Elizabeth of York: Life Story

Chapter 8 : First Born

Elizabeth and Henry’s personal feelings about their marriage have been the source of speculation. Bernard André, who was tutor to their son, Prince Arthur, and wrote ‘The Life of Henry VII’, suggested that, even before the wedding, Henry had come to love Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s biographer, Alison Weir, infers that Elizabeth had become deeply attached to her prospective spouse.

Ms Weir bases this conclusion on the wording of the oath given by Stanley, now Earl of Derby, in the dispensation petition. He deposed that  ‘the aforesaid lady (Elizabeth) has not been captured nor compelled, but of great and intimate love and cordial affection desires to contract marriage with the said king, to the knowledge of this sworn [witness], as he says in virtue of his oath’.

Unlike the modern idea of marriage flowing from love, in the fifteenth century, when marriages often took place amongst people who were barely acquainted, the principle was that love came after the wedding. Couples had a duty to love each other, and, although there were cases where people just could not get on, most did accommodate each other and find affection. Such certainly seems to have been the case with Elizabeth and Henry.

Elizabeth was considered very pretty – both her parents had been exceptionally good-looking, and she inherited their fashionable blonde colouring. She also inherited Edward’s propensity to plumpness (passed on to her son, Henry VIII) and was later noted as having an ample bust. Henry, as a young man, was considered attractive, apparently with a ‘cheerful countenance’ and a quick wit.

The couple’s specially commissioned marriage bed has recently been discovered and restored, and there can be no doubt that the couple consummated their marriage as soon as possible. They may even have anticipated the ceremony. Elizabeth’s first son, Arthur, was born 35 weeks to the day after her marriage.

The combination of an early pregnancy, and recurrent pestilence in the capital prevented Elizabeth being crowned immediately following her marriage. In the late summer, she moved to St Swithin’s Priory, Winchester, in anticipation of the birth. Henry, keen to establish his own pedigree as a descendant of the ancient Kings of Britain, who had ruled long before the Saxons or Normans had come to British shores, emphasised this ancient heritage.

It was firmly believed that Winchester had once been Camelot, and the stories of King Arthur and his knights had been given a new lease of life by the popular book, Le Morte d’Arthur, one of the first books to come off Caxton’s press. Thus, it seemed the right location for the birth of a prince who would once again unite his people.

Elizabeth was in residence at Winchester by 31st August. Given that it was normal for an expectant mother to withdraw from public view about a month before the expected birth date, and that the godfather, the Earl of Oxford, had not arrived at the time of the birth, we can infer that, even if he had been conceived before the royal marriage, Arthur was at least a couple of weeks early.

He was born just after midnight on St Eustace Day, 20th September and christened four days later. Elizabeth’s family were deeply involved in the ceremony. Her mother, the Queen Dowager Elizabeth Woodville, was godmother, whilst her sisters, Cicely and Anne, carried the baby and the chrism respectively. Dorset and his wife carried the train of the christening robe, alongside John, Earl of Lincoln.

Elizabeth could be confident that she had done her duty – even if some lingering doubts as to the fate of her brothers probably crossed her mind as she saw her son proclaimed as heir to the kingdom.

Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York

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