I love novels of courtly intrigue, in fact at my previous home I had shelves placed in the alcoves either side of the fireplace and one whole side was devoted to books on the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses. So the story of Elizabeth of York is familiar to me, but I love Alison Weir’s books and I was interested to see her take on this incredibly important Queen. As Alison Weir states in her afterword, Elizabeth is at the juncture of several important events in England’s royal history. There’s the instability caused by the Wars of the Roses or Cousin’s War, with battles, changes of allegiance and her family’s fortunes rising and falling with every intrigue. There are parts of her life shrouded in mystery and with differing viewpoints from historical researchers and novelists. I have always wondered how her relationship with Richard III changed from niece and uncle, to prospective wife. I have read accounts that suggest an affair between the two, one that took place in front of Richard’s sick wife Anne Neville and was branded scandalous in the court. I wanted to read Alison Weir’s take on this strangely incestuous relationship, whether Elizabeth was complicit and desired the match or whether this was a political match – suggested by Richard who wished to legitimise his rule, above the claim to the crown held by Elizabeth’s brothers and sons of Edward IV. Did Elizabeth, and her mother Katherine Woodville, see this as the only way to secure their family’s safety under Richard’s rule? The other mystery is that of the missing princes in the tower, a subject Alison Weir has looked at closely before. Some accounts suggest a conspiracy drawn up by Henry VII’s mother Margaret Stanley, to advance her son’s claim to the throne and label Richard III forever as guilty of regicide and killing his own nephews. Others lay the blame squarely at Richard’s door, for arranging their murder then forever hiding their remains so they couldn’t even have a proper burial. I was interested in how Elizabeth coped with potential marriages to the very two men who had most to gain from her brother’s killing.
The novel begins at one of life’s terrible downturns for the family, as Edward IV’s wife Katherine is forced to flee to sanctuary with her children, Elizabeth being the eldest. This time shut off from the world and all the comforts they were used to had a huge impression on Elizabeth and could have been enough of a trauma to be an underlying cause of the choices she made in later life. The fear of having nothing, facing poverty and being barred from courtly life is ever present and the privilege of her royal blood, her claim to the crown and her importance to England is drummed into her from a young age. I often think that it was Mary Boleyn who had the right idea, a generation or so later, of leaving court and all it’s intrigues behind and becoming the wife of a farmer. If you are always told you are destined to be a Queen though, does that sort of thought ever enter your head? Court is really the only life that Elizabeth knows. The author really puts across the drama of courtly life, especially during Henry VII’s reign when any whiff of a usurper seems to have him running to her rooms in a panic. The stress seems constant and I did wonder how many of these people died purely from lifestyle.
The feasting was incredible, with weird mixes of courses confusing the eater’s tastebuds and stomach, taking them from brawn, fish in jelly, custard then to peacock. These snippets of courtly life set the scene so well and almost dazzle the reader with such a sense of spectacle. I would find myself distracted from all the stress, and the grief, by the descriptions of week long revels and Christmas celebrations. Just a description of the costumes for a masque or the clothes of the time gave that sumptuous and luxurious feel to the court. I was rather reminded of another Queen Elizabeth and the lavish celebrations planned for the end of this month. Weir captures that element of disguise and distraction that’s still apparent between the royal family’s private and public arenas today. I am largely disinterested in our current royals, but a wedding will dazzle me and I end up watching the whole thing. If told how much it’s cost I get incensed, but then I get sucked in by the whole spectacle. So, in a time when supporting a royal household could mean getting caught up in a costly and dangerous war I could see how the ceremony would have to be even more lavish to gain the public’s attention. Men in the novel don’t have the luxury of choice, so if you were a tenant of the local landowner you were compelled to fight for their cause, no matter whether you agreed or not. Thank goodness that today, royal rivals only parade their discord round the chat shows and not on the battlefield.
Ultimately though, I felt some sympathy for this young woman who was borne of a King who won his crown on the battlefield, then promised in marriage to a man who won his crown in the same way. Like most women of her time, her fate is decided for her, albeit it in a more dramatic way than most. Here she seems to love Henry and the older they get, they mellow and the closer they become. I did wonder whether other novels strayed nearer the truth, that fed up with being constantly touted as the most eligible lady in England, her relationship with Richard was something she was complicit with, a type of rebellion where she was willing to ruin herself just to have some agency in her own life. What I love most about this book was how well written it is, obviously meticulously researched and gave me a slightly different perspective to events I knew well. For example, Margaret Stanley the King’s mother, is described as kind and almost sweet in character for the small ways she tries to look after those around her. I thought that Elizabeth’s relationship with Lord Stanley was interesting and probably gives us the biggest clue to this young woman’s real character and motivations. Stanley is known for changing allegiances when he’s sure which way the battle is turning. At the Battle of Bosworth he rode out with Richard III, only to turn to his stepson’s cause and actually strike down the King, taking his crown and placing it on Henry VII’s head. He and Elizabeth are made of similar stuff, each one watches the way wind blows before committing in order to survive. We can see her as blown about by that prevailing wind or as a politically astute young woman who knows how to secure her children’s future.
Meet The Author
Alison Weir lives and works in Surrey. Her books include Britain’s Royal Families, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Children of England, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry VIII: King and Court, Mary, Queen of Scots and Isabella: She-Wolf of France.