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History’s Royal Kates: the almost queen

Born a princess, daughter of a feted king and a much-admired queen, this royal Kate seemed destined for a crown of her own. But when civil war once more erupted in England, she found herself on the wrong side of royal favour and ended up a countess instead. This is the story of Katherine of York, one of the last Plantagenet princesses.

Katherine was born on August 14th, 1479, at Eltham Palace in Kent. Her father was Edward IV, first king of the House of York, while her mother was his controversial wife, Elizabeth Wydville. By the time this royal Kate was born, relative peace had been restored in England and her father was enjoying the calmest period of rule since he had taken the throne in 1461.

Katherine’s parents, Edward IV and Elizabeth, were one of Europe’s most glamourous and romantic royal couples (By James William Edmund Doyle, in A Chronicle of England: B.C. 55 – A.D. 1485, Public Domain, ex Wiki Commons)

The early years of this royal Kate’s life were spent in a glamourous royal court filled with fashionable people wearing fashionable clothes. Her father was hard at work bolstering his power – through strong administration and good marriages for his many children. Katherine joined a royal nursery where just about every young prince and princess had a glittering wedding lined up for them in the very near future.

Her eldest sister, Elizabeth, was promised to the heir to the throne of France while another sister, Cecily, was betrothed to the future king of Scotland. Edward was negotiating for another daughter, Anne, to marry the probable heir to the Holy Roman Empire while his youngest son, Richard, was already married to one of the wealthiest heiresses in England. The York heir to the throne, Edward, was about to be betrothed to the daughter of the very rich and very powerful Duke of Brittany. Baby Katherine could expect a good match – and she got one.

In Spain, about a year earlier, Isabella of Castile had given birth to a son called Juan. He was the heir to her and her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon – together they had united the two most powerful kingdoms in Spain, and their joint inheritance was formidable. In 1479, weeks after Kate of York was born, Edward IV negotiated a marriage for her with the heir to Ferdinand and Isabella, and his latest daughter was lined up to be the first consort of their united kingdoms. The future looked great for this royal Kate.

Katherine, second from right, and her sisters (Public Domain, ex Wiki Commons)

To Edward and Elizabeth, she was a much-loved daughter, but she was also part of a jigsaw puzzle that would see their family in a position of power in just about every European court that mattered. Edward, at 37 years of age, expected to rule for another twenty or so years and Elizabeth, now 42, would be at his side as equal parts of a power couple that had so far taken all before them.  And then disaster struck.

Edward died, unexpectedly, on April 9th, 1483.  His unhealthy lifestyle had begun to catch up with him before then – the once handsome heartbreaker was starting to get fat and lose his looks. But the final illness that struck him just days before his death was a shock, and no one really knows its true nature with typhoid and pneumonia both suggested. There were even rumours, immediately after his death, that the King had been poisoned. But for Katherine and her family, the cause made no difference. Not only had they lost their beloved father, but they were also now in serious danger; for without Edward the court – and the country – began to fragment almost straight away.

Edward had named his brother, Richard, as Protector on his deathbed so while Katherine’s brother was now nominally king, power lay with her uncle. Being the king’s sister was far more precarious for this royal Kate than her previous role as king’s daughter had been. Two months after the accession of Edward V, the boy king was taken to the Tower of London by Richard who said he needed to keep his nephew safe. Katherine’s mother, the dowager queen, swept her and her remaining sisters and brother into the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey around the time that Richard declared her marriage to Edward IV invalid and all her royal children illegitimate. Katherine of York had begun 1483 as a princess living in luxury in palaces. Now she relied on the charity of strangers to keep herself alive.

The reign of Richard III changed Katherine’s life forever (Public Domain, ex Wiki Commons)

This royal Kate was four-years-old when the dramas of that tumultuous summer began to unfold around her. She had never known sanctuary before while her older sisters, Elizabeth and Cecily, had lived in the abbey in similar circumstances before when they had fled there with their mother during their father’s brief deposition in 1470 – 1471. She may not have understood all the drama going on around her – the decision of her mother to hand her remaining son over to Richard, the sudden and still unexplained disappearance of her two brothers in 1483 and the claims and counterclaims made by all sides in the struggle to control the throne of England – but she was an eyewitness to some of the most significant events in royal history.

In 1484, Kate’s life changed again when she and her mother and sisters left sanctuary after Richard, now king, promised no harm would come to them. They returned to court and marriage once again became part of Katherine’s life as her uncle promised to find ‘gentlemen’ husbands for all his nieces. But by the time she marked her sixth birthday, in August 1485, everything was about to change again for Katherine. Just days after her celebrations, Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and claimed the crown of England for himself. He had promised to marry Kate’s sister, Elizabeth, and before the wedding, he repealed the law that made the children of Edward IV illegitimate.  Six-year-old Kate was now a royal princess again – daughter and sister of two kings called Edward, and now sister, too, of a consort called Elizabeth.

And as the queen’s sister, she once again became important – and useful. Her brother-in -aw negotiated a royal marriage for her in 1487 as part of his plans to secure peace with Scotland. Her mother, Elizabeth, was promised to the Scottish king, James III, and another sister was lined up to marry his heir while this royal Kate was suggested as a bride for another of James III’s sons, the Duke of Ross. When James III died in 1488, the agreement died with him. Nine-year-old Katherine was once again available as a pawn in the royal marriage game.

But by now, Henry VII had children of his own to marry off to royalty, and his plans for Kate changed. Sometime before 1495, she married a man called William Courtenay, and the girl who had come so close to being a queen consort could now only hope that one day, she might be a countess. For William was the son and heir of the earl of Devon and his family had been supporters of Henry VII as he staked his claim to the throne. Soon after their marriage, Katherine’s husband would help her brother-in-law defeat the rebellion that took Perkin Warbeck as its figurehead. Warbeck claimed to be Katherine’s brother, Richard, but what she thought of his claim remains unknown. After her marriage, this royal Kate becomes a quiet figure in history as the men of the court set about creating a new, Tudor kingdom.

Katherine Courtenay, as she now became, had three children with her husband and settled down to life at the family seat in Tiverton in Devon before a man-made calamity once again threatened her peace. In 1504, her husband gave his backing to another pretender to Henry VII’s throne, and the Tudor king took swift revenge. William Courtenay was attainted and sent to the Tower of London.  He now was unable to inherit any of his father’s lands or titles.

Katherine of York as Countess of Devon (Public Domain, ex Wiki Commons)

Henry VII’s death in 1509 made all the difference to Courtenay. He was pardoned by the new king, Henry VIII, and took a role in his coronation. In 1511, he was restored to his family’s title and became Earl of Devon – making his wife a countess. Kate’s reign lasted for around a month before her husband died and her son, Henry, took the title. At the age of 31, this royal Kate was a dowager with a teenage earl on her hands – and suddenly, she found her feet.

It’s perhaps not surprising that the daughter of the uber-ambitious Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydville seemed to enjoy power – and be good at wielding it. She has left ample records of how she ran the vast estates that belonged to her and her family in the south west of England, and she was known to be a keen letter writer who often sent missives to her nephew, Henry VIII, as well as other leading figures of the time.

It’s perhaps even less surprising that Kate, after decades of being a royal marriage pawn, chose to take a vow of perpetual chastity when her husband died. In 1511, she swore before the Bishop of London never to take another husband. She was around thirty-two or thirty-three-years-old, but this royal Kate had decided to take herself off the marriage market. There was no chance of nephew Henry using her to seal a royal deal. Kate kept herself to her West Country estates and enjoyed running them – and telling anyone who would listen about her royal pedigree. For, free of the burden of being a bride in a royal treaty, she retreated to being the royal she had always wanted to be. She had a seal made which told all who saw it that Katherine was ‘daughter, sister and aunt of kings’.

Katherine died in 1527. By then, she was the last remaining member of the family of Edward IV – the glittering and glamourous clan who had almost put down dynastic roots across Europe. Her mother had died in 1492 while her sister, Queen Elizabeth, died in 1503 and all her other siblings were dead by 1517. Her funeral, in December 1527, was magnificent, and despite the winter weather, a cleric from Exeter made the fifteen-mile journey to preach there. Katherine of York was buried in St Peter’s Church in Tiverton.

Her nephew, Henry VIII, may have taken some inspiration for his rule from Edward IV but they were ultimately very different kings. Katherine of York spent the last decade of her life as a reminder of a long gone royal family, the beautiful, brazen and brief House of York. She was born to be a queen but ended up having to make her own way in a hostile world. This royal Kate really was a survivor.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Jubilee and Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton who is a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. Her latest book, A History of British Royal Jubilees, is out now. Her new book, The Mysterious Death of Katherine Parr, will be published in March 2024. June is an award winning reporter, producer and editor. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.