Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Did King Richard III Want To Marry His Own Niece, Elizabeth of York?


The people at court quickly stifled their gasps when they saw the young and beautiful Princess Elizabeth dressed like Queen Anne. As she was of ‘the same shape and complexion’ it was obvious that she was wearing one of the Queen’s dresses. Although Princess Elizabeth had been invited to court for the Christmas celebrations, she had effectively been declared illegitimate, and only royals were permitted to wear rich gold and purple silks. Why was she dressed in one of the Queen’s gorgeous dresses? More importantly, why was King Richard III paying her so much attention at these Christmas celebrations? Magnates and prelates were reportedly astonished.

King Richard, frightened by his rival Henry Tudor, had been attempting to reconcile with the powerful Woodvilles, the former Queen’s family, even with some of those formerly declared traitors, such as Robert Radcliffe. Even Thomas Grey, Princess Elizabeth’s half-brother fled from Henry Tudor in Europe, presumably intending to join Richard. He was taken into custody at Lyon Castle by Henry’s troops.

Who lent the eighteen-year old Princess the magnificent clothes, and why? Probably King Richard himself lent her the clothes, people thought, because the Queen was supposed to be the most finely dressed woman at the celebrations, so it was unlikely to be her. The Queen may have been naïve, intending to be kind. However, it was all very odd.

Gossip About The Relationship Grows

When Queen Anne became ill soon afterwards, and Richard was known not to be sleeping with her, gossip went through the roof. Speculation arose that the King even wanted to annul the marriage, or even wanted her to die, so that he could marry Elizabeth. Vergil wrote that Queen Anne cried and asked Richard ‘why he wanted to be rid of her’. However, Richard consulted doctors about her illness, and he probably did not want to be close to her because the disease was perhaps contagious.

King Richard and Elizabeth certainly had reasons to want the marriage. By marrying Elizabeth, Richard would legitimise his kingship, probably get rid of his rival, or strike him a big blow. He would be likely to have more sons as well. (His only son had died). The prospect of being Queen probably looked attractive to young Elizabeth, who had had a fraught life so far. Her mother was regarded as ambitious, as well.

Marriage between an uncle and a niece was forbidden under canon law, but could be granted for ‘great and pressing reasons. In 1496 Ferdinand II, King of Naples, received a dispensation to marry his aunt.

King Richard gave or lent the young princess two books, Tristan, and Boethius. In Boethius she wrote the King’s motto in her handwriting, Loyaulte me Lie. She made a mistake despite careful handwriting and corrected it later, inserting the ‘y’. Perhaps she had accepted him as King?

The alleged letter sent by the Princess to John, Duke of Norfolk in 1485 is yet more evidence, according to some. This was shown to the antiquary, George Buck, in the 17th century, but the original was never found, and there are different versions of the wording. Apparently, according to Chris Skidmore’s extract of the letter, she wrote that she was Richard’s, ‘in body and in all’, and intimated that she feared that the Queen would never die. In the language of the time, ‘in body and in all’ may have just meant that she was completely loyal to the King. However, she referred to negotiations in ‘the cause of the marriage with the King’, which may have meant that he was making negotiations for her marriage to someone else. King Richard had secretly begun negotiations to marry Joanna of Portugal, and for Elizabeth to marry a Portuguese prince. According to Chris Skidmore, he was clearly looking elsewhere for a wife. It is hard to take a letter like this too seriously when the original was not found.

The King Denies The Rumours

Queen Anne died on March 11, 1485, on the day of a great eclipse of the sun. She was not buried at the Neville family mausoleum, and her funeral only cost a few hundred pounds. However, the Crowland chronicler wrote that she was buried with honours befitting a Queen, so we should not read too much into her funeral costs and burial place.

Rumours quickly spread that Richard had poisoned his wife, however, intending to marry Elizabeth. The gossip even travelled to France. Richard felt the need to defend himself to the council. Ratcliffe and Catesby warned him that the people of the north would rebel if the marriage took place, and that they had twelve Doctors of Divinity to tell him that the Pope would not grant a dispensation.

Richard even denied the rumours in public in the hall of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem in front of the mayor, aldermen and several people, expressing his grief and displeasure. He said loudly and clearly that he had never thought of marrying Elizabeth, and that anyone who spread these lies would be punished by the mayor. He also had letters denying the rumours sent across the country.

Soon afterwards, King Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth and Henry Tudor became King Henry VII. He married Princess Elizabeth of York in 1486, beginning the Tudor dynasty.


Skidmore, Chris. Richard III Brother Protector King. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London, 2017.

Weir, Alison. Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen. Jonathan Cape. London.2013






(The video is from the crazy and wildly inaccurate series, but very enjoyable "The White Queen").







Custom Search