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

Elizabeth of York Elizabeth of York’s story is a fascinating one. As the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville (the alternate spelling of Wydeville is used in this book), Elizabeth lived during one of the most turbulent periods of English history, the Wars of the Roses. She was the sister of the two young princes who it is believed may have been murdered in the Tower of London, she married the first Tudor king, Henry VII, who defeated her uncle Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, and she was also mother to another king, Henry VIII. Despite all of this, Elizabeth is not usually given as much attention as other figures of the period. This new biography, Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World, explores Elizabeth’s life and her historical significance.

Alison Weir is an author of both historical fiction and non-fiction. Although I have read one of her novels, Innocent Traitor, this is the first of her biographies I’ve read and I was very impressed. The book is written in a style that I found engaging and easy to read but it’s also a very thorough, long and detailed account of Elizabeth’s life. An incredible amount of research must have gone into the writing of this book and it contains an absolute wealth of information…I read it on my Kindle and was constantly bookmarking interesting facts and passages.

As well as taking us, in chronological order, through Elizabeth’s entire life from her birth to her death and its aftermath, we are also given lots of details on the social history of the period and what life was like for people who lived during that time: what they ate and drank, the clothes they wore, and the way children were treated and expected to behave. There are lists of dishes served at banquets, descriptions of the duties of ladies-in-waiting and even an appendix giving a full description of every known portrait of Elizabeth. Sometimes there’s too much detail (I didn’t really feel the need to know the names of the nurses of each of Elizabeth’s younger sisters, for example, and the lists of her privy purse expenses and all the gifts she bought and received were a bit overwhelming) but it all helps to build up a full and vivid picture of Elizabeth’s world.

Less is known about Elizabeth than other Tudor figures, so there are times when the focus of the book switches to important political events, conspiracies and other things taking place in the wider world, rather than on Elizabeth herself. The only drawback here is that with so few primary sources remaining to give us information on Elizabeth’s life, Weir can only assume what Elizabeth may have thought or how she felt. This is not really the author’s fault but it would have been interesting to know Elizabeth’s true thoughts on some of these issues, such as the pretenders to the throne who appeared during Henry VII’s reign claiming to be Elizabeth’s lost brothers.

Much as I enjoyed this book, I did have a problem with the portrayal of Richard III. I was aware before I started reading that Alison Weir has a negative opinion of Richard and believes him guilty of all the crimes that he has been accused of, but I still thought there was too much speculation and personal bias in her discussions of him. In the absence of any real evidence, we are told that ‘maybe Elizabeth hated him’ and ‘maybe Cecily was furious with him’, for example. These are not really historical facts, are they? The opinions of other authors and historians who take a more sympathetic view of Richard are dismissed as ‘wishful theories evolved by revisionists’. Anyway, this is just a small criticism of what is otherwise a wonderfully entertaining and informative book. For anyone interested in learning more about this important but often forgotten Tudor queen and her world, I would highly recommend reading Elizabeth of York. It really is a fascinating period of history and Elizabeth deserves to be remembered!

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.

8 thoughts on “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir

  1. Leander says:

    Funnily enough I read your post just after the credits rolled on the final episode of The White Queen! Thanks to that, I now feel a greater interest in Elizabeth of York than I did before and this review was perfect timing. I’m glad to hear that Weir’s biography is worth a read but you are right to point to the difficulties of the historian’s own opinion colouring her presentation of the facts. Unfortunately this period seems more likely than most to provoke strong feelings – what with the Princes in the Tower, the whole question of Richard, and Perkin Warbeck etc. (Maybe historians should be required to provide a foreword stating their own allegiances?!)

    It’s been a long time since I’ve actually read any history about the Wars of the Roses (until recently it felt too much like my BA) but I think maybe it’s time to start doing it again. For all that I see flaws in Philippa Gregory’s version of history, she does make the characters interesting and engaging – and Elizabeth is certainly one of those I’d like to find out more about… So thanks so much for this.

    Honestly, Helen, you really are responsible for weighing down my bookshelves… 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I love the idea of the historian stating their allegiances in a foreword! I don’t really have a problem with personal opinions in biographies, as long it’s clear that it is just an opinion and not a proven fact. As you say, this is a particularly controversial period of history and everyone has their own theories.

  2. Lisa says:

    Many years ago I read a novel about Elizabeth and her marriage to Henry Tudor. It probably qualified as historical romance, now that I think about it. I’ve always thought her a fascinating character, seeing and experiencing so much in such tumultuous times.

  3. Alex says:

    There is an interesting novel about Elizabeth Woodville by Emma Darwin called ‘A Secret Alchemy’ and Elizabeth is mentioned slightly in that. However, I don’t know of any other fiction. I’ve found Weir’s stance on Richard difficult and have tended to avoid her because of that. Advocates on either side of the argument seem to have difficulty offering really well sifted evidence.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read a few other books in which Elizabeth of York and her mother Elizabeth Woodville are characters, but they don’t generally get much attention (in either fiction or non-fiction). I did start to read A Secret Alchemy once but wasn’t in the right mood for it, so maybe I should try again.

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