Profile: Elizabeth of York

Countdown: 43 days to go to King Richard III’s reinterment.

Elizabeth of York

February 11 is the anniversary of King Richard III’s niece’s birthday — and death date.

Elizabeth of York was born in 1466, and until her brother’s birth in 1470, she was heir presumptive. By the age of 17, Elizabeth had been promised in marriage three times, including to Charles, Dauphin of France. In December 1483, Elizabeth had been declared a bastard and was living in sanctuary with her widowed mother and younger sisters. Perhaps grasping at a faint hope, Elizabeth’s mother entered into negotiations with Margaret Beaufort and her son, Henry Tudor, who pledged to marry her.

In March 1484, Elizabeth and her family left sanctuary and the young Elizabeth returned to court:

[D]uring this Christmas feast [of 1484] too much attention was paid to singing and dancing and to vain exchanges of clothing between Queen Anne and Lady Elizabeth… The people spoke against this and the magnates and prelates were greatly astonished; and it was said by many that the king was applying his mind in every way to contracting a marriage with Elizabeth either after the death of the queen, or by means of a divorce for which he believed he had sufficient grounds. He saw no other way of confirming his crown and dispelling the hopes of his rival. (Croyland Chronicle, trans. Nicholas Pronay and John Cox, p. 175)

George Buck, one of Richard’s earliest defenders, claimed to have seen a letter — now lost — written by Elizabeth in February 1485 to John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk. Buck says that Elizabeth asked him to be a “mediator for her in the cause of [the marriage] to the King”, which was while Anne was still alive.

Other possible proofs of Elizabeth’s feelings are notes at the end of her copy of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophya gift from Richard — with Richard’s motto Loyalte me lye, likely written by Elizabeth and bearing her signature underneath. In another book once owned by Richard, Elizabeth wrote sans re[mo]vyr, meaning “without changing” and then her name. (Arlene Naylor Okerlund, Elizabeth of York)

Was Elizabeth in love with her uncle? Was her betrothal to Henry Tudor an unwanted alliance for Elizabeth with a distant Lancastrian claimant to the throne who had been abroad since 1471? Was she just a young woman grateful to be back at court and in favour with the king?

After Anne’s death, Richard sent Elizabeth, her sisters, and other young members of the royal circle to Sheriff Hutton Castle in present-day North Yorkshire in advance of Henry Tudor’s invasion and began negotiations to marry Joanna of Portugal, but she refused him and Richard was killed in battle less than six months after Anne’s death.

Elizabeth married King Henry VII on 18 January 1486 and was likely pregnant at the time as she gave birth eight months later. She died, shortly after giving birth to her seventh child, on her 37th birthday.

Interesting Facts about Elizabeth of York:

  • Elizabeth’s father, uncle, brother, husband, and son were all kings of England, and she herself was a queen consort.
  • Elizabeth is said to be the inspiration for the picture of the four queens in decks of playing cards.
  • As mother to Henry VIII and grandmother to James V of Scotland and his grandson James I of England, she is an ancestor of all subsequent monarchs of England.
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