Elizabeth of York did not always live the charmed life a Princess, many of her childhood and teenage years were filled with tragedy. At the tender age of three she experienced her first political upheaval and the murders of her grandfather and uncle. She was forced into sanctuary twice, the second time after the death of her father and the subsequent deposing and denigration of her family. The worst tragedy that would befall her family was the disappearance of her brothers, yet young Elizabeth had to endure. Endure she did, she survived and went on to take back her rightful place on the throne.
Events like these could easily have an adverse affect on any individual, yet Elizabeth of York had more strength than she is often given credit for. Perhaps it was the many tragedies in her life that helped shape her as the kind, generous and loving woman that was so beloved by her subjects, her husband and her children.
Historian Amy Licence joins us to discuss Elizabeth of York, the heart of the Tudor family.
You said that Elizabeth of York’s reputation and that of her family has “to an extent been determined by certain responses perpetuated by early historians”. What are some of the common perceptions of Elizabeth of York you wanted to address in this book?
Elizabeth has traditionally been portrayed as being a very passive figure, simply a vessel who married and procreated. This began early. Poems composed during her lifetime present her as a literary trope, beautiful, passive and fruitful. Even the memorial on her tomb in Westminster defines her primarily as the mother of Henry VIII and accounts written by Tudor historians were keen to present her as helping found the Tudor dynasty. I wanted to look beyond this and focus on Elizabeth as a survivor, particularly during the turbulent years before she became Queen, which shaped her character.
Elizabeth had some fascinating women in her family, notably her grandmothers Jacquetta of Luxembourg and Cecily Neville, her mother Queen Elizabeth Woodville and her mother-in-law Margaret Beaufort. All of these women had lived through turbulent times, do you think their influence, directly or indirectly, may have given Elizabeth some strength during her own troubled times?
Yes, there is little doubt in my mind that what Elizabeth witnessed happening to her own mother and grandmother shaped her understanding of Queenship and the fickle nature of fortune. She was very young when they fled into sanctuary the first time, when her mother gave birth, but old enough for it to have made an impact on her that she never forgot. There were times when she did not know if she would see her father again or whether the family would pull through. The lives of Margaret Beaufort and Jacquetta were a mixture of loss and determination; they had to keep fighting for their children and survival, even in the face of some severe setbacks. I do think that their example provided Elizabeth with a model of strength, but to be honest, I think all these women understood that they were at the mercy of the wheel of fortune and there were many aspects of their lives over which they had little control. In these cases, it is little wonder that they turned to other sources of hope; religion and perhaps sympathetic magic such as many women used in childbirth or when in danger. We should remember too, that in comparison with our lives, these women experienced turbulent times but they were pretty much par for the course among the medieval aristocracy. They had no choice but to adapt to whatever was thrown at them and must have been resilient.
Much is made of the gap of five months between Henry Tudor taking the throne and his marriage to Elizabeth of York. Recently some rather shocking allegations have been presented in fiction and many historians are eager to present the marriage as unhappy. Why do you think people are so eager to seek out flaws in their marriage?
I see nothing sinister in the gap at all; there were sound reasons for the marriage to take place when it did: an outbreak of the sweating sickness, a session of Parliament, Elizabeth’s illegitimacy to repeal and the second papal dispensation. Why would he need to rush the marriage? These things take time to arrange, it they are going to be done properly. I didn’t come to the topic with any fixed idea about the marriage, I wanted to go where the evidence led me and although we can state that it wasn’t a love match, the grief they shared over Arthur, the Lady Chapel at Westminster and the change in Henry after Elizabeth’s death, suggest he genuinely cared for her.
There have been some negative portrayals of the marriage recently; the pendulum of “heroism” has swung away from Henry (if he ever really had it) but it is important to state that the most powerful versions have been in fiction. I think it is also a result of the increased interest in Richard III: people can find it difficult to look at the two dispassionately and if certain writers put a positive spin on Richard, then they often make Henry his foil and vice versa.
You’ve presented a rather different relationship between Elizabeth and her mother-in-law Margaret Beaufort than we are used to seeing, rather than the domineering, fanatical monster we have seen Margaret portrayed as over the years, you show that they worked together in common causes and say that she may have indeed been a “tower of strength” for Elizabeth. How do you think the perception has evolved that Elizabeth’s influence was diminished by the presence of her mother-in-law?
Yes, I’ve seen many interpretations of Elizabeth and Margaret’s relationship that presents the mother-in-law totally dominating the wife but found very little actual evidence to support this. There is an example of a comment made by a foreign ambassador that Elizabeth was resentful, but this is qualified by a comment to the effect that all people in her situation would be, and I think this is the heart of the problem. Lady Margaret is a well-documented strong character; we know how tough she was in order to survive and the active role she played at her son’s court. The representation she has come in for recently, particularly in relation to Elizabeth and the fates of her brothers makes a caricature of a very complex woman. The overbearing mother-in-law is a popular trope in literature and popular culture, something we can all recognise but we must be wary of applying this to the past and to this specific relationship. By drawing on this convention and contrasting the women’s characters, assumptions have been made about how they felt about each other. It is a very modern assumption to consider this to be the defining aspect of their relationship; no doubt there were some difficult moments but both women strike me as pragmatists and I suspect they worked well together because it was in both of their interests to do so.
Elizabeth’s own mother, Elizabeth Woodville’s retirement from court into a religious life is still the subject of much speculation, from her being involved in the Lambert Simnel plot to Margaret Beaufort’s jealousy forcing her to leave court. However it seems that Elizabeth Woodville stayed involved in her daughter’s life and attended court and all of her daughter’s labours until her death. It seems a lot of this speculation comes from very early historians, why do you think they found her retirement from court life so suspicious?
I think it is all part of the general negative press that Elizabeth has received. She has been criticised by historians for almost everything she did and seems to be a convenient scapegoat for many of the problems of Edward’s reign and what happened after his death. From pride and witchcraft to ambition and political meddling, almost every possible female insult has been levelled at Elizabeth and her actions have been judged very harshly, such as relinquishing her son Richard of York from sanctuary and coming to terms with Richard III. I think it entirely likely that she retired voluntarily, after suffering a series of terrible personal losses. She simply made way for her daughter: this does not have to be interpreted as a punishment and there is no evidence to link her with the Simnel plot. If Henry had not trusted her, he would not have considered offering her in marriage to the King of Scotland in 1488. It seems to me that Elizabeth Woodville was being tactful and diplomatic, retiring to a more quiet and contemplative life as she reached old age.
How do you think Elizabeth’s experiences helped shape her as a mother? She came from a close family herself and she seems to have taken a more hands-on approach with her children than was usual for the time, do you think the great losses she suffered may have made her more protective of her children?
I do think family was very important to Elizabeth; she had been through times when it was really all she had left. She had also seen her mother lose children and experienced the losses of her brothers. We can also see that she was close to her sisters and keen to promote their interests where she could. I’m not sure if she was more protective of her children; she would have known that if they were going to succumb to illness, there was little she could do; I think it made her appreciate family more and not to take them for granted, to have them close to her whenever she could.
After many successful labours Elizabeth died in childbirth, and as you discussed she seemed unprepared for the onset of labour. Was it unusual for a woman to die in childbirth after having borne so many children?
Childbirth was risky at any time, whether a mother had delivered several children already or not. Some died bearing their first child whilst others had many successful labours and would appear to be fairly experienced. However, nothing could protect them from infection or complications that could arise during any birth. The details of Elizabeth’s final labour do suggest that something went wrong. She had planned to lie in at Richmond and hadn’t let taken to her chamber when her labour began in the Tower; accounts describe her as being taken by sudden pains but she got through the actual birth. The time lapse of eight days suggests that she did ultimately die of puerperal fever, which was sadly very common.
Do you think Elizabeth of York was integral to the success of the Tudor dynasty?
I do, as a mother and a wife. She did not play an active part in politics but I believe she exerted a quiet influence behind the scenes: as contemporary texts on Queenship make clear, the role of a Queen was to compliment and soften her husband’s extremes, to be a paragon of charity, maternity and piety. Elizabeth was clearly an approachable, sympathetic figure, beloved of the people and made good use of the female roles that were available to her. She brought this to her marriage and created a stable, warm family unit. I believe she was her husband’s rock.
Writing about medieval and Tudor history, with a particular interest in women’s lives and experiences. I’m the author of four books and have also written for The Guardian, BBC History website, The New Statesman, The Huffington Post, The English Review and The London Magazine. I appeared in a BBC2 documentary “The Real White Queen and her Rivals” and have been interviewed numerous times live on radio. I’ve also been shortlisted twice for the Asham Award for women’s short fiction.
As Tudors go, Elizabeth of York is relatively unknown. Yet through her marriage to Henry VII she became the mother of the dynasty, with her children including a King of England (Henry VIII) and Queens of Scotland (Margaret) and France (Mary Rose), and her direct descendants including three Tudor monarchs, two executed queens and, ultimately, the Stuart royal family. Although her offspring took England into the early modern world, Elizabeth’s upbringing was rooted firmly in the medieval world, with its courtly and religious rituals and expectations of women. The pivotal moment was 1485. Before then, her future was uncertain amid the turbulent Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth being promised first to one man and then another, and witnessing the humiliation and murder of her family. Surviving the bloodbath of the reign of her uncle, Richard III, she slipped easily into the roles of devoted wife and queen to Henry VII and mother to his children, and has been venerated ever since for her docility and beauty. Yet was she as placid as history has suggested? In fact, she may have been a deeply cultured and intelligent survivor who learnt to walk a difficult path through the twists and turns of fortune. Perhaps she was more of a modern woman than historians have given her credit for.