The Funeral of Queen Elizabeth of York, the First Tudor Queen of England

Eighteenth century depiction of Elizabeth of York
Eighteenth century depiction of Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York, Queen to King Henry VII of England, died in the Tower of London on February 11, 1503. She had given birth to a daughter Katherine on February 2 and never recovered. The death was a shock to her husband, her children and to the nation. Due to detailed accounts, most likely composed by a herald, we have a narration of the funeral as well as financial account records. The king ordered two council members to arrange the funeral; his treasurer, the Earl of Surrey and the comptroller of his household, Sir Richard Guildford. The citizens of London had substantial input as well.

Upon her death, the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral rang out and soon all the other churches rang their bells. Elizabeth’s body was washed and dressed in her estate robes and laid out on her bed. Her children were brought in to say their goodbyes and pay their respects.

The same day, her body was embalmed by the sergeant of the Chandlery. He was given many ells of cerecloth, gums, balms, spices, sweet wine and many pounds of wax. Her body was washed with wine and rosewater and rubbed with balm and perfumed spices. Next, the body was wrapped in the cerecloth with had been broken down into strips and dipped in molten wax. The King’s plumber then enclosed the body in lead and marked it with a lead epitaph with her name and who she was. The lead case was enclosed in a coffin made of holly wood and the coffin was covered in black velvet with a cross of white damask.

King Henry VII and his family.  The image depicts all of Henry and Elizabeth's children, even those who died young.
King Henry VII and his family. The image depicts all of Henry and Elizabeth’s children, even those who died young.

The coffin was carried by persons of the highest rank with a canopy held over it by four knights as it was taken to the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula within the confines of the Tower on February 12th. Following the casket was Lady Elizabeth Stafford, first lady of the bedchamber, the ladies and maids of honor then all the rest of the Queen’s household, marching side by side. The chapel was lit by five hundred tall candles with the windows being lined with black crepe and the walls hung with black damask.

The coffin was positioned on a bier in front of the altar. Elizabeth’s sister Katherine, Countess of Devon arrived and took her place at the head of Elizabeth’s body where she stayed while mass was celebrated and offerings made. She then retired. The coffin remained in state while six ladies kept vigil at all times. Katherine attended most of this vigil as the Queen’s chief mourner. Masses were said for three consecutive days. At night, the Lord’s Prayer was recited for the Queen’s soul. The coffin remained in the chapel until the day of the funeral procession which was February 22nd.

On that day, mass was said at St. Peter ad Vincula. At noon the coffin was put on a carriage which was lined with cushions made of black velvet and blue cloth of gold. Placed on top of the coffin was a lifelike effigy clothed in the robes of the estate of a queen with a crown on her head. Her hair flowed down to her shoulders and she held a scepter in her right hand. Her fingers had gold and precious stones on them. The procession for the funeral took the same route to Westminster Abbey that was taken for her coronation because Elizabeth died in the Tower which is where queens stayed the night before their crowning. Many commoners lined the streets to witness the cortege.

Effigy of Elizabeth of York used at her funeral (Author:  Lisby1)
Effigy of Elizabeth of York used at her funeral (Author: Lisby1)

The procession was led by two hundred poor folk carrying torches who had been dressed in black cloth from the great wardrobe of the king himself. Behind them came numerous household members, clerics, the Mayor of London and then the Queen’s coffin. The carriage was drawn by six horses trapped in black velvet. Beside the coffin rode many knights who carried banners representing royal arms, royal saints (Edward and Edmund), the Virgin Mary, other saints and the parents of the queen. Hundreds of escutcheons had been made with the arms of the king and queen and these probably hung around the coffin and were among the procession as it made its way through torchlit streets.

Behind the carriage of the queen were eight palfreys saddled with black velvet bearing ladies of honor riding in single file. Each horse was led by a man in a black gown. Among these ladies were the four sisters of the queen. There were other noblewomen in carriages followed by representatives of the city of London and the royal households.

Many guilds provided mourning clothes for their members. Some of their representatives dressed in white and stood holding torches before the monument to Elizabeth’s predecessor Eleanor of Castile (first wife of King Edward I) at Charing Cross as the procession passed by. The lady mayoress of London arranged for thirty-seven virgins, one for each year of Elizabeth’s life, to hold burning tapers and stand in Cheapside in the queen’s honor. These women wore white linen and had wreaths on their heads in the colors of the royal Tudor livery.

Parish churches along the route contributed torches and their choirs stood outside, singing anthems. All the City churches were draped in black. As the cortege passed each church, a curate would come forward and cense the coffin and the bells would peal. There was a delegation of foreign funeral-goers which included French, Spanish, Venetian and Portuguese and others who carried torches decorated with their country’s arms. Their presence signified European acceptance of the Tudor dynasty. Along the route there were five thousand torches carried by citizens wearing white woolen gowns and hoods. The procession made its way to St. Margaret’s churchyard at Westminster where it was met by eight bishops.

The coffin and effigy were placed on a hearse which was hung with black cloth of gold and ornamented with her motto “humble and reverent” in gold. Four white banners were draped over the corners of the coffin, supposedly to signify she died in childbirth. There were other emblems of Tudor queenship displayed such as gold roses, portcullises, fleur-de-lys and her coat of arms entwined with the king’s beneath crowns.

The coffin on the hearse spent the night in the Abbey surrounded by torchbearers and other observers, mostly ladies and gentlewomen. As the coffin lay in state in the Abbey the night before the burial, Elizabeth’s sister Katherine, along with her nephew the marquis of Dorset and the Earl of Derby presided over a supper of fish in the queen’s chamber at Westminster. During the supper, in the Abbey, knights, ladies, squires and heralds kept vigil over the body all night while over one thousand candles burned.

On the final day of the funeral, candles flamed around the coffin and two hundred and seventy-three tapers decorated with escutcheons burned above black cloths hanging from the roof. There were two masses and then the Bishop of Lincoln officiated the final requiem mass. Women were the first to give their offerings and they were led by Katherine as the chief mourner. After the offerings, the women presented palls of blue and green cloth of gold which were laid over the effigy. The Bishop of Rochester gave a sermon. After the sermon, the palls were removed and the ladies exited after symbolically burying the Queen with their palls. The prelates and the king’s chapel were left to perform the actual interment.

The effigy was removed from the coffin. The Bishop of London sanctified the grave before the coffin was lowered. Elizabeth’s chamberlain and gentlemen ushers tearfully broke their staffs of office and threw them in the grave. Because construction of the Tudor tomb in the Lady Chapel had only just begun, Elizabeth was buried in a vault specifically made for her in the crossing of the Abbey, between the high altar and the choir. She would be re-interred in the magnificent new tomb after the death of King Henry in 1509.

Henry had been generous in his expenditure for Elizabeth’s funeral. In April of 1502, when his eldest son Arthur died, Henry paid £600 to bury him. For Elizabeth’s ceremony, he had spent £3000. In today’s equivalent, that amounts to £1,381,000. Clearly this funeral had more significance to the Tudor dynasty than Arthur’s. The design and execution of the procession was meant to be dramatic, spectacular and memorable for the royal household, the nobility, and the citizens of London and for all who witnessed it. The entire ceremony was an opportunity to have a huge public display to denote the wealth, prestige and substance of the Tudor dynasty and to allow the public to participate and grieve for their queen. The numbers of citizens who appeared to witness her coffin pass by were a tribute to Elizabeth’s role and status as queen as well denoting their love for her.

Further reading: “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World” by Alison Weir, “Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the War of the Roses” by Sarah Gristwood, “The Last Medieval Queens” by J.L. Laynesmith

20 thoughts on “The Funeral of Queen Elizabeth of York, the First Tudor Queen of England

  1. Please correct me if I am wrong, you said in the article that her parents were there. I am almost certain that at least her father was dead. Wasn’t he Edward 4 th?


    • Of course both her parents were dead. What the articles states is that there were knights who carried banners beside the coffin and some of the banners had images that represented the queen’s parents King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville. O


  2. Pardon my intrusion. The article was both informing and interesting. Yet, I have always wondered if Elizabeth ever harbored any guilt marrying Henry, or for that matter what she really felt about the Tudor family who massacred most of her family and would do so throughout the Tudor Dynasty Is there any evidence concerning how she felt, or will we never know?


    • No intrusion at all. There are many historians who wish there was evidence of Elizabeth’s feelings. Alas, there is zero evidence. She remained in the background, a shadowy figure, producing children with no political influence at all. It’s a shame really.


  3. Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII, most likely died of the same problem as Jane Seymour and Katherine Parr last wife of Henry VIII, which was then called child birth fever. I believe it was a type of septicemia or blood poisoning. Hygiene practices were very bad I would think in those days. They knew nothing about bacterial infections which caused many deaths.


    • It may also have been the Rh factor of the blood….if the mother is negative and the father is positive… the child with the positive blood type is at risk as well as the mother..typically there was a high mortality rate for this unknown killer, and now a simple shot will do.


  4. Good article. Elizabeth of York is one of my favorite English consorts of the early renaissance era. She is such a fascinating and enigmatic figure. Thank you for writing a factual post on her, it is so difficult to find one of these nowadays.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I did feel like I had been there as I read this. It was such a pleasure. I have always known that my family on both sides were from England and Scotland, at least since 1066, for the English part of the family. The more I have read, the more I run into family connections to people and events,that I have read about. I see the family name of “Blount” more and more as I read about England. Some I can place on my family tree and some I only know are on there somewhere, either direct or indirect. The events all feel so real to me. Maybe someone from my family would have been there for this. How much of this connection, is wishful thinking I wonder? I find myself talking about people and events which are so long in the past. Maybe I should say, that I want to talk about them, but don’t very often as most people that I know aren’t interested. Most would have no idea who I am speaking of.
    Thank you for this,


    • I feel certain you had ancestors that witnessed this occasion, as Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount was a mistress of King Henry VIII whom bore his first son, Henry FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Richmond & Somerset. She certainly had relatives of the previous generation at this time, if she herself were not present.


    • Most likely William Blount, 4th Baron Mountjoy would have been present. He was prominent at the courts of Henry VII and VIII, the original English patron of Erasmus and would become Katherine of Aragon’s Lord Chamberlain. His daughter, Gertrude would marry Katherine of York ‘s son, Henry Courtenay. Katherine being Elizabeth’s sister and chief mourner mentioned. Bessie was from another branch of the family and would have been a very young child in 1503

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Elizabeth did quite a bit for England. She saw to the education of all the children of the fallen supporters of Henry Tudor from the Battle of Bosworth. She also realized that the English Courts, rich with minstrels and artists, did not have one English home grown artist or minstrel of its own. She saw to it that young English men were taught the trades of music and art, which continues to this day.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Absolutely fascinating. I almost feel as if I had been there! It must have been a magnificent sight with all the candles in the Chapel at the Tower of London, and again in Westminster Abbey. That effigy-likeness gives me the heeby-geebies, though! 🙂


    • I thought the same thing Jo. It would have been very impressive to be in the torch lit procession on a grey February day with the bells tolling and the singing. And I agree about the effigy! It’s amazing it’s still around too.


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