Kristine L Ming

The White Queen and The White Princess: What happened next?

Elizabeth Woodville - The White Queen and Elizabeth of York - The White Princess

In August 1485 Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field and took the English crown. This radically changed the fate of Elizabeth Woodville’s's daughter, Elizabeth of York, the White Princess, because Henry had promised to marry her if he won. The princess would become queen, as her mother, the White Queen, did before her, but she would face different challenges as the Tudor era began.

Shortly after his victory, Henry summoned the Princess to London, but he did not marry her for another five months. He knew that his subjects believed that, as Edward IV’s daughter, she provided ‘whatever appeared to be missing in the king’s title elsewhere’, according to the 15th-century Crowland Chronicles.

But officially he needed to be king in his own right, or risk losing the throne if Elizabeth died before him. Consequently he arranged for his own coronation and first parliament to take place before his marriage.

Elizabeth would have been too familiar with the workings of royal propaganda and was probably only too grateful to know her future would be in England where her experience at court would be invaluable to her husband, who had so long lived in exile.

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What became of the White Queen, her family and foes?

Margaret Beaufort and Lord Stanley

After they were married in Westminster Abbey in January 1486, Henry was still unsure of his position. Elizabeth would have to wait a further two years before she was crowned queen.

She spent much of her time in the company of Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort. Elizabeth had learnt from her mother’s bitter experience the value of building a good relationship with her mother-in-law.

Nonetheless Margaret briefly stepped out of the limelight in September 1486 after Elizabeth gave birth to her first son, Arthur.

At his christening the lead role went to her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, who had been restored to her status and lands as dowager queen in Henry VII’s first parliament. She was the young prince’s godmother. This, however, was the White Queen’s swansong.

The fate of the White Queen

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The White Queen

Elizabeth Woodville - The White Queen

However, a few months later, in February 1487, Elizabeth Woodville removed herself from court life and retired to Bermondsey Abbey. There was not room at court for two royal matriarchs and Henry had suggested Elizabeth Woodville might marry the Scots king James III.

Elizabeth was also deprived of her lands. Historians, beginning with Francis Bacon in the 16th century, have suggested it was a punishment for encouraging a rebellion against her son-in-law, Henry VII, by a boy named Lambert Simnel who claimed to be her missing son, Richard, and heir to the throne.

But supporting Simnel would have been a staggering betrayal of her daughter, the Queen, and her grandson. It’s more plausible that her son-in-law needed the lands to provide appropriately for his queen and she received an annuity from him as compensation. She may have retired because the distressing rumours of the rebellion, combined with poor health, were the last straw after such a turbulent life.

The White Princess is crowned

When Lambert Simnel landed in England, Elizabeth of York took refuge at Kenilworth Castle. Henry finally crushed the rebellion at the Battle of Stoke on 16 June 1487.

This victory, together with the earlier birth of a son to secure the succession, gave him the confidence to arrange her coronation at last, two years after his own.

It was on the feast of St Catherine, 25 November 1487, that she finally entered Westminster Abbey, barefoot and clothed in purple velvet, to be anointed queen.

The watching crowds were so great that several people were crushed to death as they tried to tear keepsakes from the carpet she had walked upon.

When her mother, Elizabeth Woodville was married the family had been seen as ambitious upstarts. However, Elizabeth of York’s kin were now among the new king’s most valued men.

Elizabeth of York and Henry VIIElizabeth of York, the White Princess, and her husband, Henry VII

This put Elizabeth of York in a far stronger position than her mother but she was wise enough never to flaunt that. Indeed, the Spanish ambassador believed that Elizabeth was “beloved because she is powerless”. But others noted her quiet, informal influence. The Venetian ambassador believed that Elizabeth was a queen “of great ability” and the Annals of Ulster recorded that she was “a woman that was of the greatest charity and humanity from Italy to Ireland”.

Elizabeth of York’s financial independence as queen was significantly less than her mother’s. Nevertheless, she was able to support her younger sisters and their families, much as her mother had.

When her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, died in June 1492 her brief will singled out her “dearest daughter, the Queen’s grace” for special blessing. She had asked for a funeral “without pomp or costly expense”. The queen herself had to mourn away from the ceremonies at Windsor as she was already confined, about to give birth to her fourth child; she would name the new-born Elizabeth.

Mother to a future king

Elizabeth of York’s most important role was the upbringing of her children.

She appointed her brother’s former governess to run Prince Arthur’s nursery but Arthur had a separate household from infancy as heir to the throne.

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The White Princess – Ancestor of the Tudors and Stuarts

Tudor Dynasty - Henry VIII and Elizabeth I

  • Elizabeth of York’s descendants include her son Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I
  • She was the great-grandmother of Mary Queen of Scots whose son became James VI of Scotland and I of England uniting the two crowns

By contrast, her daughters and younger son Henry grew up in her household, learning skills like reading, writing and dancing in her company.

In June 1497 she and prince Henry took refuge together in the Tower of London at news of a new rebellion which must have brought back memories of her own childhood.

Despite the cold reputation of her husband, Henry VII, he did come to value his “White Princess” for more than her Yorkist blood.

She died in 1503 on her 37th birthday, just after giving birth to their eighth child, who also died, and less than a year after their son Arthur died of an unknown illness.

The king gave orders for the most splendid and expensive funeral in living memory and then “privily departed to a solitary place to pass his sorrows”.

He certainly became a harsher and more parsimonious king after losing her gentle presence beside him. What is harder to gauge, but was probably far more significant to England’s future, was the impact of this sudden tragedy on the eleven-year-old son who adored her, the future king Henry VIII.

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