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elizabeth of york

Elizabeth of York immortalised as Queen of Hearts?


As I was researching for my recent blog post on the relationship of Elizabeth and her uncle King Richard III, I came across a very interesting trivia about her being the Queen of Hearts on the playing card.

According to some sources, playing cards were invented during Henry VII’s reign and the portrait of his Queen, Elizabeth of York has appeared eight times on every pack of cards for nearly 500 years. (Another rumour has it that the Queen of Hearts represents Anne Boleyn, the second wife to Henry VIII).

I’m a big Tudor fanatic, and to know I have a piece of heritage from the Tudor era right in my living room is enough to get me all jittery with excitement. The head dress under the Queen of Hearts’ crown does look like it belongs to the early Tudor period, does it not?

So here it is, a short history of the English playing cards:

Playing cards first entered Europe in the late 14th century, and different countries employed a variety of suits such as swords, batons and coins.  The four suits used by today (spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds) have originated in about 1480 in France which were the cards England adopted. The first evidence of playing cards in England is from the mid 15th century in an Act of Parliament.

French card makers in the 16th century started to attribute mythological or biblical names to the court cards such as David for King of Spades, and Judith for Queen of Hearts. Despite the English adopting the designs from Rouen in France, there is no evidence naming English court cards after any certain personalities.

The unfortunate truth is, it is nearly impossible to see what the original English court cards would have looked like.  During the passage of time, the designs were copied with a number of errors. If there were any symbols or oddities attributed to the court cards, they became distorted and lost its meaning and significance. To make this worse, the total number of English cards surviving before 1590 does not exceed a dozen, due to paper’s easily perishable nature as well as destruction of thousands of playing cards in the 17th century under the Puritan regime.

As disappointing as it is to know that the Queen of Hearts is actually a nobody, there are court accounts during the reign of Henry VII referring to Elizabeth’s debt at playing cards. I guess this would be as close as cards get to a piece of Tudor history.

For more in-depth history on playing cards, try

Was there a romance between Richard III and Elizabeth of York?

Royalty - English Monarchs - King Richard IIIelizabeth_york

In Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins’ War series, Elizabeth of York falls in love with King Richard III while she is serving as a lady in waiting for Queen Anne Neville. So what? – You may ask. Did I mention that Richard III is her uncle who had declared his brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid and made all their children (including Elizabeth of York) bastards? Did I mention that Elizabeth of York’s brothers (the heir to the throne) had gone mysteriously missing while under the guardianship of him?

It seemed extraordinary that out of all men, Elizabeth would fall for someone who had ousted her family out of their rightful place. And I was dying to know if Richard did flaunted their courtship in order to weaken her family’s alliance with the House of Lancaster who were continuous threat to his throne.

So how much of this is a creation of a novellist, and how much of it is a fact?

The speculation of their incestuous relationship actually dates back a long way – to their very own time.

After Richard’s wife Anne Neville’s death in March 1485, rumours spread that the King intended to marry his niece, Elizabeth. Although a marriage between uncle and niece was not strictly forbidden by the church, it had caused much revulsion among the councilors, and Richard’s most trusted men Ratcliffe and Catesbury warned him that such decision would lose support of Northerners as it would seem Richard had caused the death of his wife in order to marry Elizabeth. Twelve doctors of divinity were also summoned by Parliament to put forward their objections and Richard then publicly denied the accusation.

There is also an account by Sir George Buck, an antiquarian and Master of the Revels to King James I of England, claiming that he has seen a letter from Elizabeth to the 1st Duke of Norfolk asking him:

“to be a mediator for her in the cause of [the marriage] to the king who was her only joy and the maker in the world, and that she was his hart, in thought, and in all, and then she intimated that the better half of Feb was past, and that she feared the queen would never [die].”

Unfortunately the original letter failed to survive and his account cannot be validated.

It is also worth bearing in mind that Richard opened negotiations for himself to be marry Joanna, the sister of the King of Portugla, and Elizabeth to marry Joanna’s cousin, Duke of Beja. The negotiations came to a sudden halt with the news of the Battle of Bosworth.

From my research trudging through resources online, it seems that factual evidences to prove or disprove the speculation is too scarce to draw any assertive conclusion on Richard’s feeling for his niece. The air of unease and suspicion surrounding the supposed romance seems obvious, but again the evidence is only circumstantial. The supposed letter written by Elizabeth may or may not have existed, and Richard’s marriage negotiations with Portugal does not necessarily deny the feelings they may have shared together.

For those of you who would like to read deeper on evidences surrounding this supposed romance, try:

“Yorkists: The History of a Dynasty”  by Anne Crawford or “Elizabeth of York; The Forgotten Tudor Queen” by Amy Licence.



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