster.

In January 1484, the Titulus Regius Act enshrined the invalidity of Edward IV’s marriage in law, and officially proclaimed Elizabeth and her siblings illegitimate. Pressure on the women to emerge from sanctuary increased, and, eventually, they gave in, on the strength of a public oath signed by Richard that they would be treated honourably and that Elizabeth and her sisters would not be forced to make low-status marriages.

Following this apparent reconciliation, at Christmas 1484, Elizabeth appeared at court, amongst the ladies surrounding Queen Anne Neville. She was treated with honour, dressed in robes either the same as the Queen’s or equally fine. Meanwhile, in Brittany, the Earl of Richmond was garnering more support, and swore a public oath that, when (he did not say if!) he became King of England, he would marry Elizabeth.

Shortly after, rumours began to circulate that King Richard meant to cast off his Queen, who had only borne one child, the recently deceased Edward of Middleham, and marry his niece. Not long after, Queen Anne died and the rumours became so loud that Richard issued a public denial. There has been much speculation over whether Richard did want to marry his niece, and whether Elizabeth was pleased or horrified at the idea. There is no concrete evidence on either matter.

During the summer of 1485, as Henry’s invasion was anticipated, Elizabeth was sent to Sheriff Hutton Castle, in Yorkshire. It was there that she heard of the victory of Henry and the death of Richard at the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd August 1485. Henry, immediately proclaimed King, sent for her to London. She was treated with all honour, but it was not until January 1486, that the two were married, after a dispensation was received to remove the impediment of their being third cousins.

Elizabeth conceived swiftly, and in late September gave birth to the first of her seven children. The prince, named Arthur, was greeted with joy as a living symbol of the union between the rival royal houses.

Shortly after, Henry’s throne appeared to be shaky as Elizabeth’s cousin, John de la Pole, led a rebellion, claiming that a boy from Oxford was really Elizabeth’s cousin, the Earl of Warwick. Henry successfully defeated the rebels at the Battle of Stoke. With the country calm again, Elizabeth was crowned in November 1487.

Four years of relative peace ensued, during which Elizabeth bore two more children, Margaret, later Queen of Scots, and Henry, later Henry VIII.  In the early 1490s, a greater threat to peace emerged with the contention that Elizabeth’s younger brother, Richard, Duke of York, was still alive. Her aunt, Margaret of York, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, was sponsoring a young man, later revealed to (probably) be a Flemish youth named Perkin Warbeck. Warbeck received wide-spread support from amongst Yorkists, who gave credence to the claim – even the brother of Henry’s step-father appears to have been involved.  Ultimately, however, Warbeck could not command enough support at home or abroad, to mount a successful challenge and in 1497, he was captured. 

Elizabeth received Warbeck’s wife, Lady Katherine Gordon, daughter of the Scottish Earl of Huntly, amongst her ladies, and Warbeck was allowed to live at Henry’s court. He tried to escape and was confined to the Tower, eventually executed in 1499.

Throughout the 1490s, Elizabeth lived the conventional life of a mediaeval queen. She bore two more children – Mary, later Queen of France, and Edmund, Duke of Somerset, who died aged one. Elizabeth took a strong interest in her children’s education and welfare, perhaps passing on her love of music and literature, possibly even teaching her children to read and write. She travelled on progress with her husband and undertook pilgrimages and regular visits to religious sites, exhibiting genuine personal piety.

As the century drew to a close, she became involved in the negotiations for the marriages of her two eldest children – Arthur to Katharine, daughter of the sovereigns of Spain, and Margaret to James IV of Scotland. In the former case, she corresponded with Katharine’s parents about her welfare and education, and in the latter case expressed concerns, which Henry listened to, about the dangers of Margaret being married too young.

In November 1501, Katharine arrived in England, and Elizabeth took part in the sumptuous celebrations that marked the wedding, and in the proxy wedding in January 1502 of Margaret. But in April of 1502, tragedy struck as Arthur, aged just fifteen and a half, died.

When the news reached London, Henry sent for Elizabeth so they could bear the grief together. It was not just the loss of their son, it was the risk to their dynasty. If Henry had died, Arthur, at over fifteen would have been much less vulnerable than Elizabeth’s brother had been at twelve when he became King, whilst Prince Henry was only ten. Elizabeth comforted Henry with the thought that they were young enough to have more children. 

Later that day, she was so overcome with her own sorrow that Henry was sent for to try to console her.

Shortly after, Elizabeth again conceived. She had had either a difficult pregnancy or a hard birth with Edmund, and must have faced the expected confinement with trepidation. Nevertheless, that summer she went on a progress through the south of England and South Wales, before returning to the capital to give birth.

She had intended to have the baby in the beautiful new palace of Richmond, rebuilt following a fire in 1497, but her labour began early, whilst she was visiting the Tower of London. On 2nd February, Elizabeth gave birth to her last child, Katherine. Sadly, neither survived. Elizabeth died on her thirty-seventh birthday.

Her husband was overcome with grief, withdrawing from public life for weeks. Despite his reputation for frugality, even miserliness, he expended enormous sums on her funeral. Her beauty is immortalised in the fabulous bronze tomb that Henry commissioned for them both, in his Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey. She is also, perhaps, in our hands regularly – reputed to be the model for the Queen of Hearts in a pack of cards.

Not only her husband mourned Elizabeth – she was an extremely popular queen, and outpourings of grief marked her passing.