Biography of Elizabeth of York, Queen of England

Elizabeth of York, 1501
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Elizabeth of York (February 11, 1466–February 11, 1503) was a key figure in Tudor history and in the Wars of the Roses. She was the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville; Queen of England and Queen Consort of Henry VII; and the mother of Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, and Margaret Tudor, the only woman in history to have been daughter, sister, niece, wife, and mother to English kings.

Fast Facts: Elizabeth of York

  • Known For: Queen of England, mother of Henry VIII.
  • Born: February 11, 1466, London, England.
  • Parents: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville.
  • Died: February 11, 1503, London, England.
  • Education: Trained in the palace as a future Queen.
  • Spouse: Henry VII (m. January 18, 1486).
  • Children: Arthur, Prince of Wales (September 20, 1486–April 2, 1502); Margaret Tudor (November 28, 1489–October 18, 1541) who married King James IV of Scotland); Henry VIII, King of England (June 18, 1491–January 28, 1547); Elizabeth (July 2, 1492–September 14, 1495); Mary Tudor (March 18, 1496–June 25, 1533) married King Louis XII of France; Edmund, Duke of Somerset (February 21, 1499–June 19, 1500); and Katherine (February 2, 1503). 

Early Life

Elizabeth of York, known alternatively as Elizabeth Plantagenet, was born on February 11, 1466, at Westminster Palace in London, England. She was the eldest of the nine children of Edward IV, king of England (ruled 1461–1483) and his wife Elizabeth Woodville (sometimes spelled Wydeville). Her parents' marriage had created trouble, and her father was briefly deposed in 1470. By 1471, likely challengers to her father's throne had been defeated and killed. Elizabeth's early years were spent in comparative calm, despite the disagreements and battles going on around her.

She likely began her formal education in the palace by age five or six, and learned history and alchemy from her father and his library. She and her sisters were taught by ladies-in-waiting, and by observing Elizabeth Woodville in action, the skills and accomplishments considered appropriate for future queens. That included reading and writing in English, mathematics, and household management, as well as needlework, horsemanship, music, and dancing. She spoke some French, but not fluently.

In 1469, at the age of three, Elizabeth was betrothed to George Neville, but it was called off when his father supported Edward VII's rival, the Earl of Warwick. In August 29, 1475, Elizabeth was 11 and, as part of the Treaty of Picquigny, she became betrothed to Louis XI's son, the Dauphin Charles, at the time five years old. Louis reneged on the treaty in 1482. 

Death of Edward IV

In 1483, with the sudden death of her father Edward IV, Elizabeth of York was at the center of the storm, as the eldest child of King Edward IV. Her younger brother was declared Edward V, but because he was 13, his father's brother Richard Plantagenet was named regent protector, and before Edward V could be crowned, Richard imprisoned him and his younger brother Richard in the Tower of London. Richard Plantagenet took the English crown as Richard III, and had the marriage of Elizabeth of York's parents declared invalid, claiming Edward IV had been betrothed before the marriage had occurred.

Though Elizabeth of York was by that declaration made illegitimate, Richard III was rumored to had plans to marry her. Elizabeth's mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian claiming to be heir to the throne, planned another future for Elizabeth of York: marriage to Henry Tudor when he overthrew Richard III.

The two princes, the only surviving male heirs of Edward IV, disappeared. Some have assumed that Elizabeth Woodville must have known, or at least guessed, that her sons, the "Princes in the Tower," were already dead because she put her efforts into her daughter's marriage to Henry Tudor.

Henry Tudor

Richard III was killed on the battlefield in 1485, and Henry Tudor (Henry VII) succeeded him, declared himself King of England by right of conquest. He delayed some months in marrying the Yorkist heiress, Elizabeth of York, until after his own coronation. They were married in January 1486, gave birth to their first child, Arthur, in September, and she was crowned Queen of England in November 25, 1487. Their marriage established the Tudor dynasty of the British crown.

Her marriage to Henry VII brought together the House of Lancaster which Henry VII represented (though he grounded his claim to the crown of England in conquest, not birth), and the House of York, which Elizabeth represented. The symbolism of a Lancastrian king marrying a Yorkist queen brought together the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York, ending the Wars of the Roses. Henry adopted the Tudor Rose as his symbol, colored both red and white.

Children

Elizabeth of York lived peacefully in her marriage, apparently. She and Henry had seven children, four surviving to adulthood, a fairly decent percentage for the time. Three of the four became kings or queens in their own right: Margaret Tudor (November 28, 1489–October 18, 1541) who married King James IV of Scotland); Henry VIII, King of England (June 18, 1491–January 28, 1547); Elizabeth (July 2, 1492–September 14, 1495); Mary Tudor (March 18, 1496–June 25, 1533) married King Louis XII of France; Edmund, Duke of Somerset (February 21, 1499–June 19, 1500); and Katherine (February 2, 1503). 

Their oldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales (September 20, 1486–April 2, 1502) married Catherine of Aragon, a third cousin of both Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, in 1501. Catherine and Arthur became ill with sweating sickness soon after, and Arthur died in 1502.

Death and Legacy

It's been surmised that Elizabeth became pregnant again to try to have another male heir for the throne after Arthur's death, in case the surviving son, Henry died. Bearing heirs was, after all, one of the most crucial responsibilities of a queen consort, especially to the hopeful founder of a new dynasty, the Tudors.

If so, it was a mistake. Elizabeth of York died in the Tower of London on February 11, 1503, at the age 37, of complications of the birth of her seventh child, a girl named Katherine, who died at birth on February 2. Only three of Elizabeth's children survived at her death: Margaret, Henry, and Mary. Elizabeth of York is buried at the Henry VII 'Lady Chapel', Westminster Abbey.

The relationship of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York is not well-documented, but there are several surviving documents which suggest a tender and loving relationship. Henry was said to have withdrawn in sorrow at her death; he never remarried, though it might have been advantageous diplomatically to do so; and he spent lavishly for her funeral, though he was usually quite tight with money.

Fictional Representations

Elizabeth of York is a character in Shakespeare's Richard III. She has little to say there; she is merely a pawn to be married to either Richard III or Henry VII. Because she is the last Yorkist heir (assuming her brothers, the Princes in the Tower, have been killed), her children's claim to the crown of England will be more secure.

Elizabeth of York is also one of the major characters in the 2013 series The White Queen and is the key character in 2017 series The White Princess. Elizabeth of York's picture is the usual depiction of a queen in card decks.

Sources

  • License, Amy. "Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen." Gloucestershire, Amberley Publishing, 2013.
  • Naylor Okerlund, Arlene. "Elizabeth of York." New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009.
  • Weir, Alison. "Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World." New York: Ballantine Books, 2013.