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


  Elizabeth’s influence on him is hard to gauge. Given Henry’s checkered matrimonial career—six wives, two beheaded, three divorced, and only one son to show for it—post-Freudian historians have sometimes taken a psychological view, speculating that he was so traumatized by losing a mother he idolized that he developed an Oedipus complex, which drew him irresistibly into incestuous relationships while being outraged by them; yet it has since been questioned whether such a condition as an Oedipus complex even exists.

  It is tempting to speculate that, had Elizabeth lived, Henry’s marital career would not have been so colorful. It is possible that his six marriages represented attempts to re-create the marital harmony of his parents, and mirror their example. The way he comforted Katherine of Aragon after the death of their son echoes the way his parents had consoled each other after Arthur died. Henry’s eagerness to marry Katherine, six years his senior, may have stemmed partly from the fact that she had been beloved by his mother; possibly she appeared as a mother-substitute figure to him. Certainly the qualities he admired in his wives—fidelity, dignity, piety, virtue, fruitfulness, intelligence, and docility—were those his mother had in full measure. And, as Marie Louise Bruce has pointed out, he would have been too young to perceive any flaws in Elizabeth’s character. For him, she probably remained the epitome of all that was desirable in a queen—with disastrous consequences for his own wives, who would suffer by comparison with such impossible perfection.

  Henry inherited Elizabeth’s books and manuscripts, as well as his father’s, and would appoint the antiquarian John Leland, whom he made keeper of the King’s books around 1530, to put them all in order in the new library at Whitehall Palace.23 No doubt the King prized the cross his mother had given him—one “set with a table diamond and three good pearls”—which had cost her £13.6s.8d. [£6,500].24 He evidently cherished her memory. When he became King, he appointed to his service, and Queen Katherine’s, several men and women who served or had been related to his mother, possibly for her sake, and rewarded many who had served her well (see Appendix II).25 The death of his third wife, Jane Seymour, in 1537 in childbed, twelve days after the birth of Henry’s long-awaited son and heir, probably revived sad memories of his mother’s passing, and his advisers consulted Garter Herald as to the ceremonial that had been observed at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral so that it could be replicated at Jane’s; a banner bearing the arms of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York was carried in the procession.26

  By the end of Henry VIII’s reign it was generally accepted that Henry VII had owed his crown to Elizabeth of York. In 1533 the Imperial ambassador, Eustache Chapuys, observed that Henry VIII had “received the principal title to his realm through the female line.”27 In 1541, Henry’s kinsman, Sir Anthony St. Leger, was reported to him for saying that the King’s father had no just title to the crown till he married Edward IV’s daughter. When questioned, St. Leger insisted he had been misquoted and actually said that Henry VII’s title was not perfect until he married Elizabeth of York, because some of his advisers had urged him to claim the throne by right of conquest, “but now, thanked be the Lord, all titles be in the King our master.” Henry VIII was satisfied with this line of reasoning.28

  When, in 1674, workmen were dismantling the forebuilding to the White Tower, during demolition of the old royal palace, they discovered—ten feet under the rubble infill of a spiral staircase, just as Sir Thomas More had described—a wooden chest containing the skeletons of two children. It was recorded that scraps of rag and velvet adhered to the bones. The velvet was evidence that these were children of high status, and it was assumed they were the Princes in the Tower. On the orders of Charles II they were reburied as such in an urn in Westminster Abbey, just a few feet from where Elizabeth of York, the princes’ sister, lay at rest. The bones were examined in 1933, and the results, while not conclusive, were compatible with those of Elizabeth’s lost brothers, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. In 1965 dental tests on the remains of Anne Mowbray proved a familial link between her and the skeletons in the urn.29

  However, in 1789, workmen restoring the tomb of Edward IV in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, accidentally broke into the vault containing the coffins of the King and Elizabeth Wydeville, and discovered a small vault next to it, which held the bodies of two children. It was assumed that they were those of Princess Mary and George, Duke of Bedford, and their names were added to the inscription on the restored tomb. But in 1810, when Wolsey’s tomb house was excavated to construct a burial vault for George III and his family, the coffin of George, clearly labeled “Serenissimus princeps Georgius filius tercius Christianissimi principis Edvardi iiij,” was found, and next to it one that was almost certainly Mary’s, as the contemporary account of her funeral states she was buried beside her brother.30 In 1813 both were moved into their parents’ vault. Unfortunately, on neither of the occasions when Edward IV’s vault was opened were the coffins of the two unidentified children opened, examined, or even described.

  It has been suggested that they could have been the Princes in the Tower, perhaps secretly laid to rest with their parents by a guilty Richard III, but until further investigations are made—and the sovereign’s permission would be required for that—there is too little evidence to say whose remains they are.31 It is likely that the bones are those of royal children, but no other royal children are recorded as having been buried, with graves unaccounted for, in St. George’s Chapel prior to 1789.

  A clue to the mystery may lie in Westminster Abbey. A history in the abbey’s library records that when the sarcophagus of Elizabeth’s infant sister Margaret was opened, it was empty. At the Reformation the sarcophagus was moved from the steps of St. Edward the Confessor’s shrine to the side of his chapel, so it is possible the body was removed at that time to Windsor. As to who the other child may be, that remains a mystery.

  The full splendor of the incomparable and richly adorned chapel in which lay the remains of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York did not long outlive them. It was despoiled and stripped of some of its fittings during the Reformation that spanned the reigns of their son, Henry VIII, and grandchildren, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, and more depredations took place later under Oliver Cromwell. The upper part of the fine screen around the tomb, most of the images of saints that adorned it, much of the wondrous glass of the chapel and the original altars, placed there with such veneration, were all destroyed, and the last of the glass was lost during the Second World War Blitz.

  In 1625 the vault below Henry VII’s tomb was opened for the burial of James I. At that time the large wooden outer coffins encasing the lead coffins of Henry and Elizabeth were removed to make space for the vault’s new incumbent, leaving the bodies wrapped only in lead. They had originally been placed on either side of the vault, but were moved to one side to accommodate James I’s coffin, and the head shell from Elizabeth of York’s coffin was temporarily laid upon Henry VII’s. It is possible that the visceral urns were removed and later placed in the nearby vault of General George Monck.

  On February 11, 1869, the vault was again opened, on the instructions of Dean Stanley, who examined its contents. A drawing was made by Sir George Scharf, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, of the lead coffins lying in a row: James I’s to the left, and the smaller ones of Elizabeth of York (center), marked by a Maltese cross, and Henry VII (right).32 Those of the two kings were identified by inscriptions.33 The tomb has not been disturbed since, and Elizabeth sleeps on in peace.

  Elizabeth of York, “the most virtuous princess and gracious Queen.” (Illustration credit i1.1)

  Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville with their children: the future Edward V kneels in front of his brother on the left, and Elizabeth of York heads her sisters, Mary, Cecily, Anne, and Katherine, on the right. “In those days you would have seen a royal court worthy of a most mighty kingdom, filled with riches, and, surpassing all else, those beautiful and most delightful children.” (Illustration credit i1.2)

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p; Edward IV, Elizabeth’s father. “The commons love and adore him as if he were their God.” (Illustration credit i1.3)

  Elizabeth Wydeville, Elizabeth’s mother. “Now take heed what love may do.” (Illustration credit i1.4)

  Elizabeth and her sisters, Mary, Cecily, and Anne. “She manifested toward her brothers and sisters an unbounded love.” (Illustration credit i1.5)

  One of the restored rooms at Cheyneygates, the former house of the Abbot of Westminster, where Elizabeth lived in sanctuary with her mother and siblings for eighteen months in total, “in right great trouble, sorrow and heaviness.” (Illustration credit i1.6)

  Thomas, Lord Stanley, later Earl of Derby—Elizabeth’s “Father Stanley”—who intrigued with her against Richard III. (Illustration credit i1.7)

  Richard III, the uncle who had Elizabeth declared a bastard. She called him “her only joy and maker in this world.” (Illustration credit i1.8)

  Fotheringhay Church, where Elizabeth witnessed the solemn reburial of her grandfather, Richard, Duke of York, in 1476. (Illustration credit i1.9)

  Sheriff Hutton Castle, Yorkshire, where Elizabeth was effectively held prisoner by Richard III in 1485. (Illustration credit i1.10)

  Elizabeth’s husband, Henry VII, as a young man. “He was governed by none,” yet there is evidence that he came to respect Elizabeth’s judgment and confided in her. (Illustration credit i1.11)

  Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, Elizabeth’s mother-in-law. “Everyone that knew her loved her,” and the two women got on well together. (Illustration credit i1.12)

  “The joining of the Houses of Lancaster and York”: imaginative painting of the wedding of Henry and Elizabeth by J. R. Brown, ca. 1901. “Two titles in one thou didst unify, when the red rose took the white in marriage.” (Illustration credit i1.13)

  “The rose both red and white in one rose now doth grow.” The Deanery, Winchester Cathedral, the former Prior’s House, where Elizabeth’s first child, Arthur, was born in 1486. (Illustration credit i1.14)

  The birth of a prince, from the Beauchamp Pageant, ca. 1483–87. “Behold, the royal child Arthur arises, the second hope of our kingdom.” (Illustration credit i1.15)

  “O Commonwealth, the Queen with joyous heart takes up her glorious crown.” The coronation of a queen, from the Beauchamp Pageant, ca. 1483–87. Although this drawing depicts Joan of Navarre, wife of Henry IV, it was executed eighty years later, around the time of Elizabeth’s coronation. (Illustration credit i1.16)

  Bermondsey Abbey, south of London, where Elizabeth’s mother was sent “for divers considerations” in 1487. (Illustration credit i1.17)

  The Palace of Westminster, with Westminster Abbey in the background, as it would have looked in the reign of Elizabeth’s son, Henry VIII. (St. Stephen’s Chapel can be seen in the center, with Westminster Hall behind it to the right.) Elizabeth was born here. She spent much time at Westminster, which was the foremost of the royal palaces in her day. (Illustration credit i1.18)

  Perkin Warbeck, the “feigned lad,” who claimed to be Elizabeth’s brother, Richard, Duke of York. He could “move pity and induce belief, as was like a kind of fascination and enchantment to those that saw or heard him.” (Illustration credit i1.19)

  Edward IV’s great hall at Eltham Palace, where Henry and Elizabeth’s “right dearly well-beloved” younger children spent much time in their early years. (Illustration credit i1.20)

  “Madam, I pray you forget not me to pray to God that I may have part of your prayers.” Inscriptions written by Elizabeth and Henry VII in a Latin missal of 1498, owned by one of her ladies. (Illustration credit i1.21)

  Elizabeth’s signature appears at the bottom of this page in The Hours of Elizabeth the Queen. (Illustration credit i1.22)

  Carved reliefs of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York on the Sudbury Hutch of ca.1500. (Illustration credit i1.23)

  The two foremost residences of the House of York, which passed to Elizabeth in 1495. (Left) Baynard’s Castle, on the Thames in London, where her father, Edward IV, and her uncle, Richard III, were in turn offered the crown. (Illustration credit i1.24)

  Fotheringhay Castle, a Yorkist stronghold since 1377 (modern reconstruction). (Illustration credit i1.25)

  The Paradise Bed, perhaps commissioned by Derby for the visit of the King and Queen to Lathom or Knowsley in 1495. (Illustration credit i1.26)

  Lathom House, the seat of Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, and Margaret Beaufort, where Henry and Elizabeth stayed in 1495. “There is something so particular and romantic in the general situation of this house.” (Illustration credit i1.27)

  Margaret Tudor, Elizabeth’s eldest daughter, in 1503. (Illustration credit i1.28)

  The tomb of Elizabeth’s second daughter and namesake in Westminster Abbey. “Atropos, most merciless messenger of death, snatched her away” at the age of three. (Illustration credit i1.29)

  Elizabeth’s “fair sweet son,” the future Henry VIII, in infancy. (Illustration credit i1.30)

  “A delightful small, new rose, worthy of its stock.” Terra-cotta bust of a laughing child, possibly Prince Henry, by Guido Mazzoni, ca. 1498. (Illustration credit i1.31)

  Elizabeth of York, a portrait possibly painted in 1502, the year that may have witnessed a rift between the King and Queen. (Illustration credit i1.32)

  Henry VII in later life: “a dark prince and infinitely suspicious.” Terra-cotta bust by Pietro Torrigiano, ca. 1509–11. (Illustration credit i1.33)

  Stained-glass windows depicting Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, dating from ca. 1537–40 and based on the Whitehall mural. (Illustration credit i1.34)

  Elizabeth of York, detail from Remigius van Leemput’s copy of Hans Holbein’s lost Whitehall Palace mural of 1537. (Illustration credit i1.35)

  Richmond Palace, “this earthly and second paradise of England,” built by Henry VII to showcase the Tudor dynasty. Drawing by Anthony van Wyngaerde, 1555. (Illustration credit i1.36)

  “The delight of the Britons” and “the glorious hope of the realm”: Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, artist unknown, ca. 1520. (Illustration credit i1.37)

  Katherine of Aragon, portrait by Miguel Sittow ca. 1505. Arthur “had never felt so much joy in his life as when he beheld the sweet face of his bride.” (Illustration credit i1.38)

  Henry VII and Elizabeth of York kneeling with all their “illustrious progeny” before St. George. Votive altarpiece of ca. 1503–9, Flemish School. (Illustration credit i1.39)

  Elizabeth and her four daughters. Nineteenth-century copy of a lost panel painting related to the St. George altarpiece. (Illustration credit i1.40)

  Henry and Elizabeth and their children in “The Ordinances of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception,” dating from March 1503. (Illustration credit i1.41)

  Henry and Elizabeth and their children from an early sixteenth-century genealogy of the kings of England. (Illustration credit i1.42)

  Reconstruction of Hampton Court as it was when Elizabeth visited in 1502 and 1503. (Illustration credit i1.43)

  Raglan Castle, Wales, where Elizabeth stayed on her long progress of 1502. (Illustration credit i1.44)

  The Minoresses Convent at Aldgate, after the fire of 1797. Elizabeth was in touch with her kinswoman, the Abbess, when she visited the Tower in 1502, at the time Sir James Tyrell probably confessed to murdering her brothers, the Princes in the Tower. (Illustration credit i1.45)

  “Merciful God, this is a strange reckoning.” The Queen’s lodgings at the Tower of London, where Elizabeth died, are clearly marked to the right of the White Tower on this plan of 1597 (detail). (Illustration credit i1.46)

  Elizabeth’s son, the future Henry VIII mourns her passing. “Never since the death of my dearest mother hath there come to me more hateful intelligence.” (Illustration credit i1.47)

  Remains of the wooden effigy of Elizabeth of York carried at her funeral: “a image or personage like a queen, clothed in the very robes of estate of the Queen.” (Illustration credit i1.48)


  The funeral of Elizabeth of York. “From Mark Lane to Temple Bar alone were five thousand torches, besides lights burning before all the parish churches.” (Illustration credit i1.49)

  “This sumptuous sepulchre”: The Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, with the tomb of Henry and Elizabeth in the center. (Illustration credit i1.50)

  The coffins in the vault below the tomb, as seen in 1869. Elizabeth’s is in the center, Henry VII’s to the right, and James I’s to the left. (Illustration credit i1.51)

  Tomb effigies of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York by Pietro Torrigiano, 1512–19. “Here is Henry VII, the glory of all the kings who lived in his time. Joined to him his sweet wife was very pretty, chaste and fruitful.” (Illustration credit i1.52) (Illustration credit i1.53)

 
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