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

  Impeccably connected, beautiful, ceremonious, fruitful, devout, compassionate, generous, and kind, Elizabeth fulfilled every expectation of her contemporaries. Her goodness shines forth in the sources, and it is not surprising that she was greatly loved. She had overcome severe tragedies and setbacks, and emerged triumphant. We have seen how it is possible to reconcile her much debated actions before her marriage with the gentle queen who emerges after it. Certainly the sources show that, as Queen, she played a greater political role than that with which most historians have credited her, and that she was active within her traditional areas of influence. It is also clear that, far from being in subjection to Henry VII and Margaret Beaufort, she enjoyed a generally happy relationship with both of them—and with Henry at least up until the last year of her life.

  Elizabeth is often unfairly overshadowed by her successors, the wives of Henry VIII, but she was more successful as Queen than any of them. For this, and for her integrity, her sweet good nature, and her many kindnesses, her memory deserves to be celebrated.


  “As Long as the World Shall Endure”

  In November 1504, Henry VII settled an annual payment of £10 [£4,860] on the University of Cambridge for holding a commemorative requiem service for Elizabeth in the church of St. Mary the Great on the anniversary of her death, for “as long as the world shall endure.” This was first marked on February 11, 1505, and continued up to the Reformation of the 1530s.1

  Although Elizabeth’s death left him free to make a profitable marriage alliance, Henry never took another wife. In the 1530s a Scots chronicler, Adam Abell, would recall that, in the aftermath of his bereavement, he kept Katherine Gordon so often in his company that “some [thought] that they were married.”2 Yet there is plenty of evidence that Henry’s grief for Elizabeth was raw and genuine, and maybe Katherine Gordon, who had been close to her too on a daily basis, could offer some comfort at this time. His accounts show that she remained a support to him to the end of his life, partnering him at cards and obtaining medicines for him as his health declined; she even painted cloths of religious scenes to hold up before him as he lay dying; so maybe he did find solace with her.3 But he did not marry her.

  It would probably be fair to say that the loss of Prince Arthur and Queen Elizabeth aged Henry prematurely. But he was a pragmatic man with only one son to succeed him; just that one life stood between the continuance of his dynasty and the ruin of all he had worked for—and he had good reason to know how fragile young lives could be. At forty-six, he was young enough to sire more children—and doubtless lonely.

  On hearing of the passing of Elizabeth, Queen Isabella expressed concern about propriety and the welfare of Katherine: “Now that the Queen of England is dead, in whose society the princess our daughter might have honorably remained as with a mother, it would not be right that the princess should stay in England.”4 So when, just weeks after Elizabeth’s death, King Henry, reluctant to return Katherine’s dowry, suggested he marry her himself, the Spanish sovereigns were horrified at the prospect of such an “unnatural” union, and declined the honor. On June 24, 1503, Katherine was betrothed to Prince Henry, who was formally created Prince of Wales in 1504. Henry VII toyed with the idea of several other potential foreign brides, but in each case negotiations foundered.

  It has been said that Elizabeth exerted a beneficial influence on him and that he became more miserly, suspicious, and harsh after her death, while his court was a more somber place, but the theory of “an imaginary deterioration” in his character was dismissed years ago by G. R. Elton as being based “only on insufficient knowledge of the facts.” However, it is inconceivable that the loss of his son and his wife, in the space of ten months, would not have left Henry a sadder man, and changed him in other ways too, not always for the better. The glory days were behind him now, and the last years of his reign also witnessed a decline in his health. Sentimentally, he retained the services of Elizabeth’s minstrels, who played for him at every New Year celebration up to his death; in their poignant melodies he could perhaps recapture happy memories of the years he had spent with his late wife, who shared his love of music.5

  After Queen Isabella’s death in 1504, which left her widower Ferdinand as a mere king of Aragon, Henry would neither permit his heir to marry Katherine of Aragon, nor would he return Katherine or her dowry to Spain. He made young Henry secretly abjure his betrothal, and kept the princess in England in increasing penury for the rest of his reign.

  Isabella’s passing reawakened Henry’s fears about the legitimacy of his title. According to Bacon, after the death of Elizabeth he had fretted that there would be some question over his continuing to reign, and he’d had cause, for one of his spies in Calais reported speculation there that Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, a descendant of Edward III, was the rightful successor of Elizabeth, who some people still clearly regarded as the true Queen of England; Prince Henry was not even mentioned.6

  Henry “conceived that the case of Ferdinand of Aragon after the death of Queen Isabella was his own case after the death of his own queen. For if both of the kings had their kingdoms in the right of their wives, they descended to the heirs and did not accrue to the husbands. And though his own case had both steel and parchment more than the other, that is to say a conquest in the field and an Act of Parliament, yet notwithstanding, that natural title of descent in blood did (in the imagination even of a wise man) breed a doubt that the other two were not safe nor sufficient. Wherefore he was wonderful diligent to inquire and observe what became of the King of Aragon in holding the kingdom of Castile,”7 which Ferdinand was soon successfully to wrest from his daughter Juana (who had succeeded her mother as Queen) on the grounds that she was mad. Henry’s concern shows he had always been aware that public opinion generally held that he was King in right of his wife. One pedigree roll showing the descent of Prince Arthur bypassed Henry and his immediate forebears completely, and showed Cadwaladr’s line stretching down through the Mortimers to Edward IV and Elizabeth, through whom, it was made clear, Arthur derived his claim to the throne.8

  This may explain why the King kept Prince Henry, his surviving son and heir, under such close supervision that the boy ended up isolated—“locked away like a woman” and brought up more like a girl than a boy, as the Spanish ambassador Gutierre Gómez de Fuensalida put it, adding, “He is so subjugated that he does not speak a word except in response to what the King asks him.” Henry’s bedchamber could only be accessed through his father’s,9 and he was not allowed much freedom of movement, spending his formative years mainly with his tutors, “sober and discreet” old men, and the noble boys who had been selected as his companions. He grew up to be learned and pious, but lacking in experience of life. Probably the King had fears for the succession and the health of this one remaining son, in whom were now vested all the hopes of his dynasty, which would explain why the prince was never sent to Ludlow as Arthur had been.

  Yet Henry VII also seemed reluctant to instruct his heir in the art of government or allow him to read state papers. It is possible that he had already assessed his son’s character and potential and come to fear him, or that factions might form around him. On one occasion the King got so angry with young Henry that it looked “as if he sought to kill him”; instead, he locked him up until his anger had cooled.10 This treatment may have proceeded from dread that those who were dissatisfied with his rule would rally around Elizabeth’s son and clamor for his succession. It was perhaps for this reason that Henry was “not greatly willing to cast any popular luster” on his children,11 although he had certainly given Arthur due prominence in happier days.

  Henry VII died on April 21, 1509, at Richmond Palace, of tuberculosis. Despite his having brought peace and prosperity to England and enhanced her reputation in Europe, he was not mourned. He was succeeded by seventeen-year-old Henry VIII, who became famous—or notorious—for marrying six wives, breaking with the Church of Rome, and founding the Church of
England in the process, with himself as its Supreme Head. He would die in 1547, and in the early seventeenth century there was still to be seen beside his vault in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, a funeral banner bearing the arms of his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.12 Henry VIII was succeeded in turn by his three children, Edward VI (reigned 1547–53, on whose death Elizabeth of York’s male descendants became extinct), Mary I (reigned 1553–58), and Elizabeth I (reigned 1558–1603). Seventy years after Elizabeth of York’s right to succeed had been passed over virtually without comment, Henry VIII’s lack of surviving sons had made it possible for a woman to rule in her own right.

  It is almost certain that Henry VIII named the future Queen Elizabeth I, his daughter by Anne Boleyn, after his mother, Elizabeth of York, not only because of his fond remembrance of her, but also to proclaim his daughter’s descent from the legitimist royal line. At Elizabeth’s coronation procession in 1559 the figures of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York appeared in a pageant in Gracechurch Street, London, “so set that one of them joined hands with th’other, with the ring of matrimony perceived on the finger,”13 and seated beneath a cloth of estate in their respective red and white roses symbolizing the union of Lancaster and York, of which the Virgin Queen was now the embodiment:

  The two princes that sit under one cloth of state,

  The man in the red rose, the woman in the white:

  Henry the VII and Queen Elizabeth, his mate,

  By ring of marriage as man and wife unite.

  Both heirs to both their bloods, to Lancaster the King,

  The Queen to York, in one the two houses did knit,

  Of whom, as heir to both, Henry the Eight did spring,

  In whose seat his true heir, thou Queen Elizabeth, doth sit.14

  The feisty and formidable Elizabeth I was the very antithesis of the mild and self-effacing grandmother whose name she bore. The Virgin Queen did not look to the gentler Elizabeth as a role model; she preferred to emulate her magnificent sire, Henry VIII. Proving that a woman could rule as capably as any man, she enjoyed a long and successful reign, but never married. She was the last of the Tudors.

  Elizabeth’s blood flowed on, however, through her daughter Margaret, the ancestress of the Stuart monarchs of Great Britain, and through them to the Hanoverians and the House of Windsor. Her namesake, Queen Elizabeth II, is her descendant in the sixteenth generation.

  Of Elizabeth’s surviving sisters, Cecily, who had perhaps borne Thomas Kyme two children,15 died on August 24, 1507. Hall states that she was buried at Quarr Abbey, a Cistercian monastery on the Isle of Wight; if so, her tomb and its location was lost at the Reformation. Yet there is evidence in the Beaufort account books that she died at the Old Palace at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, after lodging there for three weeks, and was interred at “the friars,” which may have been the friary at King’s Langley where her ancestor, Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, was buried.16

  Anne (Lady Thomas Howard) died between November 1511 and 1513, and was buried in Thetford Priory, Norfolk. Her remains were later removed to Framlingham Church.

  After Elizabeth’s death, Henry VII sent Katherine and her children home to Tiverton in Devon, where she lived as a dependent of the Earl of Devon, her father-in-law. William Courtenay remained in prison until Henry VII’s death in 1509, after which he was freed by Henry VIII, but he did not long enjoy his liberty, for he died in 1511. Katherine then took a vow of perpetual chastity. She passed away in November 1527 at Tiverton Castle, and was buried in Tiverton parish church, where her son, Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter, erected a tomb to her memory, now gone.

  Both John Speed and John Weaver, writing in the seventeenth century, state that the nun, Bridget, died in 1517, but Thomas More, writing in 1513, states that Elizabeth’s only surviving sister, Katherine, was still living, which suggests that Bridget was then dead. She was buried in the priory church at Dartford, but her grave too was lost at the Dissolution.

  More states that “representing the virtue of her whose name she bore, [Bridget] professed and observed a religious life in Dartford,” and Speed says she “spent her life in holy contemplation unto the day of her death”; but it has been suggested that she had a bastard daughter, Agnes of Eltham, who was born around 1498. It is possible that Agnes was an orphan whose wardship was administered by Dartford Priory, but until Elizabeth of York’s death in 1503 she was maintained by the crown, and when she married Adam Langstroth, a wealthy Yorkshire gentleman, in 1514, she had “a considerable dowry.”17 It is not inconceivable that the teenage Bridget, pushed into a convent at the age of seven, and perhaps not very bright anyway, had no vocation for the religious life and embarked on an affair that resulted in a child; and that the Queen supported that child, as she had supported her sisters. It is equally possible that Agnes was simply one of the children Elizabeth took pleasure in patronizing. She died in 1530.

  Margaret Beaufort, who was widowed in 1504, survived her son. She had played a mother’s part to Henry and Mary, the grandchildren who were left to her, after Elizabeth’s death and Margaret’s departure for Scotland,18 and in 1509 acted as unofficial regent for Henry VIII during his brief minority.19 She died in the Abbot’s House at Westminster Abbey on June 29, 1509, the day after her grandson reached eighteen. Her fine bronze tomb effigy by Torrigiano shows her in her customary widow’s wimple.

  Elizabeth’s daughter Margaret married James IV on August 8, 1503, at Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh, and was crowned Queen of Scots the same day. She bore six children, among them James V, father of Mary, Queen of Scots. James IV was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. The following year, Margaret took a second husband, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, to whom she bore a daughter, Margaret Douglas, later Countess of Lennox and mother of Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, who married Mary, Queen of Scots, and fathered the future James VI of Scotland. In 1603, James succeeded Elizabeth I as the first sovereign of the House of Stuart to reign over a united Great Britain. Margaret Tudor died of palsy in the autumn of 1541 at Methven Castle, and was buried in the Carthusian Abbey of St. John in Perth.

  Her younger sister Mary, the beauty of the family, judging by all reports, was married in 1514 to the ailing King Louis XII of France. Widowed in 1515, she caused a scandal by marrying, for love, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. But when Henry VIII’s anger had cooled, and the errant couple agreed to pay a crippling fine, he received them back into favor. Mary bore four children, one of whom, Frances Brandon, became the mother of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, who was set up as a puppet queen for just nine days in 1553 and was beheaded on Mary I’s orders the following year. Mary Tudor died on June 25, 1533, at Westhorpe Hall, Suffolk, and was buried in the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. Later, her remains were moved to St. Mary’s Church, where a white stone slab in the chancel marks her grave.

  The future Henry VIII had not attended his mother’s funeral; none of her children had, but Henry’s tutor, chaplain, and servants walked in the procession and no doubt witnessed the obsequies and committal, and could have told him about the stark, mournful pageantry that surrounded that final act. The effect on an eleven-year-old who had been close to his mother was probably devastating.

  That Henry was grief-stricken by his mother’s death is attested on good evidence. A richly illuminated manuscript, the “Vaux Passional” in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth,20 dating from the early sixteenth century, is believed to have been in Henry VII’s own library, and contains an illumination showing the presentation of a book to the King, who can be identified by his heraldic emblems. Behind the throne to one side is an empty black-draped bed, and kneeling beside it, his red-haired head buried in his arms, is a young boy in a green tunic. Almost certainly this image portrays the young Henry weeping for his mother. In front of the bed kneel two girls in black hoods who are probably his sisters, thirteen-year-old Margaret and seven-year-old Mary. The manuscript, which still has its original crimson-velvet binding, contains two French texts: “La
Passion de Nostre Seigneur,” which invites the reader to reflect on the sufferings of Christ, and Georges Chastellain’s poem “Le miroir de la mort,” an aid to meditation on the futility of worldly pleasures in the face of death. All the other illuminations show scenes from the Bible or classical history.

  The manuscript was later owned by Jane Vaux, the wife of Sir Richard Guildford. She had served Elizabeth of York and was later governess to Margaret and Mary; she died in 1538. It is possible that the Passional was a gift to her from Henry VII or Henry VIII. The manuscript descended through the Vaux and Fermor families, from whom it was probably acquired by Sir Kenelm Digby in the seventeenth century. His decendants had it in their library at Peniarth, Merioneth. It was bought for the National Library of Wales in 1921.21

  Thomas More, in his elegy of 1503, refers to Henry as Elizabeth’s “loving son.” This, and the portrayal of him in the illumination, suggests that his closeness to his mother was well known. There is also his own testimony to his grief at her loss: four years afterward, in January 1507, in a letter to Erasmus about the untimely demise of the Archduke Philip, he wrote: “Never since the death of my dearest mother hath there come to me more hateful intelligence. And to speak truth, I was the scanter well-disposed toward your letter than its singular grace demanded, because it seemed to tear open the wound to which time had brought insensibility. But indeed those things which are decreed by Heaven are so to be accepted by mortal men.”22

  These heartfelt words show that Henry had grieved deeply for Elizabeth and been close to her, and that at fifteen he was already familiar with the raw pain of loss when he learned of Philip’s passing. The news of his mother’s death must have come as a terrible shock. Already, in his short life, he had seen two brothers and a sister die young, and soon another sister would die too. The impact of these events on the young Henry should not be underestimated, and his misery can only have been compounded by the total withdrawal of his father, followed by the illness that threatened to deprive the boy of his other parent. It may well have been these terrible events that gave Henry VIII his lifelong fear of illness.

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