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Episode 73: Tudor Times on Elizabeth of York

Episode 77 of the Renaissance English History Podcast is an interview with Tudor Times on Elizabeth of York, the mother of Henry VIII.

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Book Recommendations on Elizabeth of York
Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World from Alison Weir (Amazon affiliate link)
Elizabeth of York: Forgotten Tudor Queen from Amy Licence (Amazon affiliate link)


(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!)

Heather Teysko: Hello, and welcome to the Renaissance English History podcast. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and our connection to our own humanity. This is episode 73. It’s another joint episode with Melita Thomas of Tudor Times on Elizabeth of York. Just a quick note that the Renaissance English History podcast is a proud member of the Agora Podcast Network, which you can learn more about at agorapodcastnetwork.com.

Remember, you can get more information, resources, and sign up for the mailing list, which gets you extra mini casts and all kinds of stuff, at englandcast.com. There’s a lot of great stuff going on there, like next week’s free mini e-course called Inspiration From Kick-ass Tudor Women, so go to englandcast.com to check it all out. Also, I’m coming up on 75 episodes, so I’m going to have a part on April the 7th, and it’s going to be on Facebook Live. So go to englandcast.com, again, to check that out. I’ll be taking live questions or the questions that you send me in advance, so it’s going to be super fun. Hannah’s going to be making an appearance there, too, so we’re both excited.
Now let me introduce you to Melita. Melita Thomas is a co-founder and editor of Tudor Times, a website devoted to Tudor and Stewart history in the period from 1485 to 1625. You can find it at tudortimes.co.uk. Melita, who has always been fascinated by history, ever since she saw the 1970s series Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson, also contributes articles to BBC History Extra and Britain Magazine. So, Melita, what is it that makes Elizabeth of York special, and tell us a little bit about who she was.
Melita Thomas: I still don’t think that anybody has found that she was an enormously proactive or powerful individual politically, but she’s certainly an interesting woman. Elizabeth of York was right at the heart of the Wars of the Roses. Her influence over her husband and children is definitely there. It’s just that she wasn’t noisy about it. The other interesting information about her comes from her privy purse expenses, which were cataloged in the 19th century and give all sorts of information, unfortunately only about the last year of her life, but give a great picture of what it was like to be a Late Medieval queen. What she spent her money on, what she did with her time, and so forth. I think she’s also been perhaps brought to the forefront by a renewed interest in the Wars of the Roses, because she was very much caught up in that, as the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville and the sister of the Princes in the Tower. That was one of the reasons we wanted to look at her as person of the month. She does bridge that gap between the Medieval period and the Tudor period. It’s interesting to think about how somebody’s life …
Obviously, she was a member of the House of York, but she married the Lancastrian Henry VII. Many people felt she had a better right to the throne than he did, but she never seems to have thought of herself as a queen in her own right. Most women wouldn’t have done at the time. She was very much admired in her own time. Greatly mourned when she died. I haven’t come across a single negative word about her, actually. Every recount was very positive.

Heather Teysko: You mentioned the renewed interest in Elizabeth of York, and the interest in the Wars of the Roses. A certain historical fiction narrative author and TV series makes it seem like maybe she had a romance going on with a particular Yorkist king before Henry. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Melita Thomas: Yes. This is a story that actually began in the reign of Richard III himself. Richard III was her uncle, and there was a story that in early 1485, he was thinking of marrying his niece. Now, unsurprisingly, that gave rise to a good deal of gossip and unpleasant talk, because uncles marrying nieces was not considered any nicer then than it is now. Richard III publicly denied that he’d had any such idea at all. In the late 17th century …

No, actually, in the early 17th century, an antiquarian called George Buck claimed to have seen a letter written by Elizabeth of York to the Duke of Norfolk, Richard’s friend, insinuating that she was in love with her uncle and wanted to marry him, but the letter itself, no one else has ever seen the letter. The transcript of it was, it would appear, doctored by George Buck’s grandson, another George Buck, who forged a number of letters. The Richard III Society has actually transcribed what appears to have been the first manuscript. It’s capable of a number of interpretations. Personally, I wouldn’t have said that the first thing that leaped to my mind would be that she wanted to marry her uncle, but that’s one interpretation that’s been made of it.
The thing is perhaps she had a crush on her uncle, but he had claimed that her parents lived in adultery, that Elizabeth of York herself and her siblings were all illegitimate. He had taken the throne of her brother, and whatever happened to the Princes in the Tower, they disappeared whilst they were on Richard’s watch. Personally, I think it was unlikely that she wanted to marry him, but hey, who knows? I wouldn’t have thought most women in that circumstance would suddenly have a crush on him, but people stay with all sorts of people who are not necessarily ideal partners. I would have thought that being called illegitimate and having your parents branded adulterers and your brother disappearing might put you off a bit.

Heather Teysko: Yeah. Yeah, it might just a bit. Interesting.
Melita Thomas: No, it was certainly talked of at the time, but there we go.
Heather Teysko: If she was illegitimate anyway, it’s not as if she would have provided Richard with any greater claim to anything, if she was branded as illegitimate.

Melita Thomas: Well, that’s the tricky question. Richard claimed that his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was not valid, and there are people who have accepted that claim, both then and since. Legally, the validity of a marriage was a matter for the church courts, and there was never any public airing of the evidence that was supposed to exist, and there was never any church court pronunciation on it, so it was not more than an act of parliament passed by Richard. So I would have thought it unlikely that Elizabeth herself would have thought of her parents’ marriage as invalid.

Heather Teysko: It seems like there’s, like you said, this Victorian idea about her. There’s this stereotype of her that she was just this quiet wife who took care of the children and she taught her children … There’s the idea that she taught Henry how to write and she taught her children personally rather than sending them away and that she was just this mother and this domestic person. What do you make of all of that? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Melita Thomas: I think that’s probably true in the sense a great deal of family affection seems to have been an important facet of her character. She was very close to all of her sisters. She seems to have been attached to her mother and to her children. She comes across as a very affectionate and loving woman all together. Fond of her cousins and nephews and nieces. Actually a really family person. The idea that she taught her children, I don’t know that there’s any actual evidence of it. It’s been identified as a possibility because of the similarity between her handwriting and that of Henry VIII’s, and I think that was the basis. I think Dr. Starkey hypothesized that Elizabeth of York did actually teach him, and it was certainly not impossible, though in the next generation, the humanists recommended that mothers should be the first tutors of their children, so it’s certainly perfectly possible. She wouldn’t have taught Arthur, who, as Prince of Wales, had his own tutors and his own household from a very early age, but she may well have taught the younger ones.
The accounts show that, in fact, both parents, both Elizabeth of York and Henry VII, took a good deal of interest in their children, in their music lessons, in their clothes, in just the general day-to-day parts of life. Her children didn’t live with her, partly because the royal household tended to be centered at Westminster, which wasn’t considered healthy for children, so her children were mostly at Eltham or at Greenwich or Sheen. Elizabeth traveled quite frequently with Henry VII. They moved about the country a fair bit, and it wasn’t suitable for young children to be dragged all over the country. But she visited them frequently, and they came to her, so she was probably closer to them than lots of Medieval queens were.

Heather Teysko: I realize we kind of skipped me asking you about Richard and everything like that. We just kind of skipped and have an assumption here that people will know about who she is, and I realize that’s probably a bit remiss of me to skip over that. So can you tell me just a little bit about who she is? Just kind of her life story.

Melita Thomas: Elizabeth of York was the oldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. She was born in 1466 in the Palace of Westminster, and her parents subsequently had another I think possibly a dozen children, of whom quite a few lived until adulthood. For a first few years, she was her father’s heir, because she only had sisters until 1471, but nobody ever thought of her as a potential queen. It was always assumed that Edward would go on to have sons, and he did. In her early youth, she was betrothed to the Dauphin of France as part of the Treaty of Picquigny, I think it was, the Treaty of Picquigny, between Edward IV and Louis of France. It was arranged that when she was of marriageable age, which was anywhere after the age of 12, but probably, more normally, 14, that she would go to France and become queen of France. She was known as Madame Le Dauphin at court, and everybody assumed that she would one day be queen of France. In 1482, about six months before he died, Edward IV was absolutely horrified, shocked, and people actually thought it led to a decline in his health when Louis of France broke the marriage off. Effectively, Elizabeth was publicly jilted and humiliated. Not very nice for a young woman who was, by that time, nearly 18.
At that time, then, there was talk of her marrying Henry Earl of Richmond, as he was considered to be the last Lancastrian heir, but whether Edward IV really intended such a marriage to take place, I think it’s fairly unlikely. He was more likely to be putting the idea forward to get Richmond into his hand to have him, what should we say, out of harm’s way. It would appear that Richmond’s mother, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, after Edward IV’s death, did put their heads together and decide that a marriage between Elizabeth and Richmond would be the answer to the whole Lancaster/York conflict. In fact, that is what happened. After Bosworth, Henry and Elizabeth were married in the January of 1486. They went on to have seven children, probably. There’s talk of an eighth, but there’s only real evidence of seven. She was crowned as queen in 1487 and was a remarkably popular and successful queen.

Heather Teysko: She, of course, died giving birth after Arthur, after Prince Arthur had died, right? She wanted to have another child.

Melita Thomas: Yes. Yes, it’s very sad. She had her first child birth, it was probably a bit premature, but it may even be that she and Henry had slept together before they were married. It’s certainly possible, but Arthur was probably a bit early, as well. Then, she didn’t have another child for nearly three years, which has led to people wondering if there was a miscarriage in-between. Her second child was a daughter, Margaret, who became queen of Scotland. Then there was Henry, born in 1491; a little girl, Elizabeth, who lived for about three years; Mary, who became queen of France; a little boy, Edmond, who lived about a year, born in 1499.

It seems that Henry and Elizabeth may have stopped sleeping together after Edmond was born, because apparently, she’d had a difficult pregnancy and with three sons, at that time, and two daughters, they didn’t need to have more children.
Then, Arthur died at the age of 15, and Elizabeth comforted her husband with the thought that they could still have more children. She fell pregnant again within a few weeks, which is why I assumed they’d stopped sleeping together, because she hadn’t been pregnant for a while. She had a reasonably healthy pregnancy. She was well enough to travel and go on a progress, but she went into labor probably a little earlier than she was anticipating again. Had a daughter, Catherine, but died when the baby was about 10 days old. Elizabeth died on her 37th birthday, sadly. Henry and her children, they were absolutely distraught at Elizabeth’s death.

Heather Teysko: Yeah, I can imagine. There’s that really touching story about when they found out that Arthur died, that Henry kept it together while she … One of them kept it together for the other one and then lost it right away.

Melita Thomas: Yes, that was it. When they married, it was an arranged political marriage, but all of the evidence suggests that they became attached to each other. I mean, people didn’t think of love in quite the way we do now. It was your duty to love your spouse, and people made as much of their marriages as they could, but they do seem to have been genuinely affectionate. They spent a lot of time together, and they comforted each other after Arthur’s death.

Heather Teysko: What was it like for her with the pretenders, particularly Perkin Warbeck, because so many people supported him? I know there were political reasons behind that, but it must have been very difficult for her, wondering whether this was her brother and having loyalty to her husband. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Melita Thomas: It’s one of those questions you just put in your mind and you think she must have been hoping against hope that it was her brother, in one way, but then absolutely terrified at the thought that it might be her brother, because how would she choose between her brother and her son? I mean, it’s an impossible situation that you dread being in. The evidence suggests that Henry, from fairly early on, was pretty sure it wasn’t Richard of York. Although we don’t know for certain that Elizabeth met Warbeck, she probably did. After the rebellion finally was crushed in 1497, Henry, having promised that Warbeck would be treated well if he gave himself up, he was a man of his word. Warbeck was actually brought to court and lived in the court, so Elizabeth must have seen him. If she recognized him as her brother, she never said so. You’d have to think that if he was her brother, Henry would have probably kept them apart. When she first confronted him, assuming that she did, she must have been disappointed and relieved in equal measure, I guess. It’s really hard to get your head around how you’d feel about that.
Heather Teysko: Yeah. On one hand, like you said, you’d want it to be your brother, but on the other hand, how do you choose, then?
Melita Thomas: Interestingly, Warbeck’s widow … Wife but then eventually widow, because Warbeck tried to escape from his very comfortable, gilded cage and eventually was executed. His wife, Lady Catherine Gordon, lived at the court, was one of Elizabeth’s closest ladies in waiting and friends. It’s all very odd when you think about it.
Heather Teysko: Court life, then, often seems to be very odd in ways that we would think.
Melita Thomas: Yes, it does. The whole everybody is so closely related to everybody else. That’s one of the things about the Wars of the Roses and even the later Tudor period. Everybody is somebody’s brother or sister or cousin or niece. The tangle of loyalties must have been endlessly confusing.
Heather Teysko: I was wondering about her relationship … We talked about this a little bit when we talked about Lady Margaret Beaufort. The idea of the stereotype sometimes about the-
Melita Thomas: The mother-in-law from hell.
Heather Teysko: Yeah. Can you talk to me a little bit about what her relationship was like with her mother-in-law?
Melita Thomas: Again, there’s sort of conflicting evidence about that. There’s a Spanish comment in one of the Spanish ambassador’s letters saying that Elizabeth was severely overshadowed by her mother-in-law and that Lady Margaret dominated her and that the queen, not surprisingly, didn’t much like that. If she didn’t like Lady Margaret, then she must have lived a miserable life, because they were together very, very frequently. Most of the time.

Certainly, the first 10 years of Henry’s reign, when Margaret was often at court. After that, she took a slightly less prominent role, but she was certainly a very much more dominating force than Elizabeth seems to have been. However, Margaret had been on good terms with Elizabeth’s own mother. You have to hope they got on well. There’s no evidence of any quarrels or ruptures between them. I should think that most women would have got a bit fed up with Margaret Beaufort’s constant presence, but I’m not sure there was anything ever really unhappy between them. It’s like any mother-in-law that you get on with pretty well, I suppose, but just sometimes wish wasn’t there. I mean, Margaret Beaufort took a lot of interest in Elizabeth’s children.

Elizabeth, as I said before, she was definitely a family woman, so perhaps that helped her to accommodate the situation. Again, in those times, people lived much more as part of an extended family rather than the nuclear family we expect today, where your mother-in-law comes around for Sunday lunch occasionally.

Heather Teysko: Sure. You talk about her being a family person. That was something else I wanted to ask you about. She spent a lot of her early life being uprooted with the Wars of the Roses and spending time in sanctuary and having a lot of uncertainty, I suppose, while, at the same time, being a princess and having this almost bipolar situation going on, it seems like. Can we play pop psychology to that?
Melita Thomas: Well, that may well have made her very protective of her family. When she was about four, probably one of her earliest memories would have been going into sanctuary in 1471, when the Lancastrians landed. Edward IV was driven from his thrown, and Elizabeth, her mother, took Elizabeth and her sisters into sanctuary at Westminster. It was there that her brother Edward was born. Although she may not have remembered it clearly, being about four, it’s likely to have had an impression on her mind. Edward returned within the year, and from that point until his death, matters were fairly safe, the Lancastrians having apparently been completely defeated. Then, there was the shock, as I mentioned before, when she was no longer going to marry the Dauphin, so her view of her future as queen of France was whisked away from her.
Heather Teysko: Why was the engagement cut off?
Melita Thomas: Personally, I have a sneaking suspicion that it was Louis taking his revenge, because before Edward IV admitted to being married to Elizabeth Woodville, who he married in secret, there had been long negotiations for him to marry Louis XI’s sister-in-law, Bonna of Savoy. There were these negotiations going on. Louis XI was imagining his sister-in-law going to be queen of England, and suddenly, the king announced that he was already secretly married. All very embarrassing and humiliating for Bonna of Savoy. I have a sneaky suspicion that Louis was perhaps getting his own back. The most straightforward reason was that he wanted his son, the Dauphin, Charles, to marry Anne of Brittany. Anne of Brittany was the oldest child and daughter of the Duke of Brittany. She had no daughters and was likely to become Duchess of Brittany in her own right. Now, the French had been circling around Brittany for some time and wanted to snatch it, which they did, so Charles was going to be married to Duchess Anne. That was the ostensible reason for the jilting, but as I say, I should think Louis XI was quite pleased to …
Heather Teysko: To have that reason.
Melita Thomas: … get his own back.
Heather Teysko: Sorry, we were going on about her life and the-
Melita Thomas: The insecurity.
Heather Teysko: Yeah.
Melita Thomas: Yes. So that’s turned up. Then, her father dying and the whole business of her parents’ marriage being called into question, her brother’s crown being snatched from his head, and the brothers disappearing, she must have not known what her future was going to be. Even after Elizabeth Woodville came to an accommodation with Richard III and Elizabeth of York and her sisters left the sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, it was unclear what her future was going to be. She would have heard the stories about her uncle wanting to marry her. As we said before, we don’t know what she actually thought about it. There was also talk of her marrying a Portuguese prince, Manuel, but that came to nothing. Then, at the Battle of Bosworth, waiting to hear what was going to happen. She didn’t know who was going to win. She probably didn’t know who she wanted to win. Then, immediately after Henry VII’s the victory, although he had promised to marry her, it was several months before anything happened, so she was probably somewhat nervous about that.
All of this may well have made her protective of her younger sisters. She had four younger sisters. There was Cecily, Mary, who died at the age of about 14, probably very upsetting … Actually, no, I think Mary was the second one. Died at the age of about 14, which must have been devastating for Elizabeth. Cecily, Anne, and Bridget. Bridget became a nun at Dartford, and there’s notes in Elizabeth’s account for money and presents sent to the convent at Dartford. Her two other sisters … Sorry, three other sisters, Cecily, Catherine, and Anne, were all in her entourage when she was queen. She paid their doweries and she maintained them. The other interesting thing is her general interests were very similar to everybody else of the period. She was interested in music, like all people of the time. She also, I’ve just discovered, was interested in architecture, the same as her father had been. There was a power at Greenwich called Placentia. Henry and Elizabeth did some renovations in the late 1490s, and then there were plans for a whole new palace, Palace of Greenwich, which apparently Elizabeth created a design for herself, which was what it was based on.
Heather Teysko: Interesting.
Melita Thomas: Yeah. She took an interest in those sorts of things. Other interests, she had a number of the usual books of hours, but she also had had secular books. She was the first generation to meet the printing press, and her parents were both being very supportive of the new technology, and Elizabeth, as well, seems to have read and owned books.
Heather Teysko: Well yeah, sure. Her uncle was one of the first patrons of Caxton, wasn’t he? Anthony?
Melita Thomas: Anthony Woodville, yes. The whole Burgundian culture of the late 15th century, which influenced her design for Greenwich, in fact. Had a lot of Burgundian overtones.
Heather Teysko: Did she ever travel outside of England?
Melita Thomas: Once, she went to Calais. She and Henry went to Calais in 1500. They went to meet Philip, Duke of Burgundy, to reestablish trade relations. Relations with Burgundy had generally been good. Burgundy originally had supported Lancaster, but then, Elizabeth’s aunt, Margaret, married the Duke of Burgundy, and Charles of Burgundy had supported Edward IV and helped him regain the throne in 1471. Then, during the 1490s, her aunt Margaret was an avid supporter of Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. It was only towards the end of the century that Henry then reestablished climatic relations. They went to Calais in 1500 and met Duke Philip and possibility his wife, Joanna, who was later queen of Castille, Catherine of Aragon’s sister.

Heather Teysko: Ah, interesting. Would she have been part of those negotiations to marry Catherine to Henry? Well, to Arthur.
Melita Thomas: Yes.
Heather Teysko: Well, of course she would have been.

Melita Thomas: Mothers, queens, it was an important part of their role to negotiate marriages for their children. That was a recognized element of the queen’s duty. She was involved in the negotiations around Catherine’s marriage, particularly, shall we say, the more external courtesies, the exchanging of letters, the writing to [inaudible 00:29:55] Antoine Isabella, asking about their health and about Catherine’s health and recommending that she learn to speak French and drink wine. She was also involved in discussions about the marriage of her daughter, Margaret, to James of Scotland. Henry said, whether he was using it as an excuse or whether it was genuinely true, that Elizabeth of York and his mother had strongly objected to Princess Margaret being married too young and that he bowed to his wife and his mother’s decision that she shouldn’t be married before she was 14.
Heather Teysko: That, in part, right, isn’t that kind of the story that Margaret Beaufort put that in there because of her own difficult [crosstalk 00:30:36]?
Melita Thomas: Indeed, yes. She’d had a child too young.
Heather Teysko: What was Elizabeth’s relationship like with Catherine? It wouldn’t have been that close, because they weren’t-
Melita Thomas: Well, it didn’t last very long. Catherine arrived in November of 1501. She met Elizabeth of York for the first time the day before her wedding, so on the 13th of November. Then, they were all at Richmond Palace for about six weeks before Arthur and Catherine went to Ludlow. When Catherine was obviously widowed the following April, Elizabeth sent messages and sent a letter to fetch her daughter-in-law. There’s not a lot of evidence as to what relationship they had in the final year of Elizabeth’s life. Catherine was actually in a separate household, as was suitable for the dowager princess. No reason to think it wasn’t warm. Elizabeth’s last child was named Catherine. Now, that could have been for her daughter-in-law or for her sister Catherine.

Heather Teysko: Where can people find out more about Elizabeth of York?

Melita Thomas: Well, as we mentioned in the beginning, there are lots and lots of books about her nowadays. There’s Alison Weir Elizabeth of York, Amy Licence’s Elizabeth of York. She’s part of Sarah Gristwood’s book Blood Sisters, which is an interesting look at the interrelationships between the queens of the Wars of the Roses, and quite a bit of fiction about her, though that’s fiction.
Heather Teysko: Yeah. Interesting. Okay, great. Thank you again to Melita Thomas for taking the time to tell us about Elizabeth of York. For more information, go to tudortimes.co.uk, or you can also see the resources available on the Englandcast site at englandcast.com. Remember, next week I’ve got the episode on Edward and Mary’s relationships with France, followed by Elizabeth’s. Not Elizabeth of York, Queen Elizabeth. Then, after that, remember I’m having the 75th episode Facebook Live coffee klatch on April the 7th to celebrate 75 episodes. So check out englandcast.com for all the info on that, as well. Thanks so much for listening. I will speak with you soon.

(Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can buy one of my journals, planners, or virtual tours!)