Author: Alison Weir
Rating: 4 stars
Elizabeth of York is hot property right now. I don’t know what confluence of events occured this year, but the long overlooked Elizabeth of York is the subject of Philippa Gregory’s popular new novel The White Princess, featured in the BBC/STARZ series The White Queen (based on Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of novels), and now is the subject of a new biography by Alison Weir, billed as the first modern biography on the subject.
I was predisposed to enjoy Elizabeth of York. When it comes to nonfiction, my two favorite things to read are histories of the Wars of the Roses and biographies of queens and other female leaders. And I’ve enjoyed books by Weir before, including The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Eleanor of Acquataine: A Life, The Princes in the Tower, and The Wars of the Roses. Elizabeth of York is as well crafted as these others, and sheds light on a figure who is often ignored in favor of her more infamous contemporaries and descendants. So I was glad to find Elizabeth of York as engaging as I hoped.
Elizabeth of York is certainly easy to overlook. Despite being seen by many as the rightful claimant to the English throne after the disappearance–and murder–of her two younger brothers, there was no question at the time of her ruling in her own right, and it is easy to see her as a passive pawn in the game between Richard III and Henry Tudor that ended with the establishment of the Tudor dynasty.
But through her interpretation of the available evidence, Weir argues that Elizabeth was more political than she is given credit for. She was not immune to the plots and schemes of the age, and worked diligently to make sure that she would end up on top no matter who won the contest between her uncle Richard and Henry. Once she was safe in her queenship, she did not make waves, and Weir submits that this, too, was political expediency, and not just a factor of Elizabeth’s kind, demure personality.
Unfortunately, even with this argument, it was hard not to see Elizabeth as a little bit…well, boring. Her mother, Elizabeth Wydeville, and mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, were much larger forces of personality. Pretenders to the throne claiming to be her youngest brother kept popping up to steal the focus of the story away. And Elizabeth was so pleasant and quiet that she was often in danger of becoming a background character in her own story.
What Weir does best with this book, I think, is handle the second part of the title, a Tudor Queen and her world. The domestic realities of the Tudor court are presented here in a way perhaps better than I’ve ever seen before. There’s an immediacy to the worldbuilding (I borrow the term from genre fiction, but I think it’s easily as valid to describe setting a historical scene) that makes these people seem as if they lived yesterday, instead of five hundred years ago. Details such as what they wore, ate, and built could easily have been boring, but there was significance to be found in every inventory list, in every account book.
The realities of marriage between Elizabeth and Henry VII were also fascinating. Henry VII was a contradictory man. He was intensely proud, and insistent that he been seen as King in his own right, rather than by his marriage to the Yorkist heir. He was insecure on his throne, yet the founder of one of the best known dynasties in Western history. And while he is often portrayed as dour, suspicious, and cold, Weir argues that the marriage between him and Elizabeth eventually grew to one of mutual admiration and affection. A faithful and fruitful marriage is certainly not the first thing one thinks of when thinking of the Tudors, and it was interesting to see their relationship in that light.
If you’re at all interested in the Tudor world, you are going to like this book. If you are beginner in the era, there are perhaps more exciting subjects to start with. But it’s past time for Elizabeth to get some spotlight of her own, and there’s a lot to like about this biography.