Monday, February 29, 2016

What Killed Elizabeth of York?

Elizabeth of York
Mother of the Tudor Dynasty
On February 11, 1503, her thirty-seventh birthday, Elizabeth of York died just days after giving birth to her eighth child. The baby girl had been named Catherine, which seems appropriate considering it is likely that her parents decided to have another child when their firstborn son, Arthur, died unexpectedly. He had been briefly married to Catherine of Aragon.

Henry VII was left with his only remaining son, another Henry, as his heir. A single son was a shaky foundation to build a dynasty upon. Therefore, Elizabeth risked another pregnancy, despite problems experienced with earlier confinements. The risk proved an unrewarding one when the child was born a girl and even more so when both mother and baby died within days.

It is easy to assume that Elizabeth of York died from what was termed childbed fever, as so many woman of her time did. Unsanitary conditions and limited understanding of what caused infection often resulted in the introduction of infection to the womb by efforts intended for healing. Other treatments, such as bleeding, often only made a patient's health decline more quickly. There are reasons to believe that Elizabeth's death was not quite so simply explained.

Evidence of illness long before Elizabeth's labor brings into question the diagnosis of childbed fever in this case. It could be that another complication besides infection, but just as treatable in our modern age, was Elizabeth's true cause of death. Some pieces of evidence that we can look at include Elizabeth's complications with previous pregnancies, her actions during her last pregnancy, and her medical complaints that do not fit a case of childbed fever.

Prince Arthur Tudor
Only eight months after the royal wedding, Elizabeth had given birth to Prince Arthur, a baby expected to complete the healing and unification begun by his parents. It is recorded that Elizabeth suffered an ague after his birth. This vague description tells us only that she suffered a fever of unknown severity. The situation was apparently more serious in 1499 when she gave birth to Prince Edmund. Whatever difficulties took place, it is recorded that there had been "much fear for her life." It is after this that Elizabeth does not risk another pregnancy until the death of Prince Arthur brings about a change of heart.

Although Elizabeth believed it was right and even her duty to provide England with another prince, there is evidence that she struggled with doing so long before her labor came early. In November and December of 1502, records show that Elizabeth paid for visits from medical professionals. Whether this was due to concerns for the child, herself, or both, is unknown. Even more telling, the pious queen employed the skills of an astrologer, something that she had not done before. She seemed to be looking for additional reassurance that she and her child would thrive.

Tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York
Photo Credit: Westminster Abbey
Despite the fact that she may not have been in optimal health, Elizabeth undertook a progress during her pregnancy, almost as though she felt she were running out of time. She had not previously traveled often without her husband, and her route took her on an unusual course. Delays in her itinerary due to poor health indicate that Elizabeth's problems began long before she reached the birthing room. Could something as simple as anemia have resulted in the first Tudor queen's fatigue, headaches, and inability to resist infection? This is proposed in Alison Weir's Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World, and it fits what we know of Elizabeth rather well. It is heartbreaking to think that such a mundane health issue could have led to her death.

Elizabeth was forced to give birth within the confines of the Tower of London, a location that was most assuredly not her first choice given the disappearance of her brothers from that place two decades earlier and her cousin Edward of Warwick's controversial imprisonment and execution more recently. When she went into premature labor, her prepared confinement rooms at Richmond went unused and a Tower chamber was secured for her. After her death, Henry had Elizabeth laid to rest in the Lady chapel at Westminster, which Henry had just decided to rework to include a tomb a month earlier. When he died in 1509, Henry joined her there, having never remarried.


  1. It's so frustrating, isn't it, to be unable to say exactly, but after an interval of hundreds of years, not surprising. Interesting post, thank you. anne stenhouse

    1. Thanks, Anne. The unknowns and problems that are easily solved with modern solutions are often frustrating but are also fertile ground for historical fiction!

  2. I talked to historians at the Tower of London the last time I was there about Elizabeth being there for the birth of her last child. Though they aren't sure where she was coming from, they believe she was headed to Greenwich by river and started having problems. The boat pulled over to the nearest royal property which happened to be the Tower. They carried her into the White Tower, to a room which is now on the main display level, and that is where her child was born and they both died.

    1. Very cool! Our trip to the Tower was rather rushed and I didn't even get a chance to ask about the room she had been in. Is there anything memorializing her there?

  3. "It is after this that Elizabeth does not risk another pregnancy until the death of Prince Arthur brings about a change of heart." This statement indicates that she intentionally did not get pregnant, the only reliable way to do so was through abstinence, and there is no indication that Henry and Elizabeth practiced abstinence, or even tried to avoid pregnancy, having given birth about 4 years prior to her last pregnancy. There is one child who died at birth whose birthday is not recorded, but is likely to have been towards the end of her life. She is also according to several historians, including Agnes Strickland and Thomas Penn recorded as saying that she and Henry were both still young and could have more children, not a view likely to be taken by someone who practiced abstinence (which was seen as medically unhealthy at the time)and had health issues in relation to pregnancy.

    1. It is also not at all assured how she felt about the tower, she herself sought sanctuary there with her own children during a period of civil unrest in which her husband was dealing with a rebellion.

    2. Thanks for your comments, Amy. You have brought up a couple of different issues, so I will try to address both. First, Elizabeth's decision, if that's what it was, to have another child. Anyone who is practicing natural family planning will tell you that, while abstinence is the only sure way to 100% avoid pregnancy, women have always had ways of avoiding it. We have two examples of times when it was desirous for Henry and Elizabeth to have a child: upon their marriage and after Arthur's death. Since Elizabeth was with child stunningly quick in each of these circumstances, I think it is safe to assume that they were doing something to avoid it at other times. I cannot know this for sure or know what method they may have utilized, but there is evidence that Elizabeth struggled with childbearing much more than her mother did and that she and Henry decided to be careful about it.

      As for the Tower, it was a safe fortress where Elizabeth went for safety on more than one occasion, but she clearly did not intend to give birth there. She had confinement rooms prepared at Richmond for that purpose. After her death, even Henry avoided the Tower for the bad memories it held.