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Dreaming the first Queen Elizabeth

When I first started dreaming Elizabeth Woodville, fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the centre of her story was her marriage to Edward IV. But what was that marriage made of? And since writing a novel is "like remembering something that never happened", as the novelist Siri Hustvedt says, how could I write Elysabeth as if I could remember her, so that readers, too, would feel she was someone they knew?

If you want to read how I remembered her in full, you can buy or download my novel A Secret Alchemy at the Independent Bookseller's site The Hive here, or on Amazon here. If you're interested in what I did to bring her alive, read on. And my Pinterest board for A Secret Alchemy is here.

Elizabeth WoodvilleTo me, Elysabeth Wydvil isn't so much a White Queen, as a Silver Queen: silver as one half of the alchemical marriage. That idea of alchemy was so important in how the late medieval world felt and saw itself - and it's how Edward IV spoke of his kingship, weaving magic to make his usurped throne secure. Gold and Silver, Light and Dark, White and Red ... In A Secret Alchemy, all the marriages which work, in the medieval and the modern strands of the novel, are light/dark pairs. And it seemed to me, too, that Elysabeth having been married before might explain something else: why Edward never got bored with her. Unlike the usual kind of queen - a virgin, foreign princess who'd never met her husband - Elysabeth knew what she was about, when it came to her second wedding night. 

I had learnt in years of wedlock what it seemed he had not in his bachelorhood, not even from all those yielding women: how desire, held in check, feeds on itself and grows. If I could hold him back ... He raised his head, and looked towards the bed. ‘You have Melusina to guard you,’ he said seeing the hangings. ‘Melusina the dragon, not the snake, with her wings and her double tail.’

‘Yes. My mother bespoke it of the Sisters at Lincoln for ... my first marriage, to help get me with child.’

Even as I said the words I wished them unsaid. But he smiled. ‘You are beauty itself as you are. But you must have been more beautiful still with a great belly.’ He pressed a hand there. ‘God willing, I will fill you with a fair prince. Would that your ancestress could know how her task is fulfilled in us, that golden sun and silver moon should unite in the secretum secretorum, and bring forth peace and prosperity. For you are my lady moon.’

‘And you are my lord the sun,’ I said, of course. I said it well: the words rang like a charm in the ever-brightening quiet, like a spell I did not know I could cast. I slid my smock off one shoulder, and slowly he reached and slipped it off the other so that it dropped to my feet.

ASApbHeadlineBut such pleasures had to come second, in daily life, to the business of surviving in the ruthless realpolitik of the Wars of the Roses. Elysabeth was bred up "to be the wife of some good knight" in the family business of her class: owning land, serving the king's government, in return for being granted power. Edward, too, was bred for the same business on a grander scale, as the eldest son of the Duke of York. They were cut from the same cloth, and joined in the family business of running the kingdom. And that family business included killing family members, if the safety of the throne demanded it. Edward ordered the murder of the deposed Henry VI in the Tower of London, which was commanded by his young brother Richard of Gloucester. Four years later, their other brother George of Clarence finally betrayed them once too often. Edward delayed for weeks before he signed the death warrant. I imagined Elysabeth slipping out of her own apartments, on the night of the execution, to go to him.

From somewhere close by came a giggle. The sound was like a blow in the face.

‘No, Ysa, that is not what you think,’ said Edward


‘No ... Oh, for God’s sake, you know how it is with me! If it were a woman of mine, it would still mean nothing, and you know it!’

I pressed down my hurt.

He turned away. ‘Besides, it’s no woman, it’s young Hatton’s catamite. Will you drink Rhenish? Or would you have me call for a different wine?’

‘No, no. A little Rhenish, if you please, my lord.’

He filled two cups, and handed one to me. He did not pick up his own, but held out his right hand to me, palm up. ‘And do you know what this hand has done?’


‘Say it!’

‘It has signed the warrant,’ I said.

‘Of what?’

‘The lawful warrant of execution of the sentence that His Grace the Duke of Clarence be put to death.’

‘Of my brother. I have killed my brother.’

‘You had no choice.’

‘Oh, but I had, Ysa. I could have chosen as I chose before.’ He turned away, then drank deep, staring into the fire.

‘You chose to trust him and he betrayed you, time and time again.’ The Rhenish was beginning to warm my cheeks, but my hands were chill. I held them to the fire. ‘Many men – many kings – would not have done so much. You gave him everything he wanted, and still he did as he did. The time had come to finish it. Now it is finished.’

He spoke low, as if to the infernal depths of the fire. ‘Perhaps if Edmund had not been killed ...’

‘Perhaps. Who is to say? We cannot know what might have been.’

He raised his head. ‘By God, you’re like your brother Antony when you speak thus. Are you a philosopher now, Ysa?’

‘No, indeed I am not.’

He smiled. ‘I think you were born to be a queen.’ He poured us both more wine. ‘Did you know it when you were a little girl?’

‘No. I knew my fate would be as it first appeared: to be the wife of some good knight.’ I drank. The Rhenish smelt of flowers. ‘And so I was. Though sometimes my father would jest that my mother might indeed have been a queen by her first husband, Henry of Lancaster's uncle, were it not for—’ I stopped, but contrived to hold my face in the likeness of jesting.

He was not deceived. ‘Were it not for Henry?’

I was silent.

‘So I am twice a murderer?’

‘No!’ I cried. ‘These matters must be ended, by whatever means is best. Finished. Sometimes it is in battle. Sometimes it is ... otherwise. Great matters – the business of a kingdom, a man’s business, and a man’s end ...’ I got up from my chair and moved towards him, slowly enough to hold his gaze. ‘And you are a man, sire. A man, and more.’ I put my hand up to his cheek. It was full and slack these days, cracked with sun and cold, stained with drinking. But it was still gold as well as red that glittered harshly along his jaw, and in his neck and collarbone the muscles were thick under my fingers. I saw his eyes arrested, and rejoiced even as I turned my head so that the candlelight might catch my cheek and the lock of hair that had escaped my cap and fallen on my breast. ‘A man, and a king.’

But, as you may have realised, A Secret Alchemy isn't just Elysabeth's story. It's also the story of her brother Antony, who was surrogate father to her son, Edward, the older of the Princes in the Tower. And it's the story of Una Pryor, a historian in our own time, newly widowed, who starts the book planning to write a history of Elizabeth and Antony. In researching them, she finds a new happiness, but she also realises something fundamental has changed:

It isn’t that I don’t know what happened. With patience it’s possible to leave few stones unturned, though even now there may be more scraps to be ferreted out, or stumbled on as we did the letter, more connections to see, more conclusions to reach. The gaps you have to bridge do get smaller.

But bridging gaps isn’t what I want to do, not any more. ‘You have to make it whole,’ said Mark.

Perhaps I’ve found some kind of answer, some way of telling the truth in the blanks between the facts where, till now, there’s been nothing. A way that is neither truth nor falsehood but is whole. But do I dare? There are no authorities for this, no references and precedents and peer-reviewed journals; no familiar track with familiar rules. My only authority is what I choose to write. The freedom’s frightening, the track, such as it is, is strange: Narrow Street, East Smithfield and the Chantry, St Albans and Grafton, from Astley to Pontefract and York and thence to Sheriff Hutton, and a letter that was there all the time...

I know the journey has a beginning, a middle and an end, that it is whole, but Anthony and Elizabeth could not. To them it was a pilgrimage: the past was past, the future unknown. All they had was the moment.

At each moment – each station of the cross – they’re no more beyond my reach than Adam is. But there’s only one way to reach them, I’ve been thinking, slowly and uncertainly since yesterday: only one way. I must dare to do it this way, because otherwise I’ll never reach them.

In writing A Secret Alchemy, Una's search for Elysabeth became mine, as I described in Bloody Battles and Pleasure Palaces, because in writing a novel about real historical characters that is, in a way, what you're doing: creating memories that you don't have. You're re-imagining and re-recreating a life by taking that what we know, and what we find out, and what we imagine, and making a single tapestry of past and present.

And that's the challenge, and that's what, as a writer, you always hope you got right. Maybe I have. I was certainly delighted when Sarah Vine said of A Secret Alchemy, in The Times, that it's woven from "the gossamer-thin threads of memory, real and imagined ... There are many twists and turns in this tale, some of them real, some of them not; together they add up to a spellbinding whole."

I've blogged before, here and elsewhere, about writing A Secret Alchemy, and for a roundup of those posts, and another extract, click through to my post about "Elizabeth Woodville, that indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair".