Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir

  Elizabeth did not know it, but Maximilian of Austria had his sights on her as a bride. His late wife, Mary of Burgundy, had a claim to the throne of England through her grandmother, Isabella of Portugal, a descendant of John of Gaunt, which Charles the Bold had unsuccessfully asserted in 1471. Now Maximilian began entertaining the idea of marrying Elizabeth, which he felt would be sufficient to make good his claim.41 It is doubtful that Elizabeth would have been interested, with her hopes set on Henry, and certain that the King would not have permitted such a marriage.

  In a Latin epithalamium commissioned by Henry as Elizabeth’s morning gift, to be given to her after their wedding night, Giovanni de’ Gigli tells how Elizabeth was longing to marry her king, and frustrated at being made to wait.42 Given Lord Stanley’s evidence that she had come to love Henry deeply and intimately,43 this may be no fanciful portrayal, and it chimes with her earlier eagerness to marry Henry Tudor (or Richard III), and with André’s testimony to her anxiety. Possibly she regarded Henry as the chivalrous knight errant who had rescued her and her family from the slur of bastardy and the clutches of the man who had spurned her. Gigli imagines her agonizing:

  Oh, my beloved! My hope, my only bliss!

  Why then defer my joy? Fairest of kings,

  Whence your delay to light our bridal torch?

  Our noble House contains two persons now,

  But one in mind, in equal love the same.

  O, my illustrious spouse, give o’er delay,

  Your sad Elizabeth entreats; and you

  Will not deny Elizabeth’s request,

  For we were plighted by a solemn pact,

  Signed long ago by your own royal hand.

  Gigli then presents a touching picture of Elizabeth whiling away the waiting time, longing for Henry to name the day:

  How oft with needle, when denied the pen,

  Has she on canvas traced the blessed name

  Of Henry, or expressed it with her loom

  In silken threads, or ’broidered it in gold.

  And now she seeks the fanes [temples] and hallowed shrines

  Of deities propitious to her suit,

  Imploring them to shorten her suspense,

  That she may in auspicious moment know

  The holy name of bride.

  This reads convincingly, for we know from her privy purse expenses how frequently Elizabeth made offerings at shrines, especially in times of stress.44

  Her fears were soon to be allayed. The rumbles of discontent about her delayed nuptials could be ignored no longer. Parliament wanted her for Queen consort and was keen to see the King honor his vow to wed her. Some members were of the opinion that his claim to rule by right of conquest rather than by right of blood “might have been more wisely passed over in silence than inserted in our statutes, the more especially because in that Parliament, a discussion took place with the King’s consent, relative to his marriage with the Lady Elizabeth, in whose person it appeared to all that every requisite might be supplied which was wanting to make good the title of the King himself.”45

  On December 10, as Henry VII sat enthroned in the Parliament chamber, Sir Thomas Lovell, Speaker of the Commons, announced that the King wished “to take for himself as wife and consort the noble Lady Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward IV, from which marriage, by the grace of God, it is hoped by many that there would arise offspring of the race of kings for the comfort of the whole realm.” The emphasis was not on Elizabeth’s title, but on her eminent suitability to be Queen and bear Henry heirs, for—as the speaker emphasized—the succession “is, remains, continues, and endures in the person of the lord King, and of the heirs legitimately issuing from his body.” All the Lords Spiritual and Temporal rose to their feet and, facing the throne with bowed heads, urged the King to proceed to this union of “two bloods of high renown”; to which he replied that “he was very willing to do so; it would give him pleasure to comply with their request.” And so “it was decreed by harmonious consent that one house would be made from two families that had once striven in mortal hatred.”46

  In a Latin oration made to the Pope after the marriage,47 Henry VII’s envoy explained that “the King of England, to put an end to civil war, had, at the request of all the lords of the kingdom, consented to marry Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV,” on account of her beauty and virtue, “though he was free to have made a profitable foreign alliance.” This last was a bluff, part of Henry’s strategy to show the world that his crown was his by right, not in right of his wife, whose title he omitted to mention. Given the abysmal history of the warring royal houses over the past thirty years, marriage to the Yorkist heiress was probably the most profitable match he could have made, with peace being far more crucial to the future welfare of his kingdom than a fat foreign dowry—and it was surely what he had intended all along. It is highly unlikely that he had ever seriously contemplated marrying anyone else. He was aware that marriage with Elizabeth was a political necessity if he wanted to secure the loyalty of the Yorkists, and that, if he did not fulfill his vow to wed her, and thus publicly humiliated her, he risked alienating the many people who saw her as the true successor of the Plantagenets.

  As Lord Stanley was soon to testify, the King was “moved and led to contract marriage with the lady for the sake of the peace and tranquillity of his realm, and by the entreaties and petitions of the lords and nobles, both spiritual and temporal, and of the whole commonalty of the same realm, who in Parliament assembled requested him to do so, and made prayers and great entreaties to him.” William de Berkeley, Earl of Nottingham, would add that “in conscience he believed that the King intends to contract marriage with the lady, if it can be done by the law of the Church, both on account of the singular love which he bears to her, and also on account of the special prayers and entreaties of the lords and nobles, both spiritual and temporal, and of the whole commonalty of his said realm of England.”48

  Thus Henry’s motives in marrying Elizabeth seem to have been largely political. But there was more to it than that, on both sides. Lord Stanley, under oath, was to tell the papal legate “that the aforesaid lady has not been captured nor compelled, but of great and intimate love and cordial affection desires to contract marriage with the said King, to the knowledge of this sworn [witness], as he says in virtue of his oath.”49 Stanley knew Elizabeth well, so his testimony is good evidence that her heart was involved as well as her ambitions; this being so, it is easier to understand her future relations with Henry. Loving him, she was all the more prepared to mold herself to what he wanted her to be, especially now that her hopes of a crown were to be fulfilled. Sir Richard Edgecombe and Sir William Tyler were also emphatic that Elizabeth had not been “ravished,” or captured, as the word meant then. Nottingham’s testimony to “the singular love” Henry bore Elizabeth50 is corroborated by André’s statement that, even before being petitioned by Parliament, the King “had come to know [Elizabeth’s] purity, faith, and goodness,” and “God [had] inclined his heart to love the girl.”

  Having made a show of giving in to Parliament’s request, Henry, “like a prince of just faith and true of promise, detesting all intestine and cruel hostility, appointed a day to join in matrimony ye Lady Elizabeth, heir of the House of York, with his noble personage, heir to ye line of Lancaster: which thing not only rejoiced and comforted the hearts of the noble and gentle men of the realm, but also gained the favor and good minds of all the common people.” The latter were soon “much extolling and praising the King’s constant fidelity and his politic device, thinking surely that the day had now come that the seed of tumultuous factions and the fountain of cruel dissension should be stopped, evacuated, and clearly extinguished.”51

  On December 10, after the date of the wedding had been set for January 18, the Lord Chancellor prorogued Parliament, announcing that, before it reassembled, “the marriage of the King and the Princess Elizabeth would take place.”52

  From that day, Elizabeth was treated as Queen o
f England. On December 11, the King ordered that preparations for the nuptials were to go ahead: a celebratory tournament was proclaimed, “then wedding torches, marriage bed, and other suitable decorations were made ready.”53 Elizabeth was declared Duchess of York, as heiress to her father and her other illustrious forebears,54 a move calculated to please the Yorkist faction.

  According to Lord Stanley, Henry and Elizabeth had several discussions about being “joined together in the fourth and fourth degrees of kindred,” and he heard them say “they wished to make use of an apostolic dispensation in the matter of such impediment.”55 Pope Innocent VIII was now approached for a special dispensation. Giovanni de’ Gigli wrote to him, urging the marriage as the best means of establishing peace in England. Henry’s emissary to the Vatican was instructed to praise Elizabeth in a formal oration to his Holiness: “The beauty and chastity of this lady are indeed so great that neither Lucretia nor Diana herself were ever more beautiful or more chaste. So great is her virtue, and her character so fine, that she certainly seems to have been preserved by divine will from the time of her birth right up until today to be consort and Queen.”56 No mention was made of Elizabeth’s claim to the throne;57 again, Henry did not want to be seen to be King in right of his wife. Already he was finding that his bride’s royal lineage was proving an embarrassment as well as an advantage.

  Henry did not need to wait for the Pope’s sanction to arrive. He and “the most illustrious Lady Elizabeth, eldest legitimate and natural daughter of the late Edward, sometime King of England,” drew up a joint petition to the papal legate, Giacomo Passarelli, Bishop of Imola, “setting forth that whereas the said King Henry has, by God’s providence, won his realm of England, and is in peaceful possession thereof, and has been asked by all the lords of his realm, both spiritual and temporal, and also by the general council of the said realm, called Parliament, to take the said lady Elizabeth to wife, he, wishing to accede to the just petitions of his subjects, desires to take the said lady to wife, but cannot do so without dispensation, inasmuch as they are related in the fourth and fourth degrees of kindred, wherefore petition is made on their behalf to the said legate to grant them dispensation by his apostolic authority to contract marriage and remain therein, notwithstanding the said impediment of kindred, and to decree the offspring to be born thereof legitimate.”58

  On January 14, at Westminster, the couple appointed proctors, who presented their petition to the legate in the Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Two days later, after hearing testimony from the mandatory eight witnesses required by the Church, including Lord Stanley, and taking into account the people’s impatience to see the marriage concluded, Imola issued an ordinary dispensation allowing Henry and Elizabeth to marry (which was confirmed in a brief issued by the bishop on March 2 following). Given that this was just two days before the wedding, and that preparations for it were nearing completion, Henry must have been advised that the dispensation would be forthcoming, and that the Pope’s bull would be just a formality.59 The marriage could go ahead. It was now five months since the King had emerged triumphant at Bosworth.

  “At last, upon the eighteenth of January [1486] was solemnized the so long expected and so much desired marriage between the King and the Lady Elizabeth,”60 and “great gladness filled the kingdom.” The wedding took place at Westminster with “great magnificence displayed to everyone’s satisfaction.”61 It is uncertain whether it was solemnized in the abbey or in St. Stephen’s Chapel. Surprisingly, no detailed account survives, which may be because the ceremony took place in the greater privacy of St. Stephen’s. The bridegroom was twenty-nine, the bride nearly twenty.

  “The Pope had opportunely sent a legate to celebrate the nuptials,”62 but it was Cardinal Thomas Bourchier, the aged Archbishop of Canterbury, who performed the ceremony “in the sight of the Church.”63 As Bernard André colorfully put it, “his hand held the sweet posy wherein the white and red roses were first tied together.”

  Among the wedding guests were Elizabeth’s aunts, Anne Wydeville, Lady Wingfield, and Margaret Wydeville, Lady Maltravers. Her grandmother, Cecily, Duchess of York, did not attend, but Henry VII evidently approved of her, as in 1486 he granted her an annuity and renewed her license to export wool.64

  Elizabeth went to her wedding in a gown of silk damask and crimson satin costing £11.5s.6d. [£5,500],65 with a “kirtle of white cloth of gold damask and a mantle of the same suit, furred with ermine.” Giovanni de’ Gigli, in his Latin epithalamium, conjures a charming—probably imaginary—portrait of the princess on her wedding day, as his poem was almost certainly written beforehand. It suggests, however, the kind of jewels that Elizabeth might have worn:

  Your hymeneal torches now unite

  And keep them ever pure. O royal maid,

  Put on your regal robes in loveliness.

  A thousand fair attendants round you wait,

  Of various ranks, with different offices,

  To deck your beauteous form. Lo, this delights

  To smooth with ivory comb your golden hair,

  And that to curl or braid each shining tress

  And wreath the sparkling jewels round your head,

  Twining your locks with gems; this one shall clasp

  The radiant necklace framed in fretted [symmetrically patterned] gold

  About your snowy neck; while that unfolds

  The robes that glow with gold and purple dye,

  And fits the ornaments with patient skill

  To your unrivalled limbs; and here shall shine

  The costly treasures from the Orient sands:

  The sapphire, azure gem that emulates

  Heaven’s lofty arch, shall gleam, and softly there

  The verdant emerald shed its greenest light,

  And fiery carbuncle flash forth rosy rays

  From the pure gold.66

  It was not customary then for a bride to be wholly attired in white—that was a tradition begun centuries later by Queen Victoria—but for her to wear the richest materials. It was her flowing hair, threaded with jewels, not the color of her clothes, that proclaimed her virginity.

  Henry was gorgeously attired in cloth of gold. The clerk of the works of the King’s Wardrobe was paid £95.3s.6½d. [£46,500] for “divers stuffs bought for the day of the solemnization of the King’s marriage”; 23s.4d. [£770] was paid “for the Queen’s wedding ring,” which was of gold, weighing two-thirds of an ounce, and heavy compared with modern wedding rings; it had been purchased before the beginning of January.67

  According to the eleventh-century Sarum Rite, the pre-Reformation form of the marriage service then in use, Elizabeth vowed to take Henry for her wedded husband, “for fairer, for fouler, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to be blithe and bonair [amiable] and buxom [obedient, in the sense of obliging] in bed and at board” till death parted them.

  André says “the most wished day of marriage was celebrated by them with all religious and glorious magnificence at court, and by their people, to show their gladness, with bonfires, dancing, songs, and banquets throughout all London, both men and women, rich and poor, beseeching God to bless the King and Queen and grant them a numerous progeny.” The “great triumphs and demonstrations, especially on the people’s part, of joy and gladness” were greater “than the days either of [Henry VII’s] entry [into London] or his coronation, which the King rather noted than liked.”68

  “Gifts flowed freely on all sides and were showered on everyone, while feasts, dances, and tournaments were celebrated with liberal generosity to make known and to magnify the joyful occasion and the bounty of gold, silver, rings, and jewels. Then everyone, men and women, prayed to God that the King and Queen might have a prosperous and happy issue.”69

  Giovanni de’ Gigli’s epithalamium had more of joy and relief in it than mere flattery:

  Hail! Ever-honoured and auspicious day,

  When in blest wedlock to a mighty

  To Henry, bright Elizabeth is joined.

  Fairest of Edward’s offspring, she alone

  Pleased this illustrious spouse.

  So here the most illustrious maid of York,

  Deficient nor in virtue nor descent,

  Most beautiful in form, whose matchless face

  Adorned with most enchanting sweetness shines.

  Her parents called her name Elizabeth,

  And she, their firstborn, should of right succeed

  Her mighty sire. Her title will be yours

  If you unite this Princess to yourself

  In wedlock’s holy bond.

  But now the royal pair were one, and a child, Gigli predicted, would shortly gambol in the royal halls, and grow up a worthy son of the King, emulating the noble qualities of his parents and perpetuating their name in his illustrious descendants forever.70

  Inevitably, much was made of this union of the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster, which was seen as symbolizing the end of the conflict between the two royal houses. “By reason of which marriage, peace was thought to descend out of Heaven into England, considering that the lines of Lancaster and York were now brought into one knot and connexed together, of whose two bodies one heir might succeed, which after their time should peaceably rule and enjoy the whole monarchy and realm of England.” This was written by the chronicler, Edward Hall, from the perspective of the reign of Henry VIII, whom he greatly admired. Vergil attributed the marriage to “divine intervention, for plainly by it all things which nourished the most ruinous factions were utterly removed, the two houses of Lancaster and York were united and from the union the true and established royal line emerged which now reigns.” Hall even went so far as to compare this “godly matrimony” with the union of God and man in Christ.

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