Reading History: “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World “(Alison Weir)

Elizabeth of York is one of those fascinating figures of English history. Part of this has to do with her elusiveness. As prominent as she was as a figure–the daughter of Edward IV, the wife of Henry VII, and the mother of Henry VIII–she remains something of a sphinx, always hovering on the edge of the frame, taunting us.

Fortunately for those of us in the 21st Century, the British historian and royal biographer extraordinaire Alison Weir is a practiced hand at excavating such tantalizing female figures.

Traditional historiography asserts that Elizabeth was largely overshadowed by the men in her life. This tends to be true of almost any biography or historical fiction about her (of which I include Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess). Elizabeth was the Yorkist heir that allowed Henry to solidify his claim to the crown, and she was the mother of one of England’s most (in)famous monarchs and, through her eldest surviving daughter, she is the ancestress of all subsequent English kings and queens. Yet what was she like?

Admittedly, Weir only has so much to work with, but it is refreshing that she gives Elizabeth more agency and control over her destiny than has been the case with many other interpretations (both fictional and nonfictional). She digs through the texts and archives of the period to show a woman who was at the center of the political life of her time, and while she may not have been the dominant personality that the other women in her family were–one thinks of both her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and her granddaughter, another Elizabeth–Weir convincingly argues that Elizabeth of York worked closely with her husband.

She also dispenses with the many myths that have grown up around Elizabeth, Henry, and Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort. While most people tend to assume that Margaret and Elizabeth had an antagonistic relationship, Weir asserts that this is based on a selective reading of the evidence. In fact, they probably had a cordial relationship with one another, as one might expect of two women invested in the survival and thriving of the monarchy.

Above all, Weir makes clear that Elizabeth was a survivor, a woman who managed to survive the untimely passing of her mighty father, the disappearance (and presumed death) of her two brothers, and the collapse of her mother’s ambitions for her children. Elizabeth emerged through all of this determined to forge a life for herself, for her husband, and for the several children that she bore him. While she might, understandably, have felt a fair bit of enmity toward Henry when they were first married, Weir convinces us that she was able to find a measure of contentment–perhaps even happiness–with the man who came into England as a conqueror.

As always, Weir pays exhaustive attention to the material details of everyday life in this period (at least as such things apply to those of royal descent). This can make for some tough going at times, but I will say that it does give the reader a very strong, detailed sense of the lives that these people led. I’ve always admired her willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of that world, somehow finding a way to make even the driest of privy purse expenses yield up significance about the lives of those who spent that money.

Of course, the figure of Richard III looms in the background of this biography, and it is quite clear that Weir is most definitely not a supporter of this most infamous of English kings. She remains in no doubt that he was responsible–probably directly–for the murder of his nephews. I don’t want to weigh in on that particular subject (I’m basically agnostic about it), but I do think it’s an essential part of how Weir views Elizabeth and her life.

While I was a little let down by Weir’s biography of Mary Boleyn, my faith has been utterly restored by this outing. While she’s not always the most graceful of prose stylists, Alison Weir does show us that it is possible to be a meticulous, rigorous historian even if you don’t have a degree in history. I very much look forward to making my way through more of her work.

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