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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future