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



  Images as Princess

  The earliest images of Elizabeth date from when she was at most fourteen. She appears with her parents and siblings in the magnificent stained-glass “Royal Window” in the northwest transept of Canterbury Cathedral (above the site of St. Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170), executed probably by the King’s glazier, William Neve, after Katherine’s birth in 1479 and before November 1480, because the youngest sister, Bridget, who was born that month, does not appear. Elizabeth is shown kneeling behind her mother, at a prayer desk on which lies an open book. Between the King and Queen was a now-vanished Crucifixion, and above were once scenes showing the seven joys of the Virgin Mary. Behind Elizabeth—in a line, although not in order of age, according to the later inscriptions below—kneel her four identically dressed sisters, who, according to those inscriptions, are Cecily, Anne, Katherine, and Mary. Probably these are incorrect, and the princesses are actually depicted in their order of seniority: Elizabeth, Mary, Cecily, Anne, and Katherine. Like her sisters, Elizabeth wears a long purple damask gown with a golden girdle and a neckline trimmed with ermine, with a rich collar of gold studded with diamonds in quatrefoils; her long fair hair is loose nearly to her waist beneath a heavy coronet.

  The window was partly destroyed in 1642, during the Civil War, by a Puritan fanatic, leaving only the royal figures. It was badly restored in the eighteenth century, after which Elizabeth’s head was recorded as being too small; fortunately, later restoration has used the surviving glass in as authentic a setting as possible. The only original heads are those of the King and Queen, but that of the princess in the end panel—probably Katherine—survives in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, and from this we can see that the restored heads are all faithful copies of it. They are therefore unlikely to be true likenesses of the princesses.

  It has been said that the naturalism in these stained-glass figures, and those at Little Malvern (see below), had not been seen in English art for a century, and that their rich design owes something to the influence of the Netherlandish painter Hugo van der Goes.1

  Elizabeth is also depicted with her sisters Mary, Cecily, and Anne in the remaining fragments of a stained-glass window in St. Giles’s Church—the tower and choir of which are all that remain of Little Malvern Priory, Worcestershire, a Benedictine cell of Westminster Abbey. It is one of a set of five windows depicting the royal family, which were crafted by local glaziers Richard Twygge and Thomas Woodshaw, and donated between 1480 and 1482 by Bishop Alcock, tutor to Edward, Prince of Wales, the subject of another window. The other three windows depicted Edward IV; Richard, Duke of York—both now lost—and Elizabeth Wydeville, whose head is missing.

  Aged between fourteen and sixteen, Elizabeth kneels in front of her sisters at a prayer desk bearing books, beneath a rich canopy of estate. She wears a rather old-fashioned heart-shaped headdress adorned with an elaborate jewel, and a crimson mantle over a rich blue gown with a deep V-neckline edged with bands of gold. Her sisters are differently and less splendidly attired, reflecting the fact that, as the future Queen of France, Elizabeth was of far greater importance.2

  Images as Queen

  In the north transept of Great Malvern Priory, Worcestershire, another former daughter house of Westminster Abbey, can be seen the royal “Magnificat” window, given by one of the donors it portrays between May 1499 and April 1502, according to the inscriptions and the evidence of the glazing.3 It is inscribed: “Pray for the good estate of the noble and most excellent King, Henry VII, and of Elizabeth, Queen, and of the lord Prince Arthur, their son, and also of his most well-beloved consort.” At the bottom, below the lights depicting the joys of the Virgin (as in the Royal Window at Canterbury, which probably influenced that at Great Malvern), are the kneeling figures of the King (restored), Prince Arthur, and three knights of the body: Sir Reginald Bray, Sir John Savage (gone, apart from his tabard), and Sir Thomas Lovell (reconstructed from fragments). The figure of Elizabeth of York is mostly missing, lost in a hotchpotch of glass fragments. It has been suggested that the window was the King’s gift, prompted by Elizabeth, whose grandfather, Richard, Duke of York, had been active in the rebuilding of the priory in memory of his Beauchamp and Despenser relations; possibly she mooted the idea after Warwick’s execution in 1499, which left Henry VII undisputed lord of Malvern. However, it could have been donated by any or all of the people portrayed in the glass.4

  The earliest known surviving portrait of Elizabeth of York is a half-length in the Royal Collection (RC 403447). In 1974, tree-ring analysis of RC 403447 suggested that the panel dates from 1485–1500 and is from the same tree used for a portrait of Prince Arthur in the Royal Collection,5 but further analysis in 2012 indicated 1480 as the earliest possible date of the panel, and the most likely date as the 1490s.6 Examination under a microscope revealed an underdrawing that had been sketched, rather than one with straight traced lines. This strongly suggests that the portrait was painted from life.7 Elizabeth wears a long-lappeted gable hood of black velvet or silk with frontlets embellished with precious stones and goldsmiths’ work. Her gown is of crimson velvet with a front-fastening bodice, its neckline edged with a jewel-encrusted border and ermine; the long tight sleeves have ermine cuffs. Her beringed fingers hold a white rose. Her hair appears reddish-gold, parted in the center, with plaits wound up over her head, which can just be seen beneath the hood, and she has a widow’s peak, which is evident only in her early portraits. She wears a necklace of pearls and rubies. Another version of this picture hangs at Christ Church, Oxford.

  A portrait of Elizabeth—which may well have been RC 403447—is listed in Henry VIII’s inventories of 1542 and 1547, and was almost certainly the one owned by his son, Edward VI.

  Charles I had two portraits of Elizabeth. One was among “nine old heads” on display in Whitehall Palace: “King Henry the 7th his queen in a black and golden dressing, holding in her hand a little white rose, in a blue-painted, gilded frame.” The other was “among the twenty-three little heads, King Henry the 7ths Queen picture with a little white rose in her hand and a black-and-gold dressing, in a red and gilded frame,” which measured 14½ by 9 inches and hung beside a portrait of Henry VII.8 Presumably (comparing the descriptions), the former picture was larger. The “black-and-gold dressing” seen in both pictures was almost certainly Elizabeth’s gable hood. Conceivably, the smaller portrait owned by Charles I was the same as the one in Henry VIII’s inventory, and is to be identified with RC 403447, which measures 14¾ by 10½ inches.

  In 1537, Henry VIII commissioned from his court painter, Hans Holbein, a great mural for the privy chamber in Whitehall Palace, which was lost when the palace burned down in 1698, and is known only from two small copies painted ca. 1667–69 by Remigius van Leemput.9 The “Great Picture,” as it was known, portrayed the full-length, life-sized figures of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour, in the foreground, with Henry VII and Elizabeth of York standing behind on a raised carpeted platform. The figures are arranged around a large stone plinth bearing the date 1537 and a heroic inscription that makes no mention of Elizabeth or Jane Seymour, being concerned only with the achievements of the kings: “If you enjoy seeing the illustrious figures of heroes, look on these: no painting ever bore greater …” A preliminary, full-size drawing by Holbein of the figures of the kings is in the National Portrait Gallery, but that of the queens is lost.

  Probably Holbein took his likeness of Elizabeth from the portrait in Henry VIII’s collection,10 which was presumably offered as a good likeness of the King’s mother. The features are strikingly similar to those in RC 403447, which lends itself to the theory that the latter was indeed the painting owned by Henry VIII. However, the necklace is different, as is the fabric of the gown, which is of cloth-of-gold damask.

  It is possible that Holbein—probably at Henry VIII’s request—chose to paint Elizabeth in a golden gown11 with different jewels, rather than in the attire she
wears in the portrait. It is not known where he got the details of the gown or its skirt, which do not appear in any portrait (full-length portraits prior to the mural are rare) or on Elizabeth’s tomb effigy, but are accurate for the period. Possibly Holbein obtained descriptions of her dress from other sources. There would have been people at court who could remember her, not least the King himself. And possibly one of her surviving gowns was brought for him from the Royal Wardrobe at the Tower.

  The only other portrait in which Elizabeth wears a gold damask gown is a seventeenth-century miniature painted by John Hoskins, now in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch.12 The miniature was one of several that Charles I commissioned of his forebears. In the seventeenth century Abraham van der Doort described it as a portrait of Elizabeth “in a black dressing adorn’d with gold and pearls in a golden habit with white ermine,” copied “after an ancient old colored piece.”13 By “piece” he evidently meant a panel—which was one of the meanings of the word in those days—and presumably a panel portrait; he is hardly likely to have referred to Holbein’s magnificent and famed mural in such terms, so we might speculate that Hoskins based his miniature on the larger of Charles I’s portraits of Elizabeth, which in turn was perhaps based on the mural. Several later images of Elizabeth (including numerous engravings from the eighteenth century on) derive from Holbein’s image.

  In the reign of Charles II two portraits of Elizabeth—probably the same ones—were hanging at Whitehall:14 one measured 22 by 17 inches, the other, “Henry 7ths Queen with a white rose in her hand,” 14 by 10 inches. It seems both portraits survived the sale of Charles I’s goods, so the smaller picture may well have been RC 403447.

  According to Oliver Millar, the larger picture in Charles II’s collection had apparently left the Royal Collection by 1714. Perhaps it perished when Whitehall Palace was burned down in 1698. In 1818 two paintings of Elizabeth were hanging at Kensington Palace. One was probably RC 403447, which presumably was the smaller portrait owned probably by Henry VII, Charles I, and Charles II. The other portrait recorded at Kensington was apparently part of a set of royal portraits bought by Queen Caroline of Ansbach, wife of George II, from Lord Cornwallis in the eighteenth century; it was later at Buckingham Palace, and is now at St. James’s Palace. Very similar to the image in the National Portrait Gallery, it measures 22¾ by 17½ inches, and bears the inscription: ELIZABETH REGINA MATAR HENRICI OCTAV (Queen Elizabeth Mother of Henry the Eighth). Millar describes it as a later derivation of the standard portrait type, part of a long gallery set of portraits of kings and queens, popular in late Elizabethan and Jacobean times among the owners of great houses; but it dates from 1550–1600, so may be one of the earliest surviving copies.15

  A portrait of Elizabeth was painted around 1502 by Maynard Wewyck and sent to James IV in September that year.16 Possibly it is to be identified with another early portrait, which was in the collection of the Duke of Hamilton at Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, before it was sold at Sotheby’s in 2005. It was once thought to portray Margaret Tudor, but it is clearly Elizabeth, much as she is portrayed in RC 403447. Her attire is similar but she looks older; she wears an elaborate heavy jeweled collar and holds, uniquely, a red rose. Her hair looks significantly darker, and dips to the widow’s peak evident in early likenesses. What is different is the background, which is plain and dark in nearly every other portrait but here is a luminous pale greenish-blue with a gold tracery canopy embellished with Tudor roses, fleurs-de-lis, and portcullises. There has been speculation that the portrait dates from the early sixteenth century and was originally in Margaret’s own collection17 before being acquired by the Hamiltons.

  A drawing called “Margaret Tudor,” probably by Jacques le Boucq, in the Receuil d’Arras, may depict her mother, Elizabeth of York, as it closely resembles the latter’s portraits. It was once thought that it might be the lost original on which they are based,18 and it is true that they are all versions deriving from a single type, but—given its early date and royal provenance—the original is far more likely to have been RC 403447.

  The most famous—and the most widely reproduced—copy is that in the National Portrait Gallery, London, which has been tree-ring-dated to ca. 1590–1600. Its history prior to 1870 is not known, but it was probably originally part of a long gallery set. Like all versions, it shows the Queen in similar costume to that in RC 403447, but with minor variations. Here her gown is scarlet rather than crimson, and her hands rest on a parapet, a popular pose in portraits of the period; this parapet is draped with gold-figured velvet, and her beringed fingers hold a white rose. She appears younger than in RC 403447. Around her neck hangs not a pearl necklace, but a ruby pendant in the form of a cross with pearls at each corner, suspended on a black cord; similar jewels appear in portraits of her sons, Arthur and Henry. The portrait is inscribed: ELIZABETHA UXOR HENRICI VII (Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII). It has been said that this portrait makes her look “bland and lacking in character,”19 but that could be said of many similar crudely executed, two-dimensional panel portraits of the period.

  There are other versions of this standard portrait type at Anglesey Abbey; Hatfield House, Hertfordshire; the Old Deanery, Ripon; Dunham Massey, Manchester; Trinity College, Cambridge; Christ Church College, Oxford; Nostell Priory, Yorkshire; Hever Castle, Kent; and in the Tyrwhitt-Drake collection. Another was recorded in 1866 in the collection of J. P. Bastard. A portrait from the Brocket Collection at Bramshill House, Hampshire, was sold first at Sotheby’s in 1952 and again at Christie’s in 1954; one from the Shelley-Rolls collection was sold at Christie’s in 1961. A half-length, later version showing Elizabeth in a high-necked gown with different, coarser features, was once at seventeenth-century Stanford Hall, Leicestershire, but is now in the Courtauld Institute of Art. An eighteenth-century version by a member of the circle of Michael Dahl, with the features painted in contemporary style, was sold by Priory Fine Arts in 2012.20

  The Anglesey Abbey portrait, one of a pair with Henry VII in the collection of the National Trust, has been tree-ring-dated to 1512–20, and is one of the earliest surviving portraits of Elizabeth. Again her hair is darker than usual, and she wears a very rich, heavy gold collar not seen in other portraits, much in the style of the collars worn by her younger self and her sisters in the Royal Window at Canterbury. It has been described as “a ponderous design typical of late Gothic taste.”21

  In the Nostell Priory and Dunham Massey portraits, Elizabeth’s hands do not rest on a parapet, as in most of the others, but hover oddly in front of her, and she wears a simple cord necklace; the Nostell version is three-quarter length, showing a pointed bodice belonging to the later Tudor period, with a gathered skirt beneath; but we can see from the Holbein mural that Elizabeth’s gown would actually have had a corded belt at waist level. The portrait at Hever Castle, said to date from ca. 1590 (although the style of painting, the lettering, and the oval inset suggest it is later), is inscribed ELIZABET MATER HENERICUS 8, and shows her wearing a simple string of pearls.

  Another slightly different version of the standard portrait, acquired by the art historian Philip Mould, was originally in the collection of the earls of Essex at Cassiobury Park (demolished 1927). Dating from the late sixteenth century, it probably once formed part of a long-gallery set, and shows Elizabeth in a looser gown with a much higher neck against a background of green damask. Several engravings derive from this portrait. The Hatfield portrait, in which the Queen wears a different jeweled collar of roses and knots, bears the date 1500 but was probably painted in the early seventeenth century, when it was first recorded in Robert Cecil’s new house, built in 1611. It too has a green damask background, but darker than in the Cassiobury portrait.22

  Elizabeth appears posthumously in a wood-panel painting in the Royal Collection at Windsor.23 It was commissioned by Henry VII from an unknown Flemish painter around 1503–05, and depicts the King, Queen, and their children at prayer before England’s patron saint, St. George, who is vanquishing t
he dragon. In the background is the rescued princess, leading a lamb symbolizing peace—the peace Henry Tudor had brought to England. St. George appears as the family’s protector, who will make suit to God to watch over this righteous king and his dynasty. The picture was almost certainly intended to emphasize the royal family’s devotion to St. George, whose cult Henry VII keenly promoted.

  The King and Queen wear imperial crowns of the type adopted by Henry V, their children coronets. Henry’s may be the new crown set with many precious stones that he had commissioned for the Feast of the Epiphany in 1488;24 Elizabeth’s crown sits on top of her hood. She kneels before a desk draped in rich cloth of gold patterned with red roses, and wears a long-lappeted gable hood of black velvet or silk, and crimson robes of estate embellished with ermine, her daughters attired in the same style. Behind the figures are canopies and royal tents decorated with the Tudor rose and the Beaufort portcullis. We know that this is a posthumous portrait of Elizabeth because all four of her children who died young are included. In keeping with the artistic practice of those days, they are portrayed as grown children rather than infants—as if they were growing up in Heaven.25

  Some of the figures may be likenesses. For example, Henry VII and Arthur are shown with straightish, lank hair, but Prince Henry has luxuriant curls and the high, hooked nose we see in later portraits. Henry VII’s is an idealized representation. The likenesses of Arthur and Elizabeth were done from memory, and probably not very accurately. Those of Edmund, the younger Elizabeth, and Katherine, all of whom died in infancy, are imaginary. Margaret and Mary are just recognizable.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]