Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen

Here lieth the fresh flower of Plantagenet,
Here lieth the white rose in the red set...
God grant her now Heaven to increase
And our own King Harry long life and peace.
― Epitaph for Elizabeth of York, Queen of England
 Elizabeth of York is a biography which moved me deeply on three levels: intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Firstly, let me say that author Alison Weir offers the results of her research, gives her opinion, but ultimately leaves it to the readers to draw their own conclusions, which is what every good biographer should do. Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and wife of Henry VII, is a difficult subject because there are meager extant primary source materials which deal directly with her. It is from the royal account books, a scant number of letters, some royal decrees and a few volumes of prayer and poetry, that Weir built a portrait of a queen who was immensely loved by the English people from her birth until her untimely demise at age 37. Greatly beloved as well by her husband, children, siblings, and attendants, she had few enemies in life and was profoundly mourned in death. She was considered by her generation and the generations that immediately followed to be a model queen: pious, fruitful, chaste, faithful, and generous.Yet I doubt that it was for those qualities alone that she was loved. The fact that she was adored by the common people tells me that she possessed something of her father's immense charm, humor and common touch, plus she helped them in their hour of need whenever she was able. The fact that she was loved by her stingy and paranoid husband, who did everything he could to neutralize the political threat that she presented as being true heir to the throne, shows that she was not only a merry companion but a prudent spouse and helpmate. Not to mention her almost legendary beauty, inherited from both sides of the family, but most especially from her mother, the ravishing Elizabeth Woodville.

On an intellectual level I learned a great deal about the era from Weir's book. I suggest reading the biography of Elizabeth in conjunction with Thomas Penn's masterful biography of Henry VII, The Winter King. Penn's work covers more of the political side of the first Tudor reign, especially Henry VII's methods of squeezing taxes out of his people, making himself one of the richest kings in Christendom. Henry's henchmen were especially venal, falsely accusing innocent people of ghastly crimes and then forcing them to pay exorbitant sums to avoid prosecution. Neither rich nor poor, not noble or peasant or merchant, could escape the system of spies and lackeys who made up Henry's network of oppression. Weir hints at Henry's dark side but otherwise avoids the topic, focusing on Elizabeth, whom Henry tried to keep out of politics as much as possible. 

In Elizabeth of York we are treated to detailed descriptions of pageants, tournaments, glorious religious ceremonies, lavish banquets, magnificent architecture in the form of chapels, shrines and palaces and, most of all, acres and acres of luxurious cloth for Elizabeth's gowns, decor, and sundry domestic uses. Some readers may find the detailed statistics of Elizabeth and Henry's household accounts boring but I was fascinated by the glimpse into the ordinary aspects of their daily life. I loved becoming acquainted with the various castles where the royal family stayed and, most of all, I enjoyed getting to know Elizabeth's family a bit better, her parents, her brothers and sisters, her children, her cousins and in-laws and even Henry.

On an emotional level the story is heartrending, for amid the pageantry and glamor, Elizabeth's life was fraught with tragedy. Even her fairy tale upbringing as the beloved eldest daughter of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Woodville, in which she was betrothed to the French Dauphin and reared to be Queen of France, was riddled with insecurities due to the Wars of the Roses. Her father's premature death in 1483 left her family exposed and vulnerable, leading to the accession of her uncle as Richard III, and the disappearance of her two younger brothers within the confines of the Tower of London. What followed was the most bizarre episode of Elizabeth's life. After she and her siblings had been declared illegitimate, and her brothers Edward V and young Richard Duke of York had vanished, she was invited to Richard III's court. It seems Richard behaved in such a way towards Elizabeth that people thought he meant to marry her. After the death of his wife Anne Neville, Weir maintains that Elizabeth was hoping to marry Richard as well, even though she had been sent away from court to avoid scandal. In a mysterious letter from Elizabeth to the Duke of Norfolk she describes Richard III as her "only joy and maker in the world" as she begs the Duke to help her to marry the king. (p.137) 

People have condemned Elizabeth for scheming to marry the murderer of her brothers but perhaps she had reason to believe Richard had not killed them. She also had to save her sisters' futures since they had all been disinherited. Furthermore, she may have nourished a desperate teenage infatuation for him. At any rate, it was found in a book of romances which Richard III had given her, that under his name she wrote her own, along with the motto Sans removyr, "without changing." (p.138) Whatever her true feelings for Richard might have been, he died at Bosworth on August 22, 1485. Elizabeth went on to marry Henry Tudor, the victor.

Henry appeared to punish Elizabeth by not marrying her right away but leaving her in limbo for months. When he did wed her, he did not crown her until after she had borne a prince. He wanted to impress upon everyone that he was king in his own right, not because he had married King Edward's daughter. Elizabeth was forced to cooperate; she had her mother, grandmother and sisters to think of and if she went down, they all went down with her. Not to mention her first cousins, the Clarence children, Margaret and George. As it was, little George was slapped into prison by Henry where he was later killed. Margaret survived, was married off, only to be martyred as an old woman by Henry VIII.

Henry and Elizabeth appeared to be a fond and united pair in public, where he demanded that she be regally garbed to fit her role. Elizabeth was exceedingly generous to the poor and the number of her charities and grants are impressive. Privately, however, Weir points out that the account books show that Henry did not give Elizabeth enough funds to run her household. Although careful with money, she was often in debt and had to borrow money from her sisters and her servants. In order to fund Elizabeth, Henry stripped her widowed mother, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, of all of her property and banished her to dreary Bermondsey Abbey, where she died. At her own request, the late queen was merely wrapped in a shroud and dumped without ceremony next to her husband Edward IV in his tomb at Windsor. Some speculate that Henry mistreated Elizabeth Woodville because she was intriguing with the pretender Lambert Simnel, but I think he was just mean, and wanted to punish his wife by punishing her mother. Being a self-made man, he was probably jealous of Elizabeth's previous life of privilege and wanted to hurt her. Weir repeatedly emphasizes that Henry and Elizabeth came to genuinely love each other, which may be true, but there were obviously many unresolved issues that haunted them as a couple.

Elizabeth and Henry had seven children, four of whom died young. The death of the Arthur, Prince of Wales, five months after his marriage to the Infanta Katherine of Aragon, was a blow from which neither Henry nor Elizabeth ever recovered. Henry had also killed Elizabeth's cousin George and had one of her brothers-in-law thrown in prison. I think it all contributed to Elizabeth's inner suffering and stress, weakening her health.

I found the biography to be inspiring on a spiritual level as well. From earliest child hood, Elizabeth was carefully taught and trained in the practice of her Catholic Faith, being taken to Mass every day and learning to pray the Divine Office. As a little girl she was instilled with a great devotion to Mary which she nourished throughout her life by private devotions and by frequenting the many Marian shrines throughout the kingdom. Elizabeth saw being a queen as participating in the Queenship of the Mother of God. Her accounts show that she was constantly giving gifts to people of every estate, especially those who petitioned her. On the other hand, she was a recipient of gifts from the people, who would send her fruits and preserves (she appeared to have a fondness for cherries), game, wine, cloth, crafts, works of art, books, and anything else that they thought she could use. It seems Elizabeth made herself accessible to the people; she seriously considered their petitions and took the role of intercessor on the behalf of the multitudes. As a young woman she was referred to in a ballad as "Lady Bessy" which shows a certain fond familiarity. (p.145) Many tolerated Henry only because of Elizabeth, and loved her children because they were hers. She was Queen of Hearts, and it is claimed that the playing card is based upon Elizabeth of York.

After the sudden death of her eldest son Prince Arthur, Elizabeth's health began to fail. In spite of her poor health and her last pregnancy, Elizabeth spent the final months of her life traveling around England, praying at  various shrines, as well as visiting her Plantagenet sisters and cousins. Weir thinks it might have been because she had finally had a falling out with Henry. (p. 389) It might also be supposed that she was unsettled by the recent confession of James Tyrell, under torture, that he had murdered her brothers at Richard III's command. (p.389) Even though an astrologer had prophesied that she would live to be ninety, it could be that she had a premonition of her own imminent passing. Elizabeth died on her 37th birthday, February 11, 1503, from complications due to childbirth. Her baby Katherine followed her in death. Henry VII had a complete collapse and became a near recluse, so in a way her surviving children, Henry, Margaret and Mary, lost both parents. The future Henry VIII never recovered from losing his beloved mother. Upon the hearing of the death of Elizabeth, Queen Isabel of Castile, who had corresponded with her, wrote to the the Spanish ambassador in England that he was to offer consolation to King Henry, who was "suffering the loss of the Queen his wife, who is in glory." (p.417)

The most tragic and bitter theme that occurs repeatedly throughout the book are in the descriptions of the beautiful shrines and chapels so loved by Elizabeth and endowed by either herself or her husband. Within the next fifty years  they were to be destroyed by her son Henry VIII. One can almost be relieved that Elizabeth did not live to be ninety so she did not have to see the destruction of the symbols of her Faith, a Faith which carried her through a tumultuous era and which she valued more than life itself.



Celia said...

This is the third 'biography' (in truth 'Life & times of') in less than a decade of a woman about whom very little is known and who was important only because of the men she was related to. I'm at one with David Starkey in decrying the writing of endless books about women simply because they were royal, when the books have largely to be written in'would have/may have' mode, because evidence is in short supply.
There have been, as I'm sure you know, a number of worthwhile books on medieval queenship- Joanna Laynesmith's comes immediately to mind in this case- and on individual queens such as Eleanor of Provence and Margaret of Anjou who were significant forces in their husband's reigns. They're not, of course 'popular' so I suppose not much read.
Weir is really a novelist and as such she makes a great deal of Elizabeth's supposed desire to marry her uncle, but pays no great attention to the far more interesting point that Richard proposed marrying her into the Portuguese royal family. There is no evidence that Richard gave her the book that bears his name & hers- it's just as likely she acquired it after his death. Lady Margaret Beaufort took possession of his book of hours, but I don't think anyone supposes she nurtured a secret passion for him!

Stephanie A. Mann said...

Great review! I posted an excerpt on my blog and bought the book!

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Stephanie. Celia, I am sorry you did not like the book. I enjoyed it very much. I must disagree with you and with David Starkey. I read and write about Queens, European royalty being my historical specialty. You would be surprised at how many people enjoy reading about them. And I do not see Weir as a novelist in her way of composing this particular book. Not at all. Everything is meticulously footnoted. Elizabeth of York was loved by the people of England and is a worthy subject of any number of biographies. I would like to read Amy Licence's bio of her as well. And I thought Weir did mention about the Portuguese alliance. It is a fascinating book.

Jack B. said...

I do wonder if Henry VIII would have reacted if Elizabeth HAD lived to be ninety. She certainly would not have have agreed to his break with the church, the destruction of the churches and most importantly his treatment of her granddaughter, Mary (whose delegitimization by fiat would have reminded Elizabeth of her own) . She would have been an obstacle to Anne Boleyn as well. He could not have treated his own mother (a natural born English princess) the way he treated Catherine of Aragon. Could he?

elena maria vidal said...

I don't know. He probably would have banished her to a dreary remote manor the way he did Katherine. Weir says that it was tragic that Elizabeth died when Henry was so young, because his memory of her was untarnished as the perfect mother and queen. None of his wives could compare to the memory of his mother. If she had lived longer he would have seen her faults, but it was not to be.