How Elizabeth of York paved the way for her granddaughters to rule
What changed between Elizabeth of York’s age and her granddaughters’ time that allowed them to rule in their own right? Leading historian Alison Weir explores the claim of the heiress of the House of York and how, though she was passed over to rule, she laid the groundwork for Tudor generations to come…
In January 1486, when Henry VII seized the throne of England, he married Elizabeth, the heiress of the House of York. He took care to be crowned before the wedding, so that it should not be said that he owed his kingly title to his wife. In fact, Elizabeth of York was the true heir with the better claim.
Her father, Edward IV, had died unexpectedly in 1483. He left behind a male heir and a ‘spare’, but the ‘Princes in the Tower’ – as they would become known – disappeared in the autumn of 1483, after their uncle claimed the crown for himself, becoming Richard III. They and their siblings had been declared bastards, on highly dubious grounds. Many still regarded Elizabeth, their eldest sister, as the true heiress to the throne.
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After Richard III fell at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, no one supported Elizabeth’s claim to the throne because she was a woman – her value was purely matrimonial. Parliament had already declared that Henry VII was king. (It was not until the 1530s that their son, Henry VIII, acknowledged that his title had come primarily from his mother.)
But back in 1485, Elizabeth, however, had had other ideas. If we believe a contemporary rhyming chronicle, The Song of Lady Bessy, she declared: “Queen of England I must be.”
On Henry VII’s accession, the courtesy and honour accorded to her must have given her cause to hope that she would soon be queen in her own right and rule jointly with Henry, as Ferdinand and Isabella did in Spain. She may have been disconcerted to learn that, despite Henry having pledged, in 1483, to marry Elizabeth to give legitimacy to his title, he had assumed the style of king in his own name on the battlefield at Bosworth, without any mention of her at all.
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Furthermore, when she reached London, she might have found it strange that there was no state welcome in the capital, or any celebrations to mark her arrival. These were the first indications that her marriage to Henry VII was not to be regarded as the means of his kingship. Had she processed through the city in triumph, it might have looked as if she herself was the rightful sovereign.
There is evidence to suggest that Henry was in no hurry to marry her. It was his intent that no one should ever say that he owed his crown to his queen (although many did). He declared he would not be his wife’s “gentleman usher” and was resolved to be crowned and have parliament recognise his title before he married her. He could not wait to defer his coronation until he was married, yet a joint ceremony with Elizabeth might have sent out the message that they were equal sovereigns. And so there was no queen at his coronation, and the service was hastily amended to omit all references to one.
Why didn’t Elizabeth of York assume the throne?
Yet Elizabeth was the undisputed heiress of Edward IV. A political poem of 1487 acknowledged that Edward IV's title had “fallen to our sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth, his eldest daughter; to her is come all the whole monarchy. The crown therefore and sceptre imperial she must have without division.”
Undoubtedly, she had a better claim to the throne than Henry did, yet there is no record of her resenting Henry’s relegation of her to the role of queen consort. Although the Pope himself called her the undoubted heir of Edward IV, and there were those who thought that Henry and Elizabeth should reign as joint sovereigns, no one seriously considered that a woman could rule alone as queen regnant. On the contrary, her throne was the inheritance she brought to her husband. Traditionally, women could transmit the crown – the royal houses of Plantagenet, York and Tudor derived their claim through the female line – but not wield sovereign power.
An enduring prejudice
There was no Salic law in England that barred women from the throne, as there was in France, so there was nothing to prevent a woman from ruling – but memories of female misrule were long. People remembered how, in the 12th century, the haughty, overbearing Empress Matilda’s attempt to pursue her lawful claim to the throne had resulted in a civil war so bloody that it had been said that “God and His saints slept”. That experience had left the English with an enduring prejudice against female rulers.
The notion of a woman wielding dominion over men was seen as unnatural and against the laws of God and Nature. As the Duke of Buckingham bluntly put it: “It was not women’s place to govern the kingdom, but men’s.” Women were regarded as weak, irrational creatures, unfit to lead armies in battle and interfere in affairs of state. In law, they were regarded as infants. Their primary purpose was to be wives and mothers, subordinate to their menfolk, in whose interests their marriages were arranged. Thus no one spoke out in favour of Elizabeth of York ascending the throne in her own right as England’s lawful queen. It would be left to the granddaughter who was named for her, Elizabeth I, to prove that a woman could rule successfully.
Even so, there were those who felt strongly that Henry VII ruled only in right of his wife, and he remained unpopular “for the wrong he did his Queen, that he did not rule in her right”.
How could Mary I and Elizabeth I rule, when their grandmother did not?
Nearly 60 years after Elizabeth was passed over, her son, Henry VIII, placed his daughters in the direct line of succession after his son, the short-lived Edward VI. This is how England (after the short nine-day rule of Lady Jane Grey) came to be ruled by two sovereign queens, Mary I and Elizabeth I, between 1553 and 1603.
Unlike Edward IV, who left two sons, Henry had just one male heir and was concerned to assure the succession of the heirs of his body. In 1485, there had been several male claimants to the throne with arguably strong claims. In 1544, when Henry VIII’s Act of Succession was passed, there were no other male heirs of the Tudor line, so Henry had no choice but to look to his daughters. Furthermore, by then, several European royal women – notably Isabella of Castile, Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy – had proved that women could wield sovereign power effectively.
There remained a strong perception that reigning queens needed husbands to rule in their name. When Mary I came to the throne in 1553, her immediate priority was to find a suitable match, and she settled on Philip of Spain, a marriage that was to have disastrous consequences. It was left to Mary’s sister, Elizabeth I – the ‘Virgin Queen’ – to show that a woman could rule alone.
Small wonder that Henry VII’s biographer, Sir Francis Bacon, writing in the early 17th century, expressed disapproval at the king passing over Elizabeth of York’s better claim to be England’s ruler and portrayed their marriage – incorrectly – as miserable. We can only wonder if, had Elizabeth been given the chance to exercise sovereign power, she would have been as successful as her namesake granddaughter.
Alison Weir’s latest novel and the first in the Tudor Rose trilogy, Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose is out now in hardback published by Headline (2022)