The York Princesses – What Could Have Been

Guest post by Sarah J. Hodder

Many of us are familiar with the concept of ‘sliding doors’, the notion that during our lifetime small moments occur which change the course of our lives in sometimes dramatic ways. These sliding door moments can sometimes be the result of a decision made, but more often than not are a fleeting event that may be so small that it is not even noteworthy. But the consequences can be huge. You just happened to miss the train that you take every day that subsequently crashed in the tunnel, or you take a different walk from usual on a whim and meet the man/woman of your dreams.

When writing about the daughters of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, it struck me how their lives were initially heading in a quite different direction to the way they eventually turned out. Closeted in the heart of the royal family, they would have been confident of their status in the world and the futures they would lead. Although like the rest of us their destinies were dictated by many different ‘sliding-door’ moments, undoubtedly one of the biggest pivotal influences on the direction that their lives would take was the early death of their father. His untimely demise in April 1483 set into motion a sequence of events that would have been completely unpredictable just a few weeks or even days before. In a comparatively short space of time, the future that they had been preparing for was no more. 

Queens’ College Collection, QC portrait 130.

What if their father had lived, or what if their brother Edward had succeeded in his father’s place? What I wanted to explore for the purpose of this article was how their lives might have turned out if their destiny had been the one their father was putting into place for them before his death. To do that, I took a look at their once-planned marriages, none of which ever came to fruition.

King Edward and Queen Elizabeth had seven daughters together. Their second eldest, Mary, did not have a long life, dying in 1482 before she reached her fifteenth birthday. Another of their daughters, Margaret, lived less than a year; her family celebrated her birth in April 1472 but by the December of that year, their joy turned to grief when the little girl died. 

But their five other daughters, Elizabeth, Cecily, Anne, Katherine and Bridget did all live to adulthood. Out of all of them, it was only their youngest, Bridget whose destiny eventually mirrored what her parents had planned for her. Born in 1480, she was just a toddler when her father died. She remained with her mother and siblings for a while and then in 1490, when she was just ten years old, she was placed into the care of the Nuns at Dartford Priory. It was not unusual for families to dedicate one of their children to the church and it is likely that had been planned for Bridget since she was born.  But this was not the case for her other four sisters.

The eldest York princess, Elizabeth, born in 1466, would grow up and marry Henry Tudor after his defeat of her uncle, Richard III, at Bosworth, in 1485. The first Tudor queen of England, her union with Henry is credited with bringing together the warring sides of York and Lancaster once and for all. But her destiny had once been as queen of France. 

In August 1475, when Elizabeth was just nine years old, her father had led an army into France with the aim of conquering and claiming French territory. But Edward’s campaign did not go according to plan and resulted in him striking a peace deal with King Louis XI known as the Treaty of Picquigny. As part of the treaty, an agreement was made that when they came of age, Elizabeth would marry Louis’ son, the Dauphin Charles. From 1475 onwards Elizabeth became known as Madame la Dauphine. 

At the age of twelve, Elizabeth was due to be sent France to live at the French royal court alongside her intended groom. She reached that age in 1478. But unbeknownst to Edward, Louis had been in discussions with the King of Scots, to forge a Scottish alliance by marrying the Dauphin to James III’s daughter Margaret. Nothing came of these discussions but Elizabeth still remained in England. In 1482 the French King changed tact again and reached an agreement with Burgundy, known as the Treaty of Arras. In accordance with this treaty the Dauphin would marry Margaret of Austria, the daughter of the Archduke Maximilian of Austria and Mary of Burgundy. Edward IV was furious at the slight. 

BRITISH SCHOOL, 16TH CENTURY, Edward IV (1442-83) 1524-56

But just a few months later, in early 1483, King Edward died unexpectedly and whilst Elizabeth was mourning his death from the confines of sanctuary with her mother and her siblings, her once intended fiancé was betrothed to the three-year-old Margaret of Austria. Unlike Elizabeth, the dauphin’s new bride did make the journey to France and was subsequently raised in the French court as a prospective queen.

King Louis XI also died later that year and as Charles was still only thirteen, his elder sister Anne took over as regent of France until Charles was old enough to rule. Charles and Margaret remained married until 1488, when their marriage was declared void. In a purely political move, he then married Duchess Anne of Brittany. Anne had recently inherited the Duchy of Brittany upon the death of her father, and Charles and his sister Anne forced her to renounce her recent marriage to Maximilian of Austria (Margaret’s father) to marry Charles instead.

Margaret of Austria remained in France for a while, returning to her family a few years later. Together Anne and Charles had six recorded children, although they all died young. Charles died in 1498 by which point Elizabeth of York had been queen of England for eleven years. His death came as the result of a tragic accident – he struck his head on the lintel of a door while on his way to watch a game of real tennis, fell into a sudden coma and died nine hours later. With no heirs, his throne passed to his cousin, Louis of Orleans. Had Elizabeth married him, perhaps she may have given him sons to continue his lineage. Or just maybe she would have been discarded in the same way Margaret of Austria was. Instead, she became the ancestress of future Kings and Queens of England.

Her sister Cecily, who was next in age to Elizabeth (after Mary) was also destined for the role of queen and could have found herself as queen of Scotland. In 1473 an agreement had been reached between Edward IV and King James III of Scotland that Cecily would wed James’ young son, James IV when they both came of age. Cecily was four in 1473, the infant Prince of Scots just a year old. To seal the deal, in October 1474, a formal betrothal of the couple took place in Edinburgh and on December 26th of that year, a ceremony took place in Edinburgh with a deputation standing in for Cecily. From then on, she was styled Princess of Scots. 

But arguments in the Scottish court between the Scottish king, James and his brother, Alexander Stewart, Duke of Albany reverberated down to the English court, and when the

Duke of Albany made his way to England to garner Edward’s support, Edward agreed to assist him. As part of the deal, he switched Cecily’s betrothal from the young Scottish prince to the Duke of Albany [1]. At twenty-eight years old, he was fifteen years older than Cecily. Edward sent a small force north, headed by the Duke of Albany and Richard Duke of Gloucester. When they arrived in Scotland, Albany and Gloucester made peace with the Scottish king, and with supposedly normal business resumed, Cecily was once again promised to the future James IV. A short while later an attempt was made on James III’s life and once again, the Duke of Albany sought Edward’s support and protection. Cecily found herself once again promised to the Duke of Albany. Finally, in October 1482, after this game of marital ping pong, Edward called off her betrothal once and for all. 

But what if her father had lived and negotiations had been renewed and the marriage to James IV had gone ahead?  Her once-intended groom was raised by his mother, Margaret of Denmark. More popular than his father and partially estranged from her husband, she was given responsibility for raising their sons at Stirling Castle and perhaps once she reached the age of twelve, Cecily would have been sent to be raised with him there. In 1488, two years after Margaret of Denmark died, a rebellion broke out in Scotland and the rebels set up the 15-year-old Prince James as their figurehead. During the Battle of Sauchieburn on 11th June 1488, James III was killed and James IV took the throne. For the rest of his life, he would bear the guilt for the indirect role he had played in the death of his father. As an act of penance, he wore an iron belt for the rest of his life [2]

James’s eventual wife and queen of Scotland was Cecily’s niece, Margaret Tudor, the daughter of her sister Elizabeth and Henry VII. The marriage was arranged as part of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace between Scotland and England and took place in 1503.  James was sixteen years older than Margaret and a notorious philanderer, with several illegitimate children from at least four different mistresses. Margaret and James had five children together, although only two survived infancy, one of which would become the future James V. 

In 1513, during the reign of Henry VIII, James led an invading army southward into Northumberland, where he was killed. His son, James V, was crowned three weeks after the disastrous battle at Flodden but he was only a year old and Margaret had to fiercely protect his inheritance. A body, thought to be that of James IV, was recovered from the battlefield at Flodden and taken to London for burial. Cecily would have been unaware of all of this as she had died in 1507.

But what of her other possible life as the wife of the Duke of Albany. This was certainly an unlikely marriage that would never have gone ahead – Edward would surely only have allowed it to proceed if Albany had ousted his brother from the rule of Scotland. In the end, Albany became more of an outlaw, flitting from country to country and was killed in France in 1483 whilst jousting with the duke of Orléans in Paris, by a splinter from the Duke’s lance [3]

Princess Anne of York was also destined for a foreign realm when in 1480 she was betrothed to Prince Philip of Austria. Philip ‘the Fair’ or ‘the Handsome’ as he was known was born in 1478 which made him three years younger than Anne. The deal was made between Edward IV and his sister Margaret of Burgundy, during a visit in 1480 when Margaret returned to England for the first time since she left its shores in 1468 to travel to Burgundy for her marriage. Margaret had married Charles the Bold, and Phillip was the son of her stepdaughter, Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria. He was therefore the brother of Margaret of Austria, who had usurped Elizabeth as a potential French queen. The treaty was signed on 5th August 1480 but never come to fruition due to Edward’s death three years later. 

The handsome and fair Philip would eventually go on to marry Juana of Spain, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella and elder sister of Catherine of Aragon. Theirs was an intense marriage and Juana was said to love him passionately and was insanely jealous over his infidelities. Juana and Catherine both seemingly took after their mother, the strong-willed, passionate Isabella of Castille. But in Juana this determination and passion often led to unpredictable behaviour and eventually gave both her husband and father the ammunition they needed to declare her insane.

When Isabella died in 1504, as the eldest surviving child Juana was her heir and became Queen of Castile. But her father Ferdinand, who had ruled the lands of Aragon and Castille jointly with his wife, attempted to get his hands on the regency of Castile. But the nobles of Castille were unhappy with this and forced him to withdraw. Philip and Juana were summoned to Spain where the two men, Juana’s father, Ferdinand and husband, Philip, conspired together to declare that Juana was unfit to rule, although Ferdinand later denied he had worked with Philip to exclude her. On 27 June 1506, they made an agreement between them that Juana ‘was not inclined, on any condition, to occupy herself in the despatch of any business concerning the royal prerogatives and government’. They declined to give a reason to save her honour, thereby hinting that she was unstable: ‘considering her infirmities and sufferings, which for the sake of her honour are not expressed’4. The two men signed the agreement and Philip was proclaimed King of Castille. However, three months later, on 25 September 1506, Philip died. Juana was left broken with grief and retired from life to mourn her beloved Philip. Her subsequent decision to bury her husband in Granada alongside her mother, which resulted in a slow and arduous journey across the country, which had to be interrupted whilst Juana gave birth, led to reports and rumours that she was so mad with grief that she kept his body with her for some time, refusing to be parted from it. The legend of Juana the mad Queen has travelled down the centuries. She was certainly passionate, but also to a huge extent a victim of the power of the men around her. Anne of York may have been aware of tales of her once intended and his wife if they filtered through from Spain as she did not die until sometime around 1512. Her once intended groom may have been fair and handsome, but perhaps she had a lucky escape from marriage to this tempestuous man. 

Katherine of York’s alternative future would also have been tied up with the Spanish royal family. Sometime shortly after her birth her father began negotiations with the Spanish King and Queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, for a marriage union between their son John, Prince of Asturias, and Katherine. John was the elder brother of Juana and Catherine of Aragon and their only son who would live to adulthood. Born in June 1478, he was a year older than Katherine. But once again after Edward’s death the negotiations came to nothing and John would eventually go on to marry Margaret of Austria. This marriage was arranged as part of the joint marriage deal that saw Juana marry Prince Philip, Margaret’s brother. It was a good match and the couple appeared very much in love, although the marriage did not last long as sadly John died a mere eighteen months later. Ferdinand and Isabella were notified by messenger on 4 October 1497, that their son lay dangerously ill in Salamanca. Ferdinand rushed to be with his son whilst his mother, Isabella remained behind in Spain praying for the life of her only son. Ferdinand was with his son he died. Two months later his wife, Margaret, gave birth to their first child, a stillborn girl.

John’s death was followed closely by that of his sister Isabella in 1498. making Juana the eldest child and heir to the thrones of Aragon and Castille. Their younger sister, Catherine, would travel to England to be Queen, as the wife of Henry VIII, setting her place in the history books as the first of six women to be married to this great giant of a king. Although of course, if these alternative destinies had come to fruition, there would have been no Henry VIII. As the son of Elizabeth of York, he would not have existed as she would have been Queen of France. And our history as we know it, would have been quite different indeed!


If you are interested to know more about the actual destinies of Elizabeth, Cecily, Anne and Katherine as well as the other York Princesses, Mary, Bridget and Margaret, my book The York Princesses, the Daughters of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville is out 30th April (John Hunt Publishing). 


  1. Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir.
  2. James IV (1473-1513) Trevor Chalmers.  Dictionary of National Biography, 23rd Sept 2004.
  3. Chivalry and Knighthood in Scotland, 1424-1513 by Katie Stevenson.
  4. Sister Queens: Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castille by Julia Fox.

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