18 JANUARY 1486: The Union of the Red and the White Rose

Their union formed the Tudor rose, a heraldic symbol of the union between two warring factions: Lancaster and York that were now at an end. The reality however, was much more complex. Nonetheless, their illusion did give a lasting impression of peace and helped the country heal. For the both of them, it was the realization of their dreams and ambitions.
Their union formed the Tudor rose, a heraldic symbol of the union between two warring factions: Lancaster and York that were now at an end. The reality however, was much more complex. Nonetheless, their illusion did give a lasting impression of peace and helped the country heal. For the both of them, it was the realization of their dreams and ambitions.

On January 18th, 1486 Henry VII married Elizabeth, Princess of York, eldest surviving daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. There is a not a lot of information regarding the wedding ceremony.  Henry VII had swore he would marry Elizabeth when he had been in exile in Brittany, at  Vannes Cathedral, three years prior. A lot had happened since then though. The papal dispensation that their mothers had secretly plotted to get had to be reissued. The papal dispensation covered the Earl of Richmond and the natural daughter of Elizabeth of York (meaning the Lady Elizabeth, not the legitimate daughter and heiress of Edward IV). It was vital that the couple married under the good eyes of the church. The fifteenth century had descended into chaos when two branches of the Plantagenet House had annihilated each other, their descendants had married off to other noble houses and as a result (after Bosworth), Henry claimed the crown. But he was not blind, conquering and ruling were two different things. He needed stability or at the very least, give the illusion of it to the people to put down civil unrest. Therefore he needed to marry Elizabeth who was the eldest living descendant of the first Yorkist King. The papal dispensation took time, and meanwhile Henry had to establish himself as the realm’s ruler. He established his claim to the throne through his “right of conquest” and his mother, Margaret Beaufort whose family descended from John of Gaunt via his third marriage to his mistress, Katherine Swynford. Nevertheless, his claim to the throne was still seen as weak, which was why parliament asked him on December 1485, two months after he had been crowned, to keep his promise to marry the Princess Elizabeth, and strengthen the claim of his descendants.

"Marrying Edwards eldest daughter was essential to holding that support and trying to restore some stability to the English royal line." (Jones)
“Marrying Edward’s eldest daughter was essential to holding that support and trying to restore some stability to the English royal line.” (Jones)

The pope had finally granted the dispensation at the beginning of the year, and it was confirmed in England by the papal legate, the Bishop of Imola on 16 January, two days later the coupe were married.

The wedding ceremony was officiated by the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bourchier. Given the statement that Henry wanted to make, as it was mentioned earlier, about their union; the Abbey would have been filled with Tudor imagery that Henry had created that gave a new interpretation of the dynastic conflict that is now known as the wars of the roses. By intertwining the white rose of York (Edward IV’s favorite symbol besides the sun in splendor) with the red rose, Henry VII’s union with Elizabeth meant to give a powerful message of peace. Illusory as this was, its impression lasted and their descendants continued to use this device and celebrate the union of their ancestors, Henry and Elizabeth. The building would have been decorated by royal colors such as “purple and gold, silk, ermine and delicate cloths of tissue.” And the bride, adds Licence: “would have been splendidly dressed and adorned with jewels, lace, brocade and ribbons.” She would not have worn white, given that white was not a color worn for wedding dresses.(The first royal bride who did was in fact her daughter-in-law, Katherine of Aragon, when she married Prince Arthur). Elizabeth would have likely worn purple as it symbolized royalty, or taken one of her many new gowns.

After the archbishop placed the golden ring on Elizabeth, the couple said their vows. Following royal custom,  Elizabeth promised to take Henry as her husband “for fairer, for fouler, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to be blithe and amiable, and obliging in bed and at board” till death do them part.

“The wedding was celebrated in the customary fashion, with “wedding torches, marriage bed and other suitable decorations,” followed by “great magnificence … at the royal nuptials … Gifts flowed freely on all sides and were showered on everyone while feasts, dances and tournaments were celebrated with liberal generosity to … magnify the joyous occasion.” (Jones)

Besides the expenses, that no doubt would have been great, Elizabeth would have seen the new rose, the Tudor rose in every corner as well as her husband’s other badges. By intertwining the white rose of York (Edward IV’s favorite symbol besides the sun in splendor) with the red rose, Henry VII’s union with Elizabeth meant to give a powerful message of peace. Illusory as it was, its impression lasted and their descendants continued to use this device and celebrate the union of their ancestors, Henry and Elizabeth.

In recent fiction the two have been portrayed as an unhappy couple, pushed into the marriage by their shrewish mothers, but this is an interpretation based on secondary sources that have come many years (more than a century in fact) after the even took place. Francis Bacon writes very colorfully of Henry, and negatively of his mother but Francis was writing a century after the events took place and the two George Bucks themselves wrote even later. It is very easy to believe these sources, but if we want to look at the couple, we just have to look at their actions, at what they faced and what moral attitudes people had in this period.

"For women of all social classes in the late fifteenth century, becoming a wife marked a significant change in status ... As the wife of the King, although not yet crowned in her own right, Elizabeth was the highest-ranking female in the land but still subject to her husband's rule" (Amy Licence)
“For women of all social classes in the late fifteenth century, becoming a wife marked a significant change in status … As the wife of the King, although not yet crowned in her own right, Elizabeth was the highest-ranking female in the land but still subject to her husband’s rule” (Amy Licence)

A young woman such as Elizabeth would not have missed the opportunity to regain her status as Princess, and much less to be Queen. After being bastardized, and forced into hiding at Westminster, then in the midst of intrigue in the Ricardian court (with rumors -whether they are true or not, we will never know- that her uncle wanted to marry her shortly after his wife’s passing and he later recanted after people protested at such an idea that he began to look elsewhere for a bride, and a spouse for Elizabeth); she would have no doubt welcome this new change in status. Elizabeth was a Princess-born, she had at one point been betrothed to the heir to the French Crown. She could not accept no better offer than to be a Queen, as it would also bolster her family’s position as well and it did. Henry VII rewarded the Woodvilles. Richard Woodville as the third Earl of Rivers lived comfortably, Elizabeth Woodville kept some of her dower properties and when she was present, she always took precedence. Even Margaret Beaufort had to walk behind her as the older woman was Queen Dowager whereas Margaret was just a Countess -a Countess in her own right but a Countess nonetheless. Sir Edward Woodville, Elizabeth of York’s uncle who took after his late eldest brother, was a highly pious and adventurous individual who proved his loyalty many times and was favored. The  Catholic Kings themselves spoke very finely of him after his death. The set of ordinances that Edward IV had made for princes and that Anthony Woodville had supervise for Elizabeth’s brother, Prince Edward, was kept and used for Arthur’s upbringing. And Elizabeth herself was not left behind.

“Like her parents, Elizabeth was a patron of William Caxton and his successor at the  Westminster printing press, Wynkyn de Worde.” (Weir)

Furthermore, as Queen, she ruled over her own court and her own properties (some of which had previously belonged to her aunt, Isabel, Duchess of Clarence).  
As for Henry, this was also a personal triumph. Born to Margaret when she was thirteen (a birth that scarred her immensely. She would have no more children). Given as a ward to William Herbert who was given his uncle Jasper’s earldom of Pembroke, and raised to be the perfect Yorkist to neutralize the threat he might pose in the future, he was then sent into exile after the Lancastrian Readetion failed and every member of the royal house was eliminated. Henry lived in a period of uncertainty, danger, and now it was all over. He was King. And he could also boast of having one important advantage. Many royal couples did not have the luxury of getting to know one another. They were married to this person or that, and whether or not they liked each other, they were expected to fulfill their duties. 

Being King was a realization of his ambitions, and rewarded his supporters well. He allowed for Elizabeth's maternal family to be present. Sir Edward Woodville especially was the epitome of chivalry, and he proved himself in battle many times. He also rewarded his immediately family such as his uncle Jasper and his uncle and childhood playmate, David Owen (his grandfather's illegitimate son) who had been made commissioner of the peace in Sussex and was married off himself to a wealthy heiress. Henry also had the advantage of getting to know his bride (a luxury many royals did not have).
Being King was a realization of his ambitions, and rewarded his supporters well. He allowed for Elizabeth’s maternal family to be present. Sir Edward Woodville especially was the epitome of chivalry, and he proved himself in battle many times. He also rewarded his immediately family such as his uncle Jasper and his uncle and childhood playmate, David Owen (his grandfather’s illegitimate son) who had been made commissioner of the peace in Sussex and was married off himself to a wealthy heiress. Henry also had the advantage of getting to know his bride (a luxury many royals did not have).

Fortunately, Henry  did no have this problem. In the five month period that they waited for the dispensation to come, the two got to know each other. So when they walked down the aisle, they were not complete strangers.

After the ceremonies ended, came the consummation. Elizabeth proved herself an exemplary Queen, living by the virtues of the day and this,  as well as her fertility, made her well-remembered and loved. She would not be crowned until the following year, after “she proved herself” by giving Henry a male heir that autumn, less than nine months after their marriage. Given the speed in which they conceived, it is possible that the marriage could have been consummated before (since being betrothed was as good as being married. And the pope had given his approval, they knew it was only a matter of time before the bull came). But there is also the possibility that Arthur could have been premature.

Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage would remain strong, and the two would later rely on the other when tragedy came.

Sources:

  • Elizabeth of York The Tudors’ Forgotten Queen by Amy Licence
  • Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World by AlisonWeir
  • Tudor by Leanda de Lisle
  • Blood Sisters by Sarah Gristwood
  • Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones
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