Henry VII and his children in mourning for Elizabeth of York. An idealised presentation of Henry, his children , Margaret and Mary sitting in front of the fire while a young Henry jnr weeps into his mother’s empty bed. From the Vaux Passional, a 15th century manuscript.
Elizabeth gave birth to her son Arthur on the 20 September 1486. Arthur’s life was destined to be short and he died on 2 April 1502. And so the fickle wheel of fortune turned once more with Arthur’s parents feeling the same pain, despair and shock that are recorded as having engulfed Richard lll and his Queen, Anne Neville on the death of their small son Edward. Perhaps Henry’s pain was cushioned somewhat by the knowledge that he had a spare heir, Henry Jnr.
Elizabeth is often quoted as having said, an in attempt to comfort Henry that they were young enough to have another child. (1) Whether she said this or not – how would such a personal conversation be known to others? – as sure as eggs are eggs – Elizabeth did indeed become pregnant soon after , a pregnancy that we all know resulted in her death. So thus in another strange coincidence Henry also lost his wife a few short months after the death of their son as did Richard.
Elizabeth’s bronze effigy on her tomb, Westminster Abbey, Torrigiano
Elizabeth’s funeral effigy probably modelled on her death mask @Dean and Chapter Westminster Abbey
It is said by some that Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage was a happy one, they both growing to love one another over the years. Alternatively you will read that she was considered by some to have been kept subservient and that Henry was not uxorious. You will have to form your own opinions over that one dear reader. Either way she has my sympathy with regard to her mother-in-law, the formidable Margaret Beaufort, to whom Henry remained close. Indeed a certain yeoman of the crown John Hewyk ‘grumbled that he would have spoken more to the Queen had it not been for that strong whore, the King’s mother ‘.(2) with a Spanish observer writing that ‘she is kept in subjection by the mother of the king. (3).
However there are some examples that demonstrate that Elizabeth was not entirely a push over nor totally ‘eclipsed’ by her mother-in-law Rosemary Horrox gives us one such example where a Welsh tenant appealed to Elizabeth over an injustice involving the king’s uncle, Jasper Tudor, which led to Elizabeth ‘responding with a firm letter to the said Jasper. (4) Bravo Elizabeth!
Portrait by an unknown artist c 1503
Although much has been written about her death and funeral , and I won’t go into that here, interesting as it is, nothing much is known about her personal feelings towards her husband, the demise of the House of York, the treatment of her mother, Elizabeth Wydeville, and Elizabeth’s ‘retirement’ in to Bermondsey Abbey, the fates of her brothers or the identity of Perkin Warbeck. However her Privy Purse Account have survived and perhaps some thing of her nature and true feelings may be gleaned from them.
Sir Nicholas Harris Nicholas, writing in 1830, was editor of The Privy Purse Expenses which also include a memoir. Sir Nicholas seems to have been a little in love with Elizabeth, whose motto was ‘Humble and Reverent’ attributing to her ‘most if not all of the virtues which adorn the female character’. He notes that her expenses consist chiefly of rewards to persons who brought her presents with often the reward being of greater value. ‘Nothing was too contemptible to be received, nor was any person deemed too humble..Among the articles presented to Elizabeth were fish, fruit, fowls, puddings, tripe, a crane, woodcocks, a popinjay, quails and other birds, pork, rabbit, Llanthony cheeses, pease cods, cakes, a wild boar, malmsey wine, flowers, chiefly roses, bucks, sweetmeats, rose water, a cushion, and a pair of clarycords’. The bearers of these gifts would never go away empty handed.
There were disbursements for servants wages, for preparing her apartments when she removed from one place to another, which she did frequently, for conveying her clothes and necessary furniture, for messengers, for the repairs of her barge and the pay of the bargemen, for her chairs and litters, the purchase of household articles, for silks, damasks, satins, cloth of gold, velvet, linen, gowns, kirtles, petticoats for her own use or for the ladies she maintained; for jewellery, trappings for horses, furs, gold chains and for the charges of her stables and greyhounds; for the support of her sister Lady Katherine Courtney and her children, including the burial of some of them; for the clothing and board of her Fool, gambling debts and so much more. Sir Nicholas notes that ‘her Majesties revenue was not adequate to cover all these demands and she was ‘not infrequently obliged to borrow money‘. A look at Henry’s Privy Purse accounts shows that he, perhaps being a good egg or because it was the least he could do under the circumstances, frequently bailed his wife out although it was expected these loans were to be repaid.
The accounts which cover the last year of Elizabeth’s life are too detailed to go into her but I list here a few :
MAY 1502 Item to Frary Clerc of St Johns for the buryeng of the men that were hanged at Wapping mylne 8 shillings
There are several examples of money being given to servants of her father, King Edward, who had perhaps fallen on hard times such as ;
JUNE 1502 Item ..and to a pore man in aulmouse somtyme being a servant of King Edwards IV 2s. 4d. as well as cloth to a woman who had been nurse to her brothers –
Help was also given to people who had served other members of her family :
DECEMBER 1502 item 3 yards of cloth delivered by commandment of the Queen to a woman what was ‘norice’ to the Princes brothers to the Queen grace
DECEMBER 1502 Item to a man of ‘Poynfreyt saying himself to lodge in his house Therl Ryvers in tyme of his death in almous 12 shillings’
For herself, other than her gambling debts , Elizabeth seemed to keep an eye on the purse strings with numerous mentions of her gowns being repaired.
DECEMBER 1502 item to the Quenes grace upon the Feest of St Stephen for hure disport at cardes this Cristmas 100 s.
She appeared to wear a lot of black during the period these accounts cover when presumably the court were in mourning for Arthur – an example being
NOVEMBER 1502 Item ..to Henry Bryan for 17 yards of black velvet for a gown for the Queen at 10 shillings 6d the yard. 13 yards of black satin delivered to Johnson for a riding gown and a yard of black velvet for an edge and cuffs for the same gown. Item black bokeram for lining of the same gown, sarcenet for ‘fentes’ for the same gown and an elle of canvas for lining of the same gown – although on a lighter note in
JUNE 1502 Item ..to William Antyne coper smyth for spangelles settes square sterrys dropes and pointes after silver and gold for garnisshing of jakettes against the disguysing lvj viiij d.
AUGUST 1502 ..to my Lady Verney for money by hur delivered by commaundement of the Queen to Fyll the Kinges paynter in reward 3s. 4d. Item to John Reynold payntour for making of divers beestes and othere pleasires for the Quene at Windsore 10 s.
A short, interesting appraisal of Elizabeth including her expenses were included by Ann Wroe in her biography of Perkin Warbeck. ‘The queen seems to have been a gentle passive creature. Her world was one of frugally mended gowns, wicker baskets and works of charity. She had little money of her own her allowance being one eighth of the king’s and she often gave it away. On Maundy Thursday she distributed new shoes to poor women but her own shoes cost no more than 12d each and had cheap latten buckles…Ayala writing in 1498 thought her’ beloved because she is powerless’ and believed as many did that her formidable mother in law kept her in subjection. Although Margaret Beaufort showed her kindness she was undoubtedly a stronger character. A citizen of Nottingham once tried to speak to Elizabeth when she visited that city, their pleasant conversation was stopped by that ‘strong whore’, Henry’s mother, and Elizabeth acquiesced‘ .(5)
Later it is poignant to read about the costs of trying, vainly, to save her life when she was stricken after giving birth to her last child, Katherine.
‘Itm To James Nattres for his costes going into Kent for Doctour Hallysworth phesicon to comme to the Quene by the Kinges commaundement. Furst for his bote hyre from the Towre to Gravys ende and again iiij s, iiij d. Itm to twoo watermen abiding at Gravys ende unto suche tyme the said James came again for theire expenses viij d. Itm for horse hyre and to guydes by night and day ij s.iij d.and for his awe expenses xvj d.’
Elizabeth’s midwife Alice Massy was not forgotten; her wages being 12 shillings.
And thus Elizabeth, with exemplary timing, died on the anniversary of her birthday, 11 February. Its said that Henry took her death badly and it would seem that his behaviour and attitudes took a turn for the worse after he had been widowed but that is another story. Perhaps theirs was not a passionate love, duty having bound them together, but I do get the impression from their Privy Purse accounts that they did rub along together quite nicely.
The inscription on her tomb reads –
‘Here lies Queen Elizabeth, daughter of the former King Edward IV, sister of the formerly appointed King Edward V, once the wife of King Henry VII, and the renowned mother of Henry VIII. She met her day of death in the Tower of London on the 11th day of February in the year of Our Lord 1502, having fulfilled the age of 37 years’
- Collectanea v.373-4 Leland
- Records of the borough of Nottingham 1882-1956 W H Stevenson and others.
- CPS Spain 1485-1509, 164
- Elizabeth of York, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Rosemary Horrox
- Perkin Warbeck: a Story of Deception Ann Wrote pp 458.9