Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World

Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World

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by Alison Weir

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Many are familiar with the story of the much-married King Henry VIII of England and the celebrated reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I. But it is often forgotten that the life of the first Tudor queen,…  See more details below


NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

Many are familiar with the story of the much-married King Henry VIII of England and the celebrated reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I. But it is often forgotten that the life of the first Tudor queen, Elizabeth of York, Henry’s mother and Elizabeth’s grandmother, spanned one of England’s most dramatic and perilous periods. Now New York Times bestselling author and acclaimed historian Alison Weir presents the first modern biography of this extraordinary woman, whose very existence united the realm and ensured the survival of the Plantagenet bloodline.
Her birth was greeted with as much pomp and ceremony as that of a male heir. The first child of King Edward IV, Elizabeth enjoyed all the glittering trappings of royalty. But after the death of her father; the disappearance and probable murder of her brothers—the Princes in the Tower; and the usurpation of the throne by her calculating uncle Richard III, Elizabeth found her world turned upside-down: She and her siblings were declared bastards.
As Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, was dying, there were murmurs that the king sought to marry his niece Elizabeth, knowing that most people believed her to be England’s rightful queen. Weir addresses Elizabeth’s possible role in this and her covert support for Henry Tudor, the exiled pretender who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth and was crowned Henry VII, first sovereign of the House of Tudor. Elizabeth’s subsequent marriage to Henry united the houses of York and Lancaster and signaled the end of the Wars of the Roses. For centuries historians have asserted that, as queen, she was kept under Henry’s firm grasp, but Weir shows that Elizabeth proved to be a model consort—pious and generous—who enjoyed the confidence of her husband, exerted a tangible and beneficial influence, and was revered by her son, the future King Henry VIII.
Drawing from a rich trove of historical records, Weir gives a long overdue and much-deserved look at this unforgettable princess whose line descends to today’s British monarch—a woman who overcame tragedy and danger to become one of England’s most beloved consorts.

Praise for Elizabeth of York
“Weir tells Elizabeth’s story well. . . . She is a meticulous scholar. . . . Most important, Weir sincerely admires her subject, doing honor to an almost forgotten queen.”The New York Times Book Review
“In [Alison] Weir’s skillful hands, Elizabeth of York returns to us, full-bodied and three-dimensional. This is a must-read for Tudor fans!”Historical Novels Review
“This bracing biography reveals a woman of integrity, who . . . helped [her husband] lay strong groundwork for the success of the new Tudor dynasty. As always in a Weir book, the tenor of the times is drawn with great color and authenticity.”Booklist
“Weir once again demonstrates that she is an outstanding portrayer of the Tudor era, giving us a fully realized biography of a remarkable woman.”Huntington News

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
We know all about Henry VIII's famous wives and daughters. But what about his mother, who legitimized the new Tudor dynasty as the only living descendant of Yorkist King Edward IV? The popular Weir, who has tackled many of England's great royal women in biography and fiction, here takes on Elizabeth of York in what appears to be the only biography currently available for lay readers.
The New York Times Book Review - Roger Boylan
Weir tells Elizabeth's story well…she is a meticulous scholar. The everyday minutiae of life are painstakingly described…Most important, Weir sincerely admires her subject, doing honor to an almost forgotten queen.
Publishers Weekly
Best known as the mother of Henry VIII, Elizabeth of York (1466–1503) is also the ancestor of the English, Scots, and British monarchies that commenced in 1509, 1513, and 1603, respectively. Weir (Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings) conveys how, as a royal princess, Elizabeth was a pawn in the dynastic ambitions of England’s rulers: her father, Edward IV; her uncle, Richard III; her mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort; and her husband, Henry VII, whose claim to the English throne was inferior to her own. Betrothed to the Dauphin of France at age 11, Elizabeth was—after the death of her father in 1483—even rumored to be a possible match for Richard III, usurper of Edward V’s throne and responsible for the murder of Elizabeth’s two younger brothers. Weir, an authority on 15th- and 16th-century English history, revises some of her previous thinking regarding the fate of the princes in the Tower of London, but the major focus is Elizabeth’s life, portrayed in great detail, from marriage ceremonies and royal itineraries to the food, books, gifts, and clothing of her day. Weir argues her positions clearly and, in balancing the scholarly with emphases on Elizabeth’s emotional and psychological life, she should reach a wider audience than traditional histories. Illus. Agent: Julian Alexander, Lucas Alexander Whitley (U.K.). (Dec.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Elizabeth of York
“Weir tells Elizabeth’s story well. . . . She is a meticulous scholar. . . . Most important, Weir sincerely admires her subject, doing honor to an almost forgotten queen.”The New York Times Book Review

“In [Alison] Weir’s skillful hands, Elizabeth of York returns to us, full-bodied and three-dimensional. This is a must-read for Tudor fans!”Historical Novels Review
“This bracing biography reveals a woman of integrity, who . . . helped [her husband] lay strong groundwork for the success of the new Tudor dynasty. As always in a Weir book, the tenor of the times is drawn with great color and authenticity.”Booklist
“Weir once again demonstrates that she is an outstanding portrayer of the Tudor era, giving us a fully realized biography of a remarkable woman.”Huntington News

Praise for Alison Weir’s Mary Boleyn, named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Chicago Tribune
“This nuanced, smart, and assertive biography reclaims the life of a Tudor matriarch.”Publishers Weekly
“Weir has achieved the enviable skill of blending the necessary forensic and analytical tasks of academia with the passionate engagement that avocational history lovers crave.”—Bookreporter
“Top-notch . . . This book further proves that [Weir] is a historian of the highest caliber.”—Washington Independent Review of Books
“A refreshing change from recent books on the subject . . . If you want to learn more about this often-maligned woman of the sixteenth century, this is a must-read.”The Free Lance–Star
“Weir’s research is always first-rate and her narratives accessible. In her latest book, the author has to navigate the historical minefields of gossip, fiction, and conjecture to finally get at the truth.”Tucson Citizen
“Engaging . . . Weir matches her usual professional skills in research and interpretation to her customary, felicitous style.”Booklist

Kirkus Reviews
Prolific, best-selling author Weir (Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings, 2011, etc.), who specializes in female royalty, presents another popular biography, a serious work definitely not aimed at a bodice-ripper audience. This Tudor Elizabeth (1466–1503) lived a century before her much better-known granddaughter, but she was important: the daughter, wife and mother of kings, including Henry VIII. England's bloody War of the Roses seemed to end in 1461 when Edward of York defeated his Lancastrian enemies and took the throne as Edward IV. This proved illusory when he offended powerful allies by marrying an obscure subject, Elizabeth Woodville, and promoting her family. When he died in 1483, no law prevented Edward's 12-year-old firstborn, Elizabeth of York, from inheriting the throne, but no one considered women fit to govern if men with reasonable claims could be found. There were plenty at the time--and none a century later when Henry VIII's son died, allowing his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth I, to rule. There followed two chaotic years during which her uncle, the Duke of York, murdered Edward's two sons, threatened his widow and daughters, seized power as Richard III, and fended off rivals until killed in battle in 1485 by Henry Tudor, who married Elizabeth, uniting two families whose factions had fought bitterly for 50 years and launching the modern British monarchy as Henry VII. "Elizabeth of York's role in history was crucial," writes the author, "although in a less chauvinistic age it would, by right, have been more so." Admitting that she was not a dynamic figure, Weir portrays Elizabeth as a passive observer or victim and often ignores her entirely as she delivers an intensely researched, opinionated, almost blow-by-blow political history of Britain during the turbulent last half of the 15th century.

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“The Most Illustrious Maid of York”

The royal palace of Westminster extended along the Thames shore, southwest of the City of London. A royal residence had stood on this site opposite Westminster Abbey since the sainted King Edward the Confessor had rebuilt both in the eleventh century, and the magnificent Westminster Hall had been completed by William II in 1099; in the late fourteenth century, Richard II increased the height of its walls and added the splendid oak hammer-beam roof. The sprawling palace in which the Queen was to be confined was the work of successive medieval kings, and the chief seat of royal government until much of it was destroyed by fire in 1512. Parliament often met within its walls, usually in the Painted Chamber, the White Hall, or St. Stephen’s Chapel. Westminster Hall was used for state occasions and ceremonies, and also for coronation banquets. Daily, it was a hive of industry, housing the busy law courts and stalls selling books and other goods.

The rambling old palace was much in need of upgrading, and Edward IV had set about converting part of it into new royal lodgings, which Elizabeth of York would come to know very well. They included a privy kitchen for the preparation of royal meals, a wardrobe for the storage of royal possessions, and something very traditional in royal domestic arrangements: separate ranges of private apartments for the King and Queen.

The creation of a new “Queen’s side” for Elizabeth Wyde­ville, which was begun in 1464, may have come about because the King’s mother, the disapproving Cecily Neville, was living at court and appropriate accommodation was needed for both ladies. The apartments built for Queen Elizabeth included a withdrawing chamber and wardrobe; a great chamber would be added in 1482.1 It was in these new lodgings that the Queen was to bear her child.

For married women in those days, pregnancy was often an annual event, with all the risks it entailed. Contraception was rudimentary and would not have been practiced by royal couples, for whom a large family meant sons to secure the succession and daughters to forge political marriage alliances. It was a son, naturally, that the King wanted, and although, by medieval custom, male physicians did not attend pregnant women, Dr. Dominic de Sirego, Elizabeth Wyde­ville’s physician, was determined to “be the first that should bring tidings to the King of the birth of the prince,” for messengers conveying such glad news often received “great thanks and reward.” Only women were allowed into the birth chamber, so when the Queen went into labor, Dr. Sirego had perforce to wait in the “second chamber.” The baby was a girl: “this year [1466], the eleventh day of the month of February, was Elizabeth, first child of King Edward, born at Westminster.”2 She was the first princess born to an English monarch in over a century.

The waiting physician, hearing the child cry, “knocked or called secretly at the chamber door” and asked “what the Queen had,” whereupon her attendants, much amused, called back, “Whatsoever the Queen’s Grace hath here within, sure it is that a fool standeth there without!” Whereupon Dr. Sirego hastily “departed without seeing the King that time.”3

That same month, “my Lady Princess” was baptized “with most solemnity” in a new font set up in St. Stephen’s Chapel in Westminster Palace by her kinsman, George Neville, Archbishop of York,4 just as if she had been the desired prince. She was given her mother’s name; it was a happy coincidence that the Queen had a special devotion for St. Elizabeth.5 The name Elizabeth was not new in the royal line: it had been given to daughters of Henry I and Edward I, and to a granddaughter of Edward III. It had also been borne by Elizabeth de Burgh, the heiress who married Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence (Edward III’s second son), and brought the rich Ulster inheritance to the royal House of York.

Tradition decreed that the King and Queen did not attend the christening, but Edward IV made it the occasion for a show of solidarity, even though the players were privately at odds or disapproved of his marriage. The baby princess’s sponsors were her grandmothers, the Duchesses of York and Bedford, and the Earl of Warwick. Walter Blount, Lord Mountjoy, Treasurer of England, received 1,000 marks [£152,250] for his diligence at the baptism, then was promptly told to resign his office to the Queen’s father, Lord Rivers.

The King bought his wife a jeweled ornament costing £125 [£62,550] “against the birth of our most dear daughter Elizabeth.” Even though she had only borne a daughter, Elizabeth Wyde­ville’s churching ceremony that followed in late March was attended by great magnificence. The Queen left her childbed that morning and went to church in stately order, accompanied by many priests bearing relics and by many scholars singing and carrying lights. There followed a great company of ladies and maidens from the country and from London. Then came trumpeters, pipers, and players of stringed instruments. The King’s choir followed, forty-two of them, who sang excellently. Then came twenty-four heralds and pursuivants, followed by sixty earls and knights. At last came the Queen, escorted by two dukes. Above her was a canopy. Behind her were her mother and maidens and ladies to the number of sixty. Then the Queen heard the singing of an office. Following the service of purification that marked her return to society after her confinement, “she returned to the palace in procession, as before. Then all who had joined the procession remained to eat.” So many guests were present—clearly a prince had been anticipated—that they “filled four great rooms” of an “unbelievably costly apartment.”6

Elizabeth Wyde­ville might have been deemed an unsuitable bride for the King, but she was determined that no one should remember it, and the etiquette that surrounded her on this occasion was rigorous. “The Queen sat alone at table on a costly golden chair. The Queen’s mother and the King’s sister [Anne, Duchess of Exeter] had to stand some distance away. When the Queen spoke with her mother or the King’s sister, they knelt down before her until she had drunk water. Not until the first dish was set before the Queen could [they] be seated. The [sixty] ladies and maidens and all who served the Queen at table were of noble birth, and had to kneel so long as the Queen was eating; the meal lasted for three hours. The food which was served to the Queen, the Queen’s mother, the King’s sister, and others was most costly. Everyone was silent and not a word was spoken.” Afterward, no doubt to everyone’s relief, there was dancing, with the ladies curtseying elegantly to the silent Queen, and glorious singing by the King’s choristers. A foreign observer noted: “The courtly reverence paid to the Queen was such as I have never seen elsewhere.”7

Like all babies in those days, the infant princess was swaddled in tight bands with a close-fitting cap on her head, and she would have remained swaddled for the first eight or nine months of her life to ensure that her limbs grew straight. She was assigned a stately household that included a nurse (each of the royal children had a separate nurse) and a wet nurse, for queens did not suckle their children. The household was under the charge of a lady mistress, or governess, Margaret, Lady Berners,8 who received a salary of £100 [£50,000]. Under her were pages of the chamber, a “knight of the trencher,” and rockers to watch over the princess in her cradle.

The kingdom into which Elizabeth of York was born was a land of prosperity, according to an Italian observer writing in 1500: “The riches of England are greater than those of any other country in Europe. This is owing, in the first place, to the great fertility of the soil, which is such that, with the exception of wine, they import nothing from abroad for their subsistence.” The export of tin brought large sums into the realm, “but still more do they derive from their extraordinary abundance of wool. And everyone who makes a tour in the island will soon become aware of this great wealth, for there is no small innkeeper, however poor and humble he may be, who does not serve his table with silver dishes and drinking cups, and no one who has not in his house silver plate to the amount of £100 [£50,000]. But above all are their riches displayed in the church treasures . . . You may therefore imagine what the decorations of these enormously rich Benedictine, Carthusian, and Cistercian monasteries must be. These are, indeed, more like baronial palaces than religious houses.”9 And all, of course, would be swept away within seventy years of Elizabeth’s birth, on the orders of her son. But for now, England was celebrated as “the ringing isle” because of its many churches, abbeys, and priories.

Much more of the land was covered by forest and woodland than it is now. The country was largely rural and given over to agriculture; as the Italian perceived, it had become prosperous through the export of wool and, latterly, woolen cloth. The people were often turbulent, unruly, and vociferous—especially when it came to new taxes—and it was said that while the French vice was lechery, the English vice was treachery. The latter were perceived to be lazy—“it is received as a prescript that they should sweat by no means”—and gluttonous: “though they live in hovels, they eat like lords.” Most people lived in the country, and society was generally localized. It was the upper classes and merchants who traveled.

Elizabeth would have learned early in life that she was a very special little girl. Her father was the King, whose person was regarded as sacred. Divinely appointed to rule, he had been invested at his coronation with a sanctity that set him apart from ordinary mortals and bestowed on him the grace to govern with a wisdom denied to others. The royal prerogative was believed to be the will of God working through the will of the King.

The court over which King Edward presided, and in which Elizabeth grew up, was a magnificent one—“the most splendid court that could be found in all Christendom.”10 The royal family was its central focus, so Elizabeth would have grown up with a sense of her importance in the world. It would have seemed a crowded world to a young child—Edward IV’s household numbered about eight hundred persons or more, not counting the members of his queen’s separate establishment. The court was itinerant, with the King dividing his time between a dozen of his palaces (most of them in the Thames Valley), according to the demands of state, the hunting to be had, or the need for cleansing a house after hundreds of courtiers and servants had tested its capacity for drainage to the limits.

Elizabeth would have become used to travel from infancy. The royal household would regularly wend its cumbersome way about the country, taking with it a long train of servants, carts, and packhorses laden with furniture, tapestries, personal belongings, and state papers, all packed in chests, coffers, and bags. The royal women and children traveled either by barge—the Thames being the main highway through London—or in covered horse-drawn coaches, like wagons, with four wheels, which could not have been very comfortable, as they were unsprung; or in smaller versions called litters, chariots, or “chairs.” A household could travel an average of twenty-six miles a day, depending on the state of the roads. Most were little more than tracks, with a few surviving Roman exceptions, and their condition depended on the weather and the public-spiritedness of the parish authorities or landowners who were supposed to maintain them. It was for this reason that royalty often preferred, where possible, to travel by river.

In his tastes, King Edward followed the dictates of the court of Burgundy, which at that time led the rest of northern Europe in art, architecture, style, dress, manners, and court ceremonial. He understood the value of magnificence that underpinned Burgundian court culture, and spent lavishly on clothing, jewels, plate, and tapestries from the Low Countries, but it was not until later in his reign that he was able to patronize the arts and indulge his passion for building. Today, the Perpendicular-style glory of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and the great hall at Eltham Palace, bear witness to the largely vanished splendors of his reign.

Elizabeth grew up to know these places well, especially the Palace of Westminster. Opposite stood Westminster Abbey, where kings were crowned and many of her royal forebears were buried. Elizabeth would have grown up knowing the neighboring City of London well too. “All the beauty of this island is confined to London,” wrote the anonymous Italian in 1500.11 It was one of the greatest cities in Christendom, prosperous and teeming, its skyline dominated by the soaring Gothic edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the spires of over eighty churches. About 60,000 to 75,000 of England’s estimated population of three or four million people lived in the City, which possessed “all the advantages to be desired in a maritime town” and was a flourishing mercantile center. “On the banks of the Thames are enormous warehouses for imported goods; also numerous cranes of remarkable size to unload merchandise from ships . . . Whatever there is in the City, it all belongs to craftsmen and merchants,”12 such as would supply Elizabeth with luxury goods all her life.

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Meet the Author

Alison Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of several historical biographies, including Mary Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and the novels A Dangerous Inheritance, Captive Queen, The Lady Elizabeth, and Innocent Traitor. She lives in Surrey, England, with her husband.

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