Elizabeth of York was born on 11 February 1466 as the daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and King Edward IV of England. Her parents’ marriage had been a private affair, which was only revealed on 14 September 1464, when negotiations for a marriage to Bona of Savoy were well underway. Elizabeth Woodville was a widow with two young sons and was not seen as a suitable choice for the King. As secretive as their wedding was, so lavish was Elizabeth’s coronation in May 1465.
Elizabeth was not the hoped-for boy, but she was healthy. Edward rewarded his wife with a jewelled ornament worth £125. The little Princess was christened in Westminster Abbey a few days later. She would be cared for by wetnurses and rockers. 1 She was given her own household under Margaret, Lady Berners at the old palace of Placentia in Greenwich. She was joined by two sisters Mary and Cecily in the next 18 months.
However, her father’s throne was far from secure. In September 1470, the deposed King Henry VI was freed from the Tower and Edward was forced to flee. A pregnant Elizabeth Woodville and the three Princesses sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey. There she gave birth to the future King Edward V. It wasn’t until the next April that King Edward was able to secure his throne again. They were at last free from the sanctuary. 2
In 1475, the young Elizabeth was betrothed the Dauphin of France, later King Charles VIII of France, but the pair never even met. Despite this, she was referred to as “My Lady the Dauphine” for the next seven years. She was also made a Lady of the Garter in 1477. 3
Her life changed forever upon the early death of her father in 1483. The new King Edward V was quickly transported from Ludlow Castle to London by his Woodville relatives. He was intercepted by his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Richard had been named Lord Protector by the late King. Elizabeth Woodville knew that trouble was brewing and she once again fled into sanctuary with her remaining children. King Edward V was lodged in the Tower, as was tradition before a coronation. Elizabeth Woodville was then pressured into having her younger son Richard sent to join his brother in the Tower, and she would never see her sons again. Elizabeth and her siblings were declared to be illegitimate, and Richard became King Richard III. 4
Another contender to the throne now stood up. Henry Tudor had a claim through his mother, albeit through an illegitimate line. Henry Tudor’s mother Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville may well have been involved in plots to overthrow Richard. Eventually, Elizabeth Woodville agreed to leave sanctuary if Richard promised to protect her children. 5 The death of Richard’s son and wife led to rumours that he intended to marry his niece but he was negotiating to marry a Portuguese Princess before he would lose his life on the battlefield of Bosworth Field. Henry Tudor, with his distant claim to the throne, had won the Crown of England on the battlefield. Now he needed a wife and who better than Elizabeth of York?
She probably met Henry for the first time in September 1485. They finally married on 18 January 1486 and their first child, Prince Arthur, was born on 20 September 1486. Elizabeth’s coronation took place on 25 November 1487. This was rather late, but Henry could not be seen to be assuming the crown by right of his wife. Her mother was not allowed to attend. – 6 Arthur was joined in the nursery by a sister named Margaret in 1489. Six more children would follow, but only the future King Henry VIII, Margaret and Mary would survive to adulthood. Prince Arthur had his own household at Ludlow, but the rest of the children were nearby in the nursery. 7
The relationship with her mother-in-law was seen as complicated. As a crowned Queen, Elizabeth took precedence over her, but the two often wore similar clothes, as an indication of their equivalent rank. They often collaborated when it came to religious and domestic projects. Margaret Beaufort often arranged the practical side of courtly life. This could be seen as overbearing, but there is no evidence that Elizabeth ever commented on it. 8
As her children grew up, their marriages were arranged, and the proxy marriage between Arthur and Catherine of Aragon took place on 19 May 1499. Catherine arrived in October 1501. She met Elizabeth the day before the wedding. They spent the night together, but nothing about their meeting was recorded. Elizabeth and Henry watched the wedding the next from behind a lattice. Later that month, the newlywed couple departed for Ludlow Castle. 9
On 4 April 1502, a messenger broke the news that Prince Arthur had died at Ludlow Castle. Catherine had also become ill, but she had survived. They had been married for just four and half months. Henry sent for Elizabeth, who tried to comfort him in their grief. When she left him, she broke down, and her worried ladies sent for Henry to comfort her in return. 10 That April, Elizabeth made various religious donations. 11 By August, she must have known she was pregnant again. Her previous pregnancy had been in 1498-1499. On 26 January 1503, she embarked on her final journey from Richmond to the Tower of London. It was supposed to be a visit, but Elizabeth must have been surprised by her labour pains there. The labour was long and arduous. A daughter named Catherine was born on Candlemas, 2 February 1503. Catherine died on 10 February 1503. It soon became clear that Elizabeth was very ill. A messenger was dispatched to find a doctor, but if one ever arrived, his efforts were in vain. Elizabeth of York died on 11 February 1503. 12
Her death came as a shock to the family. She received a magnificent funeral. White banners were laid across the corners of her coffin, signifying the manner of her death. The rest was draped with black velvet surmounted by a cross of white cloth of gold. 13
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- Lisa Hilton – Queens Consort p.471
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