For experts on the subject looking for top-notch research

Elizabeth Widville Lady Grey - John Ashdown-Hill

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review. This is a book that has put a new spin on the word “research” for me.

I am no expert on UK history in general, and my knowledge of the particular period covered in this book is patchy at best (we’ve all heard of the War of the Roses, and thanks to Shakespeare’s plays are familiar with at least some of the characters who played important parts in the events…), but a passing comment about this queen included in a book I read recently got me curious, and on reading the credentials of the author (who unfortunately passed away in 2018), I decided to read it.

This is not a book that simply picks up a few known facts and creates a semblance of a chronology and a fictionalised biography of the person. This is a truly exhaustive study of all the resources available (I’m no expert, so there might be some the author missed, but judging by the thoroughness of the text and the bibliography, they’d have to be pretty obscure), not only books, letters, official documents, court records, but also portraits, coins, sculptures, and even a study of the DNA of one of the queen’s known distant relatives. The author studies all aspects of this historical figure, many in dispute for years: the spelling of her name (there are many versions available and he explains the reasons why), her hair colour, her marriage (a secret marriage, which, it seems, was not as uncommon as it might sound, and definitely Edward IV was fond of them), her relationships with a number of historical figures (and her possible involvement in their fates), her religious faith, her lineage… He even tried to trace a possible sample of wood from her coffin, but it seems that if it had ever existed it was misplaced, and it’s not reappeared so far. Well, you get an idea.

This is not a book for a casual reader eager to get a bit of information about Lady Grey, but rather one for people who are looking for clarification on specific points of her life, or who want to deepen their knowledge of this figure and this historical period. Anybody interested in the many controversies surrounding the Kingdom of Edward IV, the disappearance of the two princes, Richard III’s role, and the many intrigues and controversies of the era (you have it all: secret marriages, bigamy, accusations of witchery, murders, possible poisonings, mysterious disappearances, executions, battles for the crown, treachery, marriages of convenience, bastardy… Modern soaps and spy novels can’t hold a candle to this), should check this book. Ashdown-Hill comments on biographies and books on the subject, pointing out factual errors, and trying his best to separate fact from fiction. He takes a scientific approach to the subject and does not offer his personal opinion, but sticks to the information available and avoids flights of fancy. In his conclusion he reiterates that there is much we’ll never know about Elizabeth, but some of the things that have been said about her are wrong. I’ve learned plenty reading this book, and although I am sure readers with more knowledge will gain much more from it, it has made me want to dig a bit deeper into the period.

The volume contains a number of family trees for the different branches of Elizabeth’s family, up to present day, and also photos (black and white and colour), illustrations, detailed notes for each chapter, a bibliography and an index.

I’d recommend this book to readers with a good knowledge of the period, looking to learn more about Lady Grey or about all the political intricacies of the era. It will be of particular interest to historians and also to writers eager to ensure accuracy in their depiction of the era, with its intrigues, secrets, and unanswered questions. A rigorous work of historical enquiry.