The Ick Factor: Richard III & Elizabeth of York


Speaking of the Tudor Myth, a fun little twist to exanining Richard III is seeing two wildly divergent schools of thought on him. While there are presumably some objective histories of his life and reign, most fall into two camps: those that revile him and those that apologize for him.

This is particularly evident in the question as to whether or not Richard III made plans to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, in 1485. What exactly the nature of their relationship was has been eroded by time, but there is far too much smoke around the issue for there not to have been at least a reasonably-sized fire. In this case, the theory is borne out by the fact that there was contemporary speculation on the subject, as well as the fact that Richard took the pains to publicly deny it.

The problems began during Christmas 1484. Elizabeth had recently left sanctuary in Westminster Abbey where she was ensconced with her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and four younger sisters, Cecily, Anne, Katherine and Bridget. Elizabeth was invited to join the court of her uncle, Richard, and his wife, Anne Neville, as a guest of honor. It was an awkward situation by any standard given that even the most charitable read of Richard has to acknowledge he pushed aside his nephew and Elizabeth’s brother, Edward V. And in order to do that he had declared all of his late brother’s children illegitimate.

Having grown up with Westminster as the primary London base of her parents, the visit would mark Elizabeth’s first not as the daughter of the king or even a princess, but as “Lady Elizabeth,” bastard niece of King Richard.

And all of that sidesteps the question of whether or not Richard had killed Edward V and Richard, Duke of York – or, more to the point, whether Elizabeth believed that he had.

Anne Neville

In any event, she was warmly welcomed to court by Richard and Anne, perhaps too warmly. The Croyland chronicle notes that Anne and Elizabeth were decked out in similar garments, which caused gossip about what it could all mean. Because Anne was fatally ill that Christmas (she would die the following March) and Richard was without any legitimate children, the issue of succession was very much front and center. Already there were whispers as to who Richard would next marry or whether he would seek to annul the marriage in the interim in order to quickly beget an heir.

Then there was the beautiful 18-year-old Elizabeth, who came from aggressively fertile stock and was already decked out like a queen. There were strict rules about apparel at court – gold and purple, for example, were reserved for royalty . At any given time, the queen was expected to be the most finely dressed woman in the room. (The same standard was held for men, as well.) Elizabeth would have known this well given her upbringing. Indeed, so would Richard and Anne. So, how did she end up dressed like her aunt?

Likely with the blessing of either Richard or Anne, or both. Overly harsh analyses of the situation have posited that Anne would never have put her niece in that situation and welcomed the gossip that would follow – that the choice to dress Elizabeth in overt finery had to have come from Richard and was a sure sign of his desire to marry her. I’m not convinced. If Richard had an intent to marry Elizabeth I doubt he would have called such attention to it by dressing her up as a mirror image of his still-living wife. I think the most likely scenario is that it was Anne or Anne and Richard and the move was naive, not malicious. Of course they understood the rule, but perhaps it was viewed as a kindness – a gesture that despite Elizabeth’s newfound illegitimacy, they still acknowledged her as family, and one in a painful position. And the likelihood of it crossing Anne’s mind that Christmas that her husband might be plotting to replace her with his brother’s daughter is slim. The likelihood of her expecting the act to be read that way even fainter.

But either way, the rumors began to creep through Europe, most notably spreading to France where Henry Tudor was biding his time by the side of King Charles VIII. Charles had already thrown his lot in with Henry and declared him the rightful king. For his part, Henry had already pledged to marry Elizabeth in the hopes of wooing Yorkists disenchanted with Richard’s rule.

The question then becomes, from which party did these rumors begin? There was Richard himself, as well as the coterie of men surrounding him with varying degrees of loyalty. There were the French, who had vested interest in undermining Richard and keeping Elizabeth available for Henry. And then there were Henry’s English supporters, led by his mother, Margaret Beaufort, and her husband, Lord Stanley.

Richard III

Paul Murray Kendall, the greatest revisionist of them all,  in his landmark biography of Richard, posits that the King had “desperately or grimly” thrown the idea of marrying Elizabeth out there and “treacherous” councilors had betrayed him by carrying the snippet of conversation to enemy parties. The gem in their hands, Margaret Beaufort’s followers had gleefully spread through England the notion that the murderer Richard now planned to marry his innocent niece before his wife was cold in her grave.

The French, housing her son, had much to gain from the rumor, too, for it helped bolster English support for their contender. Their ambassadors and spies helped weave the tale through the rest of Europe – Burgundy, Brittany, Rome, Spain and Portugal.

It also struck fear in Henry’s heart – or his brain, rather, since he likely didn’t have much emotion tied up in Elizabeth herself at this point. Without Elizabeth, his chances of gaining the throne were much remoter. She was the linchpin to his claim (whether he wanted to admit or not and he didn’t), but she could also serve the same purpose for Richard. Marriage to the popular Elizabeth would lend Richard a similar dynamic – their children would be unequivocally English and royal.

But the last part was a bit trickier for Richard given that his legitimacy as king was tied to Elizabeth and her siblings having been declared bastards. To marry her was to acknowledge that claim was a lie since it was unthinkable to marry a queen of questionable birth. He would also have had to address the question of her brothers. If they were still alive, then Edward V was the rightful king. If they were dead, then who killed them?

The likeliest scenario is that this gossip either stemmed from a fleeting idea, like Kendall says, or didn’t come from Richard at all. So, what of Elizabeth?

I discussed this issue a bit in a post on her back in February, but there is a letter that bears mentioning. A historian by the name of George Buck wrote a summary of a note ostensibly from Elizabeth to a supporter of Richard’s, John Howard, Duke of Norfolk (his story and his connection to the House of York can be found here). The original letter is no longer with us, nor are the original Buck’s notes. All of this, therefore, is premised on interpretations of Buck’s note, but one version of it believed to be fairly reliable. It reads:

“When in the midst and more days of February [1485] were gone, the Lady Elizabeth, being very desirous to be married and, growing not only impatient of delays, but also suspicious of the [success], wrote a letter to Sir John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, intimating first therein [he was the] one in whom she most [trusted], because she knew the King her father much loved him, and that he was a very faithful servant unto him and to [Richard], and very loving and serviceable to King Edward’s children. First, she thanked him for his many courtesies and friendly [offices, and] then she prayed him, as before, to be a mediator for her in the case of [the marriage] to the King, who, as she wrote, was her only joy and maker in [this] world, and that she was his in heart and thoughts, in [body] and in all. And then she intimated that the better half of Fe[bruary] was passed, and that she feared the Queen would nev[er die].”

Most historians dismiss the letter’s very existence as a lie, and an outrageous one at that. A few, however, believe it may be real, but Elizabeth’s meaning has been misconstrued. Perhaps she means only that she is desirous for Richard to negotiate her another marriage. Perhaps she means the match in Portugal that Richard would later attempt to plan after Anne’s death. That kind of reading is possible, particularly given discrepancies in grammar. The timing of the Portugal issue, however, is that such a match wasn’t really on the table until March when Richard toyed with double marriage alliance between himself and a Portuguese princess, and Elizabeth with a Portuguese prince. This letter was written in February.

Henry VII

If you believe there is a chance that this letter actually once existed, then you have to at least entertain the possibility that Elizabeth lobbied to marry her uncle. The “why” of it actually isn’t that tricky, for all that it sounds horribly incestuous. He was the king of England and Elizabeth’s future – as well as that of her mother and sisters – was in complete limbo. They had just spent months fearing for their lives in sanctuary. She likely believed that her brothers had been murdered, and she knew very well that Richard had executed her maternal uncle, Anthony Woodville, and her half-brother, Richard Grey.

Marriage to Richard, however distasteful, gave her a secure future. Bear in mind, too, that she had known Richard all her life and prior to her father’s death, he had never shown himself (publicly at least) to be anything other than loyal and capable.

There is also the issue of obedience. Elizabeth at 19, as she was when this letter was reportedly written, was not actually in charge of her life. That authority fell, to some extent, to her mother, Elizabeth Woodville. While Elizabeth Woodville supported the movement to bring Henry Tudor to England, she may well have been pragmatic enough to know it was safer to hedge her bets. Her sons probably dead, her eldest daughter was the most valuable asset in her possession.

Whether any of this is even worth debating hinges on the legitimacy of the letter and I am certainly not the one to declare its validity one way or the other. However, to me, declaring it invalid because its contents are out of the bounds of possibility is naive.

Whether or not Elizabeth was in favor of the match, the issue soon became moot. Richard was already wildly unpopular in the South. His base was very much in the North, where he had spent the vast majority of his life, particularly since marrying Anne in 1472. His popularity there was not only on account of his actual work, but that he was married to a Neville, and the Kingmaker’s daughter at that.

Anne’s death in March 1485, coupled with rumors of Elizabeth, shook his base of support, applying enough pressure that Richard sent his niece from court. It would be the last time they saw one another. Such was the wave of unpopularity crashing over him that there were rumors circulating that he had killed Anne. He had absented himself from her bedchamber during her illness – very possibly because whatever disease she had was feared to be contagious – and now the narrative spun that he had poisoned her while wooing his niece, typical behavior for a depraved maniac guilty of murdering the York Princes.

All of this was great news for Henry Tudor. Five months later he was able to land in England and defeat Richard at the Battle of Bosworth. Five months after that he married Elizabeth and the Tudor dynasty was in full swing.

So, what is there to say about this? If there’s one thing to be certain of, it’s that these rumors stemmed from something real. At some point Richard likely had a conversation concerning the question of marrying Elizabeth. His government didn’t like the idea and there was considerable public backlash. The matter was dropped and the girl removed from his court. How serious he was and to what extent he had thought it through, we don’t know. We have no idea what Elizabeth thought about it, or whether her mother supported it. We don’t know what any of that says about Richard’s marriage to Anne – whether it was a moment of morbid pragmatism or an indication their marriage wasn’t romantic.

We don’t have enough information to make sweeping judgments of Richard’s character. We do have enough to say his judgment was deeply questionable.

4 thoughts on “The Ick Factor: Richard III & Elizabeth of York

  1. Lidia

    “Bear in mind, too, that she had known Richard all her life…”
    I’m not so sure about that. Isn’t Ricardo supposed to be spending more time in the north of England? Also, Princess Elizabeth had her own household, I don’t think she had a chance to interact much with her uncle.

    1. Later in the 1470s and early 1480s, yes, but they still crossed paths on numerous occasions at Edward IV’s court. I suppose it comes down to semantics – I don’t necessarily see certain members of my family frequently, but I would still say I’ve known them all my life.

      1. Anne

        The fact that Elizabeth of York was beautiful was certainly a factor. Henry VII was not tremendously eager to marry her, possibly because he had suspicions about her relationship with her uncle. He made sure that he was crowned in his own right because he did not want anyone to think he was beholden to Elizabeth for his crown. Henry VII may have also feared Elizabeth would try to dominate him the way her mother dominated her father. Henry explored the idea of other possible wives until his advisor emphatically reminded of his promise to marry Elizabeth. Although Henry VII was a faithful husband, he made sure Elizabeth confined her interests to her children, housekeeping and religion. Henry VII turned to his mother Margaret Beaufort for advice. Elizabeth and Henry were kind and affectionate towards each other. Elizabeth, however, had no power beyond the raising of her children and the ordering of her household.

  2. Roxana.

    For Richard to marry Elizabeth, as Rebecca points out, would be to undermine the entire rationale under which he’d taken the throne. It was a seriously stupid idea from his POV and he wasn’t stupid or completely desperate. It was such an out there idea that it never crossed his mind or Queen Anne’s when they decided to make a show of favor towards Elizabeth. Most likely they were trying to communicate that all was well between them and the old Queen’s family. I also believe Richard when he publicly swore on oath that he had not compassed his wife’s death or plotted to marry his niece. Richard would lie like a rug to further his political ends but all evidence indicates he took a formal oath seriously. Queen Elizabeth certainly believed he would when he swore she and her daughters would be safe – and she was right wasn’t she?

    I see no reason to put any credence in a letter NOBODY else ever saw. George Buck wouldn’t be the first scholar to fabricate evidence to support a favorite theory.

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