New York Times bestselling author Alison Weir explores the turbulent life of Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth, the first queen of the Tudor dynasty, in this “superbly readable and engaging” (Historical Novels Society) novel.
Elizabeth of York is the oldest daughter of King Edward IV. Flame-haired, beautiful, and sweet-natured, she is adored by her family; yet her life is suddenly disrupted when her beloved father dies in the prime of life. Her uncle, the notorious Richard III, takes advantage of King Edward’s death to grab the throne and imprison Elizabeth’s two younger brothers, the rightful royal heirs. Forever afterward known as “the Princes in the Tower,” the boys are never seen again. On the heels of this tragedy, Elizabeth is subjected to Richard’s overtures to make her his wife, further legitimizing his claim to the throne. King Richard has murdered her brothers, yet she feels she must accept his proposal.
As if in a fairy tale, Elizabeth is saved by Henry Tudor, who challenges Richard and defeats him at the legendary Battle of Bosworth Field. Following his victory, Henry becomes king and asks Elizabeth to be his wife, the first queen of the Tudor line. The marriage is happy and fruitful, not only uniting the warring houses of Lancaster and York—the red and white roses—but producing four surviving children, one of whom, Henry VIII, will rule the country for the next thirty-six years.
As in her popular Six Tudor Queens series, Alison Weir captures the personality of one of Britain’s most important consorts, conveying Elizabeth of York’s dramatic life in a novel that is all the richer because of its firm basis in history.
Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, the opinions below are my own.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Alison Weir has written and a lot of books. She’s the biggest-selling female historian in the UK, has published over 30 titles, and sold more than 3 million books. And yet, somehow, I’d never read anything by her until this month. Why that is, I don’t know. What I do know is that The Last White Rose won’t be the last.
The Wars of the Roses was a complex affair. Extended English royalty tended to inter-marry, with the occasional fresh-ish blood coming via marriages as business agreements from mainland Europe. Both the houses of York and Lancaster were descended from King Edward III, and each house believed they had a valid claim to the throne. Within each house, however, various factions vied for power. Never was this more obvious than in the case of Richard III and his two nephews. The Last White Rose includes a family tree at the beginning of the novel, but I still find it complicated and requiring concentration to get everyone in their correct places and houses. I could’ve probably used a list of characters as well.
The book begins in 1470, when Elizabeth is four. Her father, King Edward IV is temporarily deposed by supporters of the monarch he’d previously deposed: Henry VI. The women of the family, including her mother Elizabeth Woodville, seek sanctuary at Westminster Abbey. In a hefty first chapter Elizabeth (and, consequently, the reader) is given information as to what has brought things in the country to this point. I’m not sure how much she would’ve understood at such a young age, but her mother lays it all out for her anyway. The work at this point reads partially in the simple style of a child. The other part is from an objective perspective. As Elizabeth gets older, the writing gets deeper and more complex although the third person narrative continues via these two perspectives. We experience events only as they happened to Elizabeth, therefore no battles scenes are described. Instead we learn of the prospective marriages Edward IV arranges for his oldest daughter and her siblings.
A central part of the plot is, naturally, the fate of Elizabeth’s two younger brothers. Young Edward, his father’s planned successor, is sent away from the family home at a young age in order to learn how to become king. When his father died, Richard of Gloucester supposedly agreed to act as his protector and regent. Somewhere en-route to take the throne, however, he disappeared and his brother vanished shortly thereafter. In the book, the dowager Queen Elizabeth claims to have never trusted Gloucester, and takes her remaining children back to Westminster Abbey. One by one, they are compelled to leave and join Richard’s court as he takes the throne in his nephew’s place. Although supposedly a proud and arrogant woman, Elizabeth’s mother comes across as a woman who whines and moans, a lot. She resembles Shakespeare’s version of her in Richard III, but she reminded me of Alison Stedman’s portrayal of Mrs Bennett.
We know Elizabeth’s brothers died at some point in time, and strongly suspect Richard III was involved in their deaths. We don’t know how they died, however, and it’s likely we never will. In The Last White Rose, Elizabeth too realizes they must have died but she still maintains a faint hope. Their fate becomes one of her main purposes in life. This fictional Elizabeth discovers what it was shortly before she dies. (And no, she didn’t tell us.)
So, did I enjoy my first Alison Weir novel? Yes. Would I read another of her novels? Again, the answer is yes. I found The Last White Rose to be entertaining, detailed, and informative. And maybe one day I’ll figure out that entire family tree thing!
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: 21 March 2023 (paperback)
Alison Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous historical biographies, including The Lost Tudor Princess, Elizabeth of York, Mary Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower, Mistress of the Monarchy, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and the novels Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession; Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen; The Marriage Game; A Dangerous Inheritance; Captive Queen; The Lady Elizabeth; and Innocent Traitor. She lives in Surrey, England, with her husband.
Alison Weir’s website: http://www.alisonweir.org.uk/