Elizabeth of York was born in London, England, on February 11, 1466. The first child of King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth was born during the Wars of the Roses. Five years before her birth, Edward and his Yorkist followers overthrew King Henry VI and the Lancastrians after the Battle of Towton. Although both factions were members of the royal family, Edward had a stronger claim to the English throne than Henry. Since Henry was an inept ruler, the Yorkists believed it was time for a new king and rebelled in 1455.
At an early age, Edward IV arranged for his daughter to marry George Neville, the son of a prominent supporter. However, John Neville’s later support of a rebellion against the king ended the engagement. In 1475, King Louis XI of France agreed to marry his heir, Charles, to Elizabeth of York. Although this engagement lasted longer than her first, the French king later broke it in 1482. Princess Elizabeth remained an important political asset for her father despite two failed engagements.
On April 9, 1483, Edward IV died, and Elizabeth’s younger brother, Edward V, succeeded to the throne. Before his death, the king had entrusted his brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, with the protection of his son. On the surface, the ten-year-old’s accession should have been straightforward. However, internal strife within the Yorkist royal family complicated matters. Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had never been popular amongst his family. Instead of making a strategic political marriage to a foreign princess, Edward had married a Lancastrian widow.
Queen Elizabeth’s relatives began to gain prominence at court after her marriage. Alarmed by the Woodville’s growing influence, Edward’s Yorkist relatives began feeling threatened by the upstarts. Richard was no exception. When his brother died, the duke believed that the Woodvilles would attempt to gain more power by using Edward V as a puppet. To prevent this from occurring, Richard captured his nephew before his coronation. Richard’s other nephew, Richard, Duke of York, later joined his brother in captivity.
With Edward IV’s two sons in his custody, Richard made his play for the throne. Convincing parliament to declare his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid, their children became illegitimate. As Edward IV’s rightful heir, the duke was crowned King Richard III on June 26, 1483. During the summer of 1483, Elizabeth’s brothers disappeared from public view, never to be seen again.
Plotting Against the King
Although no longer legitimate, Elizabeth of York remained at her uncle’s court. Behind the scenes, Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort began planning Richard III’s downfall. Angered at the disappearance of her sons, Elizabeth allied with the mother of exiled Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor. The two women agreed that Henry would marry Princess Elizabeth after the Lancastrians overthrew Richard. In December 1483, Henry Tudor swore to marry Elizabeth upon his accession.
On April 9, 1484, Richard III’s only heir, Prince Edward, died. Devastated by his son’s early death, the king’s position became more unstable in England. Less than a year later, Queen Anne died on March 16, 1485. Widowed and without an heir, Richard began searching for a new wife. It was rumored that the king considered marrying Elizabeth. In reality, the king began negotiations with King John II of Portugal to marry his sister, while Elizabeth would marry John’s cousin, Manuel.
The Battle of Bosworth Field
In early August 1485, Henry Tudor and his Lancastrian army landed in Wales and marched inland. Receiving news of the rebel force, Richard III rallied his Yorkist army and marched to intercept Henry. Meeting near Bosworth, Lancastrians, and Yorkists clashed on August 22nd. During the Battle of Bosworth Field, the outnumbered Lancastrians defeated the Yorkists. Richard made a last-ditch charge at Henry when additional Yorkist troops failed to appear. Cut down by the Lancastrians, the remaining Yorkist soldiers fled.
Dawn of the Tudor Dynasty
With Richard III dead, Henry Tudor succeeded him as King Henry VII of England. Making good on his promise, the new king married Elizabeth of York on January 18, 1486. Through their marriage, the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions of the family were reunited. The union would now be known as the Tudor dynasty. To strengthen his claim to the throne, Henry reversed Parliament’s 1483 decision and restored Elizabeth’s legitimacy. By doing this, Elizabeth and her children had a stronger claim to the English throne.
On September 19, 1486, Elizabeth of York gave the new dynasty credibility after birthing an heir, Prince Arthur. Named after the mythical English king, Arthur physically embodied the union of the Lancastrians and Yorkists. Overjoyed at the birth of a son, Henry arranged for his wife’s coronation on November 25, 1487. Over the next several years, Elizabeth gave Henry six more children, but only three would live to adulthood.
Although her marriage to Henry VII was politically motivated, Elizabeth of York grew to love the king. Henry, in turn, greatly respected his wife, and he had no recorded mistresses. Over the years, the king and queen formed a strong partnership. Unlike Henry, Elizabeth didn’t seek to rule and never challenged her husband’s authority. Instead, the queen spent her time enjoying music and dancing.
On April 2, 1502, Prince Arthur died from tuberculosis at Ludlow Castle. The young prince had only been married for several months before his early end. Although his wife, Catherine of Aragon, also had tuberculosis, she eventually recovered. Upon hearing of their son’s death, Elizabeth and Henry were devastated.
Initially comforting her grieving husband, Elizabeth later broke down herself. The future seemed bleak with the Tudor dynasty resting solely on Prince Henry’s shoulders. However, the queen believed that she could still produce another male heir. Becoming pregnant again, Elizabeth gave birth to Princess Katherine on February 2, 1503. Unfortunately, Katherine died the same day, with the queen passing away nine days later from a birth infection. During her 37 years of life, Elizabeth had been a king’s daughter, a king’s sister, and a king’s wife.
Elizabeth of York’s death devastated her family, especially her husband. The beloved queen’s death shattered Henry VII, and he locked himself away to grieve. The normally reserved king could not contain his sadness, alarming his courtiers. While mourning Elizabeth, Henry became deathly ill, possibly from his grief. Once he recovered, the king resumed his duties, but he was never the same. Henry did not remarry and continued to honor Elizabeth’s memory until his death in 1509.
Cawthorne, N. (2012). Kings & Queens of England: From the Saxon Kings to the House of Windsor. London: Arcturus.
Dougherty, M. J. (2018). Kings & Queens of the Medieval World: From Conquerors and Exiles to Madmen and Saints (pp. 76-78). London: Amber Books.
Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Westminster Abbey. (n.d.). Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/royals/henry-vii-and-elizabeth-of-york