This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
In a richly illuminated manuscript, the Vaux Passional, in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, there is an illumination showing the presentation of a book to Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. Behind the throne can be seen an empty black-draped bed, and kneeling beside it is a boy in a green tunic, his red-haired head buried in his arms. Almost certainly this image portrays the young Henry VIII weeping for his mother, Elizabeth of York, who died in 1503 when he was 11.
This illustration suggests that Henry’s closeness to his mother was well known. We have his own testimony to his grief at her loss: four years later, in a letter about the untimely demise of Philip I of Castile – whom Henry had grown to admire when the two met in England in 1506 – the young prince wrote: “Never since the death of my dearest mother hath there come to me more hateful intelligence. It seemed to tear open the wound to which time had brought insensibility.”
Elizabeth of York played an important role in the Wars of the Roses and the early Tudor story. Born in 1466, she was the eldest daughter of the Yorkist king Edward IV, sister of the princes in the Tower, and niece of Richard III, who had her and her siblings declared bastards so that he could claim the throne.
The probable murder of her brothers in the Tower of London in 1483 meant that, in the eyes of many, Elizabeth was the rightful queen of England. Richard III himself contemplated marrying her, but in 1485 Henry Tudor, who claimed to be the heir to the House of Lancaster and had sworn to marry Elizabeth, came from France with an army and defeated Richard at the battle of Bosworth. Thus was founded the Tudor dynasty. The marriage of King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York was hugely popular, for the union of the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster was seen as bringing peace after years of dynastic war.
Elizabeth was intelligent and beautiful. A Venetian report described her as “a very handsome woman of great ability, and in conduct very able,” beloved for her abundant “charity and humanity”. The humanist scholar Erasmus described her in one word: “brilliant”.
That there was affection and tenderness between Henry and Elizabeth cannot be doubted. A Spanish envoy claimed in 1498 that Elizabeth “suffered under great oppression and led a miserable, cheerless life”.
Yet there are many instances of the king showing genuine concern for her health and her happiness; and on this isolated occasion Elizabeth probably appeared subdued because she was newly pregnant and unwell.
In 1613 Sir Francis Bacon asserted that Henry VII was “nothing uxorious, nor scarce indulgent” and “showed himself no very indulgent husband, though she was beautiful, gentle and fruitful”. But there is little else to support his damning assessment of the marriage. The couple’s early years together may have been challenging, for Henry had to overcome his suspicions of his Yorkist bride and deal with her dangerous relations. Yet she was to leave him in no doubt as to where her loyalties lay.
As time passed, Henry clearly grew to love, trust and respect Elizabeth, and they seem to have become emotionally close. There survives good evidence that she loved him, and a moving account of how they comforted each other when their eldest son, Arthur, died.
Kings were not expected to share government with their queens, or to rely on their advice, and certainly they were not supposed to be influenced by them in political matters. Instances of Elizabeth using her influence probably went largely unrecorded, due to her intimate relationship with the king. It was accepted that she might be privy to matters of state, but contemporary advice – which she might have read – urged that her “wisdom ought to appear in speaking, that is to wit that she be secret and tell not such things as ought to be holden secret”. There are instances of Henry paying heed to her concerns, but it was not in his nature to be swayed by her.
Elizabeth performed her queenly role to perfection, understanding exactly what was required of her, and conforming seemingly effortlessly to the late medieval ideal of queenship, which constrained her to a role that was essentially decorous, symbolic and dynastic. She was beautiful, devout, fertile and kind – the traditional good queen.
In the past, historians tended to compare her favourably to Margaret of Anjou, that “great and strong laboured woman”. Yet today, in the wake of a revolution in women’s liberation, it is the proactive Margaret, vigorously fighting her husband Henry VI’s cause, who earns admiration, rather than the passive Elizabeth.
Today, women forge their reputations through their strengths, and what they do. In the 15th and 16th centuries, however, queens were not expected to do very much beyond exemplifying the humane, feminine side of monarchy – interceding for others, being charming to foreign ambassadors, or winning popularity by their charities, their gifts to the poor, their pilgrimages and their pious example. Getting involved in politics and wars were steps too far.
Unlike Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth never identified herself with factions at court; unlike her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, she did not promote a horde of ambitious relatives. Certainly she was not as politically inclined, or as politically active, as Elizabeth Woodville. Once she achieved her ambition to be queen, she interested herself chiefly in affairs that were her legitimate concerns: her household, her estates, her court and her children.
Rising to the challenge
But Elizabeth’s Plantagenet blood and her superior claim to the throne placed her in a difficult position, especially when Yorkist pretenders emerged to contest Henry VII’s throne. How she rose to these challenges we do not know, yet we can surely infer, from the emerging harmony of her married life, that she took care never to be controversial and always to place her husband’s interests first.
From time to time, the king did involve her in diplomatic relations, mainly in helping to arrange their children’s marriages – a task that queens were traditionally expected to perform. It is often said that, apart from this role, Henry allowed Elizabeth no power at all. But evidently it was known that she exercised a gentle, unobtrusive influence on him, as is evidenced by the endless stream of gifts to her from powerful persons who clearly believed that her patronage was worth having.
There are instances of her exercising authority independently of her husband, intervening in matters of law, and petitioning him on behalf of her servants, London merchants and others. When one of her Welsh tenants complained of the heavy-handedness of Henry’s uncle, Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, she did not refer the matter to the king but sent a sharp reproof to Pembroke herself, which apparently achieved the desired result.
In another letter Elizabeth rebuked John de Vere, Earl of Oxford in regard to the disputed ownership of a manor. Here we see her being firm, fair and concerned to right a wrong, and her influence must have been known to be effective, or Simon Bryant would surely not have judged it worth appealing to her for help.
In February 1502 Elizabeth’s brother-in-law William Courtenay was imprisoned in the Tower on a charge of treason. Her accounts show that, a month beforehand, she had taken into her charge his young children, whom she would now succour with their mother, her sister Katherine. This suggests that Henry VII had come to rely on Elizabeth so absolutely that he confided his intentions to her, essentially entrusting her with a state secret of the highest level.
Elizabeth’s legacy to the Tudor dynasty was her Plantagenet blood, which compensated for any deficiency in Henry VII’s descent. Her goodness shines forth in the records; she was greatly loved, and deservedly so. Certainly the sources show that she deserves a lot more credit for her political accomplishments than most historians have been prepared to give her – and that she was highly active within the late medieval queen’s traditional spheres of influence. It is also clear that, far from living in subjection to Henry VII and his mother, Margaret Beaufort, she enjoyed a good relationship with both.
Elizabeth is often unfairly overshadowed by her successors, the wives of Henry VIII, but she was a more successful queen than any of them. For this, her integrity and her sweet, good nature, her memory deserves to be celebrated.
Alison Weir is Britain’s bestselling female historian, and the author of 20 books. She has written biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I and Henry VIII’s six wives. To find out more, visit alisonweir.org.uk.