Saturday, March 28, 2015

Elizabeth of York as Mother to Henry VIII

by Judith Arnopp

Elizabeth of York
The union of Elizabeth of York and Henry VII put an end to many years of civil unrest. It was a political match that proved affection can grow out of expediency. Although Henry’s reign suffered more rebellions than any other he left a stable and affluent realm and an heir that would prove to be the most memorable in British history.

The name Henry VIII conjures a vision of an obese, vindictive, embittered man but, as I have discussed on other blogs, he wasn’t always so. In his youth Henry was irrepressible; a tall, courtly, bright-haired prince whose appearance owed more to his Plantagenet grandfather, Edward IV, than his Tudor lineage.

Henry was born at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich on 28th June 1491, the third child of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. As second son he was never intended for the throne; that honour was to go to his older brother, Arthur.

Like most royal children Henry’s early life was governed by women. While Arthur, as heir to the throne, was given his own extravagant male-orientated household at Ludlow, Henry shared a nursery with his sister Margaret, and later his other siblings joined them. It was a world of women. Henry’s wet nurse, Anne Uxbridge, provided nourishment in his early years while his two rockers, Margaret Droughton and Frideswide Puttenham, saw to his other comforts. As the royal nursery continued to fill, the role of ‘lady mistress of our nursery’ was bestowed upon Elizabeth Denton who served in the Queen’s household long after the children had outgrown their need of her.

This team of women who cared for the royal infants should not suggest that Elizabeth kept her children at arm’s length. In fact Elizabeth seems to have been exceptionally close to her younger children. With Arthur far from court and growing up almost a stranger, she took an active role in the upbringing of his siblings. David Starkey believes Henry’s handwriting is so similar to his mother’s that she must have had a hand in their early education too. The nursery at Eltham was next door to Elizabeth’s favourite palace of Greenwich so it would have been a simple matter for her to visit regularly to oversee their upbringing and lessons.

At his mother’s knee Henry may have heard the tales of old stories of knights and battle, chivalry and romance which emphasised the importance of treating maidens gently and foes mercilessly. The stories he heard at this time would influence him for the remainder of his life. Despite his failings Henry always aspired to being a knight like the men of old. Even as late as 1542 when he was growing old and infirm, he gamely donned his armour, climbed onto to his charger, and rode off to war with France for his ‘second Agincourt.’ Where his father preferred to negotiate for a peaceful settlement, Henry VIII revelled in war.

As Henry grew from infancy into a small boy new siblings arrived, and some departed. When Henry was just four years old his sister, Elizabeth, who had blossomed briefly into his life died suddenly in September 1495 aged just three years old. What affect this loss of a playmate may have had is impossible to say. Childhood death was commonplace in Tudor England, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to bear. As humans we never get used to death. Henry would have missed her. He and Margaret may have found it lonely without her. She would have left a gap.

It was Henry’s first brush with death and the loss perhaps made him wonder and worry a little. In 1496 Elizabeth’s place in the nursery was filled by another sister, Mary, and a brother, Edmund, followed in 1499. Sadly, like Elizabeth, Edmund did not survive for long, but Mary survived and has long been regarded as Henry’s ‘favourite’ sister. It was a harsh lesson, but Henry learned early that childhood was dangerous – sons and daughters could be lost.

His father, the King, beset by rebellion, was made more insecure by the loss of each child; Henry would have noticed, and soon, as rebellion and unrest rattled at the doors of the royal palace, the lesson would become further ingrained.

Perkin Warbeck
When the King of the Scots gave shelter and support to the pretender Perkin Warbeck, war broke out between Scotland and England. The Cornish, unappreciative of the rise in taxes to pay for this war, decided to rebel, darkening and lengthening the threatening shadow bearing down on the Tudor king.

While the King called his men to arms, Elizabeth of York fled with her children to the safety of the Tower, the situation reminiscent of how in her youth during the wars of the roses she was forced to take refuge with her mother at Westminster. With the future yet unwritten, Elizabeth may have been afraid and vulnerable. There were no assurances that her husband would triumph or that her own children might shortly join the ranks of her missing brothers. The walls of the Tower were thick, impenetrable stone; she was as safe from physical danger as it was possible to be, but the memories, if not the ghosts of her brothers, must have cried out to her from the shadows. Fear is contagious, and her children, sensing their mother’s dread, would have been frightened too.

During the writing process of A Song of Sixpence, the infant Henry refused to remain in the back ground. The book isn’t about him but his character continually raised his head and demanded attention. He first appears as a fat, noisy baby, then later as a cuddly, argumentative toddler squabbling with his sisters in the nursery. He is loving, demanding and happy despite the shadows of fear that pervade his early childhood.

Once the pretender was put down and the throne secure again, the wedding between Arthur and Catherine of Aragon went ahead. Henry took a prominent role in the proceedings, leading Catherine of Aragon from the Bishops palace to the altar at St Pauls. Afterwards he danced with his aunt Cecily, and then with his sister, Margaret. He led her onto the floor, bowed to the audience and … David Starkey looks at the record and describes what happened next:

“But now Henry stepped out of the script. Finding that his heavy clothes got in the way of his fun, he ‘suddenly cast off his gown’ – which had been obtained at much expense – and ‘danced in his jacket’ with his sister. His parents looked on proudly and indulgently.”(Starkey: p.146)
Despite his failings as a king and a husband Henry VIII remains fascinating. What was it that changed the perfect chivalric prince into the king we love to hate?

Elizabeth of York is often by-passed, her political influence dismissed, but her influence on her son is easily discernible. As I put the finishing touches to the last heart-wrenching scenes of A Song of Sixpence when the twelve-year-old Henry’s heart was breaking over the loss of his mother, I could not help but contemplate the disappointment Elizabeth would have felt if she could have foreseen the future.


In the years after Bosworth, a small boy is ripped from his rightful place as future king of England. Years later when he reappears to take back his throne, his sister Elizabeth, now Queen to the invading King Henry Tudor, is torn between family loyalty and duty. As the final struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster is played out, Elizabeth is torn by conflicting loyalty, terror and unexpected love.

Set at the court of Henry VII A Song of Sixpence offers a unique perspective on the early years of Tudor rule. Elizabeth of York, often viewed as a meek and uninspiring queen, emerges as a resilient woman whose strengths lay in endurance rather than resistance.

Illustrations from Wikimedia commons
“Laughing child, possibly Henry VIII, c.1498. Possibly commissioned by or presented to Henry VII. Guido Mazzoni“from the royal collection.

Starkey,David. Henry: the prince who would become tyrant
Weir, Alison. Elizabeth of York: the first Tudor Queen
Licence, Amy. Elizabeth of York
Penn, Thomas. The Winter King
Hutchinson, Robert. Young Henry 
Wroe, Ann.  Perkin
Skidmore Chris. The Rise of the Tudors

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