Now is the winter of our discontentOpening of Shakespeare’s Richard III
Made glorious by this summer sun of York…
Meanwhile in the north… not all of the Renaissance happened in Italy.
Elizabeth of York was glorious summer, indeed. She was the daughter, sister, niece, wife, and mother to kings–and queens. As Alison Weir says, in her fabulous biography of this fascinating linchpin of history:
Elizabeth of York’s role in history was crucial, although in a less chauvinistic age, it would, by right, have been more so.Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World
In other words, if she’d been more of Penthesilea type, a bit more Eleanor of the Aquitaine and a bit less Jane Bennett, then maybe she’d have been Queen Elizabeth I. Or, maybe she’d have been thrown in the tower with her brothers. Hard to say.
War of the Roses
The Brits referred to the Wars of the Roses as the Civil Wars, until they had another civil war, and then they had to find different terminology. These first wars were between factions of a family, a problem created because the many children of kings argued about who was closest in the rank among the Plantagenets. The two houses, the Lancaster Henries and the York not-named Henry, were represented by different colored rose badges, the red and the white. Allegedly the idea of “War of Roses” came from a much later novel by Walter Scott who riffed on a scene from Shakespeare.
Part of the cause of this “war” was that Edward III outlived his sons when he finally died in 1377, so the cousins, nephews, uncles and hangers-on *Warwick Kingmaker COFF* disagreed over who should take charge. First Lancaster, then York, then wait–! no, York again. When Edward IV of York took power away from his pious milquetoast third cousin Henry VI, the Yorks managed a dozen years of peace. But then Edward died and left his teenage son in charge. With Uncle Richard as regent.
Uncle Dick, Half of it True
Uncle Richard was an interesting guy. It was not correct to say he was a hunchback, though he did have one shoulder slightly higher than the other. His brother George had committed treason against their older brother, the king. Richard had married into the family of another traitor, part of the rival faction, Anne of Neville. So the lands were full of traitors, also known as people who thought they had legitimate claims to the throne. Uncle Dick did have his nephews, King Edward V and Prince Richard, housed into the Tower of London for safekeeping. After young Edward was crowned, he and his young brother weren’t seen in public again until their bodies turned up in a box under a staircase a few centuries later.
On the other hand, Richard’s former sister-in-law, Elizabeth Woodville started raising armies shortly after her husband died. Whether this preceded his “imprisoning” her boys or succeeded it is debatable, but Richard of York’s succession was not ensured. He claimed the throne not because of the princes’ deaths but by declaring all of his brother’s children illegitimate.
This included his niece, Elizabeth of York. (The only available names for women were Anne, Mary, or Elizabeth so it is very confusing; I was kind of hoping the rare Cecily of York might end up queen, but no such luck.)
Elizabeth (of York), the eldest daughter of Elizabeth (Woodville) was quite a political football. What did niece Elizabeth of York think of her uncle? Rumors abound that he tried to marry her, even while his own wife was in her sickbed, after claiming Elizabeth was illegitimate. She might not have appreciated it, but she was in a precarious position. She might have made a claim on the throne; she might have suffered their fate. She tread cautiously, but spent a fair amount of her life sequestered somehow away from the palace. Probably smart.
Fortunately for teenage Elizabeth, before he could continue thinking about marrying her, Uncle Richard was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field. A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a–urk! Shakespeare doesn’t mention this, but apparently Richard’s body was stripped naked and dragged around a bit. He was bashed in the head enough to drive his helmet into his skull, and the body went missing, until it was discovered in 2012 underneath a parking space marked “R” next to Greyfriars church.
The Summer Queen and the Winter King
So Elizabeth didn’t have to marry her uncle after all. Instead, she married her distant cousin, Henry VII, the Lancaster contestant. The York-Lancaster union resulted in the union of the rose factions into what became the Tudor Rose.
Henry VII was likely concerned that Elizabeth of York had her own claim to the throne. He apparently blew hot and cold, delaying the marriage and delaying her coronation as his queen. Arguably, he could have treated her as more of an equal partner, since her lineage helped merge factions which had been squabbling for more than a century. But he was not, apparently, what Jane Austen would have termed an agreeable sort. (I suppose Mr. Bingley would thus not have made such a great King of England).
The Great Queen Mother
Henry was sometimes called the Winter King because he was cold, miserly, and uncompromising in his demands. His fondness for his new wife was mostly public and related to excitement of her giving birth. Which she did seven times, although only three children survived to adulthood–isn’t that sad?
Her eldest son Arthur was born rather sickly, though dad wasted no time declaring him Prince of Wales and Knight of the Garter and so on. The rising power of Spain convinced the Tudors to betroth Prince Arthur to the Infanta Catherine of Aragon when she was three. The teenagers did marry, but priests later swore that the marriage was not consummated. They might have said this so that another Tudor son could marry into the line, but it was probably true. Arthur died of what was likely consumption at age 15, a short time after the actual marriage, so it’s possible they didn’t do the deed.
That left Elizabeth’s other son–Henry, what other name could it be?–to marry his brother’s widow. Or unmarried Infanta, since the marriage was annulled. Henry soon to be the Eighth ( I am! I am!) also had that marriage annulled, too. Poor Catherine, married twice, annulled twice, died of cancer, mother expelled all the Jews (See letter “Q”), daughter would expel all the Protestants. Such was the fate of future queens.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth managed to navigate the turbulent waters by producing the “sonne in splendor,” one of the greatest kings of the age and two daughters who married Kings. Plus, the French and Scots produced mostly male heirs, so two of Elizabeth’s daughters married into the royal line of those families. Margaret became Queen of the Scots and Mary became Queen of France.
That’s a lot of royalty surrounding a single person. Instead of being called the House of Tudor, it should have been called the House of Patient Elizabeth. If only there weren’t so many other Elizabeths.