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Elizabeth I (1991)

by Anne Somerset

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613433,825 (4)30
Elizabeth I ruled England in defiance of convention, exercising supreme authority in a man's world. With courage, brilliance and style, she reigned for nearly forty-five years. Anne Somerset's penetrating biography of this complex and uniquely gifted woman is unrivalled in its analysis of both Elizabeth's personal life and her career as leader.… (more)
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I’ve read a few other books by Anne Somerset (Unnatural Murder andThe Affair of the Poisons), and they’ve always been entertaining. I was a little disappointed in Elizabeth I, though; not that it’s bad – in fact I’d say it’s actually better written than the other books - but it just seems less lively. Admittedly this is more straightforward history and less juicy 17th century gossip. There was, of course, plenty of juicy 17th century gossip about Elizabeth – that she had dallied with just about every potential candidate in Europe, that she had numerous illegitimate children, and that she was actually a man – and Elizabeth now and then paid enough attention to have the gossiper’s hands cut off or ears removed, but Somerset just sticks with the historical record and doesn’t speculate.


I suppose that’s part of the reason for my slight dissatisfaction; there is a lot of history of Elizabeth’s times, but not much on Elizabeth herself. She wore a lot of spectacular outfits – did she just do that to create an impression or did she actually like them? She had a lot of dishes served at meals – what was her favorite? Did she really hate Mary Queen of Scots or was she just pragmatic about a rival for the throne? How intimate did she ever get with her various reputed lovers; did she die a virgin? Was she as beloved by the populace as she believed? Was she the greatest English monarch? Somerset doesn’t go anywhere on any of these things.


That leaves straightforward history, and admittedly Somerset is pretty good with that. She makes the interesting claim that the major accomplishment of Elizabeth’s reign was not the execution of Mary or the defeat of the Armada, but currency reform; her father had debased English currency to pay for various adventures and Elizabeth put it back on a sound footing. Somerset may be right here; the prosperity that put England on the road to being a great power required financial stability – but there probably won’t be a movie about it any time soon.


We get reminded that people in Tudor times were somewhat callous about pain and suffering. Somerset quotes some ladies-in-waiting recording how funny it was to watch bear-baiting, and how amusing the bear and mastiffs looked covered with blood and drool (I’m reminded of an account of a popular sport in Italian Renaissance time – ladies watched and cheered from balconies around a courtyard while blindfolded men attempted to beat pigs to death with sledgehammers.) Elizabeth was quite grim in the aftermath of the Rising of the North in 1569; she had over 600 people executed. Somerset notes that except for a few ringleaders like Northumberland and Westmoreland, most of the nobility involved was able to get off by paying fines and the reprisals fell on commoners, most of whom had no real choice but to join the forces of their local lords. Elizabeth was very reluctant to execute Mary Queen of Scots, not because she was particularly benevolent but because the execution of royalty would set a bad precedent. Still, Elizabeth apparently didn’t have any personal animosity against Mary in particular or Catholics in general, at least at first; this attitude also hardened with time. Somerset implies that it was Parliament and Elizabeth’s councilors were more responsible for this than Elizabeth, and there’s some evidence for that; certainly Elizabeth is on record as saying she didn’t want to pry into her subjects’ consciousness and as long as they gave outward allegiance to the Church of England they could believe what they wished in private.


Insofar as they were willing to voice criticism, her contemporaries’ main gripe against Elizabeth was indecisiveness. Somerset acknowledges this, but also notes that (with the exception of action against the Spanish at Calais) this never made any difference. I wonder how much of this reputation was – and is – founded on stereotyping; women then were supposed to be indecisive. Her court politics came in for some criticism as well, but the critics seem mostly to be the losers. Certainly Elizabeth had an apparent weakness for handsome men – the most notable case being Essex, who wrote love poetry to a woman 35 years his senior. However when Essex overreached himself, he ended up learning the hard way that Elizabeth was not a doting old lady. I’ve never seen the Errol Flynn/Bette Davis movie; I’ll have to track it down. There were some complaints about her vanity; however even foreign ambassadors who you would expect to be critical or mocking in diplomatic letters acknowledged that she was attractive even into old age. I suppose you can do a lot with thick makeup and candlelight. Somerset notes a lot of complaints about the custom of “progresses”; Elizabeth would pack up the court and wander around the country, at the expense (sometimes enormous) of whatever nobility she happened to end up with (contributing to the “indecisive” reputation, Elizabeth would sometimes make arrangements to stay at one mansion, then at the last minute changed her mind and went somewhere else). Somerset excuses “progresses” by commenting that the lack of sanitary arrangements made any dwelling, and especially one with a lot of residents and staff, pretty unpleasant after a while; the usual solution was to live somewhere else while it was cleaned and aired out. This squares with some other comments I’ve read about the times; at Versailles during the height of the Ancien Régime, nobility of both sexes dressed in exquisite clothing glittering with gold and jewels would retreat to odd corners of the palace to relieve themselves, and Samuel Pepys recounts a conversation he had with Lady Sandwich while she was using her chamber pot. During dinner. Even as late as Victorian times the sanitary outflow from some water closets at Buckingham Palace discharged down the side of the building past the windows of rooms on the floors below. This sort of thing seldom figures in romance novels.


Her unwillingness to marry or name a successor was more or less a permanent crisis of her reign. Parliament and her councilors pleaded with her repeatedly to do one or the other. Matches with just about every qualified candidate in Europe were suggested (including Ivan the Terrible; they would have made a fascinating couple); Somerset represents Elizabeth as being delighted with courtship but never being serious with any of the candidates. Part of the problem may have been religious incompatibility; most candidates of roughly equal rank were Catholic and unwilling to convert. Several times English negotiators suggested the suitor could practice Catholicism in private but when it came down to final arrangements this offer was always withdrawn; Somerset hints it may have been Elizabeth’s way of ending the courtship when it became boring.


The end of Elizabeth’s life seems rather sad. Many of her old friends and favorites – Leicester, Burghley, Walsingham, the Countess of Nottingham, and of course Essex – had died recently. She seems to have caught a throat infection that made it difficult for her to speak. At first she simply sat all day on cushions in her apartments, refusing to go to bed – possibly in the belief that if she ever went to bed she would never rise from it again (which turned out to be the case). The exact cause of death is unclear; there was no autopsy (not that it would have revealed much given the medical standards of the time). There’s a persistent myth Somerset doesn’t mention – Elizabeth was buried over a month after her death and supposedly her decomposition generated enough methane to explode when an incautious courtier with a lit pipe ventured too near. Explosive royal remains seem to be a fairly common urban legend; still there is a little bit of a mystery as Somerset claims Elizabeth was not embalmed but just wrapped in cerecloth, but also notes she lay in state at Whitehall from two days after her death on March 24 1603 until her burial at Westminster Abbey on April 28th. Even in England’s spring climate more than a month unembalmed between death and burial seems unlikely. There were a number of potential successors, but the smart money was on James VI of Scotland, Elizabeth’s first cousin twice removed (despite the fact he had collaborated with Essex’ rebellion) and that’s who ended up on the throne.


I would have liked a little more summing-up; there’s only a page or so. Was Elizabeth I the greatest English monarch? I’d be inclined to say yes; her combination of intelligence, political skill and ability to make herself both loved and feared don’t have any equals. It’s too bad there wasn’t more detailed record of her speeches; her “Golden Speech” and her address to the troops at Tilbury are as eloquent – given the language of the time – as anything by Churchill. Even those who hated her grudgingly acknowledged her virtues.


Well referenced; seems sparsely indexed as I had a hard time finding several things I wanted to look up. Black and white photographs of paintings of the principals. Recommended as a history rather than a biography. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 7, 2017 |
Elizabeth I stands in the English imagination for one of the formative phases of English history. Her reign saw England transformed, at her command, from a Catholic to a Protestant country, with calcuable consequences for the history of Europe and of the world starting with the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada. ( )
  Tutter | Feb 20, 2015 |
What makes a good biography? For me, there are three main things for which I look in such a book. They are; firstly, a confident tone that leads me to believe that I am reading someone with greater knowledge than myself about the subject. This needs to be backed up by the second requirement, a plentiful series of quotations and notes referring to historical sources to back up the assertions of the author. The final attribute may seem less important but, if the whole is not served up in an entertaining manner, then a book of seven hundred plus pages may easily become tedious. Thankfully, Anne Somerset passes all these tests with consummate ease in this excellent biography of Queen Elizabeth I.

I have an interest, but no great knowledge, in the history of England at the time of Elizabeth's reign. My picture of the lady was coloured by the famous speech given to the troops sent to deal with the Armada ("I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman....."). This lead to a view that Elizabeth was a historical Margaret Thatcher; a domineering, decisive woman. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elizabeth seems to have preferred to leave well alone and only take action when forced so to do by events. She also had far more to do with England's Protestant state religion than Henry VIII. Whilst Henry may have amended our religious standing, one gets the feeling that this was largely in a fit of pique, and that it was Elizabeth's careful stewardship of the Church of England that sealed our conversion.

I was intrigued to learn that the Court, at this time, was so heavily dependant upon a complex system of flattery - and almost flirting between the officials and the Queen. My ignorance also extended to a lack of awareness as to how far the Queen depended upon private enterprise. Stories of her sending the Navy to deal with Spain's Navy only to have the commercial leaders divert the ships to the West Indies in an unsuccessful attempt to plunder Spanish treasure ships is both amusing and scarily premonitional of today's politics where money talks louder than the people.

This book is so good, that I will happily add Anne Somerset's name to Peter Ackroyd's as my two favourite historical biographers. I have not read any other works by this lady, but I hold that as a fault which I must speedily rectify. ( )
1 vote the.ken.petersen | Jan 4, 2013 |
A splendidly detailed and magisterial, yet also very readable biography that can also serve as a reference guide to all aspects of Elizabeth's personal life as well as her reign. Perhaps the definitive one volume biography - all aspects are given full coverage, including the political, constitutional, military, religious and economic dimensions of her rule. The index is also very reliable and comprehensive, not always the case in equally outstanding works. The only slight criticism I have is that the chapters are rather too long and the narrative could be broken up into more and shorter chapters with less opaque titles (the habit of using not very obvious contemporary quotes as chapter titles is one I am not too keen on). Excellent. ( )
1 vote john257hopper | Sep 26, 2007 |
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On 9 April 1533, a foreign diplomat named Eustace Chapuys arrived at Greenwich Palace to make a formal protest to Henry VIII about the King's behavior toward Catherine of Aragon, his Spanish wife of twenty-four year's standing.
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Elizabeth I ruled England in defiance of convention, exercising supreme authority in a man's world. With courage, brilliance and style, she reigned for nearly forty-five years. Anne Somerset's penetrating biography of this complex and uniquely gifted woman is unrivalled in its analysis of both Elizabeth's personal life and her career as leader.

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