Elizabeth of York: Life Story

Chapter 6 : Return to Court

Within weeks of the passing of Titulus Regius, Elizabeth, her mother and her sisters emerged from sanctuary. On 1st March, Richard swore an oath in front of the Council and the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, that if they left sanctuary and be ‘guided, ruled and demeaned [by him]’ they would have surety of their lives. 

They would not be violated, or forced to marry against their wills, nor would they be imprisoned in the Tower or anywhere else. Instead, Richard would treat them as became his kinswomen, marrying them to gentlemen with dowries of not less than 200 marks per annum (rather less than the 10,000 marks that Edward IV had stipulated in his will).

It is not certain where Elizabeth passed the majority of 1484. She might have been amongst the ladies of Queen Anne Neville, or possibly with her mother and sisters at a religious foundation, or even under the supervision of one of Richard’s affinity in a country location. If she was with Anne, she would have witnessed the Queen’s overpowering grief at the death of her son, Edward of Middleham, who died on the anniversary of the death of Edward IV – a sign of God’s displeasure that would have resonated in contemporary minds.

At Christmas 1484, Elizabeth and her younger sisters joined the Christmas court. Elizabeth was treated particularly honourably. She was described as ‘dressed like a second queen’. This has been interpreted to mean she was wearing identical clothes, and that this was an insult to the still-grieving, Anne, who was in rapidly declining health. It has also been taken as an indication that Richard was thinking of his niece as a replacement Queen.

The words may just mean Elizabeth was dressed as grandly as the Queen, but whatever the truth of their outfits, it was soon being rumoured that Richard did want to marry his niece. Such a marriage was clearly forbidden by all Church law and, although in the later sixteenth century dispensations were given for uncle-niece marriages amongst the Hapsburgs, I can find no precedent for it at this period.  

If Richard had such a plan, it might have been with the view of preventing Elizabeth marrying Henry Tudor, or, as some have supposed, he may have been attracted to his niece, who was fourteen years younger than himself. Stranger things have happened, but it is not usual. Such a marriage, to bolster his own claim to the throne, would be a tacit acceptance that Elizabeth was legitimate, and had a genuine claim of her own.

On 16th March 1485, Queen Anne died. Within a week, the rumours that Richard intended to marry Elizabeth had reached such a pitch and the idea was so abhorred, that Richard swore in front of the Mayor and Aldermen at St John’s, Clerkenwell, that such an idea had never entered his mind.

There has been much speculation about whether Elizabeth had any desire to marry her uncle. An uncle who was rumoured to have murdered her brothers, and who had definitely deprived her brother of the throne and cast the slur of bastardy on herself and her sisters. The immediate reaction is that it is unlikely that such a match would have been appealing. On the other hand, marrying him would make her Queen of England, and perhaps able to rescue her sisters from the ignominy of poor marriages.

In the late 16th century, the historian Sir George Buck referred in his manuscript history of Richard III to a letter that he said was written by Elizabeth. In a published edition of the work, made by Buck’s great nephew, the letter was printed. In the printed version, it appears that Elizabeth was very much in favour of the idea of marriage to Richard, and that she wrote to the Duke of Norfolk, asking him to mediate with the King in favour of the match. The print version quotes her letter as referring to Richard as ‘her only joy and maker in this world, and that she was his in heart and in thoughts, in body and in all….and that she feared the Queen (Anne) would never die’.

Damning words indeed. However, it has been shown that the earliest version of the original manuscript by Buck was fire-damaged, and the printed version contains interpolations, in particular, the addition of the words ‘body’, and ‘die’.  All that was in the manuscript is that the writer ‘feared the Queen would ne….’  This sentence could equally be read as ‘never recover’ or ‘never recall me to court’ or almost anything else that we could speculate about.  

In March 1485, overtures were made to Portugal for two marriages. One for Richard to the Infanta Joana, sister of Joao II, and one for Elizabeth to Manuel, King Joao’s cousin. The Portuguese royal house was the senior branch of the Lancastrian line, descended from John of Gaunt’s daughter, Philippa of Lancaster. A marriage to Manuel would have been an honourable match for Elizabeth. In fact, he became King of Portugal and married, in succession, Katharine of Aragon’s two sisters, Isabella and Maria, and her niece, Eleonora of Austria.

Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York

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