BOOK REVIEW: 'Elizabeth of York': Engrossing Portrayal of Henry VIII's Mother: A Key Figure in the Creation of the Tudor Dynasty

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

If I have one criticism of Tudor histories and biographies, it's that they're too Henry VIII and Elizabeth I  centric. There must be other Tudors to write about. 


BOOK REVIEW: 'Elizabeth of York': Engrossing Portrayal of Henry VIII's Mother: A Key Figure in the Creation of the Tudor Dynasty

Of course there are and renowned English historical biographer Alison Weir ably accomplishes this goal with "Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World" (Ballantine Books, 608 pages, notes, genealogical table, color and black and white illustrations, appendixes, index, $30.00) a detailed -- at times almost too detailed -- biography of Elizabeth of York (1466-1503), wife and queen consort of the first Tudor king, Henry VII (1457-1509), mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Elizabeth I. (The copyright page has her being born in 1465, but she was born Feb. 11, 1466, the first child of King Edward IV, and died on her 37th birthday, Feb. 11, 1503).

The fabled ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times applies in spades to Elizabeth, a woman Weir clearly likes and admires. 

 As the first child of King Edward IV, Elizabeth of York was celebrated almost as much as a male heir (England in the 15th Century wasn't ready for a ruling queen -- a queen regnant --  like her granddaughter Elizabeth became almost a century later, in 1558). Elizabeth of York  was raised with all the expensive trappings of royalty and enjoyed them to the end of her life -- even when she couldn't afford them.

About  my comment above about being too detailed: Weir lists just about every purchase for goods and services Elizabeth of York made, as well as purchases by her family -- in money amounts of the time and present-day equivalents in English pounds.

 We even learn of her bedsteads, what they cost and the origin of the phrase "sleep tight": Bedsteads had ropes supporting the mattress instead of a platform or box spring like we have today. The ropes would loosen, causing the mattress to sag in the middle. It was the job of a bedchamber servant to tighten the supporting ropes, hence the phrase "sleep tight." I like details like that!

When Elizabeth's father, King Edward IV, died in 1483, England entered into the final phase of an ongoing civil war known as the Wars of the Roses, between the forces of two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster, the red rose, and the House of York, the white rose. The "wars" had been going on for almost 30 years before the death of Edward IV, as the rival houses jousted for control of the throne. 

Elizabeth's ordeal began in earnest with the death of her father, the seizure of the throne by her uncle, who became Richard III and the imprisonment in the Tower of London and probable murder of her young brothers, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York -- the famed "Princes in the Tower." 

More calamities follow, with Elizabeth and her siblings being declared bastards, even though there were no irregularities in the marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville (also spelled Woodville).

It gets even crazier: As his wife, Anne Neville, lay dying, Richard III sought to marry his niece, presumably to cement his claim to the throne. Weir explores this aspect of a country in turmoil, as well as Elizabeth's support of exiled pretender to the throne Henry Tudor, who later became her husband, King Henry VII.

The forces of Henry Tudor defeated Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth, Aug. 22, 1485. Richard was killed in battle (Henry Tudor, not a warrior, delegated the fighting to experts). The phrase "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse," was created for Richard to say by Shakespeare in his play "Richard III."

Everybody expected the newly crowned Henry VII to immediately marry Elizabeth of York, a move that would increase the popularity of the king and strengthen his relatively weak claim to the throne, but he delayed the marriage to show that he didn't need her to strengthen his claim to the throne.

The marriage officially ended the Wars of the Roses, but it didn't end  a succession of claimants to the throne, including most famously that of Perkin Warbeck. Henry and his mother Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond,  also distrusted the Wydevilles, Elizabeth's maternal relatives, a powerful and ambitious family. But Weir argues that Elizabeth and her mother-in-law were friends, contrary to the claims of other historians.  Elizabeth's death after giving birth to her last child, Katherine, resulted in widespread and genuine grief in the kingdom. Katherine died shortly after.

In "Elizabeth of York" Weir once again demonstrates that she is an outstanding portrayer of the Tudor era, giving us a fully realized biography of a remarkable woman.


Alison Weir
Alison Weir

About the Author

Alison Weir, born in London in 1951,  is the New York Times bestselling author of several historical biographies, including Mary Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and the novels A Dangerous Inheritance, Captive Queen, The Lady Elizabeth, and Innocent Traitor. She lives in Surrey, England, with her husband.

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