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Richard III and Elizabeth of York

Adapted from The King’s Daughter Author’s Note


Elizabeth of York

Virtually nothing has survived of Elizabeth; no letters or private thoughts. Little that she said or did was recorded, though her vegetarianism was noted for posterity. [1] This is curious, since so much is extant about this period in all other respects. Francis Bacon says that Elizabeth Woodville thought her daughter “not advanced but depressed,” meaning she considered Elizabeth not a true queen, but a puppet. [2]  Despite this, the fact that Elizabeth was a gentle force for good and beloved by her people for her acts of charity and compassion cannot be disputed. In the words of her biographer, she brought hope to those in despair, comfort to those in pain, and restraint to those in power.” [3] That she managed to develop an affectionate relationship with one of the most unlovable of English kings is remarkable in itself.

Historians describe Elizabeth as an enigma, holding a separate, virtually unvisitable, and invisible court, emerging from the shadows only occasionally, and always with Margaret Beaufort at her side, usually dressed in a replica of her gown. [4]  The Spanish ambassador, de Puebla, wrote to his sovereigns that the queen was kept in subjugation by her mother-in-law. Indeed, Margaret Beaufort emerges as one of the principal figures of this reign, and in contrast to Elizabeth, much is known about her, from her persecution of the widows of loyal servants, to her ordinances, to her revered patronage as the benefactress of universities. [5]  The contrast between these two women is striking, hence my conclusion that Elizabeth of York, a prize to the Lancastrian victor of Bosworth, was held in virtual captivity by Henry Tudor and his obsessive, domineering mother for most of her married life.

Elizabeth’s mother-i-law, Margaret Beaufort, is viewed by some historians as a manipulative political creature, [6] someone who married her fourth husband with unseemly haste, before her third husband was even buried, in order to elevate her influence in the Yorkist court. [7] The splendor that she surrounded herself with and her love of the material world  denote someone more worldly than spiritual, unlike Elizabeth, who wore tin buckles on her shoes and gave most of her money away to those in need. [8] In 1503, Margaret Beaufort fought Henry for her manor of Woking, which he decided he wanted, and she finally recovered it a few weeks after his death, just before her own. According to many historians, she was a calculating, unprincipled plotter. [9]  Sir William Cornwallis considered Richard III’s clemency in allowing her to live a “weakness” in his rule that led to his fall.[10] Both Sir George Buck and Cornwallis see her as dangerous and a woman of pitiless ambition for her son. But Richard III, the last of the medieval kings, could not have done otherwise, given his character. Margaret Beaufort was a woman of supposedly piety in his eyes, and he protected women and gave them the benefit of every doubt. With him at Bosworth Field died the Age of Chivalry and it was left to the Tudors to impoverish, terrorize, and butcher women.

My treatment of Elizabeth’s feelings for her uncle is based on several clues. Queen Anne and Elizabeth of York did appear in the same gown on that last Christmas of Richard’s life, giving rise to rumors of an illicit love affair which Richard was obliged to deny at the hospital of the Knights of St. John in Clerkenwell. Elizabeth could not have replicated the queen’s gown without Anne’s permission, therefore the copy must have had been coordinated between them. According to Sir George Buck, Elizabeth wrote to John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, declaring her love for King Richard and her hope of becoming his wife. In Buck's words, the letter asks Norfolk “to be a mediator for her to the King, in behalf of the marriage propounded between them”, who, as she wrote, was her “only joy and maker in this world”, and that she was his in heart and thought, and in Buck’s words, “withall insinuating that the better part of February was past, and that she feared the Queen would never die.” The letter has been lost, but I trust my portrayal of Elizabeth’s motivation and the circumstances that surround its formulation are legitimate and based on probability.

More clues to Elizabeth’s feelings for her uncle can be found in the books of King Richard’s library. Among them is Tristan, which Elizabeth of York clearly read and treasured as a young woman at a time of crisis in her life when she was neither princess nor queen. An emotional involvement is suggested by her mysterious motto, sans removyr, “without changing” (never used by her again) inserted below Richard’s ex libris. [11] A copy of De consolatione philosophiae by Boethius also carries her notations in the margins, and is inscribed on the flyleaf with a fascinating combination of Richard’s motto, Loyalte Me Lye, “Loyalty Binds Me,” and Elizabeth of York’s first name, both in her handwriting.

There can be no doubt that Henry VII was a cold husband. [12] The Spanish ambassador, de Puebla, wrote to his sovereigns that Elizabeth was “in need of a little love.” Given her loneliness, it would be reasonable to assume she remembered the shining impression of King Richard, and looked back with yearning on a time when life had held out hope and a measure of happiness.

But a final question begs an answer: How could Elizabeth of York love a man who murdered her young brothers?

For that, there can be only one answer.  The princes survived. Richard did not kill them.

Henry Tudor was as plagued by rumors that the boys were alive as Richard was by rumors that they were dead. In order to rewrite history and change Richard’s reputation from hero to villain, the victor of Bosworth pursued the destruction of any documents unfavorable to his own version of events, including the Titulus Regius, the record of King Richard’s Parliament that gave Richard’s reasons for taking the throne and enacted laws to protect the innocent. It is indeed fortunate for posterity that one obscure copy survived. Documents that could exonerate Richard, such as Perkin Warbeck’s letter of identity, or those proving Edward IV’s bigamy, may have existed, but unlike Titulus Regius, failed to survive. This is not surprising. The parties involved, including Perkin Warbeck, were imprisoned, and it is known that Warbeck was subjected to such torture in the summer of 1498 that the Spanish ambassador expected him not to live much longer.

As noted by one of King Richard’s biographers, had he won Bosworth, his “usurpation,” like that of Henry IV, would have been disregarded in the brilliancy which marked his kingly career. Furthermore, had it not been for King Edward IV’s own shortcomings, Richard of Gloucester would never have found himself obliged to accept the throne, and would have been commemorated by posterity as a prince of vigorous mind, sound judgment, enlarged views, and as an able general, a dutiful subject, and a just and upright man. [13]

But history is written by the victors, and Henry VII perfected the art of propaganda with his use of misinformation. [14] Though the Tudors were anxious for history to believe the princes were murdered and that Richard III committed the deed, there are some compelling pieces of evidence in favor of Richard’s innocence. A fact often overlooked is that Richard had three little nephews who were legally barred from the throne. The Tudors would have us believe he murdered two of them, but not the third—Clarence’s orphaned son, Edward Earl of Warwick. Richard brought this child to live with him in his household, and as soon as Richard was slain, Henry Tudor imprisoned the boy, then eleven, in the Tower of London. Thirteen years later, he beheaded young Warwick on a pretext of treason, so that his son, Prince Arthur, could inherit a throne unchallenged by a rightful heir and marry Catherine of Aragon. Later, Queen Catherine would say that her marriage had been made in blood.

It was Henry Tudor, not Richard III, who had the most to gain from the deaths of all three little princes. The treatment of young Warwick alone speaks volumes about the difference in character between these two kings. In the actions of Elizabeth Woodville and her daughter, Elizabeth of York, can be found further evidence of Richard’s innocence.

Elizabeth Woodville must have believed Richard didn’t murder her boys since she came out of sanctuary and wrote her son Dorset that all was well and to return to England. Eighteen months into Henry Tudor’s reign, she suddenly incurred Tudor’s disfavor and was locked away in an abbey where she was held virtually incommunicado until her death. She must have lent her support to the rebellion, but was it because she’d learned her son, Richard of York, was alive, or because she’d learned that Henry Tudor, or his mother, Margaret Beaufort, was responsible for the deaths of her boys? And why did Henry Tudor, who defiled Richard’s body and his reputation so brutally, never formally accuse Richard of their murder? Was it because he knew Richard was innocent? [15]

As Henry VII’s queen, Elizabeth of York won the hearts of her people with her charity and generosity, much as Anne Neville had done, and like Queen Anne, she was given the appellation “The Good.” It is inconceivable that such a woman could have loved a man she knew had arranged the secret murder of her brothers, yet love him, she did. 

For some, the most convincing evidence that the princes died in Richard’s reign is the fact that no one ever saw them after October, 1483. However, in Richard of England  Diana Kleyn makes a persuasive case that Perkin Warbeck was indeed who he said he was. For those interested in pursuing the topic further, Audrey Williamson’s The Mystery of the Princes, a Golden Dagger Award winner, also provides an intriguing, and authoritative vindication of Richard III.

According to John Morton’s biographer, the bishop “made the Tudor dynasty” and also made Sir Thomas More, to whom he gave the History of King Richard the Third that More claimed as his own work. [16] Here More-Morton states that Tyrrell confessed to the murder before his execution, but no one mentioned a confession before More did, and no record of one has survived. Yet, More’s account quickly became the accepted story of what had happened to Richard, Duke of York. It would seem, therefore, that Morton condemns himself by his account of the princes being buried at the foot of the stairs in the White Tower. Since Morton died in 1500, and Sir James Tyrrell, supposedly the confessed murderer of the princes, was not picked up until 1501, Morton’s knowledge of the crime was premature and could only have come as a result of his own guilt. [17] The allusion to the bodies being moved later may have been intended to cover up his involvement.

If so, Morton seems to have been only partially successful in his efforts, since one of the princes may well have survived (see below). The skeletal remains that were found at the base of the stairs two hundred years later, put into an urn, and declared peremptorily to be those of the princes have never been validated. The forensic examination done in 1934 was flawed and did not even check for gender. More recent requests for DNA analysis have been denied, perhaps because the search for truth is complicated by its ramifications. If the results come back negative, or inconclusive, then one of the princes survived Richard’s reign and Perkin may have been who he said he was. In that case, the notion that Henry VII may have executed the true King of England strikes at the very legitimacy of the British monarchy. Perhaps for this reason, most British historians have always dismissed Warbeck as a false pretender. [18]

Another consideration in favor of Richard’s innocence is the known record of the Tudors in removing those who stood in their way. Their pattern of elimination may have begun with King Richard’s son and heir, nine-year old Prince Edward of Wales, whose death threw the dynasty back into dispute, benefiting only one person—Henry Tudor. The child’s death occurred exactly a year after King Edward IV’s own on the previous Easter, an uncanny coincidence that suggests premeditation. [19] When taken together with the fact that the little prince died suddenly after eating, of a belly ache accompanied by great pain, it lends credence to the contemporary rumors of poison, and might explain Richard’s desperate attempt at Bosworth to engage Tudor personally. Given Margaret Beaufort’s calculating nature, her plotting on behalf of her son, and her “pitiless ambition”, Prince Edward’s death may have come as a direct result of Henry Tudor’s thirst for Richard’s crown. This ghastly possibility no doubt occurred to Queen Anne, whose own death within a year further fractured Richard’s fragile emotional health before Bosworth.

Ultimately, in view of the actions and behavior of those most closely involved in the drama of the princes in the Tower, including Maximilian, Emperor of the Romans, and Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, and statements made by Henry VII after Stoke, it seems likely that one of the princes survived King Richard’s reign. In this case, the Pretender may well have been who he claimed to be. Richard of England.

Lastly, in Perkin Warbeck’s name may provide another small clue to his identity. “Wesbecque” was a play on words by someone who knew Flemish as well as French; with the Flemish wezen, “to be” or “to be real”, and weze, the word for “orphan.” [20] It is curious that the official narrative of this young man given under torture contains so many elements applicable to the life of the real prince, Richard, Duke of York. Here is a child whose name meant “real” and “orphan,” born in England of no known address or clear parentage, who moved all over Europe, always in the company of English people (to explain his fluency in the English language) and who lived for a time in Portugal, somehow managing to attach himself to the wife of a man whose name resembled one of Richard III’s most loyal retainers, the Portuguese Jew, Duarte Brandeo—Sir Edward Brampton. Even Edward the Fourth makes an appearance in Perkin’s tale, acting as his godfather. [21] Both “princes” are linked by a common thread of wandering, jeopardy, and sorrow. 

Catherine Gordon never returned to Scotland and continued to live at court until Henry VII’s death. She did not remarry during his lifetime, perhaps because Henry did not wish it. While he may have been repugnant to her for obvious reasons, she might have allowed him to show affection to her since her son’s welfare and her own protection rested entirely on his goodwill. After his death, she married three more times, and lived for a while in Wales. A rumor surfaced that her little son had been brought up there, and at least one family, the Perkins of Reynoldston, traced their descent to him. There is also the mysterious “Richard Plantagenet,” otherwise known as the highly educated, reclusive bricklayer Richard of Eastwell, who read Latin and died in 1550. He might have been the child taken from his parents at St. Buryan. The account of his identity could be an amalgam of both the tale of Prince Richard’s flight from England on the eve of Bosworth and the life of the Pretender’s own son, Richard. Certainly, his dates fit this explanation better than the more commonly held theory that he was a third bastard child of Richard III. 

Catherine Gordon died in 1537, and was interred in Fyfield Church, where a monument was erected to her memory. After Perkin’s execution, she wore black until her death. Clearly, she believed in her husband until her last breath.

In conclusion, neither Elizabeth of York nor Catherine Gordon believed King Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower. They knew the truth. He was a good king, and a decent man,  worthy of the affection of his people, and of his niece, Elizabeth of York, the first Tudor Queen, who sacrificed her heart to save her country.




1 At a Christmas feast in the ninth year of Henry VII’s reign, sixty dishes were served to the guests, but to Elizabeth of York none were “fish or flesh.” Stowe, p. 415.

2 Francis Bacon, p. 84

3 Nancy Lenz Harvey,  p. 202

4 Wroe, p. 458; Baldwin, p. 138.

5 Jones & Underwood, pp. 106-108

6 John Britton’s 200 pages of notes, drafts, and transcripts of letters between Margaret and her son, the king, as well as Britton's own research survive as Cambridge University Library Ms 00.6.89. Like Sir George Buck, he sees her as a woman of shrewdness and guile, verging on trickery. Both Britton and Sir Horace Walpole ridicule the account of her vision of St. Nicholas by whom she had been guided in her choice of Edmund Tudor as husband.

7 Jones and Underwood, p. 58

8 Ibid, p. 189

9 Ibid, p. 65

10 Ibid, p. 4

11 Visser-Fuchs, Livia; “Where did Elizabeth of York find Consolation”, from The Ricardian, No. 122, Sept. 1993; pp. 469-473. Also Sutton and Visser-Fuchs, p.15 and p.221 (This is the op.cit. in bibliography, Richard III’s Books)

12 Bacon, pp. 79-80; Gairdner,  p. 182; Routh, p. 57 and pp.61-63

13 Halsted, Caroline. Richard III as Duke of Gloucester and King of England, in two volumes. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1844, pp. 6-7 and 385-386.

14 It is interesting to contemplate what Churchill and FDR’s reputation would be today had Hitler won WWII.

15 For an interesting discussion of this and other matters touched on above, see Baldwin, pp.111-114

16 Woodhouse, p. vi

17 Tyrrell was beheaded in 1502. His confession, if it happened, was never made public, except in More’s History of the Reign of King Richard III which remained unfinished and was not published until fifteen years after his death.  Archbishop Morton is given as the source of More’s information.

18 Wroe never says who she thinks the pretender was, though her work builds a strong circumstantial case that he was indeed Richard of York. Her book, published in the U.S. as The Perfect Prince, was re-titled Perkin for its publication in the U.K.  It should be noted the idea that Henry VII executed the pretender because he was Richard of York is entirely mine.

19 Some authorities give the date Prince Edward died as April 9, the same as King Edward’s. Whatever the truth of this, his death clearly fell on the first anniversary of King Edward’s own at Easter, April 9th, 1483, whether this happened to be April 9th 1484, or Easter, April 18th 1484.

20 Wroe, p. 407

21 Bacon, pp. 152-153

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