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Hello! I live in London, and I like reading about history, travel and literature. I also like good non-fiction about things I don't know about yet, and adventures.

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

Elizabeth of York - Alison Weir

Last week was the Storm Of The Decade here in England and Wales, and lucky me it was my day off so I got to sit around reading historical books!


Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World


I mean, it's Alison Weir so you know it's going to be pretty good. I enjoyed reading about young Elizabeth, whose part in the closing years of the Wars of the Roses is surprisingly overlooked for how crucial she was.


Elizabeth was the eldest child of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, born in 1466 into a relatively secure court (at least compared with the previous several decades). Her father was briefly dethroned in October 1470 by Team Lancaster, and fled to his sister's court in Burgundy, but that didn't last long and he was back in Westminster by April 1471. Elizabeth grew up in a fairly peaceful court with parents who loved each other.


In 1483, when she was 17, things kicked off: Edward died unexpectedly and his youngest brother, Richard Gloucester, became regent. The widowed queen Elizabeth Woodville took her children, including Elizabeth of York, into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey (except her oldest son with Edward IV, also named Edward, who wasn't in London at the time). Prince Edward came to London to be crowned and his brother was persuaded to leave sanctuary and go to the Tower with him before his "coronation".


The two princes rather famously disappeared, and Richard Gloucester became King Richard III. Elizabeth and her family left sanctuary and a bit of weird stuff went on between her and Richard, including a letter where she seems to express frustration that his wife, the queen, Anne Neville wasn't dying fast enough. Elizabeth also had an on-and-off engagement with Henry Richmond, the son of the Lancastrian heiress Margaret Beaufort who was living in exile in Brittany (northern France). In 1485 Henry Richmond invaded England, killed Richard III, became King Henry VII and married Elizabeth.


Weir writes very cleanly and evocatively, and the first part of the book is exciting: there's some derring-do with Elizabeth's engagement to Henry Richmond, a plausible discussion of her Mean Girls "Why won't your sick wife just die already?" letter to Richard III and a nice characterisation of Elizabeth's relationship with Margaret Beaufort, who can be portrayed as a wicked stepmother because of her (hilarious and wonderful) regal tendencies once her son became king. (I'm a big Margaret Beaufort fan, particularly after Amanda Hale's excellent goofy portrayal of her in The White Queen which was otherwise Not Very Good.)


For me the issue is that Elizabeth's life was extremely eventful until she married Henry VII and then she had several decades of good health, some tragedies (typical of the period such as children dying young) and a relatively happy marriage with a respectful, affectionate spouse. Which is nice for her, but not a very compelling dramatic structure.


Weir tries to spice up the latter half of Elizabeth's life with anecdotes about Christmas celebrations, marriage negotiations and the two Pretenders - one claimed to be the son of Edward IV's brother George, one claimed to be Elizabeth's youngest brother - but the book gets a bit bogged down in details around clothes and customs, mostly because that kind of information, like wardrobe records, is all we have about Elizabeth after her marriage. There's a lot of "Elizabeth must have _____" speculation because we simply don't know a lot about her.


That said I did really enjoy seeing the transition from the Wars of the Roses to Tudor England through Elizabeth. She was extremely popular and it seems she was intelligent, a good strategic thinker and a happy and competent queen. Weir points out how difficult the repeat Pretenders must have been on her – these were people supposed to be her cousin and dead brother, after all, and especially with the anxiety of not knowing exactly what had happened to her two brothers it must have been very difficult, particularly since a lot of their funding came from her aunt, Margaret of Burgundy, who had a lot of money and enjoyed trolling Henry VII. (Margaret of Burgundy also cracks me up. I'm really into medieval Margarets.)


I had thought of Elizabeth of York as being a bit wet but Alison Weir's characterisation of her is very strong – I mostly ended up cross that she wasn't a character in Shakespeare's excellent history plays, which have wonderful women in them. Elizabeth was a central figure in so much of the action during that time but she's been really overlooked in my opinion; I'm glad I got over my first feeling of "a whole book about Elizabeth of York? Really?" and read it.


I received a copy of "Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World" from the publisher via NetGalley for free for review purposes.