The Mortality Of Elizabeth Of York: “For lo, now here I lie.”

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  The day was February 11, 1503. The bells of Saint Paul’s Cathedral tolled while London’s wearied masses collected in assured astonishment of the news. The Queen was dead. Queen Elizabeth of York had been introduced to the realm 37 years to the day of her death in an England much different than the one she left. She was the first child of King Edward IV and her namesake, Elizabeth Woodville. Born amidst the turmoil of the dynastic wars; her formative years were spotted with war, instability, death and betrayal. Narrowly escaping the grasp of her Kingly uncle who stood in place of her misfortunate brothers, the succession of a Lancastrian incumbent would change her fortunes. Following the defeat of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, Elizabeth married the freshly crowned King Henry VII. By uniting their houses formally, the Tudor dynasty sought to establish itself as the premier royal house at all means necessary. England’s new Queen would play an essential part in her country’s security by providing the necessary heirs to its future. She would hardly disappoint. Nine months and one day after her wedding, she gave birth to the golden prince meant to be the first King to receive the crown by means of natural inheritance since the days of Henry VI; Prince Arthur.

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Elizabeth of York’s parents; Elizabeth Woodville and King Edward IV. The marriage that nearly ended Edward’s brief tenure as King and the first true wedding of a monarch to a commoner.

        In the course of her life, Elizabeth would provide seven additional children as adornments to the Tudor tapestry. By all accounts, Elizabeth would prove herself to be a figurehead for the ideal late medieval Queen. It is even suggested that through her, The Tudors earned their trademark coloring. Erasmus described her in singularity as “brilliant.” A Venetian report detailed Elizabeth as “a very handsome woman of great ability, and in conduct very able,” while commenting personally on her “charity and humanity”. She may have even conducted some power herself from underneath of her husband’s iron first in forms of rebuking letters sent to members of the peerage. Yet, despite all of her glories and characteristics, she too proved to be made of clay. Succumbing to post partum infection following the birth of a short lived daughter just over a week later. Her distraught and notoriously thrifty husband spent lavish sums on a funeral fit for her importance in a sum estimated at 721,270 in modern terms. A London lawyer delivered an elegy which effectively summed up the realms opinions of their lately departed Queen:

“If worship might have kept me, I had not gone,

        If wit might have me saved, I needed not fear,”

 

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The funeral effigy of Elizabeth of York that survives today.

 

        That same lawyers name was to return to the chronicles of history again and again; Thomas More. Specifically when he served under the son of Elizabeth; Henry VIII. Ironically, it was from the death of Henry’s mother that one of the most prolific influences would enter his life stage. Henry, described as Elizabeth’s “loving son”, was a mere eleven years old at the time. His entire life had been turned on its axis the previous year following the death of his eldest brother. This left him as his father’s sole male heir. Gone was the Tudor’s golden egg and in its place, a scarcely known boy whose life had predetermined towards the church prior. As one could only imagine, the events of the past two years would prove to be traumatic for the pubescent Harry but how affected was he by the passing of his mother?

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The Vaux Passional.

        The Vaux Passional is an illuminated manuscript dated from the late 15th or early 16th century. In its rare, original binding lays some means to answer this question. The books first miniature depicts the same manuscript being presented to a regent that is thought to be Henry VII. Yet, just past that lays its true peculiarity. The background of the illustration contains two young girls before a fireplace in colors of mourning. Besides them, a young man seeming to weep into a bed of black cloth. His face hidden despite his full head of reddish-golden hair. It is almost with complete certainty that one can suggest these three children represent Margaret, Mary and Henry following the death of the Queen. Given it is likely a contemporary source, this manuscript seems to know better than we may about the reaction of the young Prince. Be it of her death of the events that had transpired in such quick succession. The miniature depicts not the Kingly man that Henry was to become but a small, broken boy. In a letter to Erasmus in 1507, Henry would later reflect following the death of Philip the Handsome that “never since the death of my dearest mother hath there come to me more hateful intelligence. And to speak truth, I was the scanter well-disposed toward your letter than its singular grace demanded, because it seemed to tear open the wounds to which time had brought insensibility. But indeed those things which are decreed by Heaven are so to be accepted by mortal men.” Henry was particularly fond of the archduke who was married to his wife’s sister and who had visited him in 1506. In many ways, Henry saw Philip as the ideal man of his era against the advisement of Henry’s own father. This death seemed to shake the Prince to his core. Another death so close to home as his life seemed virtually full of them.

 

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A bust of what could be a young Henry; far be it from his throne and unlikely to ever seat one.

 

        Henry (by this time Harry) was no doubt profoundly upset by the lost of his mother which, to a modern audience, should come as no great surprise. Yet, by the contemporary standards of the day, it should be noted with some air of curiosity. Royal mothers were notoriously aloof in their parenting style and often too busy with matters of Queenship to be much concerned over their children. The job of caring for royal children was often shuffled off to high ranking members of society who saw it not as a burden but as a rare honor and privilege. From virtually the moment of birth, Queens of medieval society vacated their responsibilities. To breastfeed one’s own child was unbecoming of their station and thus, the honor was passed to a wet nurse and a number of attendants. From royal cradle rockers and beyond, A queen’s place was by the side of her husband and within her court. Children would be established in their own residences where their education and upbringing was monitored by those appointed to do so. That is not to say that a Queen did not care greatly for her children but it was merely the way of it. As best stated in Virtuous or Villainess? The Image of the Royal Mother from the Early Medieval to the Early Modern Era: “On the one hand, the royal mother is expected to produce and nurture future heirs who will ensure dynastic and political security, but on the other, a woman who appeared to have too much influence was seen as meddling, overwhelming in her authority, and a threat to the stability of the realm.” Due to this, Elizabeth of York would be expected to do much the same.

       However, it is worth noting that Elizabeth’s own childhood was less than traditional by standards of the day. Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth of Woodville, had stolen herself and her family to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey twice. First when Edward IV was forced to flee England due to the rebellion of his once allies; George, Duke of Clarence and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. It was there that she’d give birth to her son and heir, Edward. The second time would be when her brother-in-law took possession of that same Edward and seized the title of Lord Protector. Rife with instability, Elizabeth would have likely spent vast amounts of time with her mother and her siblings. It is reasonable to suggest that her bond would have been more familial than most of her station due to this. Additionally, Elizabeth Woodville was a commoner before her royal marriage and was likely to have a much more hands on approach to parenting due to this. Thus, it is not difficult to suggest that Elizabeth of York’s relationship with her children would be reflective of her own childhood.

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The urn of Westminster Abbey thought to contain the skeletal remains of Elizabeth of York’s brothers; Edward and Richard.

        Little is known about Henry’s early life before the death of Arthur. It seemed almost not worth recording to contemporary scholars at the time. Incredulously, Henry’s grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, would incorrectly label his birth in her Book of Hours and seemed to amend it at a later date. However, it is within his obscurity that we may better understand Henry’s relationship with his mother. The evidence of deviation in royal protocol lays in an unexpected yet obvious place; Henry’s handwriting. As noted in David Starkey’s Mind Of A Tyrant series, Henry’s handwriting is uniquely his own and nothing like that of his tutor. Instead, it is much like his Queenly mother’s which suggests that she was the one to teach him in the first place. Though there is little known evidence of Elizabeth’s handwriting that remains, what we do have shows staunch similarities even to the untrained eye. Furthermore, Starkey recalls “it’s characteristic enough in weight, rhythm and letter forms to prove conclusively, I think, that Elizabeth was the first teacher of her daughters and her second son, Henry.”

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Elizabeth of York’s signature.

        Though we may never know the true extent of the bond between the two, the mere suggestion that the future King would be tutored firstly by his own mother allows us to better understand the man himself. Be it his devastation in the face of her death which smacks of modern maternal bonds, or how it later shaped him. All of this provides modern audiences with the early operative pieces of what was to be a Freudian daydream. In so many ways, the new age idealism that Henry aspired to can be traced back to Elizabeth of York and the marriage that begot him. His desire to love the woman he married was in homage to his father who was thought to never stray from his marital bed. The traits of loyalty, fidelity and humility which he sought most in a wife, was a mold first cast by his mother. A mold that had not had time to be broken due to her early and untimely death. Freudian theory tells us that his mother would have become something of an idolatrous figure for him. Aspiring to a flawless and immortal figure which could never belong to this life. All of this and more proves that while Elizabeth’s body may have been laid to rest in ceremony and pomp in the luxury of Westminster Abbey, her presence was very much there in Henry. All of his decisions regarding love, loss, standard and ultimately what it was to be King was due in part to her. That figure of the old world who died in the new. She who heralded the dynasty which would become the stuff of speculation for centuries to come; Elizabeth of York.

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Sources:

Weir, A. (2014). Elizabeth of York.

“Elizabeth of York: a Tudor of Rare Talent.” History Extra, 7 Aug. 2018, http://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/elizabeth-of-york-a-tudor-of-rare-talent/.

“Sir Thomas More: ‘A Rueful Lamentation’, 1503 [Poem on the Death of Queen Elizabeth of York].” The Life of Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/ruefullamentation.htm.

“The Vaux Passional.” Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – The National Library of Wales: Aberdulais Mill, Glamorgan, http://www.library.wales/discover/digital-gallery/manuscripts/the-middle-ages/the-vaux-passional/.

Wight, Colin. “Beaufort Book of Hours.” The British Library, The British Library, 24 Apr. 2012, http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/henryviii/birthaccdeath/beaufort/index.html.

 Fleiner, Carey, and Elena Woodacre. Virtuous or Villainess?: the Image of the Royal Mother from the Early Medieval to the Early Modern Era. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Starkey, David. Mind Of A Tyrant.

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