Catherine of York was born on 14 August 1479 at Eltham Palace as the daughter of King Edward IV of England and Elizabeth Woodville. She was christened at Eltham Palace, and a nurse named Joanna Colson was appointed for her. Just two weeks after her birth, her father opened negotiations for her to marry John, Prince of Asturias – the ill-fated heir of Queen Isabella I of Castile. James Butler, Earl of Ormond, was also considered. Catherine was the couple’s ninth child and sixth daughter. The following year a daughter named Bridget completed the family.
Catherine would never get to know several of her siblings. Her elder brother George had died in March 1479, Mary died on 23 May 1482, Margaret died on 11 December 1472, and it is unlikely she had any memories of her two elders brothers, the Princes in the Tower, Edward and Richard who disappeared in 1483. Her father died in 1483 when Catherine was only three. The following situation – in which her uncle Richard seized power and succeeded his brother over Catherine’s brother Edward – left Catherine in a precarious situation. Catherine’s mother was no fool and took sanctuary at Westminster Abbey with her five daughters (Elizabeth, Catherine, Cecily, Anne and Bridget) and her youngest son Richard. Elizabeth was eventually forced to surrender her younger son to his uncle, leaving her with just her daughters in sanctuary. When the marriage of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV was declared void upon the basis that Edward had been contracted to another woman – the girls suddenly found themselves illegitimate.
On 1 March 1484, Elizabeth and her daughters came out of sanctuary after Richard publicly swore an oath that her daughters would not be harmed. The girls were “very honourably entertained and with all princely kindness.” They were probably sent to live in Queen Anne‘s household, at least for a while, before returning to their mother. Their exact whereabouts around this time are unknown.
Elizabeth soon allied herself with Margaret Beaufort and her son Henry Tudor and Catherine’s elder sister Elizabeth was promised to him. Henry invaded in 1485 and overthrew Richard – becoming King Henry VII. Catherine’s sister Elizabeth became Queen of England when they were married on 18 January 1486. Henry arranged for his mother to be given the “keeping and guiding of the ladies daughter of King Edward IV” and the sisters probably joined the household in London. Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters were restored to their rightful status, “estate, dignity, preeminence and name.” Elizabeth supported her unmarried sisters with an annuity of £50, and when they married, she gave their husbands annuities of £120. When Elizabeth was close to giving birth to her first son, her mother, sisters and Margaret Beaufort joined her. Catherine’s elder sisters were involved in the christening of the newborn Prince Arthur, but Catherine was probably too young to join in.
In 1487, Elizabeth Woodville retired to Bermondsey Abbey and around this time Bridget was dedicated to the religious life. Cecily had been married to Ralph Scrope of Upsall, but King Henry had that marriage annulled so that she could marry John Welles, 1st Viscount Welles, a staunch Lancastrian nobleman. He was also Margaret Beaufort’s half-brother. Cecily had served in the Queen’s household until her marriage when she was replaced by Anne. When Elizabeth Woodville died in 1492, Catherine was present for the Requiem Mass.
In 1495, Henry arranged the marriages of Anne and Catherine. On 4 February 1495, Anne was married to Lord Thomas Howard, the son of the Earl of Surrey with Henry giving the bride away himself. Later in 1495, at least by October, Catherine was married to Lord William Courtenay. After the wedding, Catherine would reside mainly at the castles of Tiverton, Colcombe and Powderham or her husband’s London home. Catherine gave birth to three children in quick succession: Henry (later 1st Marquess of Exeter – born 1496), Edward (born 1497 – died young) and Margaret (born 1499).
In 1500, King Henry summoned Catherine and her husband to court and, once settled into their London, they were often seen at court. Catherine must have been pleased to be near her sister again. Catherine was present when her nephew Prince Arthur married Catherine of Aragon in 1501, and she was also present at the ceremony of betrothal between her niece Margaret and King James IV of Scotland.
Catherine and her husband fell from favour the following year when it turned out that William had dined with Edmund de la Pole, 3rd Duke of Suffolk, a Yorkist claimant, and had also corresponded with him before fleeing to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. He was suspected of inviting him to invade England. In late February William was suddenly seized and imprisoned in the Tower on charges of conspiracy. He was attainted for treason in 1503, and his estates were given to his father, and upon his father’s death, they would revert to the Crown. Catherine suddenly saw her entire future go up in flames, her children had been disinherited, and she was suddenly impoverished. For some reason, Henry did not put his brother-in-law to death, but Catherine had no way of knowing that at the time and she was probably desperately worried. Her sister Elizabeth supported her emotionally and financially during this time. Elizabeth had the Courtenay children brought to Devon even before their father’s arrest and established them with a governess, Margaret, Lady Cotton. Elizabeth also ordered warm clothing for William. Later that year, as William languished in the Tower, Catherine joined her sister on a solo progress.
In early 1503, Catherine and Elizabeth returned to London to spend Candlemas with Henry at the Tower. After the death of Prince Arthur in 1502, Elizabeth had conceived again, and she was in the late stages of pregnancy. Elizabeth was still at the Tower when her baby arrived early on 2 February. It was a difficult birth, and Catherine was in attendance. The baby was named Catherine, possibly for her aunt. Just one week later, Elizabeth became ill, and she quickly deteriorated. She died on 11 February – her 37th birthday. Catherine acted as chief mourner at her sister’s funeral, and she must have been much grieved at her sister’s death. After the service, Catherine presided over a supper at which fish was served. The following morning, Catherine and her surviving sisters assembled in Westminster Abbey where The Mass of the Trinity was celebrated. Afterwards, Catherine was among the 20 ladies who presented 37 palls of blue, red, and green cloth of gold, one for each year of Elizabeth’s life. Elizabeth’s sister each presented five palls.
After Elizabeth’s death, Catherine and her children were sent home to Tiverton where she lived as a dependent of her father-in-law. Her husband would remain in the Tower until the death of King Henry VII in 1509. He lived out his last years in freedom – dying in 1511. Catherine took a vow of perpetual chastity after her husband’s death. In 1516, Catherine was asked to be godmother to the future Queen Mary I. She lived out her last years in quiet and died in November 1527 at Tiverton Castle. She was buried in the Tiverton parish church, but her tomb has not survived. She would be the last of the York sisters to die.1