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The Death of Elizabeth of York at the Tower of London

Date: 05 July 2024

Author: Tracy Borman

On 10 February 1503, Elizabeth of York died in the medieval Queen's Lodgings at the Tower of London, after giving birth to a baby girl. Her death left her husband, Henry VII and their family inconsolable. Here, Tracy Borman, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces delves into the story behind the death of the original Tudor Queen, within the walls of this royal fortress.

Apothecary bills and other records in Elizabeth of York's personal accounts suggest that her seventh and last pregnancy was a difficult one. In the middle of December 1502, even though she was still seven weeks from giving birth, she ordered the girdle of Our Lady of Westminster, a religious token believed to keep mother and baby safe during labour.

The Queen Travels to the Tower of London

In January 1503, after her daughter Margaret's proxy wedding to James IV of Scotland, the Queen travelled to the Tower of London so that she could spend Candlemas with her husband before entering her confinement – a month-long period of seclusion before the birth.

Upon reaching the Tower, Elizabeth attended a ceremonial mass in the Chapel of St John the Evangelist, after which wine and sweetmeats were served. Then, accompanied by an entourage of ladies headed by her mother-in-law Lady Margaret Beaufort, she entered the chambers that had been appointed for her in the medieval Queen's Lodgings.

A Tudor portrait of a woman shown in side profile wearing dark, rich clothing

Image: Elizabeth of York, by an unknown artist, based on a work of c.1500. © National Portrait Gallery, London

A medieval chapel built from stone with arches on either side of a long aisle

Image: The Tower of London, where Elizabeth of York attended a ceremonial mass in January 1503, before giving birth to her daughter Katherine. © Historic Royal Palaces

A Difficult Birth

However, either the royal physicians had miscalculated the date of conception or the baby was premature because just a few days later, on 2 February 1503, the Queen was delivered ‘suddenly’ of a girl. The baby was named Katherine, perhaps as a compliment to Katherine of Aragon, the young widow of Elizabeth's son Prince Arthur.

Tragically, neither Elizabeth or her infant daughter Katherine thrived after the birth. A messenger was dispatched to Kent to find a doctor named 'Aylsworth' or 'Hallysworth'.

The Death of a Queen and a Princess

The Queen's symptoms are not clear, but it is possible that she had succumbed to a post-partum infection such as puerperal fever, or that she was suffering the consequences of iron-deficiency anaemia. The more babies a woman bore, the greater the risk of sickness or death.

The infant princess also began to wane, and on 10 February she died. Elizabeth followed her to the grave the following day – her 37th birthday.

Henry VII was prostrate with grief. According to one account, he 'privily departed to a solitary place and would no man should resort unto him'. When he finally reemerged several weeks later, his hair had turned white and his face was marked with the lines of grief.

A manuscript showing a family in mourning around an empty bed

Image: An illuminated manuscript showing Henry VII and the royal family mourning Elizabeth of York. By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales

'Never since the death of my dearest mother…'

An illuminated manuscript once belonging to Henry VII and now in the National Library of Wales shows the King in mourning robes with a doleful expression on his face.

On the left of the picture, in their late mother's bedchamber, Elizabeth's daughters Mary and Margaret are seated on the floor wearing black veils. Elizabeth's 'loving son', the 11-year-old Prince Henry, is weeping onto the sheets of his mother's empty bed.

The manuscript is believed to have been in Henry’s own library when he became Henry VIII.

The pain of the young Henry's loss was still raw four years later when, aged 18 and now King of England, he wrote to Erasmus, lamenting the death of Philip 'the Handsome', King of Castile: 'Never, since the death of my dearest mother, hath there come to me more hateful intelligence,' he confided. He went on to upbraid the scholar for telling him about Philip's death 'because it seemed to tear open again the wound to which time had brought insensibility'.

Burying a Queen: Elizabeth of York's Funeral

Elizabeth's baby daughter Katherine was quietly interred next to her two siblings, Elizabeth and Edmund, in the vault at Westminster Abbey. There was no stinting on the pomp and pageantry surrounding the late Queen's burial, however, which cost a staggering £2,800 (more than £1.8 million today).

Elizabeth was interred in the Lady Chapel, which her husband had commissioned just a month before her death. He was buried next to her upon his own death six years later. The Italian Renaissance sculptor, Pietro Torrigiano, crafted beautiful bronze effigies of husband and wife for their tomb.

Thomas More penned a 'Rueful Lamentation', which was painted on a board and hung next to her tomb. Written as a farewell address from Elizabeth to her grieving family, it reserved the most tender words for 'mine own dear spouse, my worthy lord', urging him:

‘Erst were you father, and now must you supply
The mother's part also, for lo now here I lie.’

Tracy Borman
Chief Curator, Historic Royal Palaces

A gold tomb depicting a man and woman lying down with their palms together in prayer

Image: The effigies of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York on their tomb in Westminster Abbey. Copyright: Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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