Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville was born in London on 11th February 1465. It was not until November 1470 that Elizabeth had a brother, Edward, who became heir to the throne. (1)
At the age of five she was betrothed to George Neville, the son of John Neville, Marquess Montagu, as part of the king's attempts to build an alliance with the Nevilles. The arrangement came to an end on the death of Montagu in 1471.
As part of the Treaty of Picquigny it was arranged for her to marry Charles, the son of Louis XI. However, the marriage never took place. (2) Elizabeth, although described as "beautiful" and "a very noble woman" remained unmarried. (3)
On the death of Edward IV in 1483, his young sons, Edward and Richard, were usurped by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester. He proclaimed himself Richard III and imprisoned the Princes in the Tower, where, almost certainly, he had them murdered. (4)
Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters took sanctuary at Westminster. As Elizabeth's biographer, Rosemary Horrox, points out: "Throughout this crisis period, and during the early months of the new reign, Elizabeth and her sisters remained in sanctuary. They were an obvious focus for political disaffection, and the Crowland chronicler believed that there were attempts to remove them from sanctuary and send them overseas. Richard took the precaution of placing a guard on the sanctuary, under the command of John Nesfield, one of his esquires of the body." (5)
Henry Tudor, as the head of the House of Lancaster, now had a claim to become king. Margaret Beaufort began plotting with various other opponents of Richard, to place her son on the throne. (6) Negotiations took place and in December 1483, Henry took an oath in Rennes Cathedral to marry Elizabeth of York were he to be successful in making himself king of England. (7)
Alison Plowden, the author of Tudor Women (2002) has argued: "Elizabeth's claim to be queen in her own right was infinitely stronger than Henry's to be king. There was nothing in English law to prevent a woman from occupying the throne, but in the political climate of the late fifteenth century such an idea would obviously have been unthinkable, and there is no evidence that the Yorkist heiress herself ever resented the subordination of her rights to the Lancastrian claimant. (8)
This was considered by most historians as a very shrewd move by Henry Tudor. His own claims to the throne were virtually non-existent and a marriage to Elizabeth would give him credibility. It would also give him the support of those forces still loyal to the family of Edward IV. Richard III's wife, Anne Neville, died on 16th March 1485 and a search immediately began for a new wife for the childless king. Among the names suggested was that of his niece Elizabeth of York. His inner circle considered this a dangerous proposal and Richard eventually made a public denial that he had ever contemplated such a marriage. (9)
The regents of the young King Charles VIII saw the advantage of supporting Henry Tudor against Richard III and provided him with money, ships, and men to seek the crown. In August 1485, Henry arrived in Wales with 2,000 of his supporters. Henry also brought with him over 1,800 mercenaries recruited from French prisons. While in Wales, Henry also persuaded many skillful longbowmen to join him in his fight against Richard. By the time Henry Tudor reached England the size of his army had grown to 5,000 men. (10)
After the Battle of Bosworth Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII. (11) Elizabeth of York was placed in the London household of his mother, Margaret Beaufort. The parliament which met on 7th November asserted the legitimacy of Henry's title and annulled the instrument embodying Richard III's title to the throne. On 10th December 1485, the House of Commons, through their speaker Thomas Lovell, urged the king to act on his promise to marry "that illustrious lady Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward IV" and so render possible "the propagation of offspring from the stock of kings". (12)
The House of Lords endorsed this message and the marriage took place on 18th January 1486. Their first son, Arthur, was born later that year on 19th September. He was a weak baby and spent the first months fighting for his life. (13) He was baptized on 24th September in Winchester Cathedral and named after the famous British hero whose fabulous exploits fill the pages of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Initially he was put into the care of women and his nursery at Farnham. This was headed by Dame Elizabeth Darcy. (14)
Spain, along with France, were the two major powers in Europe. Henry VII constantly feared an invasion from his powerful neighbour. Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile were also concerned about the possible expansionism of France and responded favourably to Henry's suggestion of a possible alliance between the two countries. In 1487 King Ferdinand agreed to send ambassadors to England to discuss political and economic relations. (15)
In March 1488, the Spanish ambassador at the English court, Roderigo de Puebla, was instructed to offer Henry a deal. The proposed treaty included the agreement that Henry's eldest son, Arthur, should marry Catherine of Aragon in return for an undertaking by Henry to declare war on France. Henry enthusiastically "showed off his nineteen-month-old son, first dressed in cloth of gold and then stripped naked, so they could see he had no deformity." (16)
Puebla reported that Arthur had "many excellent qualities". However, they were not happy about sending their daughter to a country whose king might be deposed at any time. As Puebla explained to Henry: "Bearing in mind what happens every day to the kings of England, it is surprising that Ferdinand and Isabella should dare think of giving their daughter at all." (17)
The Treaty of Medina del Campo was signed on 27th March 1489. It established a common policy towards France, reduced tariffs between the two countries and agreed a marriage contract between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon and also established a dowry for Catherine of 200,000 crowns. This was a good deal for Henry. At this time, England and Wales had a combined population of only two and a half million, compared to the seven and a half million of Castile and Aragon, and the fifteen million of France. Ferdinand's motivation was that Spanish merchants wishing to reach the Netherlands, needed the protection of English ports if France was barred to them. The English also still controlled the port of Calais in northern France. (18)
However, the marriage was not guaranteed. As David Loades points out: "The marriage of a ruler was the highest level of the matrimonial game, and carried the biggest stakes, but it was not the only level. Both sons and daughters were pieces to be moved in the diplomatic game, which usually began while they were still in their cradles. A daughter, particularly, might undergo half a dozen betrothals in the interests of shifting policies before her destiny eventually caught up with her." (19)
Francis Bacon has suggested that Henry's "aversion toward the house of York was so predominant in him as it found place not only in his wars and councils, but in his chamber and bed". However, Elizabeth's biographer, Rosemary Horrox, disagrees with this assessment. She quotes from several different sources that indicate that they had a happy marriage. (20)
Over the next few years Elizabeth gave birth to another six children. However, only Margaret (29th November 1489) and Henry (28th June 1491) survived childhood. There is little evidence that Elizabeth played a significant role in political matters. It seems that she was over-shadowed by her mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort. One member of the court was quoted as saying Queen Elizabeth "is kept in subjection by the mother of the king". David Starkey has described her as "a mother-in-law from hell". (21)
Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon married on 14th November 1501, at St Paul's Cathedral in London. That night, when Arthur lifted Catherine's veil he discovered a girl with "a fair complexion, rich reddish-gold hair that fell below hip-level, and blue-eyes". (39) Her naturally pink cheeks and white skin were features that were much admired during the Tudor period. Contemporary sources claim that "she was also on the plump side - but then a pleasant roundness in youth was considered to be desirable at this period, a pointer to future fertility". (22)
The couple spent the first month of their marriage at Tickenhill Manor. Arthur wrote to Catherine's parents telling them how happy he was and assuring them he would be "a true and loving husband all of his days". They then moved to Ludlow Castle. Arthur was in poor health and according to William Thomas, Groom of his Privy Chamber, he had been over-exerting himself. He later recalled he "conducted him clad in his night gown unto the Princess's bedchamber door often and sundry times." (23)
Alison Weir has argued that Arthur was suffering from consumption: "There was concern about the Prince's delicate health. He seems to have been consumptive, and had grown weaker since the wedding. The King believed, as did most other people, that Arthur had been over-exerting himself in the marriage bed." (24) Almost thirty years later Catherine deposed, under the seal of the confessional, that they had shared a bed for no more than seven nights, and that she had remained "as intact and incorrupt as when she emerged from her mother's womb". (25)
Antonia Fraser, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) has argued that she believes the marriage was unconsummated. "In an age when marriages were frequently contracted for reasons of state between children or those hovering between childhood and adolescence, more care rather than less was taken over the timing of consummation. Once the marriage was officially completed, some years might pass before the appropriate moment was judged to have arrived. Anxious reports might pass between ambassadors on physical development; royal parents might take advice on their offsprings' readiness for the ordeal. The comments - sometimes remind one of those breeders discussing the mating of thoroughbred stock, and the comparison is indeed not so far off. The siring of progeny was the essential next step in these royal marriages, so endlessly negotiated." Fraser goes on to argue that the Tudors believed that bearing children too young might damage their chances of having further children. For example, Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort, was only thirteen when she had him and never had any other children in the course of four marriages. (26)
On 27th March 1502, Arthur fell seriously ill. Based on the description of symptoms by his servants, he appeared to have been suffering from a bronchial or pulmonary condition, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis or some virulent form of influenza. David Starkey has suggested he might have been suffering from testicular cancer. (27) Antonia Fraser, believes that as Catherine was also ill at the same time, the both might have had sweating sickness.
Prince Arthur died on Saturday, 2nd April, 1502. (28) Elizabeth told Henry VII that she was still young enough to have more children. She became pregnant again and a daughter, Katherine was born prematurely on 2nd February 1503. She never recovered and died nine days later on 11th February, her thirty-seventh birthday, of puerperal fever. (29) Henry took her death very badly and "departed to a solitary place and would no man should resort unto him." (30)
Elizabeth's claim to be queen in her own right was infinitely stronger than Henry's to be king. There was nothing in English law to prevent a woman from occupying the throne, but in the political climate of the late fifteenth century such an idea would obviously have been unthinkable, and there is no evidence that the Yorkist heiress herself ever resented the subordination of her rights to the Lancastrian claimant.
Everybody agreed that Elizabeth... was a real lady: "the most distinguished and the most noble lady in the whole of England", as the Spanish ambassador (who belonged to a culture which had high standards in such matters) observed. She was beautiful, gracious, intelligent and, above all, a reconciler and healer in a royal family otherwise characterized by assertive and aggressive personalities. In short, hers was advice worth taking.