Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose by Alison Weir
A new series of novels featuring three generations of the Tudors is an enormous treat for fans of historical fiction, and this portrait of a woman, a “Mother, Survivor, Queen” is as carefully and vividly written as any of Weir’s other novels. Elizabeth of York, daughter of a King, sister of a tragically short lived one, and wife to a third, has often been dismissed as merely a wife for political reasons who was caught up by circumstances and stronger characters. She was nonetheless the mother of the famous or infamous Henry VIII, and her marriage to Henry VII brought to an end most of the separation between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Not that in this political marriage Henry was rendered totally secure on the throne; there were those who rose against him, sometimes claiming to represent the lost Princes in the Tower, the younger brothers of Elizabeth that were much missed. This is a story which focuses on Elizabeth from her childhood and many of the challenges she faced, her mixed fortunes and her losses, her loves and actions. She emerges as more than just a figurehead, a marriageable pawn, but a woman who had to take action from a young age. I found it a powerful and well written story, and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
Alison Weir is a historian with a deep knowledge and understanding of the Tudor period. She writes fictional portraits of the people of the time, especially the women, from a rich wealth of resources and research. Yet this book, as with her others, creates a real sense of the people and their emotions and motives for what they did. She uses descriptions of the palaces and buildings Elizabeth would have known and their various atmospheres; grand and wealthy, or forbidding and almost military. While these buildings are often well documented, some no longer exist, or have been changed out of all recognition, Weir uses them to empathise what Elizabeth probably felt and experienced. Similarly with the clothes that Elizabeth and those around her wore, often symbolic of her fortunes – the sumptuous court dress as a Princess and later Queen, and the contrasting shabby clothes when she was out of favour, no longer considered a royal princess. Such details give real depth to Elizabeth and her life so that the years when she shifts out of view come into sharp focus. Weir can only imagine how she felt about her own claim to the throne being dismissed in favour of Henry’s given that her dynastic claims were actually stronger; the author succeeds in giving her a voice into the way she dealt with a situation only arising because of her gender and the low expectations of female rulers, in sharp contrast to her granddaughter, another Elizabeth. It shows how religion, the Catholic faith, was important to her, a real dimension in her life which to an extent affected her attitudes.
This is a book which is a fictionalised biography of a woman whose role in history was crucial. Weir has used her considerable skills to give a credible portrait of Elizabeth in her context, using sparse evidence and writings that may not have been totally sympathetic to her and her family, because of her gender and the actions of those around her. I recommend this book to those who have some knowledge of Elizabeth of York as they will discover possible aspects of her life, as well as those for whom she is an unknown quantity. It is a powerful book of female led historical fiction, and beautifully written.