by Susan Flantzer
Elizabeth of York holds a unique position in British royal history. She was the daughter of King Edward IV, the sister of King Edward V, the niece of King Richard III, the wife of King Henry VII, the mother of King Henry VIII, and the grandmother of King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I. Her great granddaughter was Mary, Queen of Scots whose son, King James VI of Scotland, succeeded Queen Elizabeth I as King James I of England. Through this line, the British royal family and other European royal families can trace their descent from Elizabeth of York.
Born on February 11, 1466 at the Palace of Westminster, Elizabeth of York was the eldest child of King Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville. Edward IV was the eldest surviving son of Richard of York, 3rd Duke of York who had a strong claim to the English throne. The social and financial troubles that followed the Hundred Years’ War, combined with the mental disability and weak rule of the Lancastrian King Henry VI had revived interest in the claim of Richard, 3rd Duke of York. Hence, the Wars of the Roses were fought between supporters of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet, the House of Lancaster and the House of York between 1455 and 1487. Richard, 3rd Duke of York was killed on December 30, 1460 at the Battle of Wakefield and his son Edward was then the leader of the House of York. After winning a decisive victory on March 2, 1461 at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, 19 year-old Edward proclaimed himself king. In 1464, King Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville and their first child, Elizabeth, was born two years later.
Elizabeth had nine siblings:
- Mary of York (1467 – 1482), unmarried
- Cecily of York (1469 – 1507); married (1) Ralph Scrope of Upsall, no issue, marriage annulled; (2) John Welles, 1st Viscount Welles, had issue, died young; (3) Sir Thomas Kyme, possible issue
- King Edward V of England (1470 – c. 1483); briefly succeeded his father, as King Edward V of England, was the elder of the Princes in the Tower
- Margaret of York (born and died 1472)
- Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York (1473 – c. 1483), was the younger of the Princes in the Tower
- Anne of York (1475 – 1511); married Thomas Howard (later 3rd Duke of Norfolk and uncle of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, King Henry VIII’s beheaded wives), had no surviving issue
- George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Bedford (1477 – 1479)
- Catherine of York (1479 – 1527); married William Courtenay, 1st Earl of Devon, had issue
- Bridget of York (1480 – 1517); became a nun
Elizabeth was christened at Westminster Abbey in a solemn ceremony. Her godparents were her grandmothers Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, and her father’s first cousin, Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick. In October 1470, thanks to Elizabeth’s godfather Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick switching from the Yorkist faction to the Lancastrian faction, Henry VI was restored to the throne. Edward IV and his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III) fled to Flanders, part of Burgundy, where their sister Margaret was married to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Four-year old Elizabeth went into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey with her pregnant mother and her younger sisters Mary and Cecily. While in sanctuary, Elizabeth’s brother Edward (the future Edward V) was born. By April 1471, Elizabeth’s father was back on the throne, and a month later King Henry VI was murdered in the Tower of London.
By the time of the early death in 1483 of King Edward IV at the age of 40, Elizabeth had been promised in marriage to George Neville, 1st Duke of Bedford and the future King Charles VIII of France, but nothing came of either promise. When King Edward IV died and his twelve year old son succeeded him as King Edward V, Edward IV’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was named Lord Protector of his young nephew and moved to keep the Woodvilles, the family of Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth Woodville, from exercising power. The widowed queen sought to gain political power for her family by appointing family members to key positions and rushing the coronation of her young son. The new king was being accompanied to London by his maternal uncle Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers and his half brother Sir Richard Grey. Rivers and Grey were accused of planning to assassinate Richard, were arrested, and taken to Pontefract Castle, where they were later executed without trial. Richard then proceeded with the new king to London where Edward V was presented to the Lord Mayor of London. For their safety, King Edward V and his nine year old brother Richard, Duke of York were sent to the Tower of London and never seen again.
On June 22, 1483, a sermon was preached at St. Paul’s Cross in London declaring Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid and his children illegitimate. This information apparently came from Robert Stillington, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who claimed a legal pre-contract of marriage to Eleanor Butler, invalidated the king’s later marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. The citizens of London presented Richard a petition urging him to assume the throne, and he was proclaimed king on June 26, 1483. King Richard III and his wife Anne were crowned in Westminster Abbey on July 6, 1483 and their son was created Prince of Wales. In January of 1484, Parliament issued the Titulus Regius, a statute proclaiming Richard the rightful king. Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth’s mother and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the Lancastrian leader Henry Tudor still in exile in Brittany, made a secret agreement that their children should marry.
On August 22, 1485, Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and became King Henry VII, the first Tudor king of England. Elizabeth of York and Henry married on January 18, 1486 at Westminster Abbey. Henry had Parliament repeal Titulus Regius, the act that declared King Edward IV’s marriage invalid and his children illegitimate, thereby legitimizing his wife. The Tudor Rose, a combination of the Red Rose of Lancaster and the White Rose of York, symbolized the new House of Tudor.
Children of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York:
- Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486 – 1502), married Catherine of Aragon, no issue
- Margaret Tudor (1489 – 1541), married (1) James IV, King of Scotland, had issue including King James V of Scotland; (2) Archibald Douglas, 6th Earl of Angus, had issue; (3) Henry Stewart, 1st Lord Methven, no surviving issue; Margaret was grandmother of both Mary, Queen of Scots and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, the parents of King James I of England
- Henry VIII, King of England (1491 – 1547), married (1) Catherine of Aragon, had daughter Queen Mary I of England; (2) Anne Boleyn, had daughter Queen Elizabeth I of England; (3) Jane Seymour, had son King Edward VI of England; (4) Anne of Cleves, no issue; (5) Catherine Howard, no issue; (6) Catherine Parr, no issue
- Elizabeth Tudor (1492 – 1495)
- Mary Tudor (1496 – 1533), married (1) Louis XII, King of France, no issue; (2) Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, had issue, grandparents of Lady Jane Grey
- Edmund Tudor, Duke of Somerset (1499 – 1500)
- Katherine Tudor (born and died February 1503) her mother, Elizabeth of York, died as a result of Katherine’s birth
Unlike her mother Elizabeth Woodville and her mother-in-law Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth had no political ambitions and played her role as wife and mother. Many historians believe that Elizabeth was overshadowed by her dominant mother-in-law (who outlived both her son and daughter-in-law). Nevertheless, Elizabeth was a very popular queen and having numerous children with whom she secured the new Tudor dynasty made her even more popular.
Her firstborn son was born in Winchester, then identified as the site of Camelot, and named Arthur after the legendary king. In 1501, Arthur married Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. Five months later 15 year-old Arthur was dead, probably of the sweating sickness, and his parents were devastated. Elizabeth comforted her husband who was not only in mourning for his son, but also in fear for his dynasty by saying, “Your mother never had more children than you, but God in His grace, always sheltered you and brought to where you are now. God has left you a handsome prince and two beautiful princesses. We both are still young and can have more children.”
Shortly after Arthur’s death, Elizabeth became pregnant again and hoped for a son. She spent that year preparing her daughter Margaret, who was to marry King James IV of Scotland, for her role as Queen of Scotland. In early 1503, Elizabeth spent her confinement at the Tower of London. On February 2, 1503, she gave birth to a daughter, Katherine. Shortly after giving birth, Elizabeth became ill with puerperal fever (child-bed fever) and died on February 11, 1503, her 37th birthday. Henry was so shaken by her death that he went into seclusion and would only see his mother. Little Katherine died on February 18, 1503.
In 2012, an illuminated manuscript (see below) that was once the property of Henry VII was discovered in the National Library of Wales. King Henry VII is shown in mourning clothes, receiving the book containing the manuscript. In the background, behind their father, are his daughters, Mary and Margaret, in black veils. On the top left, an 11-year-old future King Henry VIII is shown weeping into the sheets of his mother’s empty bed.
Elizabeth received a dignified state funeral in Westminster Abbey in the presence of her sisters. On her coffin was a wooden effigy, modeled on Elizabeth, wearing the insignia of the queen. The funeral procession was led by her sister Catherine of York. All of London mourned the popular queen. In the Cheapside section of London, groups of 37 young women with green wreaths in their hair and candles in their hands paraded through the streets. Candles lit in Elizabeth’s memory were burning in all the churches. Thomas More, who was a 25 year-old lawyer at the time and would later be beheaded during the reign of Elizabeth’s son Henry VIII, wrote an elegy in honor of the late Queen, “A Rueful Lamentation.” Each February 11, King Henry VII decreed that a requiem mass be sung, bells be tolled, and 100 candles be lit in honor of Elizabeth of York.
King Henry VII died at Richmond Palace on April 21, 1509 at the age of 52. He lies buried with his wife Elizabeth in a tomb created by Italian artist Pietro Torrigiano in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey.