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A Tudor Queen and Her World

Written by Alison WeirAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alison Weir

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On Sale: December 03, 2013
Pages: 608 | ISBN: 978-0-345-52138-5
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.

Many are familiar with the story of the much-married King Henry VIII of England and the celebrated reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I. But it is often forgotten that the life of the first Tudor queen, Elizabeth of York, Henry’s mother and Elizabeth’s grandmother, spanned one of England’s most dramatic and perilous periods. Now New York Times bestselling author and acclaimed historian Alison Weir presents the first modern biography of this extraordinary woman, whose very existence united the realm and ensured the survival of the Plantagenet bloodline.
 
Her birth was greeted with as much pomp and ceremony as that of a male heir. The first child of King Edward IV, Elizabeth enjoyed all the glittering trappings of royalty. But after the death of her father; the disappearance and probable murder of her brothers—the Princes in the Tower; and the usurpation of the throne by her calculating uncle Richard III, Elizabeth found her world turned upside-down: She and her siblings were declared bastards.
 
As Richard’s wife, Anne Neville, was dying, there were murmurs that the king sought to marry his niece Elizabeth, knowing that most people believed her to be England’s rightful queen. Weir addresses Elizabeth’s possible role in this and her covert support for Henry Tudor, the exiled pretender who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth and was crowned Henry VII, first sovereign of the House of Tudor. Elizabeth’s subsequent marriage to Henry united the houses of York and Lancaster and signaled the end of the Wars of the Roses. For centuries historians have asserted that, as queen, she was kept under Henry’s firm grasp, but Weir shows that Elizabeth proved to be a model consort—pious and generous—who enjoyed the confidence of her husband, exerted a tangible and beneficial influence, and was revered by her son, the future King Henry VIII.
 
Drawing from a rich trove of historical records, Weir gives a long overdue and much-deserved look at this unforgettable princess whose line descends to today’s British monarch—a woman who overcame tragedy and danger to become one of England’s most beloved consorts.

Praise for Elizabeth of York
 
“Weir tells Elizabeth’s story well. . . . She is a meticulous scholar. . . . Most important, Weir sincerely admires her subject, doing honor to an almost forgotten queen.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“In [Alison] Weir’s skillful hands, Elizabeth of York returns to us, full-bodied and three-dimensional. This is a must-read for Tudor fans!”Historical Novels Review
 
“This bracing biography reveals a woman of integrity, who . . . helped [her husband] lay strong groundwork for the success of the new Tudor dynasty. As always in a Weir book, the tenor of the times is drawn with great color and authenticity.”Booklist
 
“Weir once again demonstrates that she is an outstanding portrayer of the Tudor era, giving us a fully realized biography of a remarkable woman.”Huntington News

Excerpt

1

“The Most Illustrious Maid of York”

The royal palace of Westminster extended along the Thames shore, southwest of the City of London. A royal residence had stood on this site opposite Westminster Abbey since the sainted King Edward the Confessor had rebuilt both in the eleventh century, and the magnificent Westminster Hall had been completed by William II in 1099; in the late fourteenth century, Richard II increased the height of its walls and added the splendid oak hammer-beam roof. The sprawling palace in which the Queen was to be confined was the work of successive medieval kings, and the chief seat of royal government until much of it was destroyed by fire in 1512. Parliament often met within its walls, usually in the Painted Chamber, the White Hall, or St. Stephen’s Chapel. Westminster Hall was used for state occasions and ceremonies, and also for coronation banquets. Daily, it was a hive of industry, housing the busy law courts and stalls selling books and other goods.

The rambling old palace was much in need of upgrading, and Edward IV had set about converting part of it into new royal lodgings, which Elizabeth of York would come to know very well. They included a privy kitchen for the preparation of royal meals, a wardrobe for the storage of royal possessions, and something very traditional in royal domestic arrangements: separate ranges of private apartments for the King and Queen.

The creation of a new “Queen’s side” for Elizabeth Wyde­ville, which was begun in 1464, may have come about because the King’s mother, the disapproving Cecily Neville, was living at court and appropriate accommodation was needed for both ladies. The apartments built for Queen Elizabeth included a withdrawing chamber and wardrobe; a great chamber would be added in 1482.1 It was in these new lodgings that the Queen was to bear her child.

For married women in those days, pregnancy was often an annual event, with all the risks it entailed. Contraception was rudimentary and would not have been practiced by royal couples, for whom a large family meant sons to secure the succession and daughters to forge political marriage alliances. It was a son, naturally, that the King wanted, and although, by medieval custom, male physicians did not attend pregnant women, Dr. Dominic de Sirego, Elizabeth Wyde­ville’s physician, was determined to “be the first that should bring tidings to the King of the birth of the prince,” for messengers conveying such glad news often received “great thanks and reward.” Only women were allowed into the birth chamber, so when the Queen went into labor, Dr. Sirego had perforce to wait in the “second chamber.” The baby was a girl: “this year [1466], the eleventh day of the month of February, was Elizabeth, first child of King Edward, born at Westminster.”2 She was the first princess born to an English monarch in over a century.

The waiting physician, hearing the child cry, “knocked or called secretly at the chamber door” and asked “what the Queen had,” whereupon her attendants, much amused, called back, “Whatsoever the Queen’s Grace hath here within, sure it is that a fool standeth there without!” Whereupon Dr. Sirego hastily “departed without seeing the King that time.”3

That same month, “my Lady Princess” was baptized “with most solemnity” in a new font set up in St. Stephen’s Chapel in Westminster Palace by her kinsman, George Neville, Archbishop of York,4 just as if she had been the desired prince. She was given her mother’s name; it was a happy coincidence that the Queen had a special devotion for St. Elizabeth.5 The name Elizabeth was not new in the royal line: it had been given to daughters of Henry I and Edward I, and to a granddaughter of Edward III. It had also been borne by Elizabeth de Burgh, the heiress who married Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence (Edward III’s second son), and brought the rich Ulster inheritance to the royal House of York.

Tradition decreed that the King and Queen did not attend the christening, but Edward IV made it the occasion for a show of solidarity, even though the players were privately at odds or disapproved of his marriage. The baby princess’s sponsors were her grandmothers, the Duchesses of York and Bedford, and the Earl of Warwick. Walter Blount, Lord Mountjoy, Treasurer of England, received 1,000 marks [£152,250] for his diligence at the baptism, then was promptly told to resign his office to the Queen’s father, Lord Rivers.

The King bought his wife a jeweled ornament costing £125 [£62,550] “against the birth of our most dear daughter Elizabeth.” Even though she had only borne a daughter, Elizabeth Wyde­ville’s churching ceremony that followed in late March was attended by great magnificence. The Queen left her childbed that morning and went to church in stately order, accompanied by many priests bearing relics and by many scholars singing and carrying lights. There followed a great company of ladies and maidens from the country and from London. Then came trumpeters, pipers, and players of stringed instruments. The King’s choir followed, forty-two of them, who sang excellently. Then came twenty-four heralds and pursuivants, followed by sixty earls and knights. At last came the Queen, escorted by two dukes. Above her was a canopy. Behind her were her mother and maidens and ladies to the number of sixty. Then the Queen heard the singing of an office. Following the service of purification that marked her return to society after her confinement, “she returned to the palace in procession, as before. Then all who had joined the procession remained to eat.” So many guests were present—clearly a prince had been anticipated—that they “filled four great rooms” of an “unbelievably costly apartment.”6

Elizabeth Wyde­ville might have been deemed an unsuitable bride for the King, but she was determined that no one should remember it, and the etiquette that surrounded her on this occasion was rigorous. “The Queen sat alone at table on a costly golden chair. The Queen’s mother and the King’s sister [Anne, Duchess of Exeter] had to stand some distance away. When the Queen spoke with her mother or the King’s sister, they knelt down before her until she had drunk water. Not until the first dish was set before the Queen could [they] be seated. The [sixty] ladies and maidens and all who served the Queen at table were of noble birth, and had to kneel so long as the Queen was eating; the meal lasted for three hours. The food which was served to the Queen, the Queen’s mother, the King’s sister, and others was most costly. Everyone was silent and not a word was spoken.” Afterward, no doubt to everyone’s relief, there was dancing, with the ladies curtseying elegantly to the silent Queen, and glorious singing by the King’s choristers. A foreign observer noted: “The courtly reverence paid to the Queen was such as I have never seen elsewhere.”7

Like all babies in those days, the infant princess was swaddled in tight bands with a close-fitting cap on her head, and she would have remained swaddled for the first eight or nine months of her life to ensure that her limbs grew straight. She was assigned a stately household that included a nurse (each of the royal children had a separate nurse) and a wet nurse, for queens did not suckle their children. The household was under the charge of a lady mistress, or governess, Margaret, Lady Berners,8 who received a salary of £100 [£50,000]. Under her were pages of the chamber, a “knight of the trencher,” and rockers to watch over the princess in her cradle.

The kingdom into which Elizabeth of York was born was a land of prosperity, according to an Italian observer writing in 1500: “The riches of England are greater than those of any other country in Europe. This is owing, in the first place, to the great fertility of the soil, which is such that, with the exception of wine, they import nothing from abroad for their subsistence.” The export of tin brought large sums into the realm, “but still more do they derive from their extraordinary abundance of wool. And everyone who makes a tour in the island will soon become aware of this great wealth, for there is no small innkeeper, however poor and humble he may be, who does not serve his table with silver dishes and drinking cups, and no one who has not in his house silver plate to the amount of £100 [£50,000]. But above all are their riches displayed in the church treasures . . . You may therefore imagine what the decorations of these enormously rich Benedictine, Carthusian, and Cistercian monasteries must be. These are, indeed, more like baronial palaces than religious houses.”9 And all, of course, would be swept away within seventy years of Elizabeth’s birth, on the orders of her son. But for now, England was celebrated as “the ringing isle” because of its many churches, abbeys, and priories.

Much more of the land was covered by forest and woodland than it is now. The country was largely rural and given over to agriculture; as the Italian perceived, it had become prosperous through the export of wool and, latterly, woolen cloth. The people were often turbulent, unruly, and vociferous—especially when it came to new taxes—and it was said that while the French vice was lechery, the English vice was treachery. The latter were perceived to be lazy—“it is received as a prescript that they should sweat by no means”—and gluttonous: “though they live in hovels, they eat like lords.” Most people lived in the country, and society was generally localized. It was the upper classes and merchants who traveled.

Elizabeth would have learned early in life that she was a very special little girl. Her father was the King, whose person was regarded as sacred. Divinely appointed to rule, he had been invested at his coronation with a sanctity that set him apart from ordinary mortals and bestowed on him the grace to govern with a wisdom denied to others. The royal prerogative was believed to be the will of God working through the will of the King.

The court over which King Edward presided, and in which Elizabeth grew up, was a magnificent one—“the most splendid court that could be found in all Christendom.”10 The royal family was its central focus, so Elizabeth would have grown up with a sense of her importance in the world. It would have seemed a crowded world to a young child—Edward IV’s household numbered about eight hundred persons or more, not counting the members of his queen’s separate establishment. The court was itinerant, with the King dividing his time between a dozen of his palaces (most of them in the Thames Valley), according to the demands of state, the hunting to be had, or the need for cleansing a house after hundreds of courtiers and servants had tested its capacity for drainage to the limits.

Elizabeth would have become used to travel from infancy. The royal household would regularly wend its cumbersome way about the country, taking with it a long train of servants, carts, and packhorses laden with furniture, tapestries, personal belongings, and state papers, all packed in chests, coffers, and bags. The royal women and children traveled either by barge—the Thames being the main highway through London—or in covered horse-drawn coaches, like wagons, with four wheels, which could not have been very comfortable, as they were unsprung; or in smaller versions called litters, chariots, or “chairs.” A household could travel an average of twenty-six miles a day, depending on the state of the roads. Most were little more than tracks, with a few surviving Roman exceptions, and their condition depended on the weather and the public-spiritedness of the parish authorities or landowners who were supposed to maintain them. It was for this reason that royalty often preferred, where possible, to travel by river.

In his tastes, King Edward followed the dictates of the court of Burgundy, which at that time led the rest of northern Europe in art, architecture, style, dress, manners, and court ceremonial. He understood the value of magnificence that underpinned Burgundian court culture, and spent lavishly on clothing, jewels, plate, and tapestries from the Low Countries, but it was not until later in his reign that he was able to patronize the arts and indulge his passion for building. Today, the Perpendicular-style glory of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, and the great hall at Eltham Palace, bear witness to the largely vanished splendors of his reign.

Elizabeth grew up to know these places well, especially the Palace of Westminster. Opposite stood Westminster Abbey, where kings were crowned and many of her royal forebears were buried. Elizabeth would have grown up knowing the neighboring City of London well too. “All the beauty of this island is confined to London,” wrote the anonymous Italian in 1500.11 It was one of the greatest cities in Christendom, prosperous and teeming, its skyline dominated by the soaring Gothic edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the spires of over eighty churches. About 60,000 to 75,000 of England’s estimated population of three or four million people lived in the City, which possessed “all the advantages to be desired in a maritime town” and was a flourishing mercantile center. “On the banks of the Thames are enormous warehouses for imported goods; also numerous cranes of remarkable size to unload merchandise from ships . . . Whatever there is in the City, it all belongs to craftsmen and merchants,”12 such as would supply Elizabeth with luxury goods all her life.
Alison Weir

About Alison Weir

Alison Weir - Elizabeth of York
Alison Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth and several historical biographies, including Mistress of the Monarchy, Queen Isabella, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. She lives in Surrey, England with her husband and two children.
Praise

Praise

Praise for Elizabeth of York
 
“Weir tells Elizabeth’s story well. . . . She is a meticulous scholar. . . . Most important, Weir sincerely admires her subject, doing honor to an almost forgotten queen.”The New York Times Book Review

“In [Alison] Weir’s skillful hands, Elizabeth of York returns to us, full-bodied and three-dimensional. This is a must-read for Tudor fans!”Historical Novels Review
 
“This bracing biography reveals a woman of integrity, who . . . helped [her husband] lay strong groundwork for the success of the new Tudor dynasty. As always in a Weir book, the tenor of the times is drawn with great color and authenticity.”Booklist
 
“Weir once again demonstrates that she is an outstanding portrayer of the Tudor era, giving us a fully realized biography of a remarkable woman.”Huntington News

Praise for Alison Weir’s Mary Boleyn, named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Chicago Tribune
 
“This nuanced, smart, and assertive biography reclaims the life of a Tudor matriarch.”Publishers Weekly
 
“Weir has achieved the enviable skill of blending the necessary forensic and analytical tasks of academia with the passionate engagement that avocational history lovers crave.”—Bookreporter
 
“Top-notch . . . This book further proves that [Weir] is a historian of the highest caliber.”—Washington Independent Review of Books
 
“A refreshing change from recent books on the subject . . . If you want to learn more about this often-maligned woman of the sixteenth century, this is a must-read.”The Free Lance–Star
 
“Weir’s research is always first-rate and her narratives accessible. In her latest book, the author has to navigate the historical minefields of gossip, fiction, and conjecture to finally get at the truth.”Tucson Citizen
 
“Engaging . . . Weir matches her usual professional skills in research and interpretation to her customary, felicitous style.”Booklist


From the Hardcover edition.
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

A Conversation with Alison Weir

Random House Reader’s Circle: What inspired you to write Elizabeth of York?

Alison Weir: I have always been interested in women’s histories, especially those of queens, and in the 1970s I did a lot of research on medieval queens and Elizabeth of York. I’m hoping to write three books on the medieval queens, but I felt that Elizabeth deserved a full biography. Over the years many people urged me to write one, but after Sarah Gristwood included Elizabeth in her wonderful book Blood Sisters, about the women who helped shape the Wars of the Roses, I held off. Sarah, most generously, encouraged me to go ahead with the project.

RHRC: What was the hardest part of writing this particular book?

AW: Frustration at gaps in the sources. Sometimes it is just not possible even to speculate. That is the nature of medieval biographies, particularly of women.

RHRC: Do you have a specific writing style?

AW: No, I just do what I do and hope for the best! I think that each book is an improvement on the last in terms of writing style.

RHRC: How did you come up with the title?

AW: The title, Elizabeth of York, was the obvious one; I wanted the subtitle, A Tudor Queen and her World, to sum up the essence of the book.

RHRC: Do you think that historians bring to their work something of their own perceptions and moral codes?

AW: Perhaps, but I think it is important to be as objective as possible, and to look at the subject within the context and moral compass of the age in which they lived. I have been accused, for example, of calling Katherine Howard promiscuous, because she took lovers before and after her marriage to Henry VIII; in modern terms that probably doesn’t make her so, but people in Tudor England certainly made such a judgment. It is tempting to judge historical figures by our own standards, but it should be resisted.

RHRC: What books have influenced your life most?

AW: Possibly the Bible, The Complete Peerage, and Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots. Reading that as a teenager, I decided that I wanted to write historical biographies.

RHRC: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

AW: Sarah Gristwood, who has kindly read over the manuscripts of my recent books and offered valuable and constructive comments.

RHRC: What book are you reading now?

AW: Norah Lofts’ Is There Anybody There? She is my all-time favorite author.

RHRC: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

AW: Yes, several, notably Chris Laoutaris, whose new biography, Shakespeare and the Countess, has fully fired my imagination!

RHRC: What are your current projects?

AW: I am writing a biography of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, called The Princess of Scotland; I am completely revising my book The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1991), as I want to update it. I am also planning several novels and a series of books on England’s medieval queens.

RHRC: Can you share a little of The Princess of Scotland with us?

AW: Here’s a tiny taste of this work in progress:

“While the eyes of the world had been focused on Anne Boleyn’s fall, Margaret Douglas, now twenty, had been living in her fool’s paradise with Thomas Howard. For a woman of royal blood to indulge in a clandestine romance was to court scandal and disaster—as the world had just so spectacularly witnessed. Margaret was second in line to the throne, and a valuable counter in the intricate game of diplomacy and power politics; her marriage was in the king’s gift, to be made to his advantage. It was not for her to choose the man she would wed. All the same, when the court moved to Whitehall Palace on June 7, 1536 for the opening of Parliament, she dared to enter into a betrothal, or pre-contract, with Thomas Howard ‘in the presence of witnesses.’ ”

RHRC: Do you see writing as a career?

AW: Yes, absolutely—and a full-time one.

RHRC: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

AW: Getting started. The first paragraph is crucial. Once I have that, I’m away!

RHRC: Do you have to travel much in the process of writing a book?

AW: I visit the important sites of historical interest. It’s very important to immerse yourself in the environment in which events took place.

RHRC: Did you learn anything surprising from writing Elizabeth of York? If so, what was it?

AW: When researching a subject in depth, you always learn a lot about them, even if you thought you were conversant with them beforehand. You never know what the sources will reveal or how they enable you to achieve new perspectives. In researching this book I discovered a link in the royal accounts that literally made my jaw drop. It connected Elizabeth of York with Sir James Tyrell, the man who apparently confessed to murdering her brothers, the Princes in the Tower. No one had made the connection before.

RHRC: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in the book?

AW: Not a thing.

RHRC: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

AW: A huge and heartfelt thank-you for buying and reading my books, and for all the lovely messages and letters that you send me.

Discussion Guides

1. How important was Elizabeth of York dynastically?

2. Why was the fate of Elizabeth’s brothers, the Princes in the Tower, pivotal to her future? What do you think became of them?

3. Do you think that the Buck letter was genuine? What were Elizabeth’s motives in writing it?

4. How far do you believe that the ballad “The Song of Lady Bessy” portrays real events?

5. What do you think was the significance of Elizabeth’s visit to the Tower in May 1502? Was it connected with Tyrell’s confession?

6. Would you agree that the author has succeeded in discounting assertions that Elizabeth lived under subjugation to Henry VII? Was she a more influential queen than has hitherto been assumed?

7. How much influence did Elizabeth have on her son, Henry VIII? Did her early death have lasting consequences for him?

8. Were you convinced by the theory that Elizabeth died as a result of iron deficiency anaemia rather than puerperal fever?

9. Would you agree that Elizabeth’s relationship with Margaret Beaufort was probably much as it is described in this book? Why do you think Margaret Beaufort is often portrayed as a sinister character? Is there any historical foundation for that?

10. Are you convinced by the author’s assessment of Elizabeth’s character? Did you think she was, as one reviewer suggested, “dull”?

11. Did anything you read about Elizabeth, or the events that took place during her lifetime, surprise you?


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