Elizabeth of York was queen consort to Henry VII of England, and their marriage gave birth to another Tudor juggernaut: Henry VIII. Caught between all these powerful Henrys, Elizabeth’s story has taken a backseat in the retelling of Tudor history. Nevertheless, to many, she was not just the First Tudor queen, but also the model for all Queens of England. Let’s open our hearts to 42 regal facts about Elizabeth of York.
1. My King, My Family
In her lifetime, Elizabeth of York was (in this order) a daughter, sister, niece, wife, and mother to a King of England. She is the only woman in history to hold these collective honors.
2. Birth Is a Burden
Elizabeth was the firstborn child to a marriage of scandal. Edward IV of England and the beautiful Elizabeth Woodville eloped in 1464, scandalizing the English court. Not only had Edward “stepped down” by marrying the widowed, un-royal Woodville, he had snubbed the French to do so, which is never a good idea.
You see, the King’s court had been in talks to marry Edward to a duchess…all while Edward and Woodville were already secretly wed. In other words, Elizabeth’s birth was a middle finger to the world.
3. Princess Pack-up-and-Run
Elizabeth’s early childhood was marked by war. In 1470, when she was four years old, her father was temporarily deposed. Elizabeth, her younger sisters, and her pregnant mother were forced into religious sanctuary until Edward IV retook his throne a year later. These conditions hardly made for a Disney princess childhood.
4. School Takes Stone to Survive
It’s believed that Elizabeth was educated in alchemy, as her father was an avid book collector and alchemist. Elizabeth was likely taught by ladies-in-waiting from his personal library.
5. I’m Keeping the Name
Elizabeth was raised to be a Queen…of France. In 1475, the 11-year-old princess was betrothed to future Charles VIII of France, who was then just 5 years old. Although the engagement was dissolved in 1482, she would be addressed as “Madame La Dauphine” for the rest of the engagement.
6. A Golden Hair Ahead of the Pack
Inheriting her mother’s fair looks, Elizabeth of York was one of Europe’s most beautiful princesses. At very least, she was regarded as probably the hottest of her siblings, or “the fairest of Edward’s offspring,” as one contemporary put it.
7. Royal Flush
According to lore, Elizabeth’s image inspired the “Queen of Hearts” on modern playing cards. Four-suited playing cards emerged from France around the 1480s, Elizabeth’s heyday. Copies of cards of Henry VII’s court do depict a Queen of Hearts who wears the long-eared “gable hoods” favored by the Queen.
8. Penmanship Is Next to Mothership
Elizabeth was probably the first teacher to a young Henry VIII. According to one historian’s analysis, mother and young son’s handwriting share very distinct marks. Prince Henry’s handwriting—with R’s that look like modern Z’s and Y’s that have a back loop—mirrors one of the few pieces of handwriting left by Elizabeth of York.
These similarities imply Elizabeth educated the future king herself, at least to some degree. As we’ll see, Elizabeth and Henry VIII had quite a close relationship…
9. Exit, Pursued by a Dad
When Elizabeth was still a teenager, her father King Edward died under suspicious circumstances. Some whisper of poison to this day, but it was probably from pneumonia or typhoid fever. Edward lived long enough to draft a will that left her uncle Richard of Gloucester as the Protector of her little brother, now King Edward V.
10. Caught in the Middle
Immediately after the death of Elizabeth’s father, fighting broke out within the House of York. On one side, there was Elizabeth’s maternal family, the Woodvilles. On the other side, there was her uncle Richard. Both sides wanted control of the boy king’s regency, and neither would budge.
11. Let’s Go on a Girls’ Trip
Right before her little brother’s scheduled coronation, Elizabeth’s relatives duked it out. One of her uncles was arrested, and her own half-brother, Sir Richard Grey, was detained. Sensing tensions would only get higher, Elizabeth, her mom, and her other siblings fled into religious sanctuary once more.
12. Leaving the Ladies
Following her father’s death, Elizabeth’s young brother Richard of Shrewsbury was initially with the family in sanctuary. Eventually, however, they were pressured into giving Richard up to her male relatives in anticipation of Edward V’s coronation. Tragically, Elizabeth would see neither of her younger brothers again…
13. Where You at, Bro?
Elizabeth of York now lives forever in the shadow of her lost brothers, the Princes in the Tower. Not long after Richard III took the throne for himself, the boys (aged 12 and nine) failed to show up ever again. It’s not like Princes just get “misplaced.” It’s been speculated (not without merit) that Richard had them “dispatched” to clear his own way to a crown.
14. That’s Not Legit
Just two months after her father’s death, Elizabeth and her siblings were declared legal bastards after her dad’s lusty past came back to haunt them. According to Richard III, the late King Edward IV had been legally married before he wed Elizabeth’s mother. This dissolved the royal union like it never happened, and barred Elizabeth and her siblings from the throne. All hail, Uncle Richard III!
15. Scout’s Honor
After almost a year posting up in religious sanctuary, Elizabeth and her family finally came out of hiding in 1484, but only on the condition that Richard III swear a public oath that no harm or imprisonment would come to them. Two princely vanishings later, an uncle’s basic promise just wasn’t quite enough anymore.
16. Swipe Right at the Battlefield
Soon after their re-entry into Richard III’s court, Elizabeth of York’s mother started scheming to marry her to Henry Tudor, a contender for the throne. Elizabeth was now the oldest heir of Edward IV—the perfect bride for Henry Tudor, who swore an oath to marry her once he seized the English crown.
17. Maybe Some Time Abroad Will Do You Good
Henry Tudor was not Elizabeth’s only suitor during the reign of Richard III. In 1484, Richard was in talks to marry her off to the future Manuel I of Portugal. Of course, Richard III also had other options…
18. Too Close for Comfort
There were also rumors that Richard III planned to marry Elizabeth of York himself, since his marriage to the ailing Queen Anne Neville had failed to produce surviving children. According to some chronicles, Richard was forced to refute these gross rumors, which suggests (thankfully) that uncle-niece marriages were still taboo even in medieval times.
19. Welcome to the Thunderdome
The deciding moment of Elizabeth of York’s life happened on 22 August 1845 at the Battle of Bosworth. No, Elizabeth was not on the battlefield, but the battle’s outcome would still determine her future. Henry Tudor landed in England and, despite having a smaller army, managed to slaughter Richard III in battle. He was declared King of England by conquest, with Elizabeth set to be Queen.
20. It’s Not a Contest, Says The Man Who Is Losing
In truth, Elizabeth had a stronger claim to the throne than her husband, now King Henry VII. She was royal princess and the eldest surviving child of King Edward IV. In contrast, Henry only grasped at royal blood through his descent from an illegitimate line. Henry acknowledged he needed to marry Elizabeth to secure his claim, but he would forever assert that his right to rule was his by conquest—not via marriage.
21. I Can(’t) Do This Without You
As if to assert that the power was his alone, Henry VII crowned himself several months before Elizabeth of York. His coronation took place in the October he seized the throne and some while before his marriage. In contrast, Elizabeth was not crowned until she had given Henry their first heir. Was he making a point?
22. Three Is a Crowd
To many, it was Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, who took the lead at Henry VII’s court. As “My Lady the King’s Mother,” Margaret wore clothes of the same quality as the queen and walked just a pace behind Elizabeth. Such conduct would be unacceptable from any other courtier…but as Margaret had helped orchestrate his invasion, Henry did owe his mom a big one. Elizabeth would just have to tolerate their mother-son closeness.
23. Mama’s Little Spare
Elizabeth seems to have favored her younger son, the future Henry VIII. He certainly resembled her father, Edward IV, and he was raised by Elizabeth alongside her daughters—unlike the eldest Prince Arthur, who was raised in a separate household.
24. Winning Streak Still Going Strong
Although the main Tudor line has died out, Elizabeth’s lineage still survives on the British throne today.
25. Pawn Wars
Elizabeth was rather poor for a queen. In 1495, she ran into debt and pawned off a luxury plate to pay it off. As Queens of England shouldn’t be in the business of haggling, Elizabeth’s dearest husband also lent her the cash to break even.
26. Big Sister to the Rescue
Elizabeth also had to financially support her younger sisters as queen. More in character with his cheapskate reputation, Henry VII refused to provide the York princesses with any dowry. The infamously generous Elizabeth not only paid for her sisters’ husbands, she also footed the bill for her sisters’ food and clothing budget at court.
Does the queenly debt start to make sense now?
27. Better Drunk Than Sick
Elizabeth kept close correspondence with Queen Isabella of Castile, the mother of Catherine of Aragon. To help her future daughter-in-law adjust to England, Elizabeth passed on good advice like “learn French first so you have a common language with us” and “don’t drink the water here, it’s too gross.” Seriously.
Instead, Elizabeth suggested her daughter-in-law develop a taste for wine because England’s water was not safe for humans yet.
28. Oh, Brother
In the 1490s, Elizabeth’s younger brother Richard came back to life! Sort of. A man named Perkin Warbeck came forth, claiming to be the long-lost Prince Richard and rightful heir to the throne. Backed by enemies of the crown, Warbeck became a real threat to the Tudor regime. After he was captured, however, Warbeck crawled back on his princely claims, admitting it was a lie. He was rewarded with an execution anyways.
29. Lose a Fake Brother, Gain a Sister?
Perkin Warbeck was probably not Elizabeth’s long-lost brother. Nevertheless, Warbeck’s wife Lady Katherine Gordon survived to be the queen’s favorite. Upon Warbeck’s capture, the couple were forced to be at court, where Gordon served as Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting. Even after Warbeck’s execution, Gordon enjoyed gifts and support from the royal household.
30. Read It and Retch
A long-lost letter reportedly “proves” Elizabeth had an affair with her uncle, Richard III. In the “Croydon letter,” Elizabeth allegedly begs the Duke of Norfolk to help her marry “her only joy and the maker in the world,” aka her Uncle Richard. Conveniently, the original contents of this letter have been lost to history.
31. Big Heart, Empty Wallet
Some suggest that Henry VII kept Elizabeth poor to satisfy his own ego. Elizabeth’s finances were generally in a bad state for most of her queenship. She was constantly in debt and often had to mend old gowns to wear. These optics paired badly with Henry VII’s reputation for penny-pinching and asserting his inheritance rights over his wife. But there were other things going on…
32. Queen of the Open Hand
Charity was part of a queen consort’s job, but Elizabeth of York made it her passion. Poor people would crowd around her gates with humble offerings of Elizabeth’s favorite foods. She paid them in kind with thousands of pounds, handed out both to beggars and her servants. It’s said no one left the queen’s audience without some financial compensation.
33. Business and Pleasure?
Despite the political origins of their marriage, Elizabeth and Henry appeared to be happy—maybe even in love. There were no reports of adultery on either side of the match.
34. What’s up, Pussycat?
Indeed, counter to the legend of Henry’s miserly grip over his wife, there’s evidence to suggest he gave her plenty of personal gifts and luxury items. Most extravagantly, the king once gifted Elizabeth a live lion for her own “amusement.”
35. Always Look on the Bright Side
In 1502, Elizabeth lost her eldest child, Prince Arthur of Wales, to illness. He had been married to Catherine of Aragon just months before. As Henry VII broke down in grief, it was Elizabeth who comforted him. She reminded Henry they still had two daughters and a son to look out for, that Henry himself had survived great odds to become king, and they were young enough to have even more heirs.
36. Pimp My Ride
Upon the death of her son Arthur, Elizabeth looked out for his widowed wife, Catherine of Aragon. The queen paid for Catherine’s mourning litter herself, and insisted the teenager be removed from the sickly palace where she was staying.
37. We’ve Come Full Circle
Less than a year after her eldest son’s death, Elizabeth was pregnant again. In 1503, she gave birth to a girl named Katherine…but neither mother nor child would survive long. Elizabeth died from postnatal complications on February 11, 1503—her 37th birthday.
38. The Final Pit Stop
Elizabeth of York was not supposed to die in the Tower of London. Originally, her labor was to take place in the newly-designed Richmond Palace. Unfortunately, her water broke early. She was rushed to the infamous Tower, which was used to seeing death anyways.
39. King of Grief
Henry VII was reportedly inconsolable at the loss of his Elizabeth, especially so soon after the death of their oldest son, Arthur. He isolated himself for months and would speak to nobody but his own mother.
40. Not Fit for a Nursery
Elizabeth’s final and fatal childbirth in 1503 was also the final royal childbirth to take place in the Tower of London. From then on, every royal baby has been delivered in a palace, hospital, or some other non-Tower structure.
41. Moved to Death
Henry VII was buried next to his wife in effigy at Westminster Abbey. Of course, it wasn’t all rest in peace. When her descendant James I of England was interred there later, the wood casings of her lead coffin were removed, and her tomb was opened to make way for the new member of the Dead Kings’ Club.
42. No One Beats Ma
Her son Henry VIII definitely revered his mom’s memory, and took the passing of his “dearest mother” as a “hateful intelligence.” In 1512, he showcased his reverence for his dearly-departed mother by commissioning a bronze-gilt statue of Elizabeth. The inscription emphasizes not only her “fruitfulness” in providing heirs, but also her chastity and her “prettiness.”
Indeed, some historians actually speculate that no woman—wife or mistress—would ever hold a candle to Elizabeth of York in Henry’s eyes.