There were lots of interesting figures in the Wars of the Roses. Richard III was the most ruthless, Margaret of Anjou was the most conniving, and Elizabeth of York? She was the most beautiful—but there’s so much more to her than that. From her precarious childhood to her life in captivity to her devastating end, Elizabeth of York’s dark life story was one for the ages.
1. She Grew Up In Chaotic Times
Elizabeth of York was born at Westminster, the first child of King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville. As England’s eldest princess, Elizabeth should have had it made in the shade—but Elizabeth was not born in peaceful times. Her father had only recently taken England’s throne from the mad King Henry VI, and his crown was far from secure.
But that wasn’t all. By nature of her parents’ controversial marriage, Elizabeth of York was in danger from the moment she came screaming into the world.
2. Her Parents’ Marriage Was Scandalous
Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville have one of history’s greatest love stories. And what’s even better than true love? Forbidden love. When Edward became king, his advisors expected him to marry some foreign princess to ensure an alliance with a powerful nation. He then went and stabbed them in the back by marrying Woodville, an impoverished widow, in secret.
That alone was enough to enrage Edward’s inner circle—but there may have been an even darker origin to this tale.
3. His Mother Made A Dark Threat
Elizabeth’s father fell in love with her mother at first sight—but it might not have been mutual. Edward begged Woodville to become his mistress, but she refused. Then, he made a disturbing suggestion: If she wouldn’t join his bed willingly, then he’d take her by force. But Elizabeth’s mother was one tough woman. She threatened to slit her own throat if Edward attempted to touch her without her consent.
Though Elizabeth’s parents went on to have a long and passionate marriage, that’s definitely what I call “getting off on the wrong foot.” Regardless, Edward balked and the pair got married—though their recklessness would mean certain doom for their children, Elizabeth of York included.
4. She Couldn’t Trust Anyone
Though underneath the surface tensions bubbled, Elizabeth of York’s christening was a lavish and joyous affair. Her two grandmothers acted as witnesses, as well as a very special cousin: Richard Neville, AKA, the Kingmaker. As Edward’s closest ally, Neville seemed the perfect man to bless the baby Elizabeth. On that joyous day, I wonder if Neville already knew that he’d betray her family so cruelly.
Even Elizabeth, a child as she was, would feel the sting of Neville’s treachery before long.
5. Everyone Wanted To Use Her
The sad reality is, Elizabeth of York was born to be a political pawn. Her father first betrothed her when she was just three years old, to Richard Neville’s nephew, George. That arrangement went up in flames when Neville dealt Edward IV one of history’s greatest betrayals. He teamed up with the king’s greatest enemy, Margaret of Anjou, and stole the throne from Edward.
Edward promptly took the throne back, slaying Neville in battle to boot, but it meant Elizabeth’s marriage was definitely off. She was three, so she probably didn’t care too much—but her father still had huge plans for his little girl.
6. Her Betrothals Kept Falling Apart
The Nevilles were out, so who next? Edward managed to negotiate the deal of the century by getting young Elizabeth, now eight, betrothed to King Louis XI of France’s son—but it wasn’t meant to be, either. People just seemed to love turning on Edward, and the French king ended up backing out of his promise. Was Elizabeth cursed?
Her arranged marriages kept falling apart. And, even worse, a terrible tragedy would strike before she got the chance at a third.
7. She Faced Tragedy Young
Elizabeth’s father suddenly—and mysteriously—died in 1483. That meant her younger brother was now King Edward V. At least, he should have been. Her uncle Richard quickly took the boy to the Tower of London, “for his protection.” Really, he was just separating young Edward from his mother, so she couldn’t stop what he had planned.
Elizabeth didn’t know it yet, but her father’s end would throw her entire world upside down within just a few short weeks.
8. She Had To Flee For Her Life
The days following Edward IV’s passing must have been terrifying for Elizabeth of York. When Richard stuck her brother in the Tower, Elizabeth’s mother took her and their other siblings and fled to the safety of Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth couldn’t possibly have understood all that was happening. What was the problem? Her brother was the king, and her uncle was there to protect him.
She’d realize the truth before long. Probably right around the time she realized that Westminster Abbey had become a prison.
9. Her Uncle Stole Her Brother
Elizabeth and the rest of her family huddled in Westminster Abbey for days, but even the holy ground couldn’t ensure their safety. Richard came knocking, demanding custody of her other brother. Elizabeth’s mother reluctantly gave the boy up, terrified of what Richard might do if she refused. Elizabeth said goodbye to her youngest brother—totally unaware it was the last time she’d ever see him alive.
10. She Lost Everything
Elizabeth spent two long months wondering what was going to become of her and her family. On June 22, 1483, she got her answer: Richard had her parents’ marriage declared invalid. That meant Elizabeth and her siblings were illegitimate, making her uncle Richard the new king: Richard III. With that one announcement, Elizabeth’s entire world crashed down around her.
One day, she was sister to the King of England. The next, she was a nobody, cowering in sanctuary, praying her vengeful uncle didn’t come for her next. It seemed like a nightmare come to life—but her brothers suffered a still darker fate.
11. She Never Got To Say Goodbye
If nothing else, Elizabeth managed to escape her uncle’s treachery with her skin intact. We can’t say the same about her brothers. After the declaration, no one ever saw them again. People started whispering about the Princes in the Tower, wondering if perhaps one day they might reappear to challenge Richard for the throne. If anyone held out hope for that, it was misguided.
The months passed, and no princes emerged from the Tower of London. In a few, fleeting moments, Elizabeth must have worried about her brothers’ fate. However, she had herself to worry about now…
12. Her Mother Wasn’t Going Down Without A Fight
Lucky for Elizabeth, she had a seriously ruthless woman around to protect her. Her mother came up with a secretive plan to get back at Richard once and for all. Elizabeth was to marry Henry Tudor, a young noble exiled in France who had a distant claim to the throne. The deal was brilliant. The Wars of the Roses between the Yorks (Elizabeth’s family) and Lancasters (Henry’s family) had raged for nearly half a century at this point.
By marrying Henry, Elizabeth could unite the two houses against a common enemy: Richard III. Now, all she could do was wait and pray for a miracle. Would it come in time?
13. She Was The Key
Elizabeth of York was the lynchpin of the entire plan to dethrone Richard III. Henry Tudor had a claim to the throne, but it was extremely weak. Only with Elizabeth, the daughter of the beloved Edward IV, by his side could he hope to win the nobles over. Over in France, Henry bided his time and planned out his next move, while Elizabeth still huddled in sanctuary back in England.
She must have spent many months praying for any way to escape her confinement. Unfortunately, she was about to learn, escaping only led to a new nightmare.
14. She Tasted Freedom
Elizabeth finally left Westminster Abbey in 1484, nearly a year after first entering sanctuary. Her mother and uncle had allegedly reconciled, with Richard publicly swearing that no harm would come to Elizabeth or her remaining family. But remember, this was the man who very likely killed his own nephews. How far could Elizabeth ever trust him?
Well, if rumors from the time are to be believed, her uncle had even more disturbing plans in mind for her.
15. She Was The Source Of A Twisted Rumor
It’s widely rumored that Richard III planned on marrying Elizabeth, his own niece. Since his wife had failed to produce any heirs thus far, he wanted a newer, younger model. Plus, marrying Elizabeth could cement his claim to the throne. If Elizabeth had thought rotting in sanctuary was as bad as it could get, she was so wrong. Being forced to marry her treacherous uncle would have been so much worse.
Can’t Elizabeth ever catch a break? Well, speaking of that…
16. Her Uncle Denied It
Whether or not Richard actually planned on marrying Elizabeth, we’ll never know. But we do know that the rumors of such a wedding became so loud that Richard had to publicly deny it. But that didn’t mean Elizabeth was off the hook completely. Richard still had plans for her, whether she liked it or not.
17. She Was A Pawn Yet Again
Henry Tudor was nowhere in sight, so Elizabeth remained at Richard’s mercy. He locked her away in a distant castle in the North and started doing everything in his power to marry her off. He eventually forged a deal to have her marry the future King of Portugal, Manuel I. For anyone who’s counting, that makes four arranged marriages for Elizabeth, all before she even turned 20.
So, who was it going to be? Henry or Manuel? She was about to get her answer.
18. Her Entire Life Changed In An Instant
The day everyone was waiting for finally came. Henry Tudor landed in Wales with an army on August 7, 1485. Two weeks later, he fought Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Against all odds, the inexperienced Henry defeated the battle-hardened Richard, claiming England’s crown by right of conquest. For Elizabeth, it’s like her wildest dreams had come true.
Her uncle was gone, and her betrothed was now King of England. Any day now, he’d come join her in London, and she’d be crowned queen. Unfortunately, as always with this long-suffering princess, things didn’t go exactly according to plan…
19. Her Fiance Had Cold Feet
Elizabeth was the whole basis for Henry’s claim to the throne in the first place, but after he defeated Richard, he grew arrogant. He believed the right of conquest was the only claim he needed. They were supposed to marry as soon as Henry arrived in London, but he dragged his feet. Was someone about to turn on Elizabeth for the umpteenth time?
Thankfully, no. This time, after lord knows how many betrothals, Elizabeth made it stick.
20. He Finally Put A Ring On It
After several tense months of waiting, Elizabeth and Henry finally tied the knot. Elizabeth of York, the embattled princess who’d been through so much, finally had some sense of stability. Now, it was time for Henry to realize just how lucky he was…
21. She Was Ravishing
Here’s the thing about Elizabeth of York: She wasn’t just another important royal; she was also a stone-cold fox. Her parents both happened to be babes, and they definitely passed their genes onto their daughter. Despite the horror story she’d survived thus far, she was truly like a queen out of a fairy tale. She was beautiful, kind, and generous.
Her childhood was officially over. Now it was time for her life to begin—but there were so many more trials ahead.
22. She Gave Birth To A Doomed Prince
Elizabeth and Henry welcomed their first son, Arthur, eight months after their marriage. His birth was a joyous occasion for all of England, but especially for the newlyweds. A son meant there was someone to carry on Henry’s line—but any history buffs out there might have noticed one dark detail. The Tudors became some of the most iconic English monarchs, but there’s no King Arthur Tudor in the history books.
Unfortunately for Elizabeth, motherhood led to devastating heartbreak.
23. She Was A Devoted Mother
As if she hadn’t survived enough in her life, Elizabeth of York had a nightmarish time when it came to motherhood. In seven pregnancies, only four of her children survived infancy: Arthur, Margaret, Henry, and Mary. She clung to these children like her life depended on it—but unfortunately, she couldn’t protect them all.
24. She Finally Got Her Crown
While Elizabeth was utterly beautiful and clearly very fertile—two very appealing traits in a medieval queen—Henry remained distant. Obsessed with proving he was the rightful king on his own merits, he put off crowning Elizabeth for nearly two years. She was simply the royal consort, not a queen. Finally, in November 1487, crown touched temples, and Elizabeth became the Queen of England.
Now, she just had to make the cold, calculating man she’d married come around—but Elizabeth was up to the task.
25. She Won Him Over
Henry VII was like a stone, hard and unfeeling, but Elizabeth was not to be deterred. She wore away at his tough exterior and slowly made her husband fall madly in love with her. Her beauty and her personality certainly helped matters, but Elizabeth quickly proved she was more than just a pretty face.
26. He Needed Her
Though he wanted almost nothing to do with her at first, Henry eventually had to admit that his wife had a lot to offer. After all, he’d spent his youth in France, plotting his rebellion. He knew very little of English court life. Elizabeth, on the other hand, knew the customs like the back of her hand. The uncouth Henry might have alienated all of his new allies had Elizabeth not guided him through the subtleties of the English court.
Plus, while familiarizing her husband with aristocratic intrigue, she had an even more crucial task to accomplish.
27. She Had Work To Do
Henry VII was king, but that didn’t mean much. After all, there had been three kings in the last four years. Elizabeth’s future was anything but secure, but was going to do everything in her power to change that. Elizabeth had lived in Richard III’s court for a time, so she knew exactly which nobles had turned on him. Knowing the same thing could happen to her husband, she set about forging alliances wherever she could.
Elizabeth’s charm and political savvy won over many Henry’s new court—but her husband still caused her no end of problems.
28. Her Husband Was Cold
We’ll just say it: Henry VII was not a fun guy. He was strict, severe, and unbearably cheap. Records from his early reign show that he never parted with a penny he didn’t have to, and he tracked England’s finances down to the last crumb of bread. Those watching from afar must have felt sorry for Elizabeth for marrying such a miser, but they didn’t realize what Henry was like behind bedroom doors.
29. He Was Different Around Her
Henry VII was definitely a cheapskate, but part of it might have been an act. Away from prying eyes, he was a completely different person. He lavished gifts on his wife and children, and even enjoyed music and dancing—at least in private. Against all odds, Elizabeth had actually succeeded in softening her cold and unfeeling husband.
Finally, after an entire life of turmoil, Elizabeth could finally start enjoying the high life. And boy did she.
30. She Lived The High Life
As Henry’s rule grew more and more secure, Elizabeth got to taste the fruits of her labor. She and her family knew how to throw a party, especially around the holidays. Legers show that she got the normally stingy Henry to spend lavishly on imported wine, roasted meat, and live entertainment. But all of that is nothing compared to the craziest gift he ever bought for her…
31. She Got A Lion
Elizabeth got her own menagerie of wild animals to enjoy, and Henry even spent a fortune to import a lion for her. Add that to the luxurious clothes, fine food, and extravagant palaces. Elizabeth had paid her dues, and now she got to live for once. Unfortunately, life wasn’t done throwing her curveballs just yet. This was just the eye of the storm.
32. Her Mother-In-Law Was A Pain
If there was one flaw in Elizabeth’s perfect life, it was her mother-in-law, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Margaret was a hardened battleax of a woman who’d survived exile and whose scheming had gotten her son England’s throne. As you can imagine, she wasn’t exactly the “kindly old mother-in-law” type. For the most part, Elizabeth let Margaret dominate politics while she tended her family.
Her children were, after all, growing up before her eyes. Her eldest, Arthur, even had to start thinking about marriage. Elizabeth and Henry excitedly prepared a match for their boy—unaware of the horrible tragedy that lay ahead.
33. She Saw Her Son Walk Down The Aisle
In November 1501, Elizabeth’s son Arthur married Catherine of Aragon. Now, to some of you, that name might be familiar. Catherine of Aragon was the first of the infamous Henry VIII’s many wives. But wait, if she married Henry, then…what happened to Arthur?
34. A Mysterious Illness Struck
After their wedding, Arthur and Catherine left London for Ludlow Castle, the traditional residence of the Prince of Wales. However, they’d only been married for a few months when something went terribly wrong. Both newlyweds suddenly fell horribly ill with an unknown sickness. The only reports state that it was, “a malign vapor which proceeded from the air.”
Whatever it was, it struck hard and fast. The last Elizabeth saw Arthur, she was waving goodbye to him and his new wife—unaware she’d never see him alive again.
35. She Lost Her Beloved Son
Catherine of Aragon managed to survive the mysterious illness. Arthur was not so lucky. He quickly wasted away, until he gave his last breath on April 2, 1502. He wasn’t even 16 years old. To this day, we don’t know for sure what it was that killed him, but it didn’t matter. Elizabeth had lost her oldest and most beloved child. The grief was devastating—but seeing her husband’s heartbreaking reaction made it even worse.
36. Her Husband Fell Apart
Henry VII was always a cold and unemotional man, but losing his eldest son destroyed him. He broke down in grief, and it fell to Elizabeth to comfort him. Putting on a brave face, she joined him in his rooms and reminded Henry that God had left him with a son and two daughters. She gave him a shoulder to cry on, a rock in the ocean of his grief.
When he finally calmed down, she retired to her own rooms—but then her true feelings finally exploded to the surface.
37. She Crumbled
Elizabeth was strong when her husband needed her, but when she made it back to her own rooms, she crumbled. In a touching twist, her sobs grew so pained that her attendants sent for Henry, who then came and comforted her in turn. They supported each other through their grief, but since life is cruel, they still had to soldier on. They had to begin thinking of their other son, Henry.
He was the future of England now—they could never have predicted the horror he would bring.
38. She Became Pregnant Again
Elizabeth of York was well into her 30s, but losing Arthur drove her to try and give birth once more. Now that Henry was the only remaining son, she wanted another for a little insurance. In 1502, she became pregnant for the seventh time. As the child inside her grew, she moved into the royal apartments in the Tower of London, the safest place for her. I wonder how she felt stepping through those gates, knowing that the castle had been her brothers’ tomb all those years ago.
I also wonder if she had any inkling she’d meet a similar fate.
39. Her Child Didn’t Survive
In early 1503, Elizabeth of York gave birth to her seventh and final child, a girl named Katherine. Tragically, the infant only survived for mere days—but at that moment, there was no time to grieve. Elizabeth herself had contracted an infection and was fighting for her life. Unfortunately, so soon after losing Arthur, she simply didn’t have the strength anymore…
40. She Couldn’t Fight Any Longer
Elizabeth of York closed her eyes for the last time on her 37th birthday; February 11, 1503. The Tudors had weathered many such tragedies before, but losing Elizabeth was different. Young Prince Henry was inconsolable, but he was nothing compared to his father. Elizabeth was the only person who could comfort the king when their son had passed, but now, he had nobody—and his reaction to her passing was heartbreaking.
41. Her Husband Broke Completely
Everyone in court knew Henry VII as a stern, emotionless man. It must have been chilling to see him so utterly broken after Elizabeth passed. According to one writer, her death broke his heart for good, utterly shattering him in a way he’d never recover from. He locked himself away in his rooms and banned anyone from entering. When he finally emerged, he wasn’t the same man he once was.
42. He Endured Two Nightmarish Years
You can’t blame Henry for falling apart. In just two years, he’d lost his beloved son, wife, and baby daughter. Meanwhile, his problems abroad worsened as well. He had to sign the humiliating Treaty of Perpetual Peace, essentially halting his war with Scotland in its tracks. To the members of the court, who had grown used to Henry being as strong and emotionless as a mountain, this new wreck of a man was a total shock.
I’m sure plenty of them assumed that this was just a momentary lapse, and that once Henry got over his grief for Elizabeth, he’d go back to normal. But Elizabeth wasn’t the kind of woman a man forgets that easily.
43. He Only Wanted Her
Henry VII was normally an incredibly shrewd politician, but after he lost Elizabeth of York, his heart went with her. He knew that he should remarry to forge an alliance and potentially beget more heirs, but he just couldn’t bring himself to go through with it. Anyone could see what the problem was—you just had to look at the description Henry gave his advisors when he sent them out searching for a new queen.
He told them what he wanted his new wife to look like, but he was really just describing Elizabeth.
44. He Never Remarried
It soon became clear that Henry VII would never find the woman he was looking for—because Elizabeth of York was the only one for him. In the end, he never remarried. For one woman, at least, that was a very good thing. While considering potential new queens, Henry actually considered the creepiest option possible.
45. Her Daughter-In-Law Was Still Around
We can’t forget about Catherine of Aragon in all this. Remember, she had survived the illness that had claimed her husband, Prince Arthur. So, through all this chaos and tragedy, she remained in England, a total stranger and completely alone. Losing Arthur meant that the deal Henry and Elizbeth had struck with Catherine’s parents was toast. Maybe you can see where this is going…
46. He Almost Went Through With It
Henry VII strongly considered marrying Catherine of Aragon himself, despite the fact that she was almost 40 years younger than him and his daughter-in-law. Thank god he abandoned that plan—though since she ended up marrying his son, the future Henry VIII, I’m not sure which option was worse.
47. She Joined Her Brothers
In a grim twist, Elizabeth of York may have met her end mere steps away from where her two long-lost brothers met theirs all those years before. Remember, her brothers were the infamous “Princes in the Tower,” locked away in the Tower of London and never seen again. If Richard III really did have them both murdered, it’s likely that their bones laid to rest in their prison—where Elizabeth of York suffered her fatal labor.
Certainly, the unidentified children’s bones that workers dug up in the Tower centuries later make it seem extremely likely.
48. Her Other Son Was A Mama’s Boy
Elizabeth’s second son eventually became King Henry VIII, but as a boy, he was something of an afterthought. His father paid him almost no mind when he was a child, instead focusing all of his attention on Arthur. Maybe that’s why he grew up to be such a monster. Few historical records of Henry’s childhood exist, but one thing we do know: He was a major mama’s boy. In fact, his devotion to his own mother may have explained his most disturbing acts as a grown man…
49. She Set The Bar Too High
Henry VIII viewed his mother as an angel from heaven; perfect in every way. So, when he grew up, he expected nothing less from his wives. No surprise, then, that they all disappointed him. Each new wife fell short of his mother in his eyes, and most of them paid a terrible price for it. If that’s not creepy, I don’t know what is.
Perhaps one reason for Henry’s idealistic view of his mother was that she was taken away from him when he was still young. You see, Arthur’s demise was just the beginning. The House of Tudor had more tragedies in store.
50. She Was At The Center Of It All
Elizabeth of York lived through one of the most chaotic and interesting periods in English history—and she was always right at the center of the action. Because of that, she holds a distinction that no other woman has ever claimed: She is the only woman whose father, brother, husband, and son all became Kings of England. Now it’s time for a test: Can you remember all their names?