Elizabeth of York was born on 11th February 1466, the eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, at the Palace of Westminster. When she was three years old she was betrothed to George Neville, the nephew of Edward’s chief adviser, the Earl of Warwick. The betrothal was broken the following year after Warwick defected to the Lancastrian side and rose against King Edward.
In October 1470, King Henry VI was restored to the throne and Edward IV fled to France. Elizabeth, her pregnant mother, and her siblings fled to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth’s brother, the future Edward V, was born a month later. The family remained in sanctuary for six months until Elizabeth’s father was able to invade with an armed force, defeat the Lancastrians and re-take the throne.
In 1475 Edward IV negotiated a marriage for Elizabeth with the Dauphin Charles of France. As a future Queen of France Elizabeth was schooled in French as well as being taught to read, write and manage a large household. In 1482 King Louis XI of France repudiated the treaty leaving Elizabeth free to marry elsewhere.
At Easter 1483 Elizabeth’s father was taken ill and he died shortly afterwards. Her brother, Edward was proclaimed King Edward V. Edward IV’s will stipulated that his brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester would be regent for the young king. This news was not well received by Elizabeth’s maternal family who did not want to lose influence or power. Eager to carry out his brother’s wishes Richard, Duke of Gloucester had to trick the Woodvilles into placing the young king into his care. Richard then placed Edward V in the Tower of London to await his coronation.
Alarmed at the treatment of her relatives, Elizabeth Woodville took Elizabeth and the rest of her children back into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. Soon afterwards, Elizabeth’s mother was persuaded to give up Edward’s brother Richard into Richard of Gloucester’s care. She may have been told that Edward was lonely and wanted the company of his brother or she may have been told that it was the only way to ensure the safety of the rest of her family. However she was persuaded, Prince Richard of York joined his brother in the Tower of London. They were never seen outside the Tower again and became known as the Princes in the Tower. They were almost certainly murdered but the identity of the murderer remains a case of speculation to this day.
In June 1483 it was announced that Elizabeth’s father, Edward, had been contracted to marry Eleanor Butler and that therefore his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid and their children were illegitimate. As illegitimate children they were exempt from the succession and therefore Richard Duke of Gloucester should be King. On 6th July 1483 Richard took the throne.
in March 1484, Elizabeth’s mother paid homage to Richard and was allowed to regain the court. She may have genuinely believed that Richard had no part in her son’s murders or she may have wanted to return to court to try to find support for her cause. She became close to Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor and together they agreed that when Henry took the throne he would marry Elizabeth.
In 1485 Henry Tudor invaded and marched to meet Richard III. The two sides clashed at Bosworth Field and Richard was defeated and killed on the battlefield. Henry Tudor was proclaimed King Henry VII and, as promised, married Elizabeth on 18th January 1486. At the time of her marriage Elizabeth was described as tall and blonde and very beautiful. The couple’s first child, Prince Arthur, was born on 20th September 1486. The name Arthur was chosen to symbolise a new strong dynasty.
Elizabeth and Henry had a total of seven children, Arthur born in 1486, Margaret in 1489, Henry in 1491, Elizabeth in 1492, Mary in 1495, Edmund in 1499, Edward in 1498 and Katherine in 1503. Of these Arthur, Margaret, Henry and Mary survived to adulthood.
In 1501 Prince Arthur married Catherine of Aragon in a lavish ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral. After the wedding celebrations were over the young couple left London to make their home at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches. In the Spring of 1502 they were both taken ill with an infection and on 2nd April Arthur died. Elizabeth and Henry were deeply upset at the death of their eldest son and heir. The hopes of the Tudor dynasty now remained solely with Prince Henry.
Although the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York had ended the Wars of the Roses, there were still those that remained loyal to the Yorkist cause and wanted the Tudors replaced. Early in Henry’s reign a pretender to the throne, Lambert Simnel, claimed to be Elizabeth’s cousin Edward Earl of Warwick. The rebellion was quickly put down largely because the real Earl of Warwick was imprisoned in the Tower. The fact that there was no proof that Elizabeth’s brothers were dead led to the rise of a more serious challenge to the throne by Perkin Warbeck who claimed to be Elizabeth’s younger brother, Richard Duke of York. Warbeck was acknowledged by many to be the real Duke of York but after his capture the pretender confessed to being the son of a Flemish merchant and was executed. Elizabeth’s feelings on the matter are not recorded but it is likely that she privately wondered if it were her brother.
Concern over the succession meant that Henry was keen to father more sons. Elizabeth was 36 years old when she conceived for the seventh time. Her daughter Katherine was born on 2nd February. Childbirth in the Tudor period was full of danger and the risk of complications or infections great. Elizabeth did not recover from this birth and died on her 37th birthday. Princess Katherine died a few days after her mother.
Elizabeth was given a lavish funeral and was buried in Westminster Abbey. A bronze effigy was placed on her tomb.
Harvard Reference for this page:
Heather Y Wheeler. (2017). Elizabeth of York 1466 – 1503 Available: http://www.tudornation.com/elizabeth-of-york-1466-1503 Last accessed December 9th, 2018
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