National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In another lifetime, perhaps she’d be recognised as England’s first queen regnant, but Elizabeth of York was fated to be a consequential queen consort instead, with her popularity helping to sow peace in the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses.
Elizabeth holds a unique position in English history: she is the only woman to be daughter, niece, sister, wife, and mother to kings.
The long and the short of it is that her father, Edward IV, reigned until 1483. His death led to the accession of a boy king, his eldest son, who became Edward V. He was taken to the Tower of London to await his coronation – it was traditional for monarchs to stay at the great fortress before being crowned. Power rested in the hands of Edward IV’s brother, Richard.
Just two months after Edward IV’s death, his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was declared invalid and all of their children, including Edward V, and his eldest sister, Elizabeth of York, were declared illegitimate.
Their uncle became King Richard III and ruled from 1483 until his death at the Battle of Bosworth in August 1485. However, by then, Edward V and his younger brother Richard, had vanished without trace. They never left the Tower of London and rumours swirled that they had been killed.
In a bid to solidify support for Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, arranged a marriage between their children, which would unite the Houses of York and Lancaster under a new dynasty: the House of Tudor.
When Henry VII was crowned on 30 October 1485, it was a hastily-pulled together service meant to legitimise his claim to the throne—to date, Henry VII is the last king to claim his kingdom by right of conquest—and though there were initial rumblings that it would be a joint coronation, there was fear that crowning Elizabeth at the same time might be viewed as the couple being equal sovereigns as heads of the Houses of Lancaster and York.
In the end, the joint element was dropped and Henry VII was crowned alone. So alone, in fact, that Elizabeth wasn’t present at the ceremony at all. Henry’s pious mother, Margaret Beaufort, enjoyed the most prominent place at the ceremony.
In the time since the Battle of Bosworth, which saw her husband’s reign begin, her coronation had been delayed by worries about legitimising Yorkist sentiments that she could be a queen regnant, by childbirth, and by a pretender to the throne who popped up in 1486.
Instead, it took nearly two years for Elizabeth to be crowned queen consort. Her coronation ceremony took place on 25 November 1487. By then, she’d been married and given birth to her first child, a son, Arthur, Prince of Wales.
The length between marriage and crowning was so long that she became the first uncrowned queen to give birth to an heir since the Norman Conquest.
According to Alison Weir’s biography, Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World, Elizabeth’s coronation was more splendid than Henry’s. She certainly was more popular with the public than he was: Londoners showed up in droves to watch the procession.
Her coronation took place on St Catherine’s Day, a date that was likely chosen purposely in recognition of Elizabeth’s piety. Henry VII had made the myth of King Arthur central to his history and his reign, and Arthurian myths featured in Elizabeth coronation as well. One barge in the coronation procession was dressed up to resemble a dragon spewing flames.
Elizabeth was anointed twice during the ceremony and was attended to by her sisters, most prominently Cecily of York. Afterwards, King Henry and Queen Elizabeth enjoyed a sumptuous banquet at Westminster Hall.
Though their marriage was strictly strategic when their mothers arranged it, Henry and Elizabeth grew into fiercely devoted spouses. Elizabeth does not feature prominently in historical documents, as she seemed contented to leave Henry to the prospects of ruling a kingdom, and to her mother-in-law retaining high precedence.
Elizabeth bore seven children, four of whom survived to adulthood. She died from complications after childbirth in 1503 and her death was mourned for the rest of Henry’s life. He died in 1509, succeeded by Henry VIII.