Jonathan Cape, £20. Order at the discounted price of £15.95 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor