Elizabeth of York: The Absent Queen of Shakespeare’s Richard III

In his longest historical play Richard III, William Shakespeare examines the events leading up to Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and the birth of the Tudor Dynasty. Although this history certainly contains some historical truth, its function as a literary work necessarily requires the examination of the accuracy of Shakespeare’s portrayals of the individuals about whom he wrote. One should be wary of regarding Richard III as the purely cold-hearted and manipulative murderer of Shakespeare’s account, and Shakespeare’s decision to omit the character of Elizabeth of York, the wife of Henry VII and the forebear of the Tudor line, should not be considered an indication of her insignificant role in the events detailed in the play. Shakespeare’s depiction of Elizabeth warrants consideration even though she does not figure as a character in the play, and close inspection of the text raises questions regarding Shakespeare’s depiction of Elizabeth’s staunch unwillingness to marry Richard, the desperate attempts on her mother’s part to prevent this marriage, and the unitive power of her marriage to Henry.

When Richard speaks with Elizabeth of York’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, regarding his desire to marry her eldest daughter, the queen is adamant that Elizabeth could never return the love of the man responsible for the deaths of her brothers. She blatantly tells Richard, “[Elizabeth] cannot choose but hate thee, / Having bought love with such a bloody spoil.”[1] Although it would have been reasonable for Elizabeth of York to harbor such an animosity towards her uncle if she were convinced that he was guilty of the deaths of her family members, that she would have spurned the prospect of marrying him cannot be said with absolute certainty. One controversial letter has come to light that might reveal Elizabeth’s romantic attached to Richard and a desire on Elizabeth’s part to marry her uncle.[2] This letter was, according to a man named Sir George Buck, written by Elizabeth to the Duke of Norfolk in 1485, and in it she reportedly described the king as “her only joy and maker in [this] world.”[3] Because this letter has not survived it is impossible to assess with certainty the validity of Buck’s claims. However, even if the contents of this letter cannot offer incontrovertible proof that Elizabeth was attached to her uncle and wished to marry him, it is possible that she might have been willing to marry Richard out of a selfless desire to prevent her sisters from being made to do so.[4] Because other marriages would have prevented the union between Elizabeth and Henry Tudor that Richard was so anxious to prevent, it is possible that Richard might have chosen to wed another one of Elizabeth’s sisters under different circumstances.[5] Even if Elizabeth did harbor a bitter resentment towards her uncle, it is possible that this hatred might not have been accompanied by an unequivocal objection to marrying him, as Shakespeare would have Elizabeth Woodville initially believe.

According to Shakespeare’s depiction of events in Richard III, Elizabeth Woodville’s desire to prevent a marriage between her daughter and Richard was so great that she would be willing to compromise her daughter’s legitimacy in order to do so. Elizabeth pleads with Richard, “So [Elizabeth] may live unscarred of bleeding slaughter, / I will confess she was not Edward [IV]’s daughter.”[6] The issue of the legitimacy of the children of Edward IV became an increasingly important one during Richard’s time on the throne, and the statue of 1484 known as the Titulus Regius called into question the validity of Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to the late King Edward and, in doing so, delegitimized Elizabeth and her siblings.[7] This diminution of their status would have been alarming for the women of the family[8], and it does not appear to be entirely plausible that Elizabeth would have affirmed the illegitimacy of her daughter in order to preserve her from Richard’s clutches. Furthermore, in Richard III, Richard explicitly acknowledges that Elizabeth is a rightful royal princess[9]; however, it seems that to admit such a thing so directly to Elizabeth Woodville would have been accompanied with some risk. By referring to Elizabeth as a princess, Richard is vocalizing an understanding of the falsity of the accusations contained in the statute, and Shakespeare thereby implies that the statute was nothing less than a product of Richard’s malice. Regardless of whether there was truth to the reasons that were used to challenge the validity of Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage, it does not seem likely that Richard would ever have so readily admitted to a woman who favored Henry Tudor[10] that he was aware that a key component of his statute was based on slander.

It is clear from the final scene of this history that Shakespeare intended to present the defeat of Richard and the marriage of Elizabeth of York to Henry Tudor as ushering in a period of happiness and prosperity throughout England:

O, now let Richmond and Elizabeth,

The true successors of each royal house,

By God’s fair ordinance conjoin together,

And let their heirs, God, if Thy will be so,

Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace.[11]

It is true that many of the English people welcomed the possibility that the marriage between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York would end the conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster that had for years plagued England, and the spread of the image of the white and red Tudor rose during this time period reflects this hope.[12] However, to suggest that Elizabeth’s claim to the throne did not cause certain difficulties for Henry is somewhat misleading. Nancy Harvey’s description of Henry’s victorious arrival in London in September of 1485, several months before his marriage to Elizabeth, helps to illuminate why many scholars have viewed Henry as intent upon asserting his own authority and that he was concerned about the strength of his wife’s claim to the throne.[13] Arlene Okerlund explains, “Henry would be crowned in his own right, quite independent of the heritage of Elizabeth of York. He would reign as a Tudor – not as an adjunct of the house of York.”[14] Henry would likely have taken pains to divert attention from his wife’s identity as the rightful successor to the House of York despite Shakespeare’s embracement of this fact.

In considering the many possible reasons why Shakespeare might have chosen not to include Elizabeth of York as a character in this history, it is necessary to consider the circumstances in which she lived as well as the time period in which he wrote. It is possible that by portraying Elizabeth as a mere presence in his play whose marital prospects are discussed by others, Shakespeare hoped to comment on the way in which she found herself at the center of a conflict in which two staunch enemies viewed marriage to her as advantageous for furthering their own political ambitions. Of little apparent worth in her own right, Elizabeth was valued primarily for her ability to strengthen various political ties and claims to the throne. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s vilification of Richard III and glorification of Henry VII suggest that he was trying to present Henry in a way that would be pleasing to Queen Elizabeth I. As the granddaughter of Henry VII, Elizabeth would certainly have approved of Shakespeare’s depiction  of her predecessor as having saved her kingdom from Richard’s cruel reign. At a time when Elizabeth’s failure to produce an heir might have caused concern among her subjects, the publication of this drama might have been viewed as an opportunity to distract from this worry and celebrate the origins of the dynasty to which Elizabeth belonged. While Richard III offers some insight into an important turning point in English history, it is important when reading this play to consider the social and political factors that might have affected Shakespeare’s portrayal of historical figures such as Elizabeth of York and influenced the way in which he told the story before accepting what appear to be “facts” at face value.

– Katie DeFonzo


  1. Shakespeare, Richard III, IV.iv.303-304 (references are to act, scene and line numbers).
  1. Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York (New York: Pegasus, 2010), 399-400.
  2. Alison Weir, Elizabeth of York (New York: Ballantine Books, 2013), 131.
  3. Weir, Elizabeth of York, 135.
  1. Weir, Elizabeth of York, 128-129.
  1. Shakespeare, Richard III, IV.iv.216-221.
  2. Arlene Naylor Okerlund, Elizabeth of York, Queenship and Power, edited by Carole Levin and Charles Beem (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pg.
  1. Weir, Elizabeth of York, 108.
  1. Shakespeare, Richard III, IV.iv.222.
  1. Weir, Elizabeth of York, 103.
  2. Shakespeare, Richard III, V.v. 29-33.
  1. Okerlund, Elizabeth of York, 53.
  1. Nancy Lenz Harvey, Elizabeth of York: the Mother of Henry VIII (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 115-18.
  2. Okerlund, Elizabeth of York, 44.

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