Saturday, November 22, 2014

Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and her World, by Alison Weir. Ballantine 2013

Though many people (or at least many Americans) don’t know who Elizabeth of York was, she was an important figure in English history. She was the mother of Henry VIII and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth I. Her marriage to Henry VII, who was the first Tudor ruler and a Lancastrian, ended the Wars of the Roses. Mary, Queen of Scots was also a descendant of hers-her blood, in fact, runs in the veins of today’s British royal family. Her uncle was the infamous Richard III, whose remains were recently found under a parking lot and who probably murdered her brothers, the princes in the tower.

Elizabeth’s life was short- she died at age 37 after giving birth- and for a part of it, there was a lot of uncertainty about what would happen to her. Her father died while her brothers were still boys, setting off a fight for the throne. After her brothers disappeared and were presumed dead, Elizabeth became the rightful heir to the throne, although no one assumed she, a mere woman, could rule. That idea wouldn’t take root until her granddaughter Mary I became queen. She was a prize through which another man could rule the kingdom by marrying her, though. First her uncle Richard III thought about it; after Henry VII killed him at Bosworth, he- who also had a claim to the throne via his own bloodline, albeit not as direct as Elizabeth’s- married her, giving him a firmer grasp on the right to rule. After years of families fighting, peace came to England.

Prolific biographer Alison Weir has created a meticulous biography of this largely unsung queen, going back to many primary sources – the bibliography and notes sections are 75 pages long. Elizabeth emerges as a pious and charitable woman, as proven by palace accountings of what she spent. Despite her marriage being for convenience, it proved to be a loving one. She and Henry loved each other and loved their children. The people of England loved her. But despite this attention to details, Elizabeth never really comes alive in this book. The facts are all there, but the spark isn’t. I don’t expect biography to be like historical fiction, and sometimes people’s lives don’t make a smooth narrative, but I’ve read biographies that were gripping.  It was an interesting book, although slow reading and text book like. 

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