16 August 2017

Daughters of York

For more than five centuries, the world has wondered, "What happened to the Princes in the Tower?" Rarely do we ever ask, "What about their sisters?"

Whether they were murdered by their uncle, who became King Richard III, or by their brother-in-law, who became King Henry VII, or happened to die naturally with immaculate timing, the little King Edward V and his younger brother Richard Duke of York have been the subject of one of history's ultimate unsolved mysteries. With the exception of their eldest sister, Elizabeth of York, who is a barely more than a footnote in the biographies of her husband and son (Henry VII and VIII) respectively, we hear almost nothing about their sisters. Despite this, we do know quite a bit about their lives.

The daughters of the Yorkist King Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville were plentiful: Elizabeth (1466-1503), Mary (1467-1482), Cecily (1469-1507), Margaret (b. and d. 1472), Anne (1475-1511), Catherine (1479-1527) and Bridget (1480-1517). Had they been boys, there would have been a LOT of princes in the Tower to be murdered!

Elizabeth Woodville
via Wikimedia Commons
Their story starts as a love story between their parents. Elizabeth Woodville's first husband Sir John Grey had died fighting for the Lancastrians before she caught the eye of the Yorkist heir. She already had two sons, when Edward of York won his throne and then secretly married her. Some said, he was already contracted to marry someone else, and it was upon this basis that all of his children by Elizabeth would later be declared illegitimate. Despite the constant political and military turmoil of the ongoing Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth and Edward had a fruitful marriage, producing 10 children in 14 years. (A third son, George Duke of Bedford, died at age 2).

Despite his reputation as a soldier, Edward grew increasingly subject to illness and succumbed to natural causes (pneumonia? typhoid?) shortly before his 41st birthday. One of his final acts was to name his trusted brother, Richard Duke of Gloucester, as the Protector for his young son and heir. While little Edward was taken to live in the royal castle known as the Tower of London, Queen Elizabeth's father and one of her Grey sons were taken prisoner for attempts to monopolize power. Elizabeth gathered all of her daughters and the little Duke of York and fled into sanctuary. Gloucester soon accused her of plotting his murder and had several of her allies, including her father and son, executed.

When he demanded that the Duke of York be sent to keep his brother company, she had no choice but to let him go. He also enticed the former Queen and her daughters to come out of sanctuary and live instead under house arrest, eventually bringing some of the girls to court to serve as ladies in waiting to his wife Queen Anne Neville. Meanwhile he had Edward IV's marriage declared invalid based on witness testimony that he had been contracted to someone else when he married Elizabeth Woodville. This meant that all of his children were now considered bastards.

Elizabeth of York:
daughter, sister, niece, wife & mother of kings
via Wikimedia Commons
Elizabeth was an ambitious woman and she soon found her equal in Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian claimant to the throne. The mothers agreed that Elizabeth's oldest daughter would marry Henry, if he could secure the throne. The young man, defeated Richard (who was killed) at the Battle of Bosworth and declared himself King Henry VII by right of conquest, but solidified his claim by marrying Princess Elizabeth, who by now, was generally thought to be the Yorkist heir due to the disappearance of her brothers. She went on to be immortalized with her portrait on playing cards. She also is best remembered as the mother of the much-married King Henry VIII, although she produced a total of eight children. Her last child died about a week after her birth and Elizabeth followed her the next day having succumbed to infection caused by the birth. It was her 37th birthday.

The second York sister, Mary, had died a year before their father, at the age of 15. Daughter #3, named Cecily for Edward IV's mother, was married off by her uncle to one of his supporters, Ralph Scrope, but it was annulled when her brother-in-law seized the crown. Henry VII married her off to one his supporters, his uncle John Welles 1st Viscount Welles. The couple had two daughters who died young, but their marriage seems to have been happy. After Welles' untimely death, she chose her third husband for herself, a country Squire named Thomas Kyme and lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity. She appears to have had children by Kyme, but the records are rather sketchy and, if they existed, they certainly never took up life at the royal court. She died at age 38.

The fourth York sister, Margaret, died at just eight months old but the fifth sister Anne survived the tumultuous reigns of her father and uncle to be married to Thomas Howard, to whom she had been betrothed by King Richard. After Richard's defeat and death, Howard was not about to lose his claim on marrying a royal princess (since the York children's legitimacy had been re-established so that their oldest sister could marry King Henry.) Henry allowed the wedding. Anne died at age 36, having outlived any children they had, and Thomas remarried. He became very famous indeed as the 3rd Duke of Norfolk; he was the uncle of two of King Henry VIII's unfortunate wives, the two who were beheaded, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

Five daughters of Edward IV on a stained glass window:
Elizabeth, Cecily, Anne, Katherine & Mary of York
via Wikimedia Commons
The ongoing political turmoil of the era also continued to impact the sixth sister, Catherine. Her brother-in-law arranged her marriage with William Courtenay 1st Earl of Devon, by whom she had at least three children. However, hubby got caught up in one of several conspiracies against the new Tudor king. In 1509 he was imprisoned and lost his title for his support of a Yorkist claimant, Catherine's cousin Edmund de la Pole. He managed to keep his head and survived into the reign of nephew Henry VIII, who pardoned him. After Courtenay's death two years later, Catherine was given control over the earldom, which was inherited by her teenage son. Her nephew even honored her by making her a godmother to his daughter, the future Queen Mary. Catherine was the longest lived of all the sisters, passing away at the age of 48. Her descendants are numerous among Britain's aristocracy today, having interwoven with the royal offspring of the Stuart kings and the Hanoverians.

The youngest sister Bridget was only two years old when their father died. Her oldest sister Elizabeth, 14 years her elder, was one of her godmothers. Elizabeth apparently took this role seriously and would look after Bridget until her own death when Bridget was 22. At some point early in Henry VII's reign the little girl was sent into religious life as a nun at Dartford Priory. Big sis Queen Elizabeth paid many of her expenses, especially after the death of their mum. Despite her quiet life well away from the political vagaries of the court or the uncertainties of childbearing, Bridget also had a relatively early death at the age of 36.

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