Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Elizabeth of York: She Might Have Been Queen

Elizabeth of York (born 11 February 1466 and died 11 February 1503)


The daughter of Edward IV, the Yorkist king of England, and the niece of Edward's younger brother, King Richard III, Elizabeth of York became the wife of another English king, Henry Tudor, the first Tudor monarch.

Elizabeth of York, c. 1500, 
National Portrait Gallery, London
There is a great deal of popular historical fiction about the Wars of the Roses, and there are more than a few television dramas about the Lancastrians, Yorkists, and Tudors, so I don't need to say much about the rise of the Tudor monarchy here. But what is often unsaid--or unnoticed--is the place of Elizabeth of York in all of this.

After the defeat of Richard III at the battle of Bosworth--and given the disappearance and probable murder of Edward IV's two sons, the "Princes in the Tower"--there was still a viable Yorkist claimant to the throne in 1485, even after Richard's defeat: Elizabeth, the eldest surviving daughter of Edward IV.

But Elizabeth of York did not inherit the throne both her father and uncle had occupied (and that one of her brothers might have occupied, if one of them had lived). Instead, she was married to the victor of Bosworth, the man who became king of England.

Although her own mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and Henry's mother, the formidable Margaret Beaufort, were important political manipulators and power brokers, Elizabeth of York played no real role other than the one crucial for a queen consort--she produced male heirs to the throne, Arthur and Henry (who would become Henry VIII), as well as two daughters who grew to adulthood, Margaret and Mary.

While she never claimed the title of queen for herself, she was the mother of two queens: her daughter Margaret became queen of Scotland, and her daughter Mary, briefly, was queen of France. As queen, Margaret Tudor was also regent of Scotland for her husband, James IV, though she was unable to retain that role for her son, after James's death.

In the next generation, Elizabeth of York's two granddaughters, the daughters of Henry VIII, became queens of England, ruling in their own right: Mary I and Elizabeth I. Elizabeth of York was the great-grandmother to two other queens regnant, Mary Stuart, queen of Scotland (the descendant of Elizabeth's elder daughter Margaret) and Jane Grey, who "ruled" England for nine days (the descendant of Elizabeth of York's younger daughter, Mary).

Still grieving the death of her older son, Arthur, in 1502, Elizabeth of York gave birth to a baby girl, named Katherine, her seventh and last child, on 2 February 1503. The baby died on 10 February, and Elizabeth the next day, her thirty-seventh birthday.

There are several good biographies available, but I recommend Arlene Naylor Okerlund's Elizabeth of York. If you'd prefer a shorter read, there's a chapter on Elizabeth of York in Lisa Hilton's Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens.