Thursday, 26 November 2015
Queen Elizabeth of York and the Tower of London
Several Tudor queens are associated with the Tower of London. Elizabeth of York, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn all resided there the night before their coronations at Westminster Abbey, as did the Tudor queens regnant Mary I and Elizabeth I. More ominously, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard met their deaths at the Tower of London; both wives were executed on charges of treason within the walls of the Tower. A third queen (although her royal title has, and continues to be disputed), Lady Jane Grey, was also beheaded within the Tower. However, one Tudor queen's death at the Tower of London has tended to be forgotten in modern times. We remember the grim demises of Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Jane Grey at the Tower, but we often forget that Queen Elizabeth was the first Tudor queen to die at the royal fortress. She, however, was not executed, but died following complications in childbirth.
Elizabeth of York was the eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville. She was born on 11 February 1466 at the Palace of Westminster, and became queen of England following her marriage to the first Tudor king, Henry VII. Elizabeth's life was tumultuous. She had been born a princess of England and grew up in expectation of a glorious future; she perhaps believed that it was her destiny to marry a European prince. When her brother Edward was born in 1470, the infant Elizabeth would have acknowledged that it would be unlikely that she would rule England, unlikely even in the capacity of queen consort. However, everything changed for Elizabeth in the year 1483, when she was seventeen. Following Edward IV's unexpected death, Prince Edward was proclaimed Edward V, but his uncle Richard of Gloucester seized him and his younger brother Richard of York, and had them incarcerated in the Tower of London. Rumours of both princes' disappearances began to circulate, and by the autumn of that year it was believed that they were dead. What truly happened to Edward and Richard can never be known with certainty, and it is a mystery as to whether or not Elizabeth ever learned of their fate. Both during and after her lifetime, it was rumoured that she had schemed to marry her uncle Richard of Gloucester, now Richard III, but he denied ever considering marrying her. Shortly before her twentieth birthday, Elizabeth became queen of England as the wife of Henry VII, and she gave birth to four surviving children: Arthur (born in 1486); Margaret (born in 1489); Henry, the future Henry VIII (born in 1491); and Mary (born in 1496). She gave birth to a daughter, Katherine, in February 1503, but the child was sickly and did not long survive. The queen died nine days later, on her thirty-seventh birthday.
Above: A contemporary drawing of the Tower of London.
The Tower of London occupied a central presence in the life of Elizabeth of York. For her, it was associated with triumph (she was crowned there in November 1487); tragedy (she died there in 1503); childbirth; mystery and a lack of fulfillment (her brothers had allegedly disappeared after being imprisoned there). Perhaps Elizabeth's most abiding memory of the Tower, during her lifetime, was the day of her coronation in the winter of 1487. At the age of twenty-one, the attractive, fair-haired daughter of York fulfilled her glorious destiny: she became queen of England as the wife of the first Tudor king. Not only did she follow in her mother's footsteps, the footsteps of another Queen Elizabeth, but she had fulfilled her father's ambition that the Yorkist dynasty should reign triumphant. Elizabeth, of course, was not a queen regnant, and her husband was especially keen to demonstrate that his accession had united the houses of York and Tudor, rather than representing a Yorkist triumph.
However, everyone - including, first and foremost, Elizabeth - knew that without his wife's impeccable credentials and her Yorkist symbolism, Henry VII would not have enjoyed a triumphant accession to the throne of England. Elizabeth was vitally important in strengthening her husband's claim, and in crowning her as queen, Henry showed his recognition of his wife's dynastic importance. On that chilly day in November, the young Elizabeth sat in triumph, fiercely proud of her lineage and determined to honour her dynasty to the best of her ability. In all likelihood, for her, the Tower was a glorious setting for the occasion. It was a palace, as well as a fortress, and while its association with the disappearance of her younger brothers two years earlier represented it as dark and forbidding, for Elizabeth its positive features were probably more on show that day.
Whether the queen ever learned of her brothers' fate is uncertain, but if she did not, then the Tower of London surely symbolised mystery, perhaps premature death, perhaps premature ending of hope, a lack of fulfillment. During her youth and teenage years, she was educated to view her younger brother as the next king of England upon her father's death. Richard III's triumph had snuffed out the possibility of that happening, and Elizabeth was suddenly elevated to a new position as a result of her uncle's ambitions.
The Tower of London was, finally, for Elizabeth, a scene of tragedy, a setting of death. On 11 February 1503, the queen died on her thirty-seventh birthday, days after giving birth to a daughter. The Tower was associated with triumph and glory when monarchs were crowned there, but it could also be represented as dark, gloomy and associated with death. Elizabeth's death occurred at a time of coldness, darkness, and icy winter. She was the first Tudor queen to die at the fortress, but she would not be the last. However, while Anne Boleyn, Katherine Howard and Jane Grey lost their lives at the Tower at the hands of the executioner as traitors to the Crown, Queen Elizabeth was posthumously represented as a virtuous, learned and pious woman who had died performing a good service, an act that was symbolically identified as the holy, divinely ordained duty of queens: childbirth. Today, the ghosts of Anne and Jane, in particular, are believed to haunt the Tower in sorrow, unhappiness and desolation. Whether the ghost of Elizabeth of York is ever glimpsed at the Tower is a question that is almost never considered, but given her positive reputation, her dynastic achievements and her love and loyalty to her family, it perhaps seems unlikely.