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Elizabeth of York (1466-1503) is a woman who gets a little lost in history, overshadowed by her more flamboyant relatives. Her son, Henry VIII, surrounded himself with larger-than-life drama, while her father, Edward IV, was enmeshed in the conflict of the Wars of the Roses. Her uncle was the notorious usurper Richard III, immortalized by Shakespeare as one of history’s great villains. He probably had Elizabeth’s young brothers murdered in the Tower of London, but mystery surrounds those events to this day. Her mother and grandmother were accused of witchcraft. Next to these striking characters, Elizabeth fades into the background.
Yet Elizabeth’s role in English history was pivotal even if she lacked a personality forceful enough to upstage her colorful family members. The Wars of the Roses had been raging on and off for thirty years between the houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose) when Henry Tudor took the throne in 1485 and became Henry VII. Henry had defeated the forces of Richard III, who died in the Battle of Bosworth Field, but his claim was relatively weak. Many thought Elizabeth, as the eldest surviving child of Edward IV, was the rightful heir. By marrying her, Henry conveniently took care of that objection (and prevented anyone else from marrying Elizabeth and claiming the throne through her). The houses of Lancaster and York were united at last.
Elizabeth of York may have been the inspiration for the Queen of Hearts in the deck of playing cards
Alison Weir faces a challenge in writing Elizabeth’s biography. Like most women of the time, even high-ranking ones, Elizabeth had no political voice. She may have influenced events behind the scenes, but if so she did it quietly and discreetly. Her importance to the era’s events was largely limited to her ancestry and her ability to extend the Tudor dynasty through her children.
There are few surviving letters written by Elizabeth (though Weir does analyze one bombshell of a letter in detail that implies that Elizabeth gave serious consideration to marrying her despicable uncle Richard III). For the most part, her thoughts and feelings have to be inferred. So much of what Weir writes is conditional - Elizabeth might have, would have, could have - since the facts aren’t known with certainty. I respect Weir’s scholarship. She does not fill in historical blanks with speculation passed off as fact. Still, it can be frustrating to read, especially when there is the sense that we are on the edges of a more nuanced, personal story.
Weir’s style is exhaustive (and at times exhausting). She describes the clothing, down to the queenly undergarments or lack thereof, food, housing, account ledgers, the names of the ladies-in-waiting, and every work of art ever done of her subject.
In the midst of all this detail, though, a more human picture emerges. Elizabeth lost her father while young, throwing her life into uncertainty as murderous struggles for the crown raged around her. After her marriage, even with a more stable political situation, various pretenders claimed to be her lost brothers, motivating armed uprisings. Elizabeth lost several of her own young children. We can only guess how she felt during all this turmoil, but Weir’s picture is the most complete we are likely to have.
A copy of this book for review was provided by NetGalley/Random House.