Review: Elizabeth of York, Alison Weir

 Legend has it that the Queen of Hearts image in the deck of cards is based on Elizabeth of York and indeed that lady’s blank face does rather recall the popular impression of Elizabeth of York.  She is consigned to history as Henry VII’s wife and Henry VIII’s mother, beautiful but silent.  Yet, she was daughter, sister, niece, wife and mother to Kings and as Weir points out in this biography, if Elizabeth had but been born a man, she would herself have ruled.  Like so many of the women of the Houses of Lancaster and York, it was her fate to survive those turbulent times but to have little control over her own fate.  In this book, Alison Weir seeks to uncover the truth behind this enigmatic woman who lived such an interesting life yet still stepped so lightly in her life, leaving barely a mark of who she was, what she thought and where her true loyalties lay.

Alison Weir has achieved great success with her popular biographies of the notable figures of the Tudor and medieval age, taking a special focus on the women of the era.  I fell in love with the Tudors back in the mid-1990s during my Year Three history topic and it has never quite gone away – I remember aged eight attempting to read my mother’s copy of Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII, I didn’t actually complete it until I was eleven but I read the parts that interested me repeatedly.  In more recent years Weir has made the move into historical fiction and indeed she has a real gift for the aspects of history which intrigue – Weir’s work focuses more on banquets rather than battlefields, she brings the glamour of the period drama to the non-fiction, it is little wonder that her books have such popular appeal.

Elizabeth of York

Elizabeth of York was the eldest child of Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Wydville, first of a clutch of daughters before her mother finally produced her younger brothers the ill-fated Edward V and Richard of York.  Weir describes the life of privilege that the young Elizabeth was born into, that from very early she would have known she was ‘a very special little girl’.  She was the eldest princess of her House, but Weir underlines that her very female nature must have been a matter of some consternation to her parents who were in dire need of a male heir to consolidate their line.  It was not an easy time to be royal.  When Elizabeth was four, her mother was forced to flee with her into sanctuary after Edward IV was betrayed and overthrown in favour of his predecessor Henry VI.  Hiding in the abbey, Elizabeth’s much longed-for brother was born and baptised with no more ostentation ‘than if he had been a poor man’s son’.  On this occasion though, her father was able to return and reclaim his throne and normality was restored.  Henry VI was killed, so was his son Edward of Lancaster, it appeared that the House of Lancaster had finally been extinguished.

Elizabeth Wydville

From then on, Elizabeth grew up expecting that she and her sisters would make grand marriages within the European monarchy.  Edward IV and his wife exulted when the King of France agreed that the young Elizabeth should be betrothed to his eldest son; it appeared that the Yorkists had well and truly gotten their feet under the table.  Her father’s premature death in 1483 changed everything – it revealed that the nobles’ loyalty had been to her father’s military might, not to the family itself.  Elizabeth’s eldest uncle George of Clarence had already had to be put to death for his unseemly aspersions against her mother and the Wydville family had made themselves hugely unpopular.  Weir speculates that it was from fear of further Wydville interference, a simple refusal to submit to another boy king or perhaps Richard III’s own need for vengeance for his brother – either way, Richard seized Edward V, had his Wydville uncle and protector put to death and the rest, as they say, is history.

It was refreshing to read a biography that did not take an apologist view of Richard III.  His recent discovery in the car park in Leicester has prompted a resurgence of the already prevalent view of him as the misunderstood victim.  Weir explored the various theories very thoroughly several years ago in her previous book The Princes in the Tower and she retraces her steps confidently here.  Interestingly, Weir points out that the recent facial reconstruction has put in excess soft tissue to make the face look friendlier and she seems genuinely puzzled about the general determination to put a positive spin on Richard’s life.  As she points out, one could not simply wander into the Tower of London and casually murder two children who were under armed guard, no matter what Philippa Gregory would have us believe.  Those two boys did not vanish of their own accord and if they had still been alive before the Battle of Bosworth, it might have seriously helped Richard III’s popularity problems if he had been able to produce them.  Weir makes it clear that murdering children was not a positive PR manoeuvre even in the medieval era.

Richard III – too much soft tissue?

While all this was going on, Elizabeth of York was in hiding with her mother and sisters in the abbey once more, relying on the abbot’s generousity and the hope that Richard III would respect the concept of sanctuary as Henry VI had done.  They knew for certain that Richard III had put to death one of their uncles, that he had also killed one of Elizabeth Wydville’s children from her first marriage.  They knew that he was casting about reasons to invalidate their father’s legitimacy or his marriage to their own mother, theories that Weir explains held little or no credibility.

For all that Elizabeth of York’s enduring image is that of serene wife, the slur has stuck that she herself had a relationship with her uncle Richard.  The remnant of a letter, lost long ago and of which accounts vary, appears to imply that she was open to the idea of marriage to him and that she looked forward to the death of her aunt Anne Neville which would bring it about.  Philippa Gregory even penned one of her more poisonous outpourings about how Richard III was Elizabeth’s true love and that she therefore spent the rest of her life mourning him.  After all, what young girl does not dream of finding love with a blood relative?  Particularly one who has murdered several of your family and declared your mother a whore.  Weir emphasises though that the phraseology more closes resembles that of a general declaration of allegiance, most likely dictated by Elizabeth Wydville and that it was most likely an act of desperation to save her family.

Elizabeth of York rarely gets to speak for herself but her love for her family comes across strongly.  She continued to support her sisters throughout her life, providing them with the dowries that Henry VII withheld, taking them into her household when they needed her.  It is not hard to believe that she would take the step with her uncle in order to protect them when no other options appeared available.  Weir also includes the declaration Richard III made promising his nieces’ safety if they left sanctuary, a disturbing read which makes it very obvious that he knew that they had reason to distrust him and even seems like a tacit acknowledgement of his own guilt.  One can imagine very easily that Elizabeth was relieved when the tidings came from Bosworth field.

Henry VII and his mother Margaret Beaufort claimed Elizabeth of York as their own and yet Weir emphasises how problematic the relationship was.  Henry did not want to rely on his wife for his claim and yet rely on her he did.  He would not marry her until after his coronation and even then only after his Parliament had begged him to.  He would not crown her until after she had borne an heir.  Yet still, he returned early from a siege in Navarre because he knew his wife missed him.  He was a faithful husband.  As Weir points out, he had had an unsettled beginning in life and perhaps took his time to trust his wife.

Weir’s main strength as a historian and biographer is her commitment to trawling through the accounting records to track the behaviour and habits of her subjects.  Through this we see that contrary to general opinion, Henry VII was frequently generous towards his wife and although he did expect her to keep to her budget, he often bailed her out when she could not.  His mother Lady Margaret Beaufort also receives an unusually sympathetic portrayal too as accounts show that she was fond of her daughter-in-law and grateful for the heirs she provided.  The three of them are shown to be a highly effective team who managed to create a credible monarchy after decades of civil war – their children were not jilted when it came time for them to be wed, stability had finally been achieved.

Perhaps one of the main difficulties for a biographer of Elizabeth of York is that after her marriage, she does genuinely appear to have achieved contentment.  Weir points out shrewdly that the twenty-first century female is inclined to admire Margaret of Anjou as a woman who was pro-active and commanding, we cannot believe that Elizabeth of York could have really wanted to be meek and mild.  Yet contemporaries commended Elizabeth of York for her virtue and good sense.  Isabella of Castile was grateful to her for taking care of her daughter Katherine of Aragon.  She was trusted and respected across Europe as a capable consort and matron.  Margaret of Anjou was so hated that she brought on her husband’s downfall.  Like our very own Kate Middleton, Elizabeth of York was an able wife and mother and content to remain in a supporting role.  As Weir points out, she had already been a help-meet to her strong-willed mother so she was most likely attuned to the task.

There are weaknesses to this biography; as with any book that focuses on someone who existed beyond the margins of recorded history, Weir relies heavily on supposition and many sentences include the words ‘probably’, ‘may have’ and ‘could have’.  She also spends an entire chapter de-constructing ‘The Ballad of Lady Bessy’ which may very well have its roots in fact but equally may not have done.  Additionally, it occasionally seems like a leap in speculation for Weir to comment on what Elizabeth felt for her lost brothers but given her noted care for her sisters, it is not at all unbelievable.  Weir’s true trump card comes as she charts a particular journey Elizabeth made which may very well demonstrate that in her latter years Elizabeth discovered exactly what became of the Princes in the Tower and who was responsible.

In this book, it was not hard to see why Elizabeth was so popular and Weir does manage to flesh out the blank face from the playing card.  The reader can understand the youthful Henry VIII’s grief at her loss, his description of grief still sharp in its simplicity after over five centuries.  She navigated a difficult role with dignity, grace and courage; her union with the unknown Welshman sparked a dynasty which still sits on the throne.  Feminist revisionists may sniff at her contentment in her role of consort but as Weir points out, while Elizabeth may be overshadowed by her son’s wives, she was without a doubt a better queen and a kinder one.  Her success contrasts sharply with their lives, famed only for their fates; neither divorced, nor beheaded, Elizabeth of York’s life was both more difficult but also more filled with love.  Elizabeth of York is a warm and highly readable account of a gentle and kind-hearted woman who truly did love her family and her children and who overcome the odds to have some kind of domestic happiness, a true rarity in the Tudor court.

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Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir
Published by Random House on August 1st 2014
Genres: History, Europe, Great Britain, Medieval
Pages: 576
ISBN: 9780099546474

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2 thoughts on “Review: Elizabeth of York, Alison Weir

  1. Fantastic post.

    You did a fantastic job and great research on top of it all. Cool to Kate Middleton included.


    Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved September Edition. I am in the list as #27.
    My book entry is below.
    Silver's Reviews
    My Book Entry

  2. I thought I'd replied – I'm so sorry! Thank you for commenting 🙂 I think Elizabeth of York is a fascinating woman, this biography was terrific fun!
    I really liked your review too – haven't read anything by Barbara Davis, will have to keep an eye out 🙂
    Hope you're having a great week!

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