Elizabeth of York (February 11, 1466 – February 11, 1503) was Queen of England from her marriage to King Henry VII on 18 January 1486 until her death. Elizabeth married Henry after his victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field, which marked the end of the Wars of the Roses. Together, they had seven children.
Elizabeth’s younger brothers, the “Princes in the Tower”, mysteriously disappeared shortly after the death of her father, King Edward IV. Although the 1484 act of Parliament Titulus Regius declared the marriage of her parents, Edward and Elizabeth Woodville, invalid, she and her sisters were subsequently welcomed back to court by Edward’s brother, King Richard III. As a Yorkist princess, the final victory of the Lancastrian faction in the Wars of the Roses may have seemed a further disaster, but Henry Tudor knew the importance of Yorkist support for his invasion and promised to marry Elizabeth before he arrived in England. This may well have contributed to the haemorrhaging of Yorkist support for Richard.
Although Elizabeth seems to have played little part in politics, her marriage appears to have been a successful and happy one. Her eldest son Arthur, Prince of Wales, died at age 15 in 1502, and three other children died young. Her second, and only surviving, son became King Henry VIII of England, while her daughters Mary and Margaret became queens of France and of Scotland, respectively; many modern royals, including Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom trace their line through Margaret.
In 1469, aged three, she was briefly betrothed to George Neville. His father John later supported George’s uncle, the Earl of Warwick, in rebellion against King Edward IV, and the betrothal was called off. In 1475, Louis XI agreed to the marriage of nine-year-old Elizabeth of York to his son Charles, the Dauphin of France. In 1482, however, Louis XI reneged on his promise. She was named a Lady of the Garter in 1477, at age eleven, along with her mother and her paternal aunt Elizabeth of York, Duchess of Suffolk.
Wife of the king
As the eldest daughter of Edward IV with no surviving brothers, Elizabeth of York had a strong claim to the throne in her own right, but she did not assume the throne as queen regnant. There was no queen regnant until 1553, when her granddaughter, Mary I, acceded to the throne; the last attempt a female had made at ruling in her own right resulted in disaster when the mother and first cousin once removed of Henry II of England fought bitterly for the throne in the 12th century. Though initially slow to keep his promise, Henry VII acknowledged the necessity of marrying Elizabeth of York to ensure the stability of his rule and weaken the claims of other surviving members of the House of York. It seems Henry wished to be seen as ruling in his own right, having claimed the throne by right of conquest and not by his marriage to the de facto heiress of the House of York. He had no intention of sharing power. He consequently chose to be crowned on 30 October 1485, before his marriage.
Henry VII had the Act of Titulus Regius repealed, thereby legitimising anew the children of Edward IV, and acknowledging Edward V as his predecessor. Though Richard III was regarded as a usurper, his reign was not ignored. Henry and Elizabeth required a papal dispensation to wed because of Canon Law frowning upon ‘affinity”: Both were descended from John of Gaunt or his older brother Lionel in the 4th degree, an issue that had caused much dispute and bloodshed as to which claim was superior. Two applications were sent, the first more locally, and the second one was slow in reaching Rome and slow to return with the response of the Pope. Ultimately, however, the marriage was approved by papal bull of Pope Innocent VIII dated March 1486 (one month after the wedding) stating that the Pope and his advisors “approveth confirmyth and stablishyth the matrimonye and coniuncion made betwene our sou[er]ayn lord King Henre the seuenth of the house of Lancastre of that one party And the noble Princesse Elyzabeth of the house of Yorke.
Because the journey to Rome and back took many months, and because Henry as king wanted to be certain that nobody could claim that his wedding to Elizabeth was unlawful or sinful, the more local application was obeyed first – it was sent to the papal legate for England and Scotland, which returned in January 1486. Cardinal Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury, officiated at the wedding of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York on 18 January 1486 in Westminster Abbey. Their first son, Arthur, was born on 20 September 1486, eight months after their marriage. Elizabeth of York was crowned queen on 25 November 1487. She gave birth to several more children, but only four survived infancy: Arthur, Margaret, Henry and Mary.
Despite being a political arrangement at first, the marriage proved successful and both partners appear to have slowly fallen in love with each other. Thomas Penn, in his biography of Henry VII writes that “[t]hough founded on pragmatism, Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage had nevertheless blossomed throughout the uncertainty and upheaval of the previous eighteen years. This was a marriage of ‘faithful love’, of mutual attraction, affection and respect, from which the king seems to have drawn great strength.”
In 1502, Elizabeth of York became pregnant once more and spent her confinement period in the Tower of London. On 2 February 1503, she gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, but the child died a few days afterwards. Succumbing to a post partum infection, Elizabeth of York died on 11 February, her 37th birthday. Her family seems to have been devastated by her death and mourned her deeply. According to one biographer, the death of Elizabeth “broke the heart” of her husband and “shattered him.” Another account says that Henry Tudor “privily departed to a solitary place and would no man should resort unto him.” This is notable considering that, shortly after Elizabeth’s death, records show he became deathly ill himself and would not allow any except his mother Margaret Beaufort near him, including doctors. For Henry Tudor to show his emotions, let alone any sign of infirmity, was highly unusual and alarming to members of his court. Within a little over two years, King Henry VII lost his oldest son, his wife, his baby daughter, and found himself having to honour the Treaty of Perpetual Peace.
Henry VII entertained thoughts of remarriage to renew the alliance with Spain — Joanna, Dowager Queen of Naples (daughter of Ferdinand I of Naples), Joanna, Queen of Castile (daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella), and Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Savoy (sister-in-law of Joanna of Castile), were all considered — but he died a widower in 1509. The specifications that Henry gave to his ambassadors outlining what he wanted in a second wife described Elizabeth. On each anniversary of her death, he decreed that a requiem mass be sung, the bells be tolled, and 100 candles be lit in her honour. Henry also continued to employ her minstrels each New Year.
The Tower of London was abandoned as a royal residence, as evidenced by the lack of records of its being used by the royal family after 1503. Royal births in the reign of Elizabeth’s son, Henry VIII, took place in various other palaces.
Henry VII’s reputation for miserliness became worse after Elizabeth’s death.
He was buried with Elizabeth of York under their effigies in his Westminster Abbey chapel. Her tomb was opened in the 19th century and the wood casing of her lead coffin was found to have been removed to create space for the interment of her great-great-grandson James VI-I of England and Scotland.