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The Life and Death of Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York was born in the Palace of Westminster on 11 February 1466 as the eldest child of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. During her youth, she was betrothed several times but none of these engagements turned into marriage. Elizabeth was one of 10 siblings, but their happy family life came to a sudden end when her father died of an illness on 9 April 1483. Her younger brother became Edward V under the protection of their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Edward V was placed in the Tower of London, supposedly for his protection. Elizabeth joined her mother and siblings in sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. Her mother agreed to send her younger brother Richard to the Tower to keep their brother Edward company, now commonly referred to as the Princes in the Tower.

By June 1483 her parents’ marriage was declared invalid on the claim that her father had already been betrothed to another woman. Parliament issued a bill, Titulus Regius (“The Title of the King”), in support of this. Elizabeth and her siblings were bastardised, paving the way for Richard to become Richard III. That summer her brothers disappeared and were never seen again.

Elizabeth and her family remained in Westminster Abbey until 1484, when they returned to court. By then her future had already been decided. Elizabeth’s mother had allies with Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor. Though his claim to the throne was weak, it was agreed that once he had invaded and taken the throne, he would marry Elizabeth and unite the Houses of York and Lancaster. Richard III had others plans and even though rumours existed he wished to marry her himself after the death of his wife Anne Neville, she was the subject of negotiations with the future King Manuel I of Portugal. Henry Tudor’s invasion put a stop to that plan.

On 22 August 1485 Henry Tudor and Richard III fought the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard III was killed in battle. Henry Tudor now became Henry VII by right of conquest. The marriage did not immediately happen. Henry was crowned without Elizabeth by his side and he had her parents’ marriage declared valid again. They finally married on 18 January 1486 at Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth quickly became pregnant and gave birth to their first son, Arthur on 20 September 1486. She was rewarded with her own coronation on 25 November 1487. She and Henry would go on to have 7 children though not all would live to adulthood.

After the sudden death of their eldest son in 1502 Elizabeth became pregnant once more. She spent her confinement in the Tower of London and gave birth to a daughter named Katherine on 2 February 1503. It was to end in tragedy. Katherine died on 10 February and was followed in death by her mother just a day later. Elizabeth of York died of a postpartum infection on her 37th birthday.  She was mourned deeply by her family and the nation. She was reported to be gentle and kind in life and enjoyed living a quiet family life away from politics, quite a different life than the one she had been born into.

Henry VII and his children after the death of Elizabeth of York (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Henry VII and his children after the death of Elizabeth of York (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Henry considered marrying again to renew the alliance with Spain that was broken when Arthur died, but when he died in 1509 he was still a widower. He was succeeded by their son Henry, who became Henry VIII. Through their daughter Margaret, who became Queens of Scots upon marriage to James IV of Scotland, the Stuarts came to the throne upon the death of her childless granddaughter Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth and Henry were buried together in Westminster Abbey in Henry VII’s Chapel.

  • Chris

    Needs proof reading.

  • Ivana Cvetanovic

    Saying Elizabeth was negotiated to marry the future king Manuel I is technically true, but slightly misleading. Her intended, Manuel, Duke of Beja, was at the time just a cousin to king Joao of Portugal, and no one would have predicted that the king would die without a legitimate child and that Manuel would one day become king. It was intended a part of the double marriage/alliance between England and Portugal – after his wife’s death, Richard III was to marry infanta Joana of Portugal, the king’s 33-year old sister. An important factor in these plans was that the Portuguese royal family were the senior descendants of the legitimate Lancaster line, which was extinct in England (Henry Tudor was the descendant of the Beauforts, originally illegitimate children of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster by his mistress and later 3rd wife, Katherine Swynford, who were eventually legitimized, whose claim to the throne was, at the very least, questionable, as the first Lancastrian king Henry IV barred them from inheritance to the throne). This was, therefore, an attempt to unite the York and Lanscaster dynasties, at least as much as Henry’s promise to marry Elizabeth of York was.

    Since Elizabeth was officially illegitimate, the rumor of Richard wanting to marry her himself always made zero sense (and there are other reasons why that marriage would have been completely politically disastrous for Richard), and it’s unlikely that she would have been negotiated to marry a crown prince of Portugal, either. But a marriage to a member of the Portuguese royal family was acceptable, and a very good prospect for her at the time. (Isabella and Constance of Castille, who married Edmund of Langley, Duke of York and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, respectively – two of the sons of Edward III – were also of questionable legitimacy, due to the debatable status of the marriage between their father king Pedro of Castille and their mother.) It should be mentioned that a part of the deal between Richard III and Elizabeth Woodville, when she agreed to leave the sanctuary in 1484, was that he would provide good marriages for the girls.

  • The young King Edward V was lodged in the Tower as that was the traditional place where English monarch awaited their coronations. Nothing sinister about it. Stop buying into Shakespeare’s characterization of King Richard.

  • HevRev

    I do find these articles interesting to read but sometimes they seem to rely a lot on the more dramatised interpretation of events, like Antonia Fraser’s biographies.

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