Elizabeth of York

Eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. The presence at her baptism of both her grandmothers, Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford and Cecily, Duchess of York plus the King’s right-hand man Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick indicates the importance of this child. But as a girl she had no formal place in the succession to the throne of England so her best chance of assuring her station in life was to marry well.

As was usual with royal families, whilst still a child, her father opened marriage negotiations on her behalf (really his behalf) to forge a dynastic match.  One possibility was with the Dauphin, the heir to the King of France, but none of these negotiations came to fruition. Instead, an even more important match awaited her.

Twice in Elizabeth’s life she spent extensive periods in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey (actually in the Abbot’s home). Sanctuary offered the Church’s protection from arrest and imprisonment by secular authorities, but really exchanged one form of restricted freedom for another.

The first time was when her father was temporarily deposed (October 1470 to March 1471: the “Winter of our discontent” in Shakespeare’s words). During this time her brother, Edward, the future Prince of Wales was born.

The second time was after her father’s untimely death in 1483 when news of Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s arrest of her uncle Anthony, Earl Rivers reached the Queen on 1st May. She and her sisters spent the next ten months in sanctuary until the Queen was assured by solemn promises from Richard III that they would be well looked after and well married.

By now she was a young woman of seventeen and ready for marriage. When Richard’s Queen Anne died in 1484, he was rumoured to be considering marriage with Elizabeth, his niece. But that would have been regarded as incestuous and forbidden by the Pope. To quash rumours, Richard felt it necessary to swear an oath in public that he had no such intentions.

Behind the scenes, possibly since the Summer of 1483, her mother and Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, had made a secret pact for Elizabeth to marry Henry.  In December that year in exile in France, Henry made a public vow to marry Elizabeth. They were both great-great grandchildren of John of Gaunt, so fourth cousins, just on the boundary of degrees of separation allowed by the Pope. However, there was also the problem of Titulus Regius passed by Richard’s Parliament, which had declared Elizabeth and her siblings to be illegitimate. When Henry became King, he ordered that this Act be deleted from the record and all copies of it destroyed. One copy survived.

Elizabeth and Henry were married in January 1486 so by then Elizabeth can be described as the daughter, sister, niece and wife of kings and, posthumously, the mother of a king (Henry VIII).

Their first child, Arthur, was created Prince of Wales and, after lengthy negotiations, was married to Katherine of Aragon, daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. Unfortunately, Arthur died a few months later leaving his younger brother Henry to become king after their father’s death.

One of Henry VIII’ first actions was to marry Katherine, his deceased brother’s widow and twenty years later the intimate details of her relationship with Prince Arthur became a matter for national debate and remain so to this day.

Elizabeth did not live to see her son crowned: she died on her 37th birthday shortly after giving birth to her seventh child. Her tomb is one of the most magnificent in Westminster Abbey. She was the last Plantagenet to sit on the throne of England.

Her granddaughter, also named Elizabeth, became one of England’s most famous monarchs.

This short podcast summarises her life.


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