Little Bastard

Patrick Collinson

  • Elizabeth: Apprenticeship by David Starkey
    Chatto, 339 pp, £20.00, April 2000, ISBN 0 7011 6939 7
  • Elizabeth I: Collected Works edited by Leah Marcus and Janel Mueller
    Chicago, 436 pp, £25.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 226 50464 6

In a recent TV programme about King George VI, Peregrine Worsthorne commended his late sovereign for being a dull man, brains being the last thing the British constitution requires of a monarch. It was not always so. Whatever else has been said about the first Elizabeth (one recalls Sheridan’s ‘no scandal about Queen Elizabeth I hope?’) no one has ever complimented her on being dull. In sending her royal brother Edward VI her youthful likeness, soon to be hidden for ever behind the iconic mask of royalty, she apologised for her appearance, ‘the face ... I might well blush to offer’, but not for her mind, of which she would never be ashamed. It was a mind which as yet had found few opportunities for action, but ‘as a dog may have its day’, so perhaps her time would come ‘to declare it in deeds’, rather than only in words.

It was May 1549 and too early for Elizabeth even to imagine a significant political role for herself. These were strange if prophetic dreams about ‘deeds’ from a 16-year-old girl who was second in line of succession to an 11-year-old boy, apparently healthy and likely to have progeny, and whose only reasonable expectation must have been to be safely married off. But that she intended otherwise is implied by what she wrote to Henry VIII in presenting him with her New Year’s gift for 1546. As his daughter, she would be ‘not only the imitator of his virtues but also heir to them’.

Mind, and character, are much in evidence in these two books: a substantial, scholarly, but accessible collection of much of Elizabeth’s written utterance, testimony to the rigorous education of an intelligence clearly capable of passing the 16th-century equivalent of the eleven plus; and David Starkey’s fluent and vivid account of her early life and apprenticeship. Starkey confesses to having half fallen in love with the young Elizabeth, but to be merely interested in the later Gloriana, ‘her face caked in carmine and white lead ... an English Turandot’. But he had better sustain that interest, since this is only the first of two projected volumes on the subject, ‘the book of the Channel Four series’ (which must be preferred to a book of the movie Elizabeth, if there were ever to be such a thing, which God forfend).

No health warning is needed to reassure those disgusted listeners who regularly write to Feedback to complain of The Moral Maze, or viewers who have felt threatened by the robust figure of Starkey as he advances relentlessly and volubly towards the camera, or who were offput by the period costume actors who sugared the pill of his history lessons. Here is a great deal of learning, lightly worn and artfully concealed. Starkey used to be introduced on radio, old-fashionedly, as ‘the constitutional historian’, and this is a reminder that that is what he is, but even more he is the historian of the Tudor court, real politics rather than the constitution. No one is better qualified to tell the story of Elizabeth’s first 25 years, which are given cursory treatment in many earlier biographies. They were allowed only 45 pages out of 390 in J.E. Neale’s Queen Elizabeth (1934), a mere 26 out of 447 in Wallace MacCaffrey’s Elizabeth I (1993): which is as much as to say that those were not biographies at all, for one does not have to be a Freudian to know that what happens to you before you are 25 matters more than anything which follows.

Those early years were spent in royal palaces and manors, and their parks and gardens: Greenwich, where Elizabeth was born; Hatfield, Ashridge and other pleasant hunting boxes in the intimacy of rural Hertfordshire; and the Tower, where she was a prisoner, but from which she set out for her coronation in 1559. Starkey is in his element in these places, able to bring to life the household protocols and inventories which he knows better than anyone else. So we are admitted into the birth chamber where Elizabeth was introduced to the world, ‘a cross between a chapel and a luxuriously padded cell’, a place we could never have entered at the time, if we happened to be male, any more than a woman can ascend Mount Athos. And we witness the humiliation imposed on the older and demoted half-sister, Mary, when forced to curtsy to ‘the little bastard’, in Starkey’s well-informed imagination, red-eyed and stamping her foot. Starkey knows that when Elizabeth told her stepmother Catherine Parr (in the first of her letters to have survived, and written in Italian), that she had not ‘dared’ to write to her father, this was significant of nothing more than the protocol which forbade any such address to the reigning monarch, just as nowadays you only speak when you are spoken to. Such insights, which are fatal to much bogus ‘psychohistory’, have made Starkey the most reliable historian of the real centres of power in Tudor England, which were courts and households, and of how they operated.

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