Book review: Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir

Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir
Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir

If Sir Thomas More was ‘a man for all seasons,’ then the female equivalent was surely Elizabeth of York.

Daughter of a Plantagenet king, wife of the king who founded the Tudor dynasty and mother of the larger-than-life King Henry VIII, this was the woman whose marriage ended the bitter Wars of the Roses.

Raised as a pampered princess, relegated to a bastard fugitive, left reeling by the murder of her two princely brothers in the Tower and a pawn in the royal marriage stakes, Elizabeth’s life was notoriously tragic and turbulent.

But who was this legendary and much-loved princess of York, and how did she manage to manoeuvre so successfully and so gracefully in the brutal and perilous male politics of 15th century England?

Alison Weir’s comprehensive, compelling and very readable portrait of Elizabeth reveals not just her life and times but the woman behind the myth, the queen respected by her husband, adored by her son and revered by the nation.

Eldest daughter and first born child of the Yorkist King Edward IV and his controversial queen Elizabeth Wydeville, Princess Elizabeth of York would have ruled England but for the fact that she was a woman.

Her birth in 1466 was greeted with as much pomp and ceremony as that of a male heir and throughout her early years she enjoyed all the glittering trappings of royalty but after the sudden death of her father and the disappearance and probable murder of her brothers, Elizabeth’s world turned upside down.

She was catapulted into the role of heiress to the House of York and watched from the sidelines as the throne was usurped by her calculating uncle Richard III.

She and her sisters were declared illegitimate and as Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, lay dying, there were murmurs that the king was seeking 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 arrangement and her covert support for Henry Tudor, the exiled pretender and heir to the royal House of Lancaster, who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth and was crowned Henry VII, first of the mighty Tudor monarchs.

In 1486, Elizabeth married Henry, thus uniting the houses of Lancaster and York and signalling the end of the Wars of the Roses.

For centuries historians have asserted that, as queen, Elizabeth was distrusted and kept in subjection by her husband and her formidable mother-in-law Margaret Beaufort, but Weir has dug deep to come up with a new and very different perspective on this most regal of queens.

Instead she paints a picture of a model consort – mild, pious, generous and fruitful – who enjoyed the confidence of her husband, exerted a tangible and beneficial influence and was loved dearly by her son, the future King Henry VIII.

Elizabeth’s life was blighted by tragedy… four of her seven children died, including 15-year-old Arthur, Prince of Wales, five months after marrying Katherine of Aragon.

Elizabeth died on her 37th birthday, just days after giving birth to a daughter who also did not survive and who was to have been the ‘mutual consolation’ for her and Henry after the loss of Prince Arthur.

Her bloodline lives on in every English monarch since 1509, every Scottish monarch since 1513 and every British monarch since 1603, including the current Queen.

Weir’s biography does full justice to a much underestimated and quietly resolute queen, allowing her to blossom as a woman ‘impeccably connected, beautiful, ceremonious, fruitful, devout, compassionate, generous and kind.’

(Jonathan Cape, hardback, £20)