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Henry VIII and his mother, Queen Elizabeth of York

The relationship of Henry VIII to the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth of York, raises possible interesting psychological theories about his behaviour towards the six women he later married. These are fascinating to suggest, but will only ever remain speculative, especially because on this subject, the King himself was silent. Although his mother died when Henry was just a child, the death of Queen Elizabeth of York made a deep and terrible tear into the secure and tightly-knit family circle which had existed amongst the royal children and the early years of Henry’s ‘female’ family, with his sisters at the royal ‘nursery’ of Eltham Palace. It has been suggested that Henry VIII’s marital history was an attempt to ‘replace’ Elizabeth of York, and whilst no actual proof exists for that, his attitudes towards his wives do suggest that he might have wanted a queen with such qualities as his mother had possessed. Certainly, he admired the virtues they did demonstrate that were like her (Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York, Pg 431, 2013). Elizabeth of York herself died, in the attempt to ‘replace’ her eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, with another child.

Henry VIII himself chose, of course, St George’s Chapel, Windsor as the location for his body, on his death. Windsor had in fact, however, been an original choice as a place of burial for Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York, but Henry VII later preferred Westminster Abbey for himself and his Queen – his ultimate proclamation to posterity, placing his dynasty firmly in the great and hallowed place of English coronations, before and since (Ibid, Pg 400). Had he known it, he might have been comforted to be surrounded by all three of his son Henry VIII’s heirs, as well as to share the tomb of his great-great-grandson, James I, first monarch of the Stuart dynasty, which had its roots in his own. Tormented throughout his reign by false claimants and unable in his reign, to produce the bodies of the two ‘Princes in the Tower’, the imagery he created for their magnificent sepulchre in the Lady Chapel, was loaded with Tudor meaning.

It was as if in death, the first Tudor king was still trying to silence those questioning voices and false pretenders nervously and reaffirm his dynasty, even – effectively, to keep fighting the Battle of Bosworth, from the grave. Significantly, the magnificent tomb-house at the Abbey is Henry VII’s final comment on his kingship. The death of Elizabeth of York might have been seen to raise those questions yet again, because there had been those who only recognised Henry VII’s legitimacy through his marriage to Elizabeth of York, one of the reasons why Henry VII himself had so long delayed the wedding, so as not to be seen to owe his title to his Yorkist wife.

In addition to that of his father, Henry VIII ordered the beautiful, heavy bronze-gilt likeness of his mother in 1512, to the designs of the Italian sculptor Pietro Torrigiano. In so doing, Henry acknowledged his mother as the first Tudor queen and the woman from whom he traced his Yorkist ancestry. Her tomb inscription proudly proclaims that she was the ‘renowned mother’ of Henry VIII. The great dynastic importance of Elizabeth is reinforced by the glorious wording on Henry VII’s tomb, praising not only her prettiness and chastity but crucially, for the fact that she was ‘fruitful’. Indeed, for it was probably as the result of puerperal fever, that Elizabeth of York died at the Tower of London following childbirth, on her birthday, in 1503. Underlining them as the parents of that King whose awesome legacy would make him ‘excel all who ever wore a crown’, the tomb of Henry VIII’s parents states unequivocally that the entire country was in debt to this royal founding couple, for which reason ‘land of England, you owe Henry VIII’ (Westminster Abbey, Our History, Royals, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, via

The historian David Starkey has spotted possible similarities in the extant samples of Elizabeth of York’s handwriting and that of the future Henry VIII, positing the theory that Elizabeth of York probably taught Prince Henry to write herself (David Starkey, Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, Channel 4, 2009). The premature death of the eldest son of Henry VII and Elizabeth, Arthur, Prince of Wales, meant that the ‘spare’ became the ‘heir’ – Henry, Duke of York was the remaining child through which the King had to maintain his grip on the throne, in the next generation. At the time of his mother’s death, Prince Henry was 11-years-old; such a loss at such an early age may well have stunted his emotional growth, also following so soon on the death of his elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales.

He later wrote to the great humanist scholar Erasmus on the occasion of the Archduke Philip of Burgundy, for whom he felt genuine affection: ‘Never, not since the death of my dearest mother hath there come to me more hateful news’, referring to the Archduke’s death as seeming to open a wound to which ‘time had brought insensibility’. This is rare and telling proof of the impact of his mother’s death, referred to directly by Henry, whose otherwise silence on the subject has led us to suspect just how deeply the event affected him. Starkey suggests that Archduke Philip had met a need in Prince Henry, with whom he shared a warm correspondence, because the ‘motherless teenager’, (Ibid, 2009) may have been lonely. This is certainly supported by the grief Henry felt over the Archduke’s death, because it clearly re-awakened the grief over his mother, as he admitted.

A late fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript written in medieval French, the ‘Vaux Passional’, (Peniarth MS 482D) preserved in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, is thought to depict the young Prince Henry, a tiny figure lost in grief at the bed of Queen Elizabeth of York, which is draped in black. If this grieving little boy, heartbroken in mourning for his mother is indeed Henry, it speaks most powerfully for Henry VIII’s silence on the subject and is remarkably revealing for a death which we must assume, was emotionally shattering to him (Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York, Pg 429, 2013). That the image shows Prince Henry is corroborated by the assumption that the two ladies in black are his sisters, Princesses Margaret and Mary. This seems to suggest that the parchment manuscript was given to Henry VII on the death of Elizabeth of York; the National Library of Wales thinks the latter is more likely, although also says it could perhaps also commemorate the death of Prince Arthur in 1502.

The manuscript contains the details of the lives and deaths of saints and martyrs and also, the account of Christ’s last days on earth. Significantly perhaps, the boy Henry is the only one who is lost in grief and is paying any attention to the bed; his sisters – both wearing black hoods – are both engaged in one another’s company together. Henry VII is shown in blue, a colour of royal mourning.

Whilst Henry VIII stayed at the Tower of London before his coronation in 1509, this was to fulfil an established pattern outlined by royal protocol, rather than because it was his own choice. The Queen’s Lodgings where Queen Elizabeth of York had died following childbirth lay to the south of the White Tower. Henry VIII stayed again at the Tower of London prior to Anne Boleyn’s coronation. This would not have meant that the King had forgotten the death of his mother at the location, instead, the significance and practice of staying at the Tower of London before a coronation was too important a historical statement to be ignored because it represented an adherence to earlier royal tradition. When the King stayed at the Tower much later with Anne Boleyn in 1533, this crucially also publicly proclaimed the validity of the King’s new marriage and the legitimacy of her unborn child and their place in the growing Tudor family tree. Henry otherwise stayed at the Tower only rarely; he did, however, order the distinctive caps to be built on the White Tower, which survive today.

In fact, Anne Boleyn’s child – a daughter, history’s Elizabeth I – was named after Queen Elizabeth of York, Henry VIII’s mother and perhaps also for Elizabeth Howard, Anne Boleyn’s grandmother of the same name (Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen, Pg 12, 1998). It also should not be forgotten that Elizabeth of York’s mother was Queen Elizabeth Wydeville, the spouse of Edward IV, although her ‘common’ ancestry was much less illustrious than that of her daughter Elizabeth, the Yorkist heir after the disappearance of her brothers, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York.

There could also have been parallels in Henry VIII’s mind between Queen Jane Seymour, his ‘entirely beloved’ wife and his mother, Queen Elizabeth of York; both had died following childbirth, probably as the result of puerperal fever. Queen Elizabeth of York’s plaintive but courageous boast to Henry VII that ‘we are both young enough’, is heavy with the tones of sacrifice which Queen Elizabeth of York knew she was exposing herself to by so doing. Queen Jane Seymour died giving Henry VIII his longed-for heir, the future Edward VI and so we must suppose, became enshrined in the King’s sentiments as having died with a purity of purpose, having given the King, a son at last. We must imagine that Henry VIII would have viewed this as God’s seal of approval on his third marriage, an answering of his prayers, which cost him the life of his favourite queen in the attempt.

Queen Elizabeth of York, of course, had also died, in the noble attempt to bear Henry VII an heir following the death of Prince Arthur and herself, fell victim to post-partum infection. The mutual grief over Prince Arthur, shared by Henry VII and Elizabeth of York can find a ready parallel in the shared sorrow of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon on the death of their baby son, Prince Henry, in 1511 (Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York, Pg 431, 2013). At the birth of Princess Mary in 1516, Henry VIII bravely declared to Catherine of Aragon that sons would now surely follow a healthy daughter: ‘We are both still young’ – almost, his mother’s exact words on the death of Prince Arthur.

This linking of the two Queens, Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour, is given its ultimate expression in the great Whitehall mural commissioned by Henry VIII from Hans Holbein, of which now only copies survive, by Remigius van Leemput. In the mural, the figures of Henry VIII and Queen Jane Seymour stand with Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth behind them, as figureheads of the new generation of Tudors. Similarly, Queen Jane Seymour features in Henry’s excellent propaganda portrait of 1543, ‘The Family of Henry VIII’, showing the Queen next to him with the six-year-old Prince Edward and flanked by the daughters of his first two marriages, Princesses Mary and Elizabeth. This shows that the perfect view he had of Jane, sharpened by her death in childbirth, had cemented into a solid perception of her as the mother of the next branch of the Tudor tree – even though at the time that the portrait was made, his actual wife, in reality, was his sixth queen, Katherine Parr. It was a perfect view of Jane which might well reflect the perfect view he had retained of his mother, Elizabeth (Ibid, Pg 431). The 1536 oil on wood portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein which is today at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, might reflect the meekness of her character and her motto ‘Bound to obey and serve’ – qualities which were bound to endear her to the King – if not the dominant ambition of her self-serving family.

When Jane Seymour died at Hampton Court in 1537, the Garter King of Arms had the need to study the ‘precedents’ concerning the manner of a Queen’s burial, because the last time this had happened was when Queen Elizabeth of York had died, close to thirty-five years before (Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Pg 346, 1992). This was true enough, given the fact that Henry VIII recognised his first Queen, Catherine of Aragon as ‘Princess Dowager’ at the time of her death and his second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn, had, of course, been beheaded in disgrace, in 1536. Henry VIII was entreated by the Bishop of Durham to regard himself from henceforth ‘to be mother as well as father’ to the baby Prince Edward (Alison Weir, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Pg 372, 1991). Certainly, Jane Seymour was the only queen to be buried as such by Henry VIII. Anne of Cleves now rests in respectful, albeit hidden, dignity at Westminster Abbey, whilst Katherine Howard, of course, was never given the funeral of a queen, but rather the customary quick burial following execution. Katherine Parr, Henry’s sixth queen, enjoys a royal tomb of sorts, in St Mary’s Church at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire. Jane Seymour was younger than Elizabeth of York but not considerably so, being roughly twenty-nine at the time of her death.

Significantly, the tomb of Queen Jane Seymour’s son, the future Edward VI, is to be found in the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey, ‘immediately to the west of Henry VII’s tomb’.

Henry VIII’s attitude to his wives when they became mothers, could also be seen to have roots which had a much older origin when comparing their behaviour with that of his mother, Elizabeth of York, although there is no actual evidence for this, only supposition. It is credible that perhaps for Henry, there was a subconscious comparison with Elizabeth of York, a more in-depth, psychological reason for why Henry VIII reacted with such grief over what was seen to be Katherine Howard’s infidelity; in contrast to his ‘true and loving wife, Queen Jane’. Perhaps Catherine of Aragon’s miscarriages and babies died soon after birth may even have awakened childhood memories of Henry’s brothers and sisters, Elizabeth of York’s dead children.

Not for nothing did Henry VIII choose to lie at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, together with his ‘entirely beloved’ wife, Queen Jane Seymour, as if uniting himself forever with the woman who had helped to secure the continuance of his dynasty, just as Henry VII had himself buried with Queen Elizabeth of York, for it was the same dreadful, dynastic Tudor anxiety concerning their heirs, which tormented Henry VII and in turn would torture his son, Henry VIII; even after the joyful birth of the future Edward VI in 1537, England would still only have one son, just as Henry VIII had been the sole remaining son of Henry VII and Henry VII had been the only son of Margaret Beaufort.

The location of the tomb of Henry VIII with its modest slab near the Choir – placed there at the orders of William IV – is not far from the family vault of Edward IV and his queen, Elizabeth Wydeville, another eternal reinforcement of the Yorkist root for the Tudor tree.

Unlike Henry VI, however, Henry VIII chose the location of his tomb to be at Windsor, not Westminster Abbey; so the desire to be buried with Queen Jane Seymour outweighed any hope (if it had ever existed at all) to be at the Abbey amidst many other tombs of English kings and queens. For Henry VIII in death sought to be with Jane Seymour as his queen consort, just as Henry VII had been with Queen Elizabeth of York.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.