“The Last White Rose:  A Novel of Elizabeth of York” by Alison Weir.  New York:  Ballantine Books, 2022, 526 pages

Fifteenth century England was dominated by the War of the Roses—a military and political power struggle between the British noble houses of York (symbolized by the white rose) and Lancaster (symbolized by the red rose).  “The Last White Rose” is the story of Elizabeth or “Bessy”, the oldest daughter of King Edward the IV, a Yorkist king who sits on a precarious throne and dies relatively young leaving a large family of minor children and nakedly ambitious relatives.

Edward IV wrested his crown from a mentally imbalanced Lancastrian King Henry VI, but he had great difficulty holding it against his scheming brothers Richard, Duke of Gloucester and George, Duke of Clarence in what became family warfare.  After Edward’s death, grasping relatives sequestered the young English princes and princesses (including Bessy) and had them declared illegitimate to make way for their own political ambition.  Eventually, Bessy’s uncle Richard of Gloucester ascends the throne as Richard III after clearing all impediments, including inconvenient child heirs.  A century later, Richard will be portrayed as a murdering, hunch-backed villain in the history plays of William Shakespeare.

Edward IV’s oldest daughter Bessy is best known in English history for being both the sister of “the two little princes” who died in the Tower of London and for being the mother of Henry VIII, the much-married monarch who broke with the Catholic Church and divested himself of so many wives.  The “two little princes” are an enduring historical mystery.  Because of their sex, both brothers preceded Bessy in the line of succession and the young brothers disappeared abruptly when Edward IV’s brother Richard of Gloucester seized power in a show of force and proclaimed himself king.

Young Bessy, as the clearest remaining Yorkist successor, quickly becomes a pawn of numerous marriage overtures designed at gaining legitimacy for kingly aspirations.  Even her young uncle, who is rumored to have killed her brothers, may have tried to gain a church dispensation to marry his niece in the hopes of producing heirs to the throne.

The Lancastrian and Yorkist power struggle ends on Bosworth Field in a military encounter in which Richard III is slain and Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian, is the victor.  Henry then marries Elizabeth of York and becomes Henry VII and the couple are the eventual parents of the well-known portly King Henry VIII, slayer of wives.  Some of Bessy’s other children go on to become foreign heads of state including daughter Margaret, Queen of Scotland, and daughter Mary, Queen of France.

This is a great read with a lot of both personal and political intrigue.  Recommended for fans of historical fiction, true crime, and devoted monarchy watchers who appreciate mini-series fare.

Lisa Kobrin is the reference and local history librarian for the Alamance County Public Libraries. She can be reached at lkobrin@alamancelibraries.org.