Elizabeth of York: Life Story

Chapter 1: York or Lancaster?

Elizabeth was born in the Palace of Westminster, the chief royal residence just outside London. She was the eldest child of the controversial marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.

Her parents were probably slightly disappointed on her arrival, as, like all parents of the time, they would have preferred a son. Nevertheless, it was a positive start as Elizabeth was the first child born to a reigning king since the birth of Henry VI in 1421. She was healthy, and her mother soon recovered.

Elizabeth was baptised by her father’s cousin, George Neville, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor. Her godparents were her two grandmothers, Jacquetta de St Pol, Duchess of Bedford, and Cicely Neville, Duchess of York, and her father’s powerful cousin, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.

The seeming tranquillity of the royal family belied the seething rivalries beneath the surface. The Duchess of Bedford, a European noblewoman, had once been the wife of the great John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, Regent of France. She had been a supporter of the House of Lancaster, embodied in her nephew-by-marriage, Henry VI. Widowed young, Jacquetta had married a man far beneath her in rank, Sir Richard Woodville, and borne him a large family, of whom Elizabeth’s mother, the Queen, was the eldest.

When King Edward fell in love with the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville (who was already the mother of two sons, widowed when her husband, Sir John Grey, was killed fighting for Lancaster) their secret marriage appalled his own relatives, particularly his mother, Cicely, known in her own time as ‘Proud Cis’.

Cicely, one of the incredibly prolific Neville family, had hoped to be Queen herself when her husband, Richard, Duke of York, challenged Henry VI for the crown, but he had been defeated and killed at the Battle of Wakefield, along with her brother, father of the above-mentioned Earl of Warwick.  Within a few months of their deaths, her son, Edward, supported by Warwick, had triumphed at the bloody Battle of Towton, and been crowned as Edward IV.

For Cicely and Warwick, it was imperative that Edward make a royal match, not ally himself to the daughter of a nobody. It did not help, either, that the Woodvilles were nearly as numerous as the Nevilles, and were emulating them in marrying for power and position. Presented with a fait accompli, they had little option but to accept the new Queen, but Warwick’s loyalty had been shaken.

Warwick was further disgruntled when Edward forbade him to marry his daughter, Isabel, to Edward’s brother, George, Duke of Clarence. Warwick’s two daughters were great heiresses, and only the King’s brother could be a suitable match, the earl thought. But for Edward, giving his brother additional money and power was not advisable – Clarence had already shown himself jealous.

Edward moved to bind his other allies and relatives to him more closely, agreeing a marriage between Elizabeth and George Neville. George was the son of Warwick’s brother, John Neville, recently promoted to the Marquessate of Montague. George was created Duke of Bedford, and the betrothal took place on 5th January 1470.

The prospect of his nephew perhaps succeeding to the throne in right of his wife, was not enough for Warwick, and infuriated Clarence, who, as a male, considered himself above his niece in the matter of title to the throne.

Their joint frustration led Warwick and Clarence into open rebellion. After a few months during which the outcome seemed uncertain, Edward appeared to be back in control. Unfortunately for him, the rebels escaped to France and came to terms with their erstwhile enemy, Queen Marguerite of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, mother of Edward, Prince of Wales, and the most determined Lancastrian of them all.

The Lancastrians invaded, and Edward was forced to flee. Elizabeth, with her two younger sisters, Mary and Cicely, and their pregnant mother, took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. Although barely four, the fear and commotion was probably remembered by Elizabeth in later years. Perhaps, too, was the kindness of Henry VI, who sent provisions and a nurse for Queen Elizabeth as she gave birth to a son.

Whatever the relative merits of their claim to the throne, Elizabeth’s father was a stronger, more capable and more popular king than Henry VI. Within a year, he had returned to England, and dispatched the Lancastrians, including Warwick and Prince Edward of Lancaster, at the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury.  Henry VI was also removed. He died in the Tower, almost certainly murdered on Edward’s orders, within days of Tewkesbury.

Edward was quickly reunited with his family, and Elizabeth emerged from sanctuary to take up residence once again in the palace.