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Book review: Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen, By Alison Weir

A royal tale describes a turbulent era – and the princes who disappeared

Alison Weir's speciality is medieval and Tudor royal families, majoring in wives and children. She has 12 histories to her credit, and four novels. In turning to Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Wydeville (immortalised by Philippa Gregory as the White Queen), she is faced with her greatest challenge yet.

Although Elizabeth lived through some of the most turbulent episodes in the dying throes of the Wars of the Roses and married Henry VII, the man who ended them, what she was like is pure surmise, for all the laudatory ballads and poems. We frequently don't even know where she was living. Her portraits, stiff and formal, give little sense of her personality, and the few letters from her that survive are conventionally formulated – except for one, that survives only in hearsay and incompletely.

So where to go for honey? Weir has a shrewd sense of what will seize the imagination of the keen historical amateur. The feasts and pageants that mark coronations, births, marriages and deaths are good for juicy details. Imagine giving birth under a mink-edged cloak of velvet on a richly caparisoned pallet bed, then being removed to an even more splendid bed of state. And when we do read about the minutiae of royal daily life in the single surviving set of accounts, we sense a living, breathing personality: fond of playing cards and the clavichord, generous to her family and random supplicants, well-read and pious.

There remains a huge question mark at the heart of the book. Everything is guesswork. Weir does her best, lingering at some length on events during Elizabeth's childhood. She sketches the background to the "Cousins' Wars", as the Wars of the Roses were known until Elizabethan times. She seems to obsess about the Princes in the Tower, returning to them time and again. She also makes a meal of Richard III's reign, fascinated by the (very thin) evidence of Elizabeth's apparent ambition to marry the man widely believed to have murdered her brothers. It seems far more likely that it was her mother Elizabeth Wydeville who was clutching at any available straw that might enable her family to survive.

The book takes off as a biography halfway through, when Henry Tudor seizes the throne in 1485 and grudgingly agrees to marry Elizabeth. Weir puts down his snail-like approach to the altar to Elizabeth's putative affection for Richard III, but she provides plenty of evidence that it was a carefully political move. Henry hated the House of York, and was insistent that he ruled in his own right rather than Elizabeth's. He postponed their marriage until after his own coronation and did not allow hers until she had given birth to a Tudor heir.

Now we feel for her. Poor Elizabeth. Having grown up surrounded by busily negotiating women she finds herself married to "a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious" (Francis Bacon) who cordially hated the House of York. She does her duty nobly, bearing slights uncomplainingly giving birth to three sons and four daughters, welcoming the Infanta Katherine of Aragon to marry Prince Arthur, heir to the Tudor throne. There's a stimulating twist to come. Weir discovers a mysterious journey to Wales that just might have led Elizabeth to the truth about her lost brothers. So that's why we hear so much about them.