Elizabeth of York

Finding out about people in the 15th century: Elizabeth of York
Continuing our series on fifteenth century people let us look at the life of Elizabeth of York, eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. Most of her life was spent in the forefront of events, but nevertheless, like most women of the period, she remains a somewhat shadowy figure.

The main sources for her life are the biography Elizabeth of York: the mother of Henry VIII by Nancy Lenz Harvey (published in New York in 1973, a semi-fictionalised account, based heavily on the Tudor chronicles), the chapter on ‘Elizabeth of York, surnamed the Good, Queen of Henry VII’ in Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England, (published in 1842 and traditional in tone) and the Memoir included in Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York: Wardrobe Acccounts of Edward IV edited by Nicholas Harris Nicolas (1830, reprinted 1972).

Elizabeth was born on 11th February 1465 and was christened with great splendour, her sponsors being her two grandmothers the Duchesses of York and Bedford and Edward’s mentor the Earl of Warwick. Despite the disappointment her parents must have felt that their first child was not the desired son and heir she seems to have been a great favourite with her father. In common with other royal daughters her marriage was a diplomatic bargaining counter and she was first betrothed to George Duke of Bedford, Warwick’s nephew, to pacify the powerful Neville family, and later to the Dauphin, son of Louis XI, to cement the treaty with France. In December 1483 Henry Tudor proclaimed himself King of England and promised to make her his queen.

Articles in The Ricardian focus on various aspects of Elizabeth’s life. In June 1986 (Vol. 7, No. 93) a note compares the 1854 translation of the often quoted passage in the Croyland Chronicle about the Christmas 1484 festivities: ‘vain changes of apparel were presented to Queen Anne and the Lady Elizabeth…being of similar colour and shape’ with the the new translation in The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486 (eidted by Nicholas Pronay and John Cox, 1986) which reads ‘vain exchanges of clothing between Queen Anne and the Lady Elizabeth…who were alike in complexion and figure.’ If this second reading is correct it gives us an indication of the relationship between Elizabeth and her aunt and also an idea of their appearances.

Two articles discuss the famous letter quoted by George Buck in which Elizabeth asks John Howard ‘to be a mediator for her…to the King…her only joy.’: ‘Sir George Buck and Princess Elizabeth’s letter: a problem in detection’ by Alison Hanham (Vol. 7, No. 97, June 1987) and ‘Buck and the Elizabeth of York Letter: a reply to Dr. Hanham’ by A. N. Kincaid (Vol. 8, No. 101, June 1988). The details of the negotiations during March to August for Richard III to marry Joanna sister of the King of Portugal and Elizabeth of York to marry Joanna’s cousin Manuel Duke of Beja in ‘The Portuguese Connection and the Significance of the ‘Holy Princess’ ‘ by Barry Williams (Vol. 6, No. 90, March 1983) contradict accusations that Richard was planning to marry his niece. These marriage negotiations came to an abrupt halt with the news of the battle of Bosworth. Elizabeth was recalled from Sheriff Hutton where Richard had installed her, but the promised marriage did not take place until January 1486, nearly three months after Henry had been crowned King in his own right. Elizabeth was to bear seven children to ensure the succession and in September 1486 she presented Henry with the heir he needed, Prince Arthur, born at Winchester. The following year Elizabeth was at last crowned queen; in an article on The Coronation of Elizabeth of York (Vol. 6, No. 83, December 1983) P.W. Hammond describes the ceremony and the numbers of those who attended, even more than at Richard III’s well-attended coronation – was this merely diplomatic or does it signify the devotion inspired by this daughter of the popular Edward IV?

The books in which she chose to write her name (see ‘Where did Elizabeth of York find Consolation?’ by Livia Visser-Fuchs, Vol. 9, No. 122, September 1993) and the record of her privy purse from March 1502 until her untimely death on her thirty-eighth birthday in February 1503 (printed in Nicolas’ book, see above) give some insights into her interests and her personal expenses and almsgiving – regretably her will, if she made one, does not survive.

All the books and articles mentioned above are available for loan from the Society’s Library. — HCH