The Birth and Death of a Tudor Queen: Elizabeth of York

"In child-bed lost she her sweet Life;  Her life esteemed so dear  Which had been England's loving Queen   Full many a happy year." ~Anonymous 17th c. Ballad.
“In child-bed lost she her sweet Life;
Her life esteemed so dear
Which had been England’s loving Queen
Full many a happy year.” ~Anonymous 17th c. Ballad.

Elizabeth of York was born on the 11th of February at Westminster Palace on 1466, and died thirty seven years later at the Tower of London. This was days after she had given birth to a daughter, Princess Catherine, who followed her mother’s sad fate a day later.
Elizabeth probably the victim of puerperal or childbed fever. Some authors like Alison Weir have contested this theory saying it was possibly anemia, whatever the case she was deeply mourned by the people and her husband. Her death Henry VIII later wrote was “the worst news” he had ever received.

"Here lieth the fresh flower of Plantagenet,   Here lieth the White Rose in the Red Set  God grand her now Heaven to increase  And our own King Harry long life and peace."  -From one of the epitaphs hung near her tomb.
“Here lieth the fresh flower of Plantagenet,
Here lieth the White Rose in the Red Set
God grand her now Heaven to increase
And our own King Harry long life and peace.”
-From one of the epitaphs hung near her tomb.

Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV, the first King of the York dynasty. Her marriage to Henry VII was seen by many as the union between the previous warring factions of House Lancaster and House York which she represented. By this time she had born Henry many children, only three had survived, Margaret, Henry, and Mary. When she received the news of her eldest son’s death she consoled her husband and reminded him of his duty then went to her chambers and broke in tears and according to contemporaries, Henry then went to console her. The death of her firstborn weighed heavily on the Queen, she was thirty six at the time and like her husband believed she could secure the succession once more giving Henry another son.
Before she went into labor she broke her confinement to attend the celebration of Candlemas with her husband. They both wore customarily robes of state and went in procession to mass to celebrate the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. She made an offer at the high altar that morning and later during the day while in the Tower, she went into a difficult labor.
She gave birth to a small girl who was named Catherine but like her mother she did not live long.
A messenger (James Nattres) was dispatched to Doctor Hallysworth in Kent to aid in her recovery but he never made it in time and nine days after she was dead. (Baby Catherine had died the day before).

 

"The study of her life illuminates a woman of complex emotions, whose difficult life had taught her the essential qualities of compassion and diplomacy that marked her duration as royal wife and mother. The advent of her son Henry was made possible by the strength of his parents as survivors. Together, Elizabeth and her husband had established, defended and founded the most famous dynasty in English History... In her role as patron of religion and arts, in her piety and compassion and as a figurehead for motherhood correlative with the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth fulfilled her role as Queen and her motto of 'humble and reverent'. In 1972 SB Chrimes described her as 'a very handsome woman of great ability, as beloved, as a woman of the greatest charity and humanity ... good reason to supposed she was an admirable spouse in the King's eyes'. A decade later, Anne Crawford supposed she was 'probably everything a fifteenth-century Englishman could have hoped for in his Queen'. Subsequent chroniclers, and most historians, have idealized Elizabeth as shadowy figure, with quasi-divine status; in Hall's words, she was 'virtuous and gracious', in the eyes of others, beautiful and submissive. The real Elizabeth remains comparatively inaccessible through the lack of surviving records but her success as a wife, mother and queen cannot be called into doubt. She set the standard of queenship for her contemporaries and possibly also for her son, the future Henry VIIII, by which all other consorts could be measured. As the daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother of kings and queens, her offspring would inherit the English throne for the next century, after which they would also claim it as the Stuart line and unite the kingdom for another 100 years. In very real terms, Elizabeth was responsible for delivering the future and her lacy long outlived her. " -Amy Licence, Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen.
“The study of her life illuminates a woman of complex emotions, whose difficult life had taught her the essential qualities of compassion and diplomacy that marked her duration as royal wife and mother. The advent of her son Henry was made possible by the strength of his parents as survivors. Together, Elizabeth and her husband had established, defended and founded the most famous dynasty in English History. ” -Amy Licence, Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen.

Henry gave his wife a dignified funeral. White banners were laid across the corners of her coffin, signifying the manner of her death, while her body was draped with black velvet surmounted by a cross of white cloth of gold.
The coffin was topped by a wax effigy of the Queen, dressed in robes of state, her hair loose under a rich crown, a sceptre in her hand and fingers adorned with fine rings. Her coffin was placed in St. Peter Vincula on February 12 and ten days later followed a funeral route to Westminster. Before the final burial, the effigy with its crown and robes were removed and stored in the shrine of Edward the Confessor where the image of the Queen was absorbed into a collection of holy relics and icons. As with every figure in this period, there was an emergence, almost on a holy scale, of Elizabeth as the good mother, the good wife, and the charitable woman.
Things would never be the same for her family. Henry went into a deep depression, locking himself in Richmond for six weeks following her funeral and while other brides were proposed to him, he would remain a widower. Yet, it was her son Harry who was most affected by her death.
At the impressionable age of 11, he could find no other female role model. Although his grandmother was there for him, the image that his mother crafted for herself was one that Henry came to worship more and one that his wives would be very affected by, as they would all fail to live to Henry’s expectation of the ideal consort.

Sources:

  • Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World by Alison Weir
  • Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen by Amy Licence
  • Tudor by Leanda de Lisle
  • Henry VII by SB Chrimes
  • In Bed with the Tudors by Amy Licence
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