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Strange Reckoning

By (January 1, 2014) One Comment

Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World

by Alison Weir
Ballantine Books, 2013

Even if it were not a given to pity the lot of any woman born before the time of the mighty Mrs. Pankhurst, contemplating the life of Elizabeth of York would be enough to make even the stoutest heart shiver. All the wild vectors of force running through the British Royal family, all the WeirElizabethofYorkbloodlines of these men and women who’ve shaped ages and redrawn the maps of continents, all trace back to this one pug-chinned young woman, the daughter of King Edward IV, sister to King Edward V, niece to Richard III, wife to Henry VII, mother to Henry VIII, grandmother to Elizabeth I. She’s the common ancestor of all the English monarchs for the last four centuries, which might sound glamorous enough, but those vectors of force converged on Elizabeth not to exalt her but use her – even at the cost of her own annihilation. Long before she was a queen, she was a teenage pawn pushed and pulled between some of the most well-fanged and least compassionate human beings who’ve ever lived.

“Here,” Alison Weir writes in her impressive and ultimately powerful new biography, Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World, “was an intelligent woman who had suffered frightening events in childhood, and tragedy, dispossession, and virtual imprisonment as a teenager, yet was ambitious for herself and protective of her family. What was the truth about her relationship with Henry VII and her role as Queen?”

Her role as Henry‘s queen, that is. When the exiled Henry Tudor, the most visible claimant to the Lancaster line that had fought against the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses, returned to England from the Continent and won a surprise victory over King Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, he gained in combat a crown he could never have won in convocation. His claim to the throne was too flimsy, deriving through his descent from the King Edward III’s son John of Gaunt and his mistress-then-wife Katherine Swynford, whose offspring had originally been debarred from the line of succession as the price of the Pope’s official recognition of their marriage. That exclusion was later reversed, but in any case it was Henry’s mother who had John of Gaunt’s blood, not his father; in fact Elizabeth’s own claim to the throne, as Edward IV’s oldest living child, was not only stronger than Henry’s but, once her younger brothers were missing and presumed dead, stronger than anybody’s (as Weir points out, it was only the sexism of the times that prevented her from ruling in her own right – her granddaughter Mary would be the first woman to do that).

KingHenryVIISince Henry, like most usurpers, craved legitimacy above all things, he wanted no snide side-comments about ruling through the grace of his wife. He married her – beloved daughter of the late beloved Yorkist king – in order to cement his position as the man whose rule would re-unite the two factions that had torn England apart for a lifetime, but he made a point of having himself officially crowned king in late 1485 but not actually marrying Elizabeth until early 1486. As Thomas Penn wrote in his 2012 biography of Henry, Elizabeth was to function as “the embodiment of reconciliation.”

“In life,” Penn writes, “nobody had a bad word to say about her and, as the outpouring of grief on her death testified, she was genuinely loved.” He also points out that the Spanish ambassador had “acidly” reported that she was “beloved because she was powerless,” and if that powerlessness is the defining characteristic of Elizabeth’s life, she’s going to cause no end of problems for her modern-day biographers – most of all someone like Weir, who’s not only fond of putting bold personalities in her various histories and biographies but who’s practically contractually obligated to put them in the historical novels that now represent half of her writing output.

Elizabeth had no bold personality. She was born in 1466 to Edward IV and his queen consort Elizabeth Woodville (the shining star of an entire avaricious Woodville family), and she lived the first 17 years of her life being raised and trained to be as meek and tractable as a lamb. She was briefly destined to marry a young scion of the powerful Neville clan, but the match was exploded when the leaders of that clan staged an unsuccessful rebellion against Edward. She was then dangled in front of the King of France as a possible bride for his son, but that, too, came to nothing. It was the kind of existence – as an attractive item in a very restricted marketplace – that any high-born girl in 15th-Century England would have expected, but the relative serenity of it came to an end in 1483 when the king her father dropped dead.

Suddenly, Elizabeth’s world became dangerous and interesting. Her 13-year-old younger brother Edward became King Edward V, and her father’s own younger brother, her uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was named the boy’s regent – and wasted no time in having young Edward installed in the royal apartments of the Tower of London to await his coronation. Elizabeth Woodville, perhaps sensing motives on Richard’s part that were less than altruistic, hurried with the rest of her children to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, where Elizabeth faced a confinement Weir can’t help but try to imagine:

Little is recorded about the lives of those in sanctuary. Elizabeth was effectively a guest in a monastery, her life governed by bells and prayer. It cannot have been a happy existence for a bereaved girl of seventeen – indeed it was perhaps a constant ordeal – but the presence of her younger siblings would have enlivened her days and kept her occupied.

In short order, Richard let it be known to Elizabeth Woodville that Edward missed his little brother Richard, and since this avuncular solicitude was accompanied by ranks of armed soldiers surrounding Westminster, she relented and sent her second son to the Tower – where, in the frozen slang of popular history, the Princes in the Tower remain to this day. Twenty years ago Weir wrote a book attempting to sift through the historical evidence and determine what happened to the princes, who made them disappear, and why. To her credit, she resists the urge to re-hash the debate at length in this new book, and she tries to be objective about it.

ElizabethofYorkThat objectivity is always in high demand and short supply when it comes to Richard. Thanks in part to the indelible drama of Shakespeare and star power of Laurence Olivier, not to mention the potboiler plotting of Josephine Tey, Richard has always been one of the most immediately vivid of the English monarchs (the recent discovery of his skeletal remains in Leicester underscores the point: if they’d been the bones of Edward the Confessor, nobody would have cared). And despite the fact that he imprisoned both his nephews, had them (and Elizabeth) legally declared bastards, and then had the boys murdered, Richard still has his adherents, doggedly romantic souls who want to believe he was the original misunderstood brooding loner. The main obstacle to such belief is Richard himself, who at every turn shows an instinct for truly despicable behavior. At times in the past, especially in her fiction, Weir has seemed prone to such Ricardian flights of fancy. Elizabeth of York is on the whole a much grander and more measured work of history than she’s ever written, however, and in its pages, the case mostly goes against Richard, at least when it comes to the Princes in the Tower:

What was so striking, and probably shocking, about Richard’s usurpation was that where previous kings – Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI – had been deposed because of their bad government, Edward V did not even have a chance to prove his ability, while the speed of Gloucester’s two coups and his ascent to the throne strongly suggested that he had all along meant to oust his nephew.

But the vanishing princes don’t represent the end of Richard’s villainy – this isn’t, of course, a scenario where a corrupt climber does the unthinkable to achieve the throne and then mends his ways. Rather, it’s a scenario where a corrupt climber does the unthinkable to achieve the throne and then contemplates the unthinkable to keep it. In order to shore up his public image – because, as noted, usurpers crave legitimacy – Richard conceived a plan to marry Elizabeth himself, to make his teenage niece his wife. There were only two obstacles to such a plan: first, there was that proclamation declaring Elizabeth Woodville’s children bastards, and second, there was the fact that Anne Neville was already Richard’s wife.

To a man who’d killed his own nephews, such obstacles were hardly insurmountable, although as Weir smoothly points out, reversing that birthright proclamation created difficulties of its own:

Obviously the plan was fraught with difficulties. Elizabeth’s bastardization was the grounds of Richard’s title to the throne. Either he was being ruthlessly pragmatic or at heart he knew that Elizabeth was Edward IV’s lawful issue and the true heiress of the House of York. If she could supply all that was wanting in Henry Tudor’s title, she could also supply all that was lacking in Richard’s, although that would have raised awkward issues, for his marriage to her would be seen by many as a tacit admission that the princes were not only legitimate but also dead.

WeirDangerousInheritanceAnd even here, the Ricardian heresy can appear – in fact, Ricardians tend to love this perfidy: they construct a fantasy world in which Richard and Elizabeth had been secretly devoted to each other for years. Building mountains of conjecture on one line in one much later history, they create an alternate reality in which Elizabeth wanted this match with a humorless, hatchet-faced murderer 14 years her senior. Even Weir, more cautious and skeptical in this book than in any other history she’s ever written, sometimes clearly yearns to lean in that preposterous direction. “He was no great catch physically,” she speculates about Richard, “but he was the King, which outweighed that, and that was what mattered to Elizabeth.” We’re told that when the rumor that Richard was contemplating marrying his dead brother’s daughter reached Henry’s ears, it “pinched him to the very stomach”).

The second obstacle, Anne Neville, miraculously removed itself: the lady died, reportedly of natural causes, although rumors spread at once that Richard had had her killed, and although Richard quickly made a public announcement that he had no intention of marrying his niece, the evil repute of it all stained him like ink. Weir skillfully sifts and weighs the documentary evidence for her readers (it’s never less than a pleasure to be reading this book), but she never loses sight of the hard realities:

Of course, these later stories were written at a time when people believed that Richard III had been a tyrant and a monster, but rumors that Richard had done away with Anne were in circulation very soon after her death, at the same time as it was said that he was planning to marry Elizabeth. Since rumors that he murdered the princes had now been in circulation for months, would not die down and were damaging his reputation, it must have seemed believable that he had murdered an unwanted wife too. He had, after all, destroyed others – Hastings, Rivers, and Grey – who stood in the way of his ambitions. And it is possible, given the urgent need to neutralize Henry Tudor, that there was more than just rumor involved, and that the man who murdered his own nephews had not scrupled to hasten the end of the wife who stood in the way of his plans. That many people – sufficient to merit a public denial – believed this at the time is clear; and it might be that those who had kept silent felt free to voice their suspicions once Richard was dead, about this and other matters.

Once Richard was dead and Bosworth won and Henry crowned, Elizabeth of York was raised to his queen consort and gradually taken into the wintry inner places of Henry’s heart. She came into her own, holding court and keeping first-rate kennels of both poets and greyhounds, and she humanized her husband without really seeming to try. Their first son, Arthur, was born in 1486, and many children followed: Edmund died at one year old, and little Elizabeth died at three, but Mary, Margaret, and Henry all survived the perils of childhood and lived. Their parents had every reason to be proud of such a brood, but childhood had one more peril left: in 1503, Elizabeth gave birth to a baby girl, Katherine, who died a few days later, and a few days after that, Elizabeth died too. Henry was briefly mute and inconsolable, the country wailed in grief, and a young London lawyer named Thomas More wrote a surprisingly heartfelt poem:

Oh ye that put your trust and confidence
In worldly joy and frail prosperity,
That so live here as ye should never hence,
Remember death and look here on me.
Example I think there may not better be.
Yourself wot well what in this realm was I,
Your Queen but late, and lo, now here I lie.
Was I not born of old worthy lineage?
Was not my mother Queen, my father King?
Was I not a king’s fere in marriage?
Had I not plenty of every pleasant thing?
Merciful God, this is a strange reckoning:
Riches, honour, wealth, and ancestry
Hath me forsaken, and lo, now here I lie.

Elizabeth of York had chosen as her personal motto sans removyr [“Without Changing”], but in fact she had had to change often and nimbly in her 37 years simply in order to survive the brutal plans of men like Richard III and Henry VII (and one woman in particular, Henry’s black-draped child-sized bent-brained brittly pious and ruthless mother Margaret Beaufort). Elizabeth has had her share of biographers who’ve tried to track those life-or-death changes (including a second such work in 2013, Amy Licence’s Elizabeth of York from Amberley Publishing), but she’s never received as thorough and authoritative a life as Alison Weir gives her here. And if readers will come away feeling they know here better than the actual historical records can convey, well, that’s a part-time novelist’s prerogative.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.