Elizabeth of York (11 February 1466 – 11 February 1503)

There were many human pawns and casualties in the conflict now known to history as ‘The War of the Roses’.  As the dynastic feud raged furiously between the Royal houses of Lancaster and York, many died a brutal death.  The most brutal, perhaps, was that of the death of King Richard III – killed in battle at Bosworth in August 1485.  Last week, current news and history were  alive with the news that the body of Richard III had been found under a car park in Leicester.  Since the announcement, much has been discussed about the discovery of his mortal remains and what it means to our understanding of his reign.  I still maintain my original position that it doesn’t change much about our understanding of Richard III, nor our understanding of his life and times.  (See my post Richard lyth buryed at Leicester.)

My post today is about the most important pawn of all in that power struggle: Elizabeth of York.  By 1483, the time of her father Edward IV’s death, Elizabeth was 17 years old.  With her brothers locked away in the Tower of London and her uncle declaring himself to be king, Elizabeth’s position was very precarious.  She became even more vulnerable when in March 1485, Anne Neville, Richard III’s queen, died and rumours spread that Richard intended to marry Elizabeth, his own niece.  The historian Anne Crawford, in her 2007 book ‘The Yorkists: The history of a Dynasty’ comments:

‘… rumours that the king [Richard III] was planning to marry Elizabeth himself.  While a union between uncle and niece was not strictly forbidden by the church, provided dispensation was obtained (and it was later not unknown in European royal circles), the idea caused revulsion among his councillors, Richard was warned by Ratcliffe and Catesby, the men he trusted most, that, unless he abandoned the idea and publicly denied any such intention, his northern supports would rise against him for causing the death of Warwick’s daughter [his dead wife, Anne Neville] in order to enter into an incestuous marriage to his niece.  There is no reason to believe the charge that Richard murdered his wife, but the fact that people, even his loyal northerners, believed it possible indicates the air of unease and suspicion surrounding him.  The threat of their revolt was enough to bring the king to a humiliating position of making the public denial demanded of him.’ (page 146-7)

Elizabeth was most certainly a prize – daughter of the dead Edward IV and sister of the missing Edward V.  A prize that was too much for the victor of Bosworth Field, the new Henry VII, to ignore.  Henry Tudor made his intentions towards Elizabeth very clear even before that fatal day in August 1485 when Richard III was dispatched to meet his maker.  By marrying Elizabeth, Henry Tudor, at one stroke, would pacify both the house of Lancaster and the house of York.  Moreover, any child of theirs would automatically be the heirs to the throne – a fact that could not be disputed by either dynastic house.  In a cunning and an astute move, Henry VII, determined that he was to be king by conquest rather then by the birth-rights of a mere woman, did not marry Elizabeth until January 1486. The marriage took place a few months after his own coronation the previous year on 30 October.  Clever Henry VII! By marrying after his own coronation, he reinforced the point that it was he who was the anointed king: Elizabeth was merely his consort.

Contemporary documents from the period suggest that Henry VII had a loving relationship with his wife.  At her death, he did appear to grieve for her and he did spend his money on a lavish funeral for her.  She also seems to have cared for the education of her own children – very unusual for a high born medieval woman.  The historian, David Starkey, in his 2008 book ‘Henry Virtuous Prince’ strongly argues the case that Elizabeth was an exceptionally well educated woman and it was she who taught her own daughters and her young second son literacy (page 119-120), and therefore to read and write.   That second son, of course, went on to be the highly educated and intelligent Henry VIII.

Elizabeth of York, that pawn of medieval and Tudor history who aided the end of the bloody War of the Roses, was born in the Palace of Westminster on 11 February 1466 and died exactly 37 years later at the Tower of London, nine days after giving birth to her seventh and final child (who had died the previous day).

So on the anniversary of her birth and death, below are some images of Elizabeth of York.
Elizabeth of YorkElizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV, and their five daughters (left to right) Elizabeth, Cecily, Anne, Catherine, and Mary. Royal Window, Northwest Transept, Canterbury Cathedral.

Elizabeth of YorkCigarette card from Ogden’s Guinea Gold series, published 1903.

Elizabeth of YorkCigarette card from Player’s Kings and Queens, published 1935.

Margaret Beaufort (born 1443, died 1509) was the mother of Henry VII.  Below is an image for February from her Book of Hours.  This Book was made between 1430 and 1443 and owned firstly by Margaret’s mother, Margaret Beauchamp (born 1405/6, died 1482), and then by Margaret.  Margaret appeared to use her Book of Hours as a calendar to record significant events in the lives of her son and grandchildren.  Thus, she used August to record her son’s landing at Milford Haven and the death of Richard III; and February for the death of Elizabeth of York (we do not know if this is her hand or if a scribe wrote the entries for her).

Royal 2 A XVIII f. 28v Death of Elizabeth of York‘February’ from The Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours
(England, S. E. (London), c. 1430, before 1443)
shelfmark Royal 2 A XVIII f. 28v.

The first left margin note in black reads

This day wher[e] decessed Quene Elizabeth i[n] the tower of london

Henry VII’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey Postcard of the Burial chapel of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Westminster Abbey.

Elizabeth of YorkFuneral effigy of Elizabeth (plate from 1914)

Elizabeth of YorkChapel of Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York: daughter of Edward IV, niece of Richard III, sister of Edward V, wife of Henry VII, mother of Henry VIII, grandmother of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

What do you think about Elizabeth of York?
Please do leave your thoughts in the Comments box below.


Images from the British Library’s collection of Medieval Manuscripts are marked as being Public Domain Images and therefore free of all copyright restrictions in accordance with the British Library’s Reuse Guidance Notes for the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

You may also be interested in the following posts
– Richard III lyth buryed at Leicester
– 28 January: a remarkable date in Tudor history
– British costumes in the time of Henry VII and Henry VIII
– School trip Friday – Of cabbages and kings
– Prince Arthur- Prince of Wales
– Tudor coronations

© Essex Voices Past 2012-2013.

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