The Question of Elizabeth of York


On February 11, 1466, Elizabeth of York was born to King Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, at the Palace of Westminster. Thirty-seven years later, Elizabeth would die in the residence of the Tower of London as the consort of King Henry VII. Within that time span, she would be the daughter, sister, niece and wife of four English kings, while six years after her death, she would become the mother of one when Henry VIII ascended the throne.

Like her husband, Henry, Elizabeth is wedged between two extremely tumultuous (and popular) historical periods – the Wars of the Roses and the reign of Henry VIII and his six wives. Traditionally, both figures have become somewhat lost in the shuffle, their reign treated like a bridge between their predecessors and their successors. That has somewhat changed of late. In addition to the recent fiction published on the two (usually centered on Elizabeth, rather than Henry), two notable biographies have been published on them: Alison Weir’s Elizabeth of York (2013) and Thomas Penn’s Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England (2012). There are others, of course, but those two are significant for their relative newness and the comprehensive breakdown of their lives and historical imprint.

However, while Henry’s reign has truly merited greater attention – for all that he was neither Richard III nor Henry VIII, he was, in fact, a successful monarch – I’m not convinced the same can truly be said for Elizabeth. At least, not at this point. For the reasons laid out above, Elizabeth is dynastically significant. She was also an extremely close witness to some of the most dramatic and famous people and events in English history – presumably she had opinions and personal relationships with all of them. The problem is, we don’t know what those were. There are snapshots here and there of her activity and some records of her movements as princess and queen – we can attempt to draw between those lines, but our guesswork is just that and, more often than not, likely a reflection of the time period from which it comes. Biographies of her are usually filled in with the histories of the men around her (a not uncommon feature for historical female figures).

An 18th century depiction of Elizabeth holding a white rose to symbolize her association with the House of York

Elizabeth has all the makings of a fascinating figure and we are fascinated with making her fascinating. Unfortunately, the facts we currently possess make that fiction. Elizabeth appears to have been obedient, a model of 15th century feminine ideals. She didn’t exert herself in the arena of politics and she didn’t attempt to be more than a wife, mother and consort. There may be compelling and sympathetic reasons for why this was the case (there’s also nothing inherently wrong with the above simply being true), but if there are, we don’t know them. She is remembered, first and foremost, for being a very “good” queen. We might even go so far as to say she was the most successful queen of her time. God knows, her son tried enough times to find a woman just like her.

The only shred of insight that we have into there possibly being more beneath the surface is her relationship with her uncle, Richard III. Or, more specifically, the rumored romance between the two of them from the time she joined his court in March 1484 until his death in August 1485 (more on this below). And not for nothing, but Elizabeth was also beautiful. The  most famous portrait of her (the one now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery by an unknown artist) and her painted wood funeral effigy don’t do her justice and, indeed, were both created when she was in her mid-to-late 30s and had gone through half a dozen pregnancies. The daughter of two of the most famously attractive figures in late Medieval history, there is little doubt Elizabeth was a beauty.

To be clear, none of this is a criticism of Weir’s biography of her – it is, in fact, a very good history of Elizabeth and makes two significant claims, which I find compelling. The first relates to her relationship with Richard and supports an argument that Elizabeth may very well have been prepared to marry him once his wife had died and before Henry Tudor arrived in England. The second is that the often-dismissed confession from James Tyrell, a man executed for treason in 1502, may very well have confessed his involvement in the murder of the Princes of Tower to Elizabeth before his death.

So who was she?


At the time of Elizabeth’s 1466 birth her parents had been married for less than two years, in a union that had scandalized Christendom. Her father, the first king of the House of York, had been on the throne for five years, temporarily halting the civil war that became known as the Wars of the Roses. Her mother had been a Lancastrian widow and a wildly unsuitable match for a man that desperately needed strong friends abroad.

Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville

But Elizabeth wouldn’t have known much about that and her childhood was largely peaceful  growing up in a royal household with her brothers and sisters. With the exception of a several-month period over 1470-1471 when her father was briefly deposed and Henry VI reinstated, the most notable moments in Elizabeth’s early life were likely when a new royal infant joined the nursery. In all, her parents would have 10 children between 1466 and 1480. The only sibling separated from the rest of the brood was the eldest son, Prince Edward of Wales, who was raised at Ludlow Castle and overseen by his maternal uncle, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers.

Elizabeth’s father, Edward IV

The most significant moment in Elizabeth’s youth came when her father returned from a misguided campaign in France in 1475. The plan had been to meet up with the Duke of Burgundy, but when that didn’t quite pan out, Edward allowed himself to be bought off by King Louis XI in a deal that included not only an annual pension, but a betrothal between his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, and the dauphin (the future Charles VIII). Unfortunately for Edward and Elizabeth, Louis hadn’t earned his moniker of the “Spider King” for nothing and Edward would learn he had reneged on the deal in December 1482. Four months later, her father was dead.


At the time of Edward IV’s death, Elizabeth was 17. Her brother, the new Edward V, was 13. On his deathbed, Edward had named his younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as Lord Protector for the duration of his son’s minority. One small issue, however, is that Richard was largely unknown to his nephew, at least in comparison to his Woodville uncle who had been caring for him at Ludlow. The whys of what happened next – and the details, for that matter – are too complex (and some are unknown) to get into here, but within two months, Edward V and his younger brother, the Duke of York, had been lodged in the Tower. Richard as Lord Protector was stationed in London. And Elizabeth, with her mother and her sisters, had sought sanctuary within Westminster Abbey.

Edward V

Edward V had, ostensibly, been placed in the Tower in preparation of his coronation scheduled for June – a coronation that never took place. In a span of weeks Richard’s supporters had come forward with evidence that the marriage between Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville had been invalid and, as such, their children were bastards. Dissenters were executed, Richard had himself crowned king and his own son named Prince of Wales, while his sister-in-law and nieces remained in sanctuary. At some point that summer, Edward V and his brother “disappeared” and their exact fate remains a mystery.

That autumn a plan was hatched, with varying involvement, between the Dowager Queen, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham to depose Richard in favor of Margaret’s son, Henry Tudor. The plan fell apart and Buckingham was executed, but despite this, Henry, living in exile in Brittany, promised to marry Elizabeth. The pledge was political, for if the “Princes in the Tower” were presumed dead, then Elizabeth was the eldest surviving heir of Edward IV. Taking her as his bride strengthened Henry’s position as an outsider and a foreigner (with a sketchy claim to the throne) and would mollify the Yorkists. It’s unclear what fate the Dowager Queen and Elizabeth herself thought had befallen the princes, but their involvement in this plan certainly lends credence to them believing the boys were already dead.

Tower of London in the 15th century


His brother’s widow and daughter hiding from him from within London was obviously less than ideal PR for Richard III. He negotiated with the Dowager Queen on terms that would prompt her to leave sanctuary and join his court. The final deal is unknown, though at least some part of it involved Richard making a public oath that he wouldn’t harm Elizabeth or her sisters, because he did just that. Again, it’s unclear what the Dowager Queen and her daughters believed and it’s their contradictory actions that still befuddle historians – if they believed the boys were dead, then who did they think killed them? Surely Richard would be the obvious answer, but if the Dowager Queen truly thought that then why would she willingly go to his court with her daughters? If she didn’t, then why did Richard make an oath not to harm them? If he was innocent, why wouldn’t he make a similar oath about his nephews?

The answer likely isn’t tidy and probably entails, in any scenario, these women making the best of a horrible situation for the sake of survival, or playing their odds or stalling for time.

Richard III

Within a month of Elizabeth joining her uncle’s court, Richard’s only child and heir died. His wife, Anne Neville, was unlikely to conceive again and within months of her son’s death, her health began to suffer. By Christmas of 1484 it was presumed that Richard would soon be a widower and rumors circulated about the nature of his relationship with his niece, Elizabeth, which scandalized not only the English people, but courts throughout Christendom. So what exactly was going on?

Naturally, we don’t know exactly. But the rumors were enough to reach Henry Tudor abroad, who swore that if he couldn’t have Elizabeth then he would take the next sister, Cecily of York. (Cecily, for her part, was promptly married to Ralph Scrope of Upsall, possibly to make such a likelihood impossible.) In the months between Christmas and March Richard was known to stay away from his wife’s bedchamber – this was possibly due to being advised her illness was contagious, but it did nothing to help the optics of the situation. In March Queen Anne died and Richard was officially back on the marriage market. Six days after her passing the question of Elizabeth was pressing enough that Richard publicly refuted it before his council, declaring that the notion had never crossed his mind. And within days of that, Richard was entertaining negotiations abroad for himself and a “daughter of King Edward,” likely Elizabeth to remove her from the English court.

Where was Elizabeth in all of this? Depends on who you ask. Tudor legend, which is naturally anti-Richard, depicts this as but another sign of Richard’s depraved nature – a man that would murder his young nephews and then force their sister into marriage against her will. And to modern eyes it certainly doesn’t look great. Though the age difference between the two wasn’t astounding (in 1485 Elizabeth was 19 and Richard 32), their familial relationship was a bit much to swallow, even by Medieval standards. It wasn’t, however, unprecedented.

Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters

Would she have wanted it? Well, marrying Richard would have made her queen and secured her family’s futures. The possibility of Henry Tudor would have seemed remote and the idea of toppling the House of York daunting, particularly to a Yorkist princess. There’s a much-debated letter in the mix here, too. I won’t get too much into the details of it here (though I will in a later post), but it’s a letter whose original version is lost to us today and the supposed contents of which have been controversial. If you believe in the letter, then it’s possible that Elizabeth was indeed lobbying to marry her uncle, even before Queen Anne’s death. And if you think it made up or misrepresented, then you don’t. In her biography of Elizabeth, Weir lays out a convincing argument that the letter was certainly real, but that its wording can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

Elizabeth’s signature

But if it’s true that Elizabeth wanted to marry Richard then we have one of the surest signs of life in this woman than we get at any other point. It means that she either genuinely loved him or believed him to be best shot at security and reinstated royal privilege. And what that means is that our very correct and dignified first Tudor queen, who kept her nose a lot cleaner than the other queens of the Wars of the Roses, was just as steely as they. In a best case scenario she was willing or wanted to marry her uncle. In a worst case scenario she positioned herself to marry her brothers’ presumed murderer.

Elizabeth is usually compared to her formidable mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, as the softer and more feminine model at the Tudor court, but it’s also entirely possible she was just much better at PR.

Five months after Queen Anne died Henry Tudor landed in England, the Battle of Bosworth was fought, Richard was killed and Henry declared King Henry VII.


Henry didn’t marry Elizabeth immediately. Instead he backdated the start of his reign to the day before Bosworth so that everyone that fought against him was immediately declared a traitor. He also had himself crowned king solo, to ensure there was no doubt who the monarch was and that his claim to the throne existed independently of Elizabeth. He wouldn’t marry Elizabeth until January 1486 and she, herself, wouldn’t be crowned queen as his consort until November 25, 1487.

Henry VII

By all appearances, Elizabeth was a good wife to Henry. Eight months after their wedding she provided him with a much-needed heir, Prince Arthur, and by 1500 she had produced five additional children which resulted in three more living heirs – Prince Henry and Princesses Margaret and Mary. Henry, for his part, was a loyal husband who never, to public knowledge, took a mistress – a bit of an aberration for the period, though it’s worth noting that Richard seemingly didn’t during his own marriage to Anne Neville.

As for what the personal dynamics of their marriage were, we don’t know. I’ve seen it laid out a number of different ways, with some asserting quite vehemently that the marriage was unhappy (generally those sympathetic to Richard) or that they were devoted to one another. If Elizabeth had truly been in love with her uncle, presumably that may have been a bit of a stumbling block in the early years. But on the face of it, Henry was never anything but respectful of Elizabeth and they were frequently in each other’s company. He was well-aware of the value and credibility she brought him and she was well-looked after as his queen, often accompanying him on his travels throughout the country. And Elizabeth played her part well, devoting herself to educating the younger children, developing a good relationship with the English people and standing by him as he and his government not only kept the peace, but re-established England on the European stage after decades of civil war.

Statue of a “laughing child,” created by Guido Mazzoni in 1498 and believed to be a young Henry VIII


The marriage between their son, Arthur, and Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain’s daughter, Katherine of Aragon, was key to this last point. The alliance between England and Spain lent England quite a bit of much-needed validation; in fact, Henry had been amazed the monarchs were willing to entertain him in the late 1480s when he first approached them. But after years of waiting for both children to grow up, haggling over a dowry and the timing of the Infanta’s arrival, by the time Katherine arrived in November 1501, she would only be Princess of Wales for five months. Arthur died at Ludlow Castle in April 1502.

Arthur Tudor

When news traveled back to the royal court in London, how Henry and Elizabeth reacted gives us the best insight into the state of their relationship. Henry was devastated, as both a king and a father and it was Elizabeth who comforted him:

“After she was come and saw the King her lord in that natural and painful sorrow, she, with full great and constant and comfortable words, besought His Grace that he would first, after God, consider the weal of his own noble person, of the comfort of his realm, and of her. ‘And remember,’ she said, ‘That my lady your mother had never no more children but only you, yet God, by His Grace, has ever preserved you and brought you where you are now. Over and above, God has yet a fair prince and two fair princesses; and God is still where He was, and we are both you enough. As the prudence and wisdom of Your Grace [is] sprung all over Christendom, you must now give proof of it by the manner of taking this misfortune.'”

Apparently Elizabeth then retired to her own chambers where she broke down, growing upset enough that Henry was summoned to return the favor:

“The natural and motherly remembrance of that great loss smote her so sorrowfully to the heart that those were about her were fain to send for the King to comfort her. Then His Grace, of true, gentle, and faithful live, in good haste came and relieved her, and showed her how wise counsel she had given him before; and he for his part would thank God for his son, and would [that] she would do in like wise.”

That Henry and Elizabeth turned to each other in grief in no way proves or disproves theories of a happy or unhappy marriage, but it certainly does speak to a certain level of trust and companionship. So, too, does the fact that Elizabeth would become pregnant again within weeks of Arthur’s death, for the first time in over three years.

This was not an insignificant development. During Elizabeth’s last pregnancy, which had resulted in Prince Edmund in 1499 (he would die 15 months later), her life had hung in the balance and it’s possible that she had been warned against carrying another child. Prince Arthur’s death appears to have weighed on her physically as well, her household records for later in April show the Queen paying her apothecary for “certain stuff of his occupation.”

Henry, Elizabeth and their children

It is around this time that the issue of James Tyrrell comes into play, a man that had been in the service of Richard III during his brief reign. He was arrested and charged with treason for reasons unrelated to the Princes in the Tower, but it has recently been alleged that while he was in custody, he may have met with Elizabeth and confessed his involvement in her brothers’ death (a claim explored more in depth by Weir in her biography).

This is, of course, speculative, but what we do know is that Henry and Elizabeth were living in the Tower of London’s residence at the time and that both attended Tyrrell’s trial at Guildhall in early May. This latter claim was first presented in 2015 by historian David Starkey as definitive proof Tyrrell must have been the man commissioned by Richard to carry out the murders (it would have been highly abnormal for the Queen to have been present).

Henry VII

There is one more abnormality in Elizabeth’s behavior in 1502: That summer, instead of traveling with Henry on his progresses, she set off on her own with her sister, Katherine of York, Countess of Devon, for a roundabout journey to Wales. As noted by Weir, given Elizabeth’s high-risk pregnancy, it’s remarkable that she would not only travel, but do so on her own. Wales is what’s key here, though – both her brother, Edward V, and her son, Arthur, had grown up at Ludlow Castle, close to the Welsh border.

Weir hypothesizes that this separation speaks to discord between Henry and Elizabeth, possibly due to a dispute over Katherine of York’s husband, William Courtenay, who was involved in the same treasonous activity that had cost James Tyrrell his life. Courtenay was arrested and being held in the Tower, a fact that had a devastating effect on Katherine and their children.

In any event, Elizabeth appears to have suffered regular bouts of ill health over the summer. She returned to London in the autumn of 1502 and spent November and December preparing for her child’s birth. Christmas was held with Henry VII and Prince Henry, now heir to the throne, while on January 26, 1503 she entered the Tower, accompanied by her husband and sister.

Elizabeth was due to give birth in mid-February, however on February 2 she apparently went into premature labor and unexpectedly gave birth to a daughter. The child was named Katherine Tudor, likely after the Dowager Princess of Wales, Katherine of Aragon or Katherine of York. Nine days later, on Elizabeth’s 37th birthday, both mother and child would die.

Effigies of Henry and Elizabeth where they are interred at Westminster Abbey

It’s slightly ironic that a sister of the Princes of the Tower would also die in the Tower – the optics of it appear even more jarring to those who associate the Tower with its more sinister future under Henry VIII and his children. But for centuries the Tower had included a royal residences regularly used by the monarch and his family – in fact, it had been Elizabeth’s father’s favorite London home during his life. It’s unclear what Elizabeth thought about residing there as queen, particularly given its association with her brothers, but she certainly did so regularly. It’s sometimes purported that she planned to give birth there, but in fact, her last labor came early and she had intended to enter confinement at Richmond Palace.

In any event, immediately after his wife’s death, Henry departed from the Tower. He would never reside there again, and neither would their son, Henry VIII. In fact, Elizabeth’s stay leading up to her death would be the last time the Tower was used by the royal family as a residence. Its lack of domesticity and the coming carnage of her son’s reign prime it perfectly to become best known as a prison.

Henry and his children mourning Elizabeth


Elizabeth didn’t live to see her son crowned king, but her shadow loomed large over his life and that of her six daughters-in-law. Of them, she would have, of course, known Katherine of Aragon, who had been residing in England for over a year by February 1503. She may also have known Anne Boleyn’s mother, Elizabeth Howard, who was the daughter of the Earl of Surrey and one of her ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Tilney.

Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, is often referred to as his “favorite,” which is a bit of self-editing on Henry’s part. But it’s worth noting that Jane’s brief tenure as queen (May 1436 – October 1437) ended with her dying in childbirth after Prince Edward was born. Certainly some of that favoritism came from her having finally delivered Henry his much-desired son, but it seems inescapable not to note that she died from the same cause as his much-beloved mother.

A 1667 painting of a mural painted for Henry VIII by Hans Holbein in 1537 depicting Henry VII, Henry VIII, Elizabeth of York and Jane Seymour

Unlike Prince Arthur who was raised away from his siblings, Henry was brought up with his mother and sisters and prepared for a life in the church. Portions of his education were directly overseen by him and he was apparently distraught at her death, which occurred a few months shy of his 12th birthday. The subsequent years before he ascended the throne in 1509 were often spent in isolation, Henry VII having grown over-protective, paranoid and restrictive of any ill befalling his only remaining son. Likely some of young Henry’s idealism of his mother stems from the juxtaposition of his life before and after her death.

The ideal that Elizabeth achieved – the supportive, beautiful, fertile and popular consort – was never completely achieved by any of Henry’s wives. And their failure to do so was a wounding blow to Henry who seems to have felt personally cheated by their failure to live up to his mother. But it’s telling, too, that the wife he truly loved the best, Anne Boleyn, was the one that is seemingly her most polar opposite. Or was she? The thing is, Elizabeth of York is still largely a question mark.

Elizabeth’s effigy, left, and “dressed,” right. This captures how she might have looked in 1503 at the time of her death.

5 thoughts on “The Question of Elizabeth of York

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  4. Tyrells ‘confession’is an invention. It never happened. Henry Tudor wrote it one night after he died. I’m serious. There was NEVER a confession. Elizabeth did NOT attend his trial.
    The boys were not murdered but lived as the two Pretenders that plagued Tudor.
    Please everyone read Matt Lewis excellent books on the subject.

    1. I have, in fact. There are numerous posts on this site delving into Lewis’s theories, and I agree that his book on the subject is excellent. I would, however, caution you away from blanket statements – none of us know with any certainty what happened.

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