Strictly speaking, of course, the last Plantagenet King was Richard III. But his niece, Elizabeth of York, reigned as Queen with her husband Henry Tudor, and it is now widely believed that she was a power behind the scenes. As one of the books I am reading from the Christmas present pile is Alison Weir‘s masterly biography of Elizabeth of York, subtitled The First Tudor Queen, I thought I would rather provocatively remind everyone that she was a daughter of one of our most illustrious royal families.
Descended one way or another from Henry II, Elizabeth was related on both sides of her grandfather’s family to Edward III. Through her grandfather, Richard of York she was related to Edward III’s second son Lionel, Duke of Clarence and on her grandmother’s side she was related through Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt via his Beaufort children, the ones he had with Katherine Swynford who were only legitimised after his marriage to Katherine (though they were specifically barred from inheriting the throne).
Elizabeth’s childhood was alternately exciting and terrifying. She twice had to seek sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her mother Elizabeth Wydeville, (more commonly know as Woodville) on both occasions as a result of her father losing the throne. Firstly, when Richard Neville re-instated Henry VI, so Edward (and Richard) had to flee to Burgundy and secondly when his licentious life style led to his sudden death at the age of forty-one; his brother Richard grabbed the young King Edward V on his way to his accession and subsequent coronation, locking up the child’s uncles and plunging the Woodvilles into a panic, whereupon Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth, young Richard, Duke of York and all her younger children fled into sanctuary again. According to Alison Weir, Richard then usurped the throne by declaring the whole brood, Elizabeth included, illegitimate.
How lucky for the author that just as she was writing this book the mortal remains of Richard III were found under a car park in Leicester, a skeleton that demonstrated the he was indeed a hunchback. To be precise he suffered from scoliosis of the spine, this would have resulted in a probable degree of pain, possibly restricted his breathing and generally made his life difficult. That in spite of this, he was reportedly a good horseman, an excellent fighter and clearly immensely brave; greatly loved in the North of England and in many other ways decidedly admirable slips past this book, unrecorded.
Apart from the fact that I depart vigorously from Ms Weir’s view of Richard III, the view promoted by Bishop Morton, handed down to Thomas More and thence to Shakespeare and on to every schoolboy and girl in England and probably the world, this is a marvellously encompassing book. How Elizabeth comes to marry Henry Tudor, in every way more of a tyrant and villain than Richard III, is dealt with by page 162. From then on the book becomes more and more fascinating as Alison Weir un-picks the details of life at court and the many evidences there are that indicate that Elizabeth was a great deal more influential than has previously been thought; bearing in mind that also at court was Henry’s formidable mother, Margaret Beaufort, who had schemed and directed her entire life towards the aim of getting her son, who lived mostly in exile with his Uncle Jasper, on to the throne of England.
However much one might question Alison Weir’s attitude to Richard III, there is no doubt that she has written a sparkling and fascinating account of the roles of women at that time, the minutiae of their daily lives, eating habits, clothes, jewellery, games, amusements are all laid out for us to admire, marvel at and enjoy. But most of all, she has brought Elizabeth out of the shadows.