Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World, by Alison Weir

Nine stars

In another of her stellar biographies, Weir presents the reader with a detailed account of an essential actor in the Tudor Dynasty, Elizabeth of York. The tome explores the origins of this significant woman, mother to Henry VIII and grandmother to Elizabeth I, but also posits that she was essential to the English line of succession in her own right. While Elizabeth was a supporter of her Tudor family, when the reader explores Weir’s research and what is known in history, the one-time Queen of England emerged as a much more complex and interesting player in history. Presumptive heir to the throne at a time when women were not seen as likely rulers, her role became a chess piece on the larger English monarchical board to create a set of interesting events that pulled the Tudor name into the line of succession. Weir presents three significant perspectives of Elizabeth’s life, which help the reader to better understand her importance among English monarchs in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Elizabeth was an important and sought after princess, a distinct monarch as Queen of England, and a passionate woman in her own right. Weir uses a plethora of sources to support this well-crafted biography that allows the reader much information on which to form their own decisions about this woman’s place in English history.

 Elizabeth of York’s place in the English monarchy might not be well-known to the reader, aside from marrying Henry Tudor (King Henry VII). She was born to Edward IV in 1466 and did have the illustrious title of heir to the English Throne before her brother blossomed on the family tree. While chaos and drama befell the family, Elizabeth grew up in a household full of love and her upbringing prepared her to serve a key role in monarchical matches, making her much sought-after in her marriageable years. At one time promised to the French Dauphin, she was seen as been a means to bind the political alliance between France and England, an event that was by no means unique to her. The same attempts were made in an alliance with Portugal, though nothing came from either suggestion. With the death of Edward IV, Elizabeth’s importance grew domestically and her role at Court was solidified. Elizabeth’s brothers, too young to reign, were left to hand over their power to a consort, their uncle Richard of Gloucester. When the boys went missing, the consort rose to the Throne and sought to reign in his own fashion, even as rumours swirled that he had murdered his nephews to ascend to the throne. Weir addresses this at length within the middle chapters of the biography, while also seeking to better understand why Elizabeth never ascended to the throne herself, being the eldest child (and there being no male heir remaining). As mentioned earlier, women were not seen as presumptive heirs, able to rule over men, which might explain some of the accepted decision to crown Richard III. Young Elizabeth briefly contemplated life as a potential bride for her uncle, which would have been one means by which she could become queen. However, in an act that some might have called ludicrous, Elizabeth also entertained marrying Henry Tudor, a distant relation and central figure in the House of Lancaster, enemies of the Plantagenets, of whom Elizabeth’s family was descended. This larger clash, referred to as the War of the Roses, might have nullified any Tudor ascendency or possibility of Elizabeth marrying Henry, had Richard III not been a key figure in the murder of the young princes. With the chance to serve as Queen of England, it mattered only which man Elizabeth would be sent to marry, thereby solidifying which branch would receive support and could flourish. That Weir places much importance in Elizabeth of York’s time and role as princess cannot be discounted in the larger narrative.

While her role as a princess was important, Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry Tudor and time on the English Throne proved very fruitful as well. As mentioned above, the War of the Roses saw two factions in a long and drawn-out battle, pitting the White Rose Plantagenets against the Red Rose House of Lancaster. Henry’s marriage to Elizabeth created the formidable Tudor Rose, a symbol that would become synonymous with the Tudor name. While Henry took a period of time to marry Elizabeth, their union did bring about much peace within the realm and allowed Elizabeth to move into a world of piety and peace, but also permitted her to play a quasi-political role in securing Henry’s validity to the realm. Elizabeth was forced to learn additional patience in the early years of her marriage as Margaret Beaufort, her mother-in-law, played a prominent role at court and sought to instil maternal influence over Henry VII. While Henry VII took control of the political and social wellbeing of the realm, Elizabeth used her strong written skills to assist in negotiating marriages for her children. Weir documents numerous letters in which Elizabeth wrote to key figures to solidify unions for her children, which would strengthen England’s protection throughout Europe. The marriage of Arthur was most important and, as the knowledgeable reader will know, Katherine of Aragon’s hand was secured after much negotiating with Spain. Elizabeth strongly supported her eldest son in his union and sought to ensure not only that England were safe, but also that those of high-rank within the ecclesiastical hierarchy knew of the union and cleared any obstacles. As Weir notes throughout the early years of Henry VII’s reign, there were at least two examples of “pretenders to the throne”, those claiming to be Elizabeth’s brother, said to have been murdered in the Tower of London. While taxing on Elizabeth, as she was forced to come to terms with the loss of her brother’s again, it was also a temporary impediment to the smooth rule of Henry VII, leading the monarch to deal swiftly and harshly with both men. Elizabeth remained focussed on supporting her husband and keeping peace within the realm, though she was not the powerful monarch that her granddaughter would be, even if she did have a righteous claim to rule over England for a time. Weir’s depiction of Elizabeth of York as a prominent monarch serves as a second key perspective in the larger life of this woman.

The role most wives of a reigning monarch would undertake is the final perspective Weir presents in this tome. After her marriage to Henry Tudor, Elizabeth wasted no time in her queenly duties, a yoke left to all wives; giving birth to a son, which is all the more important when the realm requires an heir to the throne. Elizabeth brought forth Arthur, who would be the professed next in the line of succession. However, her wifely duties did not end there, as she bore seven additional children. Her three eldest have received the most discussion in history, predominantly because they reached the age of maturity and could play key roles in Elizabeth’s duties of marriage negotiator, as mentioned above. Elizabeth suffered much pain as a mother throughout her time as queen, losing numerous children in infancy. This did not deter her to continue having children, though there is no doubt that the strain took its toll. Weir speculates that Elizabeth did mourn in a way appropriate for the time, though her fertile womb was not without child for any significant period of time. It was the death of Prince Arthur that Weir uses to show the depths of Elizabeth’s sorrow, where she not only lost her first-born, but also the heir to the throne. Additionally, Weir draws effective parallels between Elizabeth’s loss and that her mother suffered when the princes were presumably murdered in the Tower of London. Although she did conceive another child soon after his death, this would be her last, as she succumbed to complications after the birth and perished on her 36th birthday. The mourning undertaken within the court upon her death was significant and Weir chronicles the pomp invested in her funeral services. Weir also denotes that both Henry VII and Henry VIII memorialised her in their own ways, erecting monuments and speaking fondly of her throughout their reigns. While locked into the life of a monarch, Elizabeth of York never lost touch with her materialistic or sentimental side, even if her second son lacked the compassion she presented during their years together. 

Taking the entire biography into account, Weir does an effective job at not only recounting a thorough story of Elizabeth of York, but utilises a number of documents to augment the story and arguments she presents. Weir is known for her strong narrative and revealing new truths not yet part of the general historical discussion. Her tedious work researching a number of documents and piecing parallels together offer the reader new insight into events previously seen as moving in another direction. Research related to the murders ordered by Richard III and the sentiments Elizabeth felt were vague, though Weir sought to pull them into the forefront of their respective parts of the tome. With a clear presentation and chapters that pull together poignant pieces of the story, Weir offers the reader a full biography of a woman who lived only a short time, though perhaps on par with her contemporaries, who were known to die in childbirth. The book captivates the curious reader while offering much insight and new dialogue into a time that preceded some of the important years of the English monarchy, those being Henry VIII’s long and dramatic rule over the realm.

Kudos, Madam Weir for this wonderful biography. I found myself able to answer some of the earlier questions I had about the Tudors, as well as curious about a number of other characters, whose lives intersect with your other biographical subjects.