Title: Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World
Author: Alison Weir
No. of Pages: 608
Origins: Ballantine Books
Release Date: 3 December 2013
Bottom Line: Fascinating topic but the excessive details bog down the narrative
“Many are familiar with the story of the much-married King Henry VIII of England and the celebrated reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I. But it is often forgotten that the life of the first Tudor queen, Elizabeth of York, Henry’s mother and Elizabeth’s grandmother, spanned one of England’s most dramatic and perilous periods. Now New York Times bestselling author and acclaimed historian Alison Weir presents the first modern biography of this extraordinary woman, whose very existence united the realm and ensured the survival of the Plantagenet bloodline.
Her birth was greeted with as much pomp and ceremony as that of a male heir. The first child of King Edward IV, Elizabeth enjoyed all the glittering trappings of royalty. But after the death of her father; the disappearance and probable murder of her brothers—the Princes in the Tower; and the usurpation of the throne by her calculating uncle Richard III, Elizabeth found her world turned upside-down: She and her siblings were declared bastards.
As Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, was dying, there were murmurs that the king sought to marry his niece Elizabeth, knowing that most people believed her to be England’s rightful queen. Weir addresses Elizabeth’s possible role in this and her covert support for Henry Tudor, the exiled pretender who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth and was crowned Henry VII, first sovereign of the House of Tudor. Elizabeth’s subsequent marriage to Henry united the houses of York and Lancaster and signaled the end of the Wars of the Roses. For centuries historians have asserted that, as queen, she was kept under Henry’s firm grasp, but Weir shows that Elizabeth proved to be a model consort—pious and generous—who enjoyed the confidence of her husband, exerted a tangible and beneficial influence, and was revered by her son, the future King Henry VIII.
Drawing from a rich trove of historical records, Weir gives a long overdue and much-deserved look at this unforgettable princess whose line descends to today’s British monarch—a woman who overcame tragedy and danger to become one of England’s most beloved consorts.”
Thoughts: Elizabeth of York deserves more attention than she typically receives; her infamous offspring continue to outshine this gentle and humble matriarch. However, Ms. Weir rectifies this situation with her stellar biography of this daughter and wife and mother to three very powerful and influential English kings.
Elizabeth’s life was anything but peaceful given the ongoing fights for the crown that plagued her father and her husband. Ms. Weir scours existing royal and personal documents to provide readers with a vivid image of this beloved Queen torn between loyalty to her husband and to her family as she precariously balances across the Plantagenet and Tudor battle lines. As Ms. Weir shows, she more than any other person brought the two houses together through her direct lineage to Edward IV and successful marriage to Henry Tudor (Henry VII). She also shows a woman who executed her role as wife, mother, princess, and queen with exquisite grace and generosity, to the detriment to her finances at times but to the delight of the people.
As with all biographies, there are times when Ms. Weir must draw conclusions as to Elizabeth’s thoughts, her knowledge of certain situations, and even to her actions at times. Rather than drawing on popular opinion, Ms. Weir presents her conclusions methodically and carefully, showing what other historians have said and the reasons why she may or may not agree with them. This more than anything highlights the care with which Ms. Weir approaches her subject matter and the fairness she employs throughout the story as she does not let her natural sympathies with Elizabeth to interfere with her assessment of her actions.
While exacting details are usually a bonus for biographies, Ms. Weir uses these historical footnotes a bit too much. The lists of clothing purchased and worn by the queen, the preparations and rules for major events like her marriage and coronation, as well as the interminable lists of both Henry’s and her courts are exhausting. While they do show just how thoroughly Ms. Weir researched her subjects and the period, this is one example where the focus on such minute details causes the narrative to flounder. Thankfully, skimming over these descriptions and lists does not diminish the overall story Ms. Weir tells.
The War of the Roses is one of the more fascinating periods in English history, albeit extremely complex. One needs a flow chart just to understand the complex familial relationships between the key players. Ms. Weir does an excellent job of explaining these relationships to the best of her ability. Unfortunately, she causes further issues with her insistence on using titles rather than surnames to describe the various people. Given that titles switch every time there is a new monarch, this causes even more confusion. Still, readers who persevere with the narrative will reap the rewards of a well-documented, well-written biography of the fascinating woman who established the current monarchical dynasty.