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The White Princess- The Story of Elizabeth of York- A Book Review

Updated on August 28, 2013

The most recent novel in Philippa Gregory's cousins war series is the story of the mother of Henry VIII, Elizabeth of York. After reading the White Queen, this book as a sequel is not a very happy one, it is the story of a woman who has no choice in the life is forced to lead. Princess Elizabeth of York never aspired to greatness, like another of Philippa Gregory's heroines Mary Boleyn, All Elizabeth wanted was to be happy, but unlike Mary Boleyn Elizabeth was never to achieve that.


The novel begins after the battle of Bosworth field in 1485, Richard III is dead and Henry Tudor is King. Elizabeth living with her mother and sisters quietly in the country understands that she must marry the new King but she cannot stand him, thinking only of her love for Richard and deeply mourning his loss. Her mother Elizabeth Woodville knows that this marriage must take place and encourages it, Elizabeth herself does nothing to prevent it, accepting it as something that simply must be in spite of her own personal feelings. The new King and his mother however seem to be in no rush to bring the marriage about and when they finally do decide to go through with it, it is with a reluctance and lack of respect that is shocking to Elizabeth and her mother. It is clear to Elizabeth that although she is Queen, she has no power whatsoever, moreover it becomes increasingly clear to her that her mother Elizabeth Woodville is plotting a rebellion to dethrone the new King Henry VII. Elizabeth of York by this time has her loyalties severely divided, she is the mother of a son, who is a Tudor but she is also a York and she knows that one of her brothers may still be alive and if so he deserves the crown. Her reaction is one of trying to ignore politics, she focuses on loving and helping her family and tries not to think about her divided loyalties. However her husband and his mother do not see things her way, they mistrust her and every York and increasingly move against male members of the York family, all actions Elizabeth tries to prevent but is unable to. She is helpless in the events unfolding around her, She is the mother of many children and allows that to be her consolation, though she is unhappy in her marriage and as time goes on she retreats within herself more and more, leaving the world with a mask of a smiling devout Queen. Her marriage begins badly and improves with time, she does grow to love her husband and he deeply loves her for a long time, however his paranoia at the slew of pretenders aiming for his crown destroys any happiness and the love the two are able to share between each other. When the pretender to the throne Perkin Warbeck is arrested and brought to live at court, Elizabeth immediately recognizes him as her brother but she cannot even admit this to herself, instead choosing to treat him as someone who does not exist. The novel ends after the execution of Perkin Warbeck and Elizabeth's cousin Edward of Warwick, where the king asks for her forgiveness for these acts. She does forgive him but the reader is left with the feeling that she doesn't really have much choice and forgives him really because she must forgive herself for being so weak.

Elizabeth of York
Elizabeth of York

Character Analysis

Elizabeth of York is a kindhearted well meaning person but not one gifted with a high intelligence. She is well educated and worldly but cowardly in many ways, hers is a character that lacks wisdom and is unable to effect the change she wants to, a contrast to her mother who never stopped scheming. Elizabeth has a tendency to bury her head in the sand like an ostrich, she does not want to face the realities around her. When she is told by her husband that her mother is conspiring against him, she chooses not to believe it until the proof becomes overwhelming, her blind faith in her mother leads the King to mistrust her own loyalties. When she recognizes the pretender Perkin Warbeck, she does so in an unconscious way and is unable to admit this publicly or even to herself afterwards. She cannot face the reality staring her in the face and chooses instead to toe the official line. She is kind to everyone but the feeling is that this kindness is not always more than skin deep being a factor of her weak character rather than her genuine feeling. When she was very young and living at the court of Richard III she paraded around in the gowns of Anne Neville and was rumoured to be the lover of the King. This caused her to be dishonoured and yet she was unaware of how her behaviour would be viewed when she chose it. Although she was brought up to know about the worth her reputation had, she did not have sufficient intelligence to behave in a way that would have preserved it, in this way she was careless of her own future.

Henry Tudor VII
Henry Tudor VII

The Legend of Melusina

In the novels "The White Queen" and "The Lady of the Rivers" the myth of Melusina is a powerful force, both Elizabeth Woodville and her mother Jaquetta cast spells in the name of their mythical ancestor and claim to hear a cry when a member of their house dies. Melusina legend has it was half fish half woman with the ability to shape shift, she married the first count of Luxembourg and Jaquetta as a member of that house was said to have had magical powers, powers that were passed on to her daughter Elizabeth Woodville but apparently not to her granddaughter Elizabeth of York. In this novel the myth of Melusina is fading from consciousness. Elizabeth of York does not cast spells or believe in any special powers she has for being a daughter of Melusina, she does hear the cry when a member of her house dies but that is it. Elizabeth of York is a much weaker woman than her mother and grandmother were, she chooses to run away from things that frighten her rather than face them and for this reason she largely ignores her bloodline and even her own heart as she strives to survive in the Tudor court.

Do you think Philippa Gregory did justice to the historical person of Elizabeth of York by depicting her as a weak willed person?

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Elizabeth of York as she was depicted in the bbc series the White Queen
Elizabeth of York as she was depicted in the bbc series the White Queen

Some Historical Background

This is the story of the first Tudor King Henry VII, the father of Henry VIII. People who are fascinated with Tudor history and Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in particular often do not realize that their dynasty began with a battle and that their bloodline did not have quite enough Plantagenet blood to be the strongest claimants to the throne. This is explained in this book, Henry Tudor is a paranoid king who wins his crown on the battlefield and then spends the rest of his life trying to keep it. He is successful ultimately but in the process he loses himself and commits acts he does not wish to. He is acutely aware of his lack of royal blood and so he get quickly paranoid when anyone else jumps up and makes a claim for the crown. He executes anyone who could take the crown from him, including Perkin Warbeck the pretender and Edward of Warwick the cousin of his Queen Elizabeth, even though the latter did not attempt any kind of rebellion. So in many ways this story is one of transition, from the middle ages to the renaissance, Henry VII and his Queen Elizabeth of York were the last medieval monarchs and their son Henry VIII was the first renaissance one.

Do you think that Elizabeth of York should have intervened more to save those she loved?

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