Elizabeth of York was the first Tudor queen. When we think of the Tudors, our thoughts fly first to the notorious Henry VIII, and to another queen called Elizabeth, but Elizabeth Tudor is often overlooked.
I first became intrigued about this interesting and admirable lady when the BBC showed an adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. This is a brilliant, engrossing series which I would recommend to anyone with an interest in historical drama but what it led me to read was something more factual and more focused: Alison Weir’s Elizabeth of York, The First Tudor Queen. Though fascinating and unbelievably dramatic, I was always felt very confused about Medieval royal history in Britain. I know there were several kings called Edward, there was someone called Elizabeth Woodville (whom I had previously supposed was the same person as Elizabeth of York), and there was a long series of wars called ‘The Wars of the Roses’, which ended with Richard III’s death, and Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne. After that, things become clearer to me with the dawn of the Tudors. I was very thankful, therefore, to find that Alison Weir begins her biography by explaining something of the politics of the time and about Elizabeth’s parentage. It turns out that Elizabeth Woodville was Elizabeth Tudor’s mother. A young widow with two children, she married King Edward IV in 1464 and bore him several children, of whom Elizabeth of York was one, as well as two sons who went on to become those poor little princes in the Tower of dark historical fame. The marriage was a happy one and Elizabeth Plantagenet enjoyed a happy childhood, but her troubles began when her father died suddenly in 1483. This is perhaps also when Elizabeth’s true strength of character was formed. A hangover from the years before Edward IV’s relatively stable reign, as soon as he was dead, various factions began vying for the crown. His sons were probably captured and murdered; by whom remains a mystery to this day. Elizabeth Woodville kept the rest of her family safe in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey.
In July 1483, Richard, Elizabeth’s uncle was crowned king and Elizabeth had to live not only with the devastating realisation that two of her siblings, (to whom she was allegedly very close) were probably dead, but also with resentment as, in these tragic circumstances, she should have inherited the throne. To appease matters, Richard eventually invited Elizabeth, along with her sisters to court. At this time, several rumours began to circulate that Richard in fact desired his niece and even killed his wife, Anne Neville so that he could marry her. In her biography, Weir dismisses these rumours, and clears Elizabeth of any desirous feelings herself. Instead, she had her betrothal to a young man named Henry Tudor to keep her going.
In 1485, King Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Shortly afterwards, Henry Tudor, against whom he had been fighting was crowned king. One of his first actions was to inform his parliament of his intentions to marry Elizabeth of York. The wedding took place in January 1486, and resulted in widespread celebrations and jubilation all over the country.
From the very beginning, Elizabeth was a popular queen. She represented a unity between two families and an end to the bloody wars that had raged on for years. She also conducted herself exactly as a renaissance queen was expected to. In many ways, she complimented her husband, who is generally remembered as someone who could appear rather cold and harsh. Elizabeth emerges from the pages of Weir’s biography as someone who was warm, grounded, clever and loving. She enjoyed a very happy marriage to Henry Tudor, who seems genuinely to have loved her despite the arranged and political nature of their union. Together, they had several children, one of whom grew up to become King Henry VIII. He was allegedly always very fond of his mother and felt her loss acutely when she eventually died. One interesting narrative thread that Weir explores is the sense of quiet and uncomfortable unease with which both Elizabeth and Henry must have lived surrounding the legitimacy of their claims to the throne. As far as many people were concerned at the time, Elizabeth was the true royal in their marriage and it was through Henry’s marriage to her that he achieved his right to the throne. There was also the dark shadow cast over Elizabeth by the uncertainty of what had happened to her brothers all those years before when she was effectively a captive in Westminster Abbey. If it ever turned out that her brother, Edward, had not been killed, but had in fact perhaps been living abroad until it was safe for him to return, then where would that place her and her husband. More tantalising is the question of how would she have felt? In 1497, she was faced with such a dilemma when a young man named Perkin Warbeck claimed that he was Edward V and attempted to invade England. He eventually surrendered to the king’s army and was hanged on 23rd November 1499. Without wishing to trivialise the emotions that must have been felt by the husband and wife, such events must have created a significant amount of awkwardness, resentment, suspicion and maybe even guilt between the couple.
Despite their tempestuous beginnings in life, Elizabeth and Henry were successful rulers; their reign was one of stability, peace and economic growth. Their marriage was mutually supportive, fair and affectionate.
On the 11th February 1503, Elizabeth died a few days after giving birth to a daughter. Her death though the result of a short illness, was unexpected and untimely. She was widely mourned and Henry shut himself away for six weeks after the funeral, suffering mentally and physically. Indeed, Weir argues that from this point on, Henry’s health steadily declined until he died in 1509.
A couple of months ago, I visited Westminster Abbey with my brother. I had not been there since I was a little girl and so my memories were hazy, but I remembered having been very impressed by the glorious and ostentatious tomb of Elizabeth I, and that of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. This time, it was the tomb of Elizabeth of York that arrested my walking and forced me to stop and contemplate. Standing there below her saintly carved image, it was moving to consider the gentle and romantic queen lying somewhere close by.