Monday, January 26, 2015

Elizabeth of York - Mother of a Dynasty

by Judith Arnopp

Elizabeth of York
All images rom Wikimedia*
Unlike her son Henry VIII and the granddaughter named in her honour, Elizabeth of York isn’t a household name. When viewed against the back drop of other Tudors she is far less splendid than her children; she is conventional and appears obedient, even cowed perhaps. Her portraits show a pretty, plump, and resigned looking woman who doesn’t adhere to our imagined picture of the mother of a king, the grandmother of a king and two queens. But, although her meek expression belies her harsh experiences she was in fact, the founder of a dynasty.

Elizabeth was born on February 11th 1466 into the bloody era now known as the Wars of the Roses. She was the first child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. To everyone but the couple involved, this was an unconventional and unpopular match but, unlike other queens, Elizabeth Woodville was to prove satisfactorily fertile.

King Edward IV
It was a time of upheaval and when Edward was forced to flee into exile in Burgundy, the Queen, along with her daughters, fled into Sanctuary at Westminster Abbey.  There, safe from conflict but estranged from the exiled King, the first of the younger Elizabeth’s brothers was born. (The boy Edward would later earn his place in history by ‘disappearing’, along with his brother Richard, from the Tower of London, igniting a mystery that continues to burn today.)

Meanwhile, boosted perhaps by the good news, the exiled king gathered his forces and with the aid of his brother-in-law, Charles the Bold of Burgundy, returned to England to resume the battle for his throne, finally defeating Warwick and Margaret of Anjou and having the old King Henry VI murdered in the Tower. This initiated a time of relative peace.

For Elizabeth, now five or six years old, it was time for her education to begin. As well as the skills of running a huge household, she was also taught to read and write and given some instruction in accounting. Contemporary reports describe her as pious, obedient, and loving, and dedicated to helping the poor.

In 1475 when Edward made his peace with France, it was arranged as part of the treaty that on her twelfth birthday she would go to France to prepare for marriage to Dauphin Charles. But, before this could take place, France reneged on the deal and married his son to Margaret of Austria instead.

Elizabeth Woodville
Things ran smoothly for a while, or as smoothly as they ever do in royal circles, until, on the unexpected death of the King in 1483, Elizabeth fled once more with her mother into Sanctuary at Westminster. Richard of Gloucester took his place as Lord Protector and Elizabeth's brother, the Prince of Wales, was brought to London to await his coronation, as was tradition, in the royal apartments at the Tower. 

Shortly afterward it emerged (whether true or not is another question) that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was bigamous due to a prior contract of marriage. All children of the union between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville were pronounced illegitimate. As we all know, Gloucester was declared King Richard III, and at some point between 1483 and 1485, Elizabeth’s brothers disappeared from the record. (That is not proof however that they disappeared from the Earth – there are any number of possible explanations).

The Princes in the Tower
How must this have been for Elizabeth? One moment she is the Princess of the realm, Dauphine of France, and the next an illegitimate nobody living in exile from court in the squalor of sanctuary.

And what of her brothers' fate? She would have been ignorant of that, and the resulting uncertainty mixed with grief for her father can only have been hard. It is possible that her mother knew or believed the boys to be safe. Why else, after scurrying into the safety of Westminster in fear of her life, would she suddenly hand her daughters into the care of the very man suspected of injuring her sons? 

We cannot know the answer to that, but the uncertainties provide very tasty fodder for the authors of fiction.

Elizabeth and her sisters returned to court to serve Richard’s Queen, Anne Neville, where they were treated with every courtesy. Queen Anne was ailing and clearly dying. It was at this time that rumours emerged of a relationship between Richard and his niece, Elizabeth. It is now impossible to be certain of the truth behind the allegation, but at the time gossip was strong enough for Richard to publicly deny the accusation. Whether the claim was true or not, Elizabeth would have suffered some degree of shame, but she seems to have continued to be prominent at court, serving the Queen until her death in March 1485. 

In August, when invasion was looming, Elizabeth and other children from the royal nursery were sent north for safety while the King dealt with the threat from Henry Tudor.

Henry Tudor
Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian heir, was aided throughout his exile by his mother, Margaret Beaufort in England. Margaret had devoted her life to her son’s cause. She  untiringly devised methods to secure the throne she saw as rightfully her son’s. Prior to his invasion, in order to muster support from the Yorkist faction, Henry promised that, if he became king, he would marry Elizabeth of York and unite the warring houses of York and Lancaster, putting an end to the Wars of the Roses forever.

After Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth in 1485 Elizabeth was taken to Margaret Beaufort’s house at Coldharbour, but Henry was slow to marry her and slower to crown her. We should consider the logistics of arranging a royal wedding at short notice, but it not something that Henry VIII found an obstacle in the next reign. To some it is almost as if he wished to deny that Elizabeth had any influence on his claim at all. They were married in January 1486. Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, a son whom they named Arthur, in September of the same year scarcely nine months later. She had no further children until two years after her coronation which took place in November 1487.

Perkin Warbeck
Henry Tudor’s reign was fraught with rebellion. Pretenders emerged throughout, some were swiftly dealt with, but one in particular, Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be Elizabeth’s younger brother, Richard, harried the king for years. We will never know his real identity, although the King went to great lengths to provide him with a lowly one.

Elizabeth is always described as a dutiful wife and devoted mother. She took no part in ruling the country, and there are no reports of her ever having spoken out of turn or ‘disappointing’ the King. Henry appears to have been a faithful husband; his later relationship with Katherine Gordon, wife of Warbeck, was possibly no more than friendship, but Katherine did very well, both in status and financially, at Henry's court.

Although Prince Arthur was raised, as convention dictated, in his own vast household at Ludlow, Elizabeth took an active role in the upbringing of her younger children, teaching them their letters and overseeing their education.

Prince Arthur
When Arthur, the Prince of Wales, died suddenly in 1502, both Henry and Elizabeth were distraught, the King thrown into insecurity at having been left with just one male heir. Reports state that the King and Queen comforted each other and, although there are some hints of a possible estrangement between the royal couple, Elizabeth promised to give Henry another son. She fell pregnant quickly and, ten months later, gave birth to a girl, Katherine, but succumbed to puerperal fever and died on her birthday, 11th February 1503.

Elizabeth of York
Elizabeth deserves more credit. There is as much strength in resilience as in resistance, and I believe she was both strong and resolved, bound by duty to serve her country as best she could.

Her union with Henry negated the battle between York and Lancaster, and the many children she bore strengthened political unions with France, Scotland, and Spain. Ultimately, she died doing her duty to England.

When a king puts aside personal desire for the sake of his country or dies on the battlefield defending it, he becomes a hero; often, if he is on the right side, he is honoured throughout history.

Yet Elizabeth did all those things. She married dutifully; she quickly produced an heir, a spare, and several daughters to increase the king’s bargaining powers. At the tragic loss of the Prince of Wales, despite her age and the suggestion of medical problems, she took the most dangerous decision to try to give the King another son. She died a hero, in service of her King and country.



Elizabeth is the subject of my shortly to be published book A Song of Sixpence, in which I suppose that the younger of the princes was in fact rescued from the Tower in 1483 and re-emerges some years later as the man Henry names 'Perkin Warbeck'. 

The novel considers the division of loyalties a princess, born to the house of York, might have suffered in her union with the House of Lancaster. Would her support be for husband and her sons, or her long lost brother?

This is a massive issue to deal with in one blog, and I would encourage you to read more about Elizabeth in Alison Weir's book Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen and Amy Licence's Elizabeth of York. 

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  1. I'll be interested to see what theory you have in your novel. It can't gave been easy for poor Elizabeth - losing her whole family, picked up as spoils of war, even her mother taken away and plonked in a convent and left with Henry and his dreadful mother. And then, she must have wondered, every time anyone turned up claims to be herb rather ... Is he? I'd be surprised if they ever let her meet Warbeck. After all, what if he WAS Richard and she acknowledged him? That would have been a huge embarrassment for Henry because he had made her legitimate and that made her brother's legitimate too. Which was fine as long as they were dead.
    Personally, I suspect he may have been Edward's son, but not necessarily by his Queen.

    For what it's worth, I believe that the Queen on the average playing card was based on that portrait of Elizabeth of York, so she's still around. ;-)

    As for whether Henry had any mistresses, I'm betting he was too stingy to spend anything on them.

  2. Sorry, some typos above. I'm sure you'll figure out what I mean.

  3. Fascinating, thanks for posting !

  4. "It was at this time that rumours emerged of a relationship between Richard and his niece" actually no. the only rumor was that Richard was thinking of marrying her, and that maybe she could have been agree with this idea. back then, marriage was not for love or for romantical feelings. only political. so there was no rumor of a relationship between them at all. on the contrary : Richard was planning to wed a Princess in Portugal and to marry Elizabeth to a Prince of the same counrty.
    And for what i read in plenty of biographies about EoY, she and Henry had a good and happy marriage --even loving like the historian Thomas Penn said it. Henry's reaction to her death is pretty clear. And the love poem she wrote about Henry as well. So i think they fell in love step by step :)


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