Elizabeth of York and her sisters: Five things to know about the Princesses of York

Elizabeth of York is mostly known for three things: the Princes in the Tower (her brothers); Henry VII (her husband) and Henry VIII (her son). But did you know she was one of seven sisters?

As daughters of Edward IV, these seven sisters should have lived very different lives – as princesses they should have been married off to other royal families, setting out to Europe as parts of peace treaties or alliances. Instead, they remained in England, at the court of first Richard III and then Henry VII; keeping the peace not between European countries, but instead between English nobles.

Elizabeth of York and her sisters
The Daughters of Edward IV
Royal Window, Northwest Transept, Canterbury Cathedral

Elizabeth of York and her sisters

I’m going to try not to info-dump a load of context on you right now so in a few bullet points to summarise the Wars of the Roses because complexity is for people who haven’t rewritten this blog post 3 times already.

  1. 1422 – 1461: Henry VI (House of Lancaster) on the throne. Inherits as a 9 month old and is just as rubbish at ruling at 29. His general incompetency and disinterest in ruling, coupled with dislike of his wife trigger the battle heavy stage of the Wars of the Roses – basically Henry’s wife vs. Richard of York (House of, er, York).
  2. 1461 – 1470: After the death of his father, Richard of York, Edward (York) takes the throne from Henry. He secretly marries Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner which damages his relationship with key ally Richard Neville, aka the Earl of Warwick, aka Kingmaker
  3. 1470-1471: Betrayal! The Earl of Warwick rebels, joins the Lancastrians and puts Henry VI temporarily back on the throne. Edward IV returns and reclaims his throne.
  4. 1471-1483: Edward rules.
  5. 1483-1485: Edward dies suddenly; his son and heirs go into the Tower of London for “protection” and are never seen again. His youngest brother Richard (York) makes a bid for power and is crowned Richard III. Henry Tudor (Lancaster) arrives back in England after years of exile, fights Richard at the Battle of Bosworth and wins.

You get the picture. It was a messy time for all involved – including the Princesses of York, who were mostly children when this was all happening. But what were their lives like during these civil wars? And what happened to them after their Dad/brother/uncle were all dead and the House of Lancaster sat on the throne?

Let’s break down some of the most important things to know about Elizabeth of York and her sisters.

They lived in Westminster Abbey for protection – twice

In 1460, when the Earl of Warwick raised a rebellion and forced Edward IV into exile, the queen didn’t hesitate. She grabbed her children and fled straight to Westminster Abbey to claim sanctuary.

At the time, only Elizabeth of York, and the next two sisters, Mary and Cecily were born, and all three were under the age of 4. Elizabeth Woodville lived in the abbey for six months with her three daughters and gave birth to her first son, Edward while they were in there. It was only once Edward IV returned to London and reclaimed her throne that Elizabeth dared to leave the abbey with her small children.

Just thirteen years later, when Edward IV died and it looked like Richard III was going to start making his own bid for power, Elizabeth once again disappeared into Westminster Abbey, this time with her five (surviving) daughters and younger son, Richard. By this time her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, was 17, and the youngest, Bridget, was only 3. This time, they stayed in sanctuary for nearly a year, before finally emerging and joining the court of Richard III – despite the rumours that he had their brothers (the Princes in the Tower) put to death.

They were betrothed abroad as girls, but all stayed in England

By the time she was 9, Elizabeth of York had been betrothed twice – once to the nephew of the “Kingmaker” Earl of Warwick, and then to the Dauphin of France. While in sanctuary (the second time) her mother made a pact with Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, to support Henry’s claim to the throne against Richard’s. Part of that pact included a promise that Elizabeth would marry Henry and unite the two claims and the warring families.

While this is what happened – Elizabeth of York was married for 17 years and had at least seven children, including the future King Henry VIII) – Henry Tudor actually made a sacred promise to marry one of the daughters of Edward IV. If Elizabeth had died, Henry would have married her younger sister Cecily quite cheerfully.

Speaking of Cecily, she had also been contracted to marry outside of England. Aged five, she was betrothed to the heir to the Scottish throne as part of a treaty between King James III and Edward IV, but this was unpopular in Scotland and soon fell by the wayside. A few years later, there was a betrothal to the Duke of Albany, James III’s exiled brother, but this too never materialised.

When she emerged from Westminster Abbey in 1484, she was married off to the delightfully named John Scrope, whose family were big supporters of King-for-the-moment Richard III. A year or so later, when Henry VIII was on the throne, he had her marriage to Scrope annulled, and in 1487 she instead married John Welles. He was 19 years older than the 18 year old princess but the marriage appears to have been successful. He was also the half-brother to Cecily’s sister’s mother-in-law (i.e. he was Margaret Beaufort’s younger half-brother) which is a ridiculous sentence that really sums up the tangled web of noble families.

Before Edward IV died, he was in the process of creating a treaty with the Archduke of Austria, which included a betrothal of Anne of York to the Archduke’s son. In the end, Edward died before the treaty could be ratified so again, nothing happened with this. In 1487, when Henry VII was negotiating with Scotland, there was a suggestion that either Anne or her youngest sister Bridget could be betrothed to the future James IV of Scotland. This was the same heir to the throne that Cecily had originally been betrothed to – and in the end, James IV would actually marry their niece, Margaret Tudor, daughter of Elizabeth of York.

Richard III, trying to consolidate power and tie noblemen to his cause originally betrothed Anne to the Duke of Norfolk, but Henry Tudor ignored this until the mid- 1490’s, when the Duke himself claimed Anne as his bride. Henry let the betrothal stand, and Anne married Thomas Howard in 1495. She would die in 1511, leaving behind no children, but Thomas lived until 1554 and has become most well-known to history as the ambitious, grasping uncle of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

Catherine, the second youngest of the princesses, was suggested as a bride for the eldest son of the Spanish power couple Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, and later an agreement was made that she would marry the second son of King James III of Scotland – however, when he died, the agreement died with him. Instead, Catherine married William Courtenay who was a prominent member of the leading noble family in Devon. Their son, Henry Courtenay, would later be executed by his cousin, Henry VIII.

Elizabeth of York and her sisters
Elizabeth of York – eldest daughter of Elizabeth
Woodville and Edward IV, and wife to Henry VII

They were legally declared illegitimate

When Richard III made his bid for power, he needed to make sure that his was the strongest Yorkist claim going – which is quite difficult when your brother has seven surviving children. Luckily, Edward IV also had a bit of a chequered relationship history.

Edward IV was always a bit of a ladies man, and had many affairs, even when married to Elizabeth Woodville. However, Richard claimed that Edward had previously been pre-contracted to a lady called Eleanor Butler, which would make his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville not legal. It was a great power move – both Edward and Eleanor were dead, so couldn’t make any protests, and instantly disinherited all seven of his nieces and nephews.

Obviously it didn’t really help, because the threat then came from the Lancaster side, but it was a shrewd move. Later, when he was going to marry Elizabeth of York, Henry VII reversed this, affirming that Edward IV’s children were in fact legitimate.

They had important roles at court

Although Henry VII was victorious, and had plans to make a powerful, elegant court, he didn’t actually know how. He was a teenager when he had to flee England, and he spent most of his time in exile, well, not living it up in fancy courts. His wife Elizabeth, however, had grown up in a glamorous court, and would have been able to advise him.

Elizabeth of York was obviously important as queen for several reasons. First of all, her marriage was a visible symbol that the Wars of the Roses were over and that the two houses were 1. She provided legitimacy to Henry’s rule for those who were unconvinced by his claim. And she excelled at getting pregnant, and providing Henry VII with the heirs that were vital to ensure the stability of the Tudor regime.

Her sisters were frequently at court with her, and often fulfilled important functions at events. When Elizabeth’s first son, Prince Arthur, was christened, it was his aunt Cecily who carried him to the font; likewise at his marriage to Catherine of Aragon 15 years later, Cecily carried the Spanish princess’ train. Catherine of York was the chief mourner at her sister’s funeral – a role that showed status, not so much actual grief. Not to mention that their marriages could serve to bind nobles closer to the royal family.

Cecily of York

They had their fair share of scandals

Let’s get the gross one out of the way first – when Elizabeth of York first rejoined the court of Richard III, there were rumours that he was going to throw off his first wife (Anne Neville, daughter of the Kingmaker, previously married to Margaret of Anjou’s son) to marry Elizabeth. Yes, there’s no need to scroll back to double check, she is his niece. When Anne Neville died in March 1485, the rumour mill went into overdrive, accusing Richard of having his wife killed so he could marry his niece. Some people even think that perhaps she was in love with him too (argh).

Moving swiftly on to Cecily. She had a successful first married to John Welles, despite the age gap, and when he died in 1499 she genuinely mourned him. However, a few years later (some time between 1502 and 1504), Cecily fell in love with a squire called Thomas Kyme, and married him secretly.

Maybe she thought that by marrying a man so low she would be safe (as she wouldn’t be a threat to the Tudors), maybe she felt that she deserved to choose her third husband, maybe she just didn’t care about the consequences any more. Whatever her motivation, the news did NOT go down well with Henry VII and he exiled her from court.

The king’s mother and Cecily’s former sister-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, has a bad reputation, but there must have been some affection between the two women, as Margaret let Cecily live in her home in Collyweston, after Cecily’s estates were confiscated. Cecily did eventually get some lands back, but they were only hers until death, meaning that she couldn’t pass them onto her husband or children. In the end, she died in 1507 in obscurity.

Catherine’s scandal was of a slightly more dangerous edge – in 1504 her husband William Courtnay was accused of being part of a conspiracy to put William de la Pole, the last Yorkist claimant, on the throne. William was attainted, so lost his lands and was unable to pass anything on, and thrown into the Tower of London. Her sister, Queen Elizabeth, had died the year before, so Catherine would have lost her main protection at court, but in any case she seems to have kept her head down and remained at court, and survived. Her husband was pardoned in 1509, and Catherine herself lived until 1527.

Finally, even Bridget, who became a nun, was linked to scandal. There was a young girl, know as Agnes of Eltham, who was a ward of the Dartford Priory in Kent, who Bridget patronised financially. Although there’s no evidence for it, it was alleged that she was Bridget’s illegitimate daughter.

So, as you can see, Elizabeth of York and her sisters all had turbulent lives, much more interesting than they’re given credit for (I’ll be honest, I didn’t even realise for years that she had so many sisters) and played a much bigger role in the newly formed Tudor court than you might have thought.

If you liked this, why not check these posts out?

Elizabethan Women You’ve Never Heard of

Eleanor Cobham: Mistress, Duchess, Witch?

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