Some Tudors are more popular than others. In TV series, films and novels, there are Tudors and then, there are Tudors. Without doubt, Henry VIII, his wives and daughter Elizabeth top the polls. The thwarted passions of their lives eclipse the shorter reigns and less popular policies of unluckier siblings Mary I and Edward VI. In spite of a rash of recent Marian rewritings, with authors navigating through her standing as the bloody scourge of mid-century Protestant martyrs, she and her sickly brother still fail to compete. Perhaps their lives do not combine those requisite elements of romance and scandal; perhaps their suffering makes for uncomfortable reading. The reputations of their cousins have been fairly inconsistent, too. Lady Jane Grey’s nine-day-rule has attracted a degree of Victorian romanticism and recently, Katherine and Mary Grey, the short-lived Queen’s sisters have come in for more attention. With the publication of Thomas Penn’s 2011 award winning “The Winter King” the unfashionable Henry VII has finally been allowed to step into the spotlight.
Yet one Tudor remains enigmatic. Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII, seems to elude serious treatment. Historical novels have tried to capture something of her life and surviving portraits allow us direct access to her legendary golden beauty, although aesthetic ideals change across the centuries. In spite of this, her story and emotions are far more distant than many of her contemporaries. She has been sidelined in many modern works, as an appendage or marginal figure, a foil in the brighter firmament of her associates; a supporting cast member in the story of her husband or mother-in-law. Notable full length non-fiction treatments have been undertaken by Nancy Lenz Harvey in 1973 and more recently, Arlene Okerlund; otherwise she the white Queen is shadowy. Even Penn’s consort is disappointingly one-dimensional. Historical accounts emphasise her status; she is a construct of her regality, lineage, submissiveness and fecundity, a distant ideal. She rarely attains any "muscular" characterisation outside of fiction, partly because the surviving documentation allows barely a glimpse into her true feelings. At no point, is it easy to engage directly with her, as one can when reading the stories of Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon or indeed any of the six wives. Even the fortunate-unfortunate Anne of Cleves seems more real, more solid sometimes. Perhaps this is simply because Elizabeth has been portrayed less, lived less long or fell victim to the good intentions of later chroniclers and suffered from her deification by the poets and writers of her son’s and grandchildren’s reigns. By then, she could do no wrong.
Elizabeth’s early life swung between extremes of privilege and privation. She was born in 1466, two years after her parent's unpopular and clandestine marriage. As the eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville, her childhood was spent either in the celebration of kingship or the battle for its recovery. She was frequently in sanctuary, hiding from the Yorkist dynasty’s enemies, while members of her family were slaughtered on the battlefield and murdered in cold blood. Her younger brothers disappeared during the reign of her uncle Richard III in 1483, remembered in history as the Princes in the Tower, while her mother’s large family were also decimated by Richard and his associates, making for a chilling and difficult inheritance. On the death of Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, in March 1485, it was even rumoured that he had ordered her murder so that he might strengthen his claim through marriage to Elizabeth. Historians and novelists have argued since then, about Elizabeth's feelings for her uncle. Was she in love with him? It seems incredible to modern sensibilities that she could feel that way after such a history, for a close blood relation, yet this is an anachronistic reaction that does not take into account the pragmatism required to survive such turbulent times. Did her behaviour at Christmas 1484 imply competition with her aunt and sexual desire for her uncle ? A seventeenth century author, George Buck, certainly thought so and cited a letter supposedly authored by Elizabeth, imagining Anne's death, as proof. However, a number of problems with this letter's authentication and interpretation make it a controverisal piece of evidence. The jury is still out on Elizabeth's true feelings about her uncle. Following his wife's death, Richard issued a flat denial that he had intended to marry his niece, after a panel of bishops and his closest advisors had warned him against it. There is no evidence that he actually intended the match or that Elizabeth herself was keen.
However, this rumour may have helped prompt Henry Tudor to re-invade England. Having sworn to marry her at Rennes Cathedral on Christmas Day 1483, Tudor had already attempted to invade and been defeated by inclement weather conditions and the poor organisation of the English rebels. Defeating Richard at Bosworth Field in August 1485, it was he who claimed Elizabeth as his bride in what was to become a long and fruitful union. Golden-haired and beautiful, Elizabeth was almost a decade younger than her husband. In the seventeen years of their marriage she produced seven, possibly eight, children, of whom only half survived until maturity. Those four; two boys and two girls; were the progenitors of all future Tudor policy and history. Arthur (1486-1502) untied the country with Spain in his short-lived marriage, which would later underpin his brother Henry's "Great Matter" and shape England’s religious future. Margaret (1489-1541) became Queen of Scotland and was the grandmother of both Mary Queen of Scots and Henry Lord Darnley, the parents of the future James I and subsequent Stuart line. The history of Henry (1491-1547) hardly needs repeating, while his younger sister Mary Rose (1496-1533) was Queen of France before becoming grandmother to the Grey sisters. As such, Elizabeth can been truly seen as the mother of the Tudor dynasty; the quirks and turns of its fate had their origins in her womb!
One year of Elizabeth’s life is particularly well documented. The surviving privy purse accounts for 1502-1503 give the strongest surviving indication of her habits and pleasures; through these, something of the real woman finally emerges. She had a love of finery; barges were often sent between the royal palaces to fetch specific gowns she wished to wear, made from purple, blue or russet velvet or cloth-of-gold; it cost 6d just to retrieve these for her use. This was the same wage earned daily by her grooms of the chamber, responsible for shipping her jewels about London, wherever she happened to be. Her interest in literature, drama, architecture and gardening are also evident. She was generous with alms, giving regularly to “poor women,” nuns and local shrines, offering bequests on Saints’ days and to a number of deserving or needy individuals. She recompensed people for their gifts; 13s 4d for Rhenish wine and 10s for a wild boar to be enjoyed at her table. Much of her income was spent on her family circle, supporting the sisters who had been at her side during difficult times and their families. Loyalty was rewarded; even at the end of her life, she remembered a woman who had been nurse to her doomed brother and gave her a gift of cloth, as well as sending alms to a man who had been her father’s servant. She personified the Queenly attributes of charity, piety and approachability, representing the softer side of rule, offsetting the distant and authoritarian masculine role. If medieval and Tudor Kings and Queens were complimentary halves of a complete entity, Henry and Elizabeth were nothing less than successful.
Apparently quiet, long-suffering and dutiful, Elizabeth’s history has often been overshadowed by that of her husband and his mother. Yet she never lost the affection of the English people, in whose eyes she was the legitimate heir of Edward IV and the focus of popular sympathy following the disappearance of the Princes in 1483. Nowhere is this clearer than in reactions to her death, which are reminiscent of another "Queen of Hearts," Princess Diana, in 1997. When Elizabeth lost her life in childbirth, on her thirty-seventh birthday, it prompted an outpouring of national grief and a frenzy of the iconography that cast her as the ideal she is remembered as today. Church bells wailed out across the nation. Colour and light was carefully deployed to intensify the queen’s purity and saintly sacrifice. Dramatic white banners were laid across the corners of her coffin, signifying the manner of her demise, while the main body of it was draped with black velvet surmounted by a cross of white cloth-of-gold. Two sets of thirty-seven virgins in white linen and Tudor wreaths of white and green lined her route to Westminster, carrying lighted candles and the torchbearers wore white woollen hooded gowns. More than a thousand lights burned on the hearse and the vaults and cross of the cathedral were draped in black and lit by 273 large tapers. The coffin was spectacularly topped by a wax effigy of the queen, dressed in robes of estate, her hair loose under a rich crown, a sceptre in her hand and fingers adorned with fine rings. Before burial, the effigy with its crown and rich robes was removed and stored in secrecy at the shrine of Edward the Confessor; so this life-like, regal image of the queen was absorbed into a collection of holy relics and icons, acquiring something of their status. Part of the effigy still exists in the museum at Westminster Abbey, its face, neck and chest painted white, its features regular and serene, unsmiling but beneficent. Every year after this, until his death in 1509, her widower Henry VII honoured the anniversary of her death and the poets of Tudor England continued to do obeisance long after his demise.Elizabeth's funeral effigy, dressed in modern robe and wig
Elizabeth is very much a “lost" or "forgotten" Tudor. Itr is possible to glimpse her at various key life stages but usually as the foil to her husband or her children. Her identity as something of the fifteenth-century “trophy wife” reminds us of her importance in strengthening Henry’s claim to the throne, although Henry was keen to assert his own Lancastrian claim and his right as a conqueror. Even when it came to marriage, his wife's emotions amid times of war and peace continue to elude us. Scenes such as their unity in grief on the death of Arthur, as well as the interests they shared and united front in times of trouble, such as in 1487, suggest a successful union. As the mother of the dynasty, she must retain a central part in the Tudor story in spite of centuries of distance. The woman who paid her fool additional money whilst he was ill, who recompensed her servant when his house burned down and who bought her page’s wedding clothes, was a generous survivor whose experiences we can now, sadly, only see from the outside.