Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Elizabeth of York (1466-1503) 1590c.

 English School 

Portrait of Elizabeth of York (1466-1503),  English School
Oil on Panel
16th Century
11 ½ x 9 ¼ inches 29.7 x 23 cm
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Elizabeth of York can claim to be the most important dynastic royal figure in English history. First, her marriage to Henry Tudor in 1485 united the warring Houses of York and Lancaster, and gave vital legitimacy to Henry VII’s shaky claim to the throne. Second, she provided the nascent Tudor dynasty with a number of healthy heirs, five of whom survived infancy. And finally, it was through her daughter Margaret that the crown of Scotland came to be united with that of England in 1603. In a sense, Elizabeth is the matriarch of the Union.

Elizabeth’s political and dynastic importance stemmed from her Yorkist descent. She was the eldest daughter of Edward IV, and was for a time his heir. After the death of her father in 1483, and the disappearance of her two elder brothers – the Princes Edward and Richard – Elizabeth assumed a crucial importance during the final chapter of the Wars of the Roses. Her uncle, Richard III, was an unpopular monarch, and would soon lose his only son too, making Elizabeth a strong candidate for the throne. Thus it was Henry Tudor’s shrewd move on Christmas Day 1483 to vow, in exile, that, should he ever be king, he would marry Elizabeth himself, and so re-unite the Yorkists and the Lancastrians.

Henry and Elizabeth married soon after the Lancastrian victory at Bosworth. The union gave rise to one of Henry’s most inspirational symbolic gestures – the Tudor rose, in which the white rose of the Yorkists was merged with the red of the Lancastrians. Most contemporary sources suggest that the marriage was crucial for Henry’s future success: his own claim to the throne was almost non-existent, and relied on his mother’s illegitimate descent from Edward III. Fortunately, Elizabeth soon gave birth to a son, whom Henry symbolically named Arthur, in a further attempt to re-unify the country.

Despite Elizabeth’s central role in the Tudor dynasty, we have few records of her personality or appearance. She was by all accounts highly popular, and well-loved by her husband, who, on her death in 1503, aged just thirty eight, locked himself away in sorrow. The present picture is a late sixteenth century derivation of the only painted portrait of Elizabeth. Most likenesses and accounts suggest, as here, that she had a full face. In this example, Elizabeth is shown without the white rose that she is often seen holding in similar panel portraits, which celebrate her role as founder of one half of the Tudor dynasty. It seems instead, judging by the Latin inscription, that this picture was intended to celebrate Elizabeth’s role as mother of Henry VIII, a sentiment that would have been entirely appropriate in the late sixteenth century, when the Tudor regime seemed assured, and when her bombastic grandson had become the dominant figure of the age.
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