The Tudor Book Reviews 12: Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen by Amy Licence

Elizabeth of York, consort of the founder of the Tudor dynasty, King Henry VII, is the least well known of the Tudor Queens. Both Henry and Elizabeth have been reduced to one dimensional stereotypes in the popular imagination: Henry the miser and Elizabeth the dutiful wife and mother whose image is the model for the queen on playing cards. In contrast, their son Henry VIII has been the subject of both scholarly analysis and popular biographies, which scrutinize all the known evidence concerning his personality, religious reforms, cultural patronage and his famous marriages.

Henry VIII’s six wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr are the subjects of individual and collective studies that discuss them as private women and as queens. Many of Elizabeth of York’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, such as Queen Mary I, Elizabeth I, Lady Jane Grey and Mary, Queen of Scots are iconic figures in their own right. In Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen, Amy Licence, author of Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen and In Bed with the Tudors brings the first Tudor queen out of obscurity, looking at Henry VII’s consort within the context of her times and discussing her role in establishing the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty.

Throughout Elizabeth of York, Licence emphasizes the importance of viewing the Plantagenet princess and Tudor queen through the worldview of the late 15th century. Recent historical fiction featuring Elizabeth has speculated that the young princess was attracted to the power and personality of her uncle, Richard III, on the basis of an incomplete and no longer extant letter than might refer to any number of marriage plans for the King’s niece. Earlier speculation concerning Elizabeth imagined a romance with the future Henry VII, although it is unlikely that they met before he became King and their marriage was a foregone conclusion.

Licence reminds her readers that romance would have had little influence on Elizabeth’s choices or the choices that were made for her. As the eldest daughter of King Edward IV, her duty was to make a royal marriage that advanced the interests of her family. Once her Uncle, Richard III, seized the English throne in 1483, all Edward IV’s children were declared illegitimate and her brothers, the famous “Princes in the Tower” disappeared, it became all the more important that Elizabeth devote herself to restoring the fortunes of her mother and sisters. Drawing on scholarly studies such as Elizabeth of Yorkby Arlene Naylor Okerlund, Licence speculates that the princess may have served as a kind of spy for her mother, Elizabeth Woodville and future mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort at the court of Richard III.

Licence’s discussion of the culture of late 15th century suggests some revealing conclusions about the major figures in Elizabeth’s life. The marriage between her parents, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, took place in secret on the May Day, when the boundaries within the social hierarchy were temporarily set aside. The timing, secrecy and Edward IV’s rumoured history of going through some form of marriage with women who resisted his advances suggests that he may have planned initially to repudiate the union. Licence also looks at Richard III’s reputation during his reign, before the Tudors came to power, highlighting evidence that he was already rumoured to have murdered his nephews before he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485.

The final chapter of Elizabeth of York is the strongest because the best documented year of the Queen’s life was the last one before she died of childbirth in 1503  at the age of 37. Elizabeth’s accounts in the last year of her life reveal an active queen consort whose reputation for charity and intercession tempered Henry VII’s perceived severity and frugality. Records of her religious donations and pilgrimages reveal a strong identification with the Virgin Mary as an intercessor and bereaved mother. Elizabeth’s devotions increased after the death of her eldest son Arthur and she and Henry VII appear to have been particularly united in the aftermath of this family tragedy.

As Queen, Elizabeth of York is less well documented than future generations of Tudor women but Amy Licence reveals hints of the personality behind the illustration on playing cards to a broad popular audience in Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen. Elizabeth’s Yorkist ancestry, popularity with the English people and intercessory activities were crucial to establishing the Tudors as a legitimate dynasty during the reign of Henry VII>

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