4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
P. B. Sharp
- Published on Amazon.com
The pen and ink drawing of an aging Elizabeth on the book cover really got to me and I would have ordered the book on the basis of the portrait alone. It just seems that artist Barry Moser captured the real queen, stripped off the defensive layers she had built around herself and revealed her as she really was- a vulnerable, aging woman in a man's world, dark eyes wary, lips tightly pursed. But indomitable.
Author Lacey Baldwin Smith certainly can't be over-looked, of course. He is a very well-known Tudor authority and historian, and one of his fine books "Henry VIII: The Mask of Royalty" I have reviewed on Amazon. But let us get back to Elizabeth. Smith in his introduction describes the aging queen as "old, wizened, bewigged...her teeth were gone and her breasts, bravely exposed, mere flaps". Yet to her courtiers she was Diana, a goddess, Cynthia and the second most famous virgin in history. Elizabeth was a legend long before she died. But most of all she was a symbol of the divine right to rule- "God hath placed me high" she said.
Why another book on Elizabeth? asks the author. "Because she is an addiction" he answers. "She equivocated, delayed, drifted,and habitually changed her mind, yet somehow transformed every defect into magic." She is an enigma, a rara avis, a woman of the sixteenth century when women were second class citizens, a queen in full control of her government and thus her country. Her birth had been a ghastly disappointment to King Henry and Anne who fully expected a boy and their chagrin must have rubbed off on the little princess when she was old enough to understand such things. Henry had paid for the christening of the baby but did not attend the ceremony. So Elizabeth grew up under many shadows.
Elizabeth learned at a young age to play a role but in doing so she held her cards close to her chest. Throughout her life people were never sure what she was thinking. Her first challenge came when she was fourteen during the reign of her brother Edward. Because of the inappropriate attentions, horse play actually, of Thomas Seymour who had married Catherine Parr after Henry VIII's death, Elizabeth was sent away from their household where she had been a welcome guest. Thomas was subsequently executed as a traitor after barging into young King Edward's bedroom and killing the boy's barking dog, but his flirtation with Elizabeth caused the girl to be under intense scrutiny. At aged fifteen she was remarkably adult and she began to play her first role, "keeping her old maiden fastness", dressing demurely. She learned that "a spot is soon spied on our garments, a blemish quickly noted in our doings."
Edward VI was a virulent Protestant, rather alarming in so young a boy. When he knew he was dying, he composed a devise for the succession that would prevent his Catholic sister Mary from succeeding and he lumped Elizabeth with Mary as being a woman, and therefore unacceptable. Lady Jane Grey, Henry's grandniece, was named heir, the crown to be passed in time to her heirs male. Civil war erupted when Edward died, and Mary was triumphant. Poor Jane and her husband, Guildford Dudley, were sent to the block.
Elizabeth was in grave danger of execution all during Mary's reign but no stigma of being a traitor stuck. She pretended to be a Catholic and attend mass to mollify Mary but her heart was most probably not there. She also was suspected of being aware and perhaps partaking of a plot to unseat Mary, instigated by Thomas Wyatt. The rebellion was easily overthrown by Mary's forces. Wyatt was executed and although Elizabeth was thrown in the Tower she managed to wiggle out of any traps they set to trick her into confessing.
It has been said that Gloriana was more than a man and less than a woman, but whatever she was, she was successful. Why she refused to marry has been a topic of great interest both in her day and in the centuries since. The book closely follows her life from a young woman of twenty five when she was crowned, to her old age. The style of writing is turgid and the book perhaps reads more like history than a biography but as a portrait of the queen author Baldwin Smith has her pegged. The events in the Queen's life are familiar but the author manages to put his own stamp on them. What to do with Mary queen of Scots haunted Elizabeth for almost twenty years, but Mary was a grave danger- "as long as Mary lived disloyal hearts contained the seed of hope." Although she agonized over that execution, Mary had to go.
The book explores the men in Elizabeth's life, including the patient members of her cabinet, William Cecil, and her spy master Walsingham, and of course her great love, the Earl of Leicester. We are aboard when Elizabeth woos Alencon and "hoisted her matrimonial sails" for the funny little Duke with the big nose and pock marks. He was half Elizabeth's age. Elizabeth was playing a game but Alencon never realized it. An interesting study is made of Essex, who was Leicester's step- son. This was in no way a love affair. Elizabeth enjoyed the handsome, carefree, self-indulgent young man but Essex never understood the Queen's power or her talent for governing, and in fact he resented her authority mainly because she was a woman. He was a " ruthless and calculating political egotist," his "affection was purchasable and in the end he turned traitor".
There is a long discussion of the Puritan factions in England. Walsingham was a Puritan and the sect irritated the Queen no end. I had never realized that the Puritans were almost as much a problem for Elizabeth as the Catholics. The Queen's mantra was moderation, and she came down hard on poor Walsingham who was the eyes and ears of her realm.
But no matter how prickly and disagreeable Gloriana was, her cabinet remained loyal. Cecil served her faithfully for forty years. The men who surrounded her recognized her uniqueness and they knew that her like would never come again. And on her part Elizabeth was intensely loyal. We who are living centuries later can look back on her with awe and this insightful book helps to fine- tune Elizabeth's image and personality. If she could walk down the street today, everybody would recognize her!