I love the Victoria & Albert Museum in London: I have many guidebooks and published books from there and have wandered through in a daze of happiness and wonder. This is the most recent publication by the V&A and I couldn't wait to get it when I saw the cover of Elizabeth I and the title as I'm a student of Tudor and early Stuart history, my 2 favorite historic figures in the world being Elizabeth and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots. I also enjoy Russian history and when I saw in the description that this book was largely about the exchange of diplomatic riches from one kingdom to the other--hey!--fascinating!! However, while the book starts out ok it became disjointed fairly quickly.
The first chapter entitled From Whitehall to the Kremlin: The Diplomacy and Political Culture of the English and Russian Courts is truly excellent. It's funny to read about the various faux pas made by the diplomats on both side, the main reason being they simply didn't understand each other's protocol very well. Elizabeth always addressed Ivan IV in her letters as her "loving brother"; but how revered or worshiped each ruler was in his or her own country was at different levels. The Tsars (rather than Csars here) were seen as more god-like than the Tudors. While Elizabeth's PR engine through her entire reign was to be revered as Gloriana, the Virgin Queen and Good Queen Bess, it was more about being trusted and beloved by her people than being feared as the tsars required. A lot of the time, the Russian ambassadors were uneasy about the sometimes too-informal etiquette shown them. They fairly trembled at being invited into her privy chamber: while it was quite commonplace for her to have informal meetings with her own courtiers, the thought of being anywhere near the tsars' bedchamber was impossible. In the formal dining situations in the great halls, likewise, consternation arose frequently. Once, Elizabeth washed her hands in a ewer being attended by no less than 5 gentlemen. She sent them to offer the same ablution to the Russian ambassador and he deftly refused by saying he wasn't worthy to wash his hands in her water. Another time, when James I wanted to show his charitableness to the diplomat and have him sit beside him, the diplomat almost ran from the room. But he also gracefully indicated that he wasn't worthy of this honor.
From toasts, to the exchange of gifts both to the other monarch and to his or her ambassadors, to wearing hats in court, to being seated or standing in the presence of the monarch, contrary to their own customs, were constant sources of confusion to both sides. How much bowing is fitting? Who knows when a protocol is hard to determine? These things aren't written down but rather determined on a case-by-case basis.
It's after this charming chapter that things began to go downhill for me. The next chapters cover portraiture of the merchant class, special portraiture for the royalty including limning and miniatures...and then you find yourself in a museum catalogue of the V&A broken down into chapters such as "Armes and Bestes," silver in the Kremlin, rich clothing and textiles in both country's museums, and jewels and then...weirdly...winding up with "coaches and chariots"...basically the Moscow coach.
It dawned on me that the cooperation between the curators of the V&A and the Moscow Kremlin museums was perhaps a little uneven and it turned into a bit of a tug of war as to what treasures would be shared and emphasized.
Anyway, maybe it's bad timing but I just reviewed In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion and that larger and better written book completely overshadows this one. Perhaps I should account for this book costing about 60% of that book to conclude that the first book is 40% better. It's hard to say.
I bumped this book up to 4 stars from 3, first because I love the needlework of the period (although an intricate stitched piece by Mary Queen of Scots is literally 1 inch square here). Second, my husband is from Cumbria in England and among the treasures in the book (which has nothing to do with Russia) are the "Dacre Beasts" and discussion of the heraldry and history of the powerful Dacre/Howard families in the north of England. Lanercost Priory was the seat of the Dacre estates for a time and this lovely ruin is only 20 minutes away from my hubby's home town. It's gorgeous there.
One thing that annoys me is that there's no way for me to upload photos of the book onto this page. The Look Inside feature gives short shrift (a medieval English word) to the illustrations inside.
Update: it's bad enough that on July 15, 2013, Amazon deleted almost 100% of customer uploaded images from books...but since then, on this book, Amazon also took down the Look Inside feature. What's up with that? The images shown above are quite lame.