Alison Weir on Elizabeth of York – the Diana of the Tudor dynasty

Historian Alison Weir tells Joshua Neicho about her latest subject, the wife of Henry VII, mother of Henry VIII

Alison Weir is buzzing with a new discovery. “It was one of my ‘oh- my-god’ moments – though it’s been there for all to see since the 19th century, when the Privy Purse accounts were published,” she says, animated. A five-day visit by Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s Queen, to the Tower of London in 1502 immediately preceded the arraignment and beheading of Sir James Tyrell, the suspected murderer of Elizabeth’s brothers, the Princes in the Tower. While there, Elizabeth was in contact with the Abbess of the Minoresses – a cousin of Tyrell’s, sheltering his sister and another cousin – sending a considerable sum, apparently in exchange for a gift of rosewater. Was the real purpose of her visit, Weir postulates, to extract a confession from Tyrell, or perhaps to meet him, at his request, as he would only willingly confess to her? “Elizabeth acted to the full within the traditional sphere as Queen – Henry encouraged that. But in the last year of her life, we have an insight [when considered with other evidence] that there was so much trust between them, Henry may have entrusted her with state secrets too.”

Another key question of Elizabeth’s character that Weir gets stuck into is how seriously her early overtures of marriage to her own uncle, Richard III, should be taken. A February 1485 letter from Elizabeth to John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, which has come down to us in fragmentary form due to a fire, appears to proclaim Elizabeth’s commitment to Richard “in heart and in thoughts, in body and in all”. Historians in the 19th century dismissed the letter as fake, thinking Elizabeth incapable of “sentiments so repulsive”. Weir, while now discounting the possibility of a physical liaison between the King and his teenage niece, sees the letter as entirely plausible, the reference to a “body” a fulsome metaphor. Elizabeth wants this marriage “because it is the only way out of the situation she’s in” – even after her family's release from sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, they remained subject to a ruthless usurper who, by statute, had declared Elizabeth and her siblings bastards. This shows, Weir argues, how far Elizabeth was ready to go to preserve her royal status but also, as Henry VII’s court historian Bernard André put it, “a truly wonderful obedience” to her mother and “almost incredible … unbounded love” for her siblings – the bedrock of her adult devotedness.

Both incidents show off Weir’s craft as a historian – careful interrogation of the sources matched with imaginative deductions of what characters might be doing. But they also show what territory we are in with this biography’s subject – the crowning concerns are subtle questions of the exercise of power, the politics fundamentally domestic, even when it touches on foreign princesses. Large parts of the book aren’t about Elizabeth, but background on the deeds of her gluttonous father, the mystery over the Princes in the Tower, and the desperado missions of the Yorkist pretenders. Was it an anti-climax, after writing so many books on strong, charismatic women – from John of Gaunt’s wife Katherine Swynford to Anne Boleyn – to choose such a dutiful heroine?

Weir sees her as a historical challenge – from being a young woman “she’s quite proactive, she loses her voice. She’s achieved what she wanted to” – and turns the  tables on modern feminist assumptions. To medieval commentators, it was not the likes of Henry VI’s “great and strong-laboured” wife Margaret of Anjou who represented the ideal but “the Virgin Mary, as exemplified by her chastity and humility” – and despite seven children, Elizabeth came closer than any to her.

She was no Elizabeth I-style bluestocking but had plenty of other qualities. Weir believes the rather sickly contemporary praise for her virtue and ability was genuine because “it’s unanimous”. “She must have had influence” of a backroom kind, “ because of the number of influential people seeking her patronage”. And the fact that common people brought her presents shows she was “ immensely popular – the Diana of her day”; much more so than the King, who alienated plenty through heavy taxes.

Did Weir consider a joint biography of Henry and Elizabeth? “ That would be a very long book,” she deadpans. There are numerous constraints on suitable subjects for a new work: “You try to think of a Tudor subject that hasn’t been done.” In principle, she’d jump at a non-British subject, such as Golden Age Spain, but she refuses to compromise on anything less than doing all her own research on original sources.

She has a circle of good historian friends with whom she discusses ideas, including Princess Margaret’s biographer Christopher Warwick, Linda Porter, and Sarah Gristwood – particularly women, as “I think we’ve been engaged in retrieving women’s histories from the doldrums”. Her inspirations include the Forties historical novelist Norah Lofts, and Antonia Fraser – “I wanted to be her. I never thought I’d have a book like that published” (Elizabeth is her 20th).

She’s closely engaged with her fan base, having done 600 events since she took up professional history writing two decades ago. She deplores the misogyny of TV history by which “no one cares what Simon Schama and David Starkey” look like, but when it comes to female talking heads it’s all about attractive young women. Her unease extends to the way academic history is taught, fixated on what historians say about each other to the point where this takes over from the sources.

Michael Gove has not called her up to ask her advice on the history curriculum but, she says, they “would agree on a lot”. She studied for a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education but, disillusioned with Sixties methods, became a civil servant. When her daughter’s homework was marked down 25 years later, for failing to empathise with Francis Drake, her indignation was renewed. Her experience, of being hooked on history as a teenager, taught her about the power of a strong narrative, which she applied in the special school she ran for her son and other local children with learning difficulties. She’s emphatic that the chronological sequence of British history should be taught (“it’s so important, what has shaped us as a nation”). Alluding at this point to Tony Blair and his limited regard for the past brings forth a growl – “ We’ve been conditioned to a PC way of thinking. History makes you see society in context, understand how rulers behave.”

Weir has published a history book every two years since 1991. Next up might be a biography of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, Elizabeth of York’s granddaughter, and mother of Lord Darnley. Her recent turn to historical fiction has required a new perspective but is underpinned by the same careful delineation between facts and speculation observed in her biographies. Elizabeth of York seems an unlikely romantic heroine for a future tale – but perhaps that is to underestimate the co-founder of the Tudor dynasty once again.

This article was amended on Monday November 18 to reflect the fact that Elizabeth and her family left sanctuary in 1484, before Elizabeth’s February 1485 letter to John Howard, as explained in Chapters 4-5 of Elizabeth of York.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003