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.
Starkey is ecstatic in his praise of Elizabeth’s education, which was taken to the highest level thought appropriate for aristocratic young women by the greatest schoolmaster of the age, Roger Ascham. It was a programme of double translation into and out of both classical and modern languages. Women in the 16th century were rare as authors, exceptions to prove the rule, more in evidence as translators. We are fortunate to possess the early fruits of Elizabeth’s pedagogical formation: her translation from the French of Le Miroir de l’âme pécheresse, the religious poem composed by Marguerite d’Angoulême, the favourite sister of the King of France, which was her 1545 New Year’s gift for Catherine Parr (she was not yet 13!), and which Starkey calls ‘impressive’; and, a year later, her New Year’s gift for her father, her version of Catherine’s own Prayers and Meditations, rendered into Latin, French and Italian – ‘prodigious’. The first exercise cannot have been as hastily finished off as Starkey suggests, since Elizabeth not only wrote it out in her own italic hand, the hand of a promising learner, but personally bound and embroidered it with the combination of velvet and silver wire which was her favourite style in the crafting of books. (In later life she would reject gifts of books bound in smelly vellum, which she found even more objectionable when scented with lavender.) We have to admire but ought not to make too much of Elizabeth’s learning. As Starkey admits, it was not of a kind designed to encourage originality, and in adult life her Latinity did not come naturally. Invited to address the congregation of Cambridge University, extempore, she first demurred, then had a go, and ended with an apology ‘because I have detained your most learned ears so long with my barbarousness’, hoping that they would get drunk, sleep well and ‘forget all’. (Perhaps we should not be taken in by this rhetorical sally.)
Starkey is right to regard Elizabeth’s The glasse of the synnefull soule as ‘one of the foundation-texts for her biography’, but not for the chimerical reasons which have tempted feminists and psychohistorians. For him, it is above all evidence that under the influence of her stepmother the scarcely adolescent Elizabeth had been converted to the evangelical Protestantism to which she would ever afterwards adhere. There is need for care on this matter, which is not trivial, since it would be Elizabeth’s destiny to determine the religions of England for centuries to come, directly that of the Church of England, indirectly the reactive nonconformities. The religion of the Miroir and of its translator is evangelical, but scarcely Protestant. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has recently argued, Elizabeth’s religious style closely resembled that of Catherine Parr, but that allowed room for a deep and old-fashioned love of the symbolic imagery of the cross, which Catherine still called the crucifix. So when Starkey calls Elizabeth ‘after her own fashion a good daughter of the (Reformed) Church’, the stress ought to be on ‘after her own fashion’.
Having acknowledged Elizabeth’s prowess in the most advanced educational curriculum of the day, Starkey goes on to argue that ‘it was her lessons in the school of life that mattered more.’ All accounts of the young Elizabeth are bound to turn on the strange goings-on of 1548, which involved Catherine Parr and her fourth husband Thomas Seymour, brother of the Protector Somerset, a marriage which, thanks to Elizabeth’s presence in the household, became something of a ménage à trois: risky romps in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, the curious episode in the garden when Seymour cut her dress in ribbons in the presence of his wife. Catherine was first collusive, then jealous, then dead, whereupon Seymour’s advances, which Elizabeth did not unequivocally reject, became serious. These events contributed to Seymour’s downfall and execution and could have been no less fatal for the young princess.
For Starkey, this was the moment when Elizabeth grew up. As a modern, he wonders how the affair might have been handled by a panel of social workers and paediatricians, sensitive to the faintest hint of child abuse. As a historian, he considers two approaches, psychological and theological: Elizabeth on the couch or in the confessional. Psychology would say that Elizabeth had been abused, had fallen in love with her abuser, but experienced feelings of guilt and self-loathing which not only prevented the consummation of her love for others (hence the Virgin Queen) but enforced celibacy on her favourites and ladies-in-waiting. Theology, speaking a language which Elizabeth herself could have understood, would have discussed the matter in terms of sin and the wages of sin. Starkey rejects both conclusions as over-determinist. The safest moral to be extracted from the dangerous Seymour affair is the evidence it provides of Elizabeth’s unshakeable confidence in her closest servants, and especially in her ‘mistress’, Kate Ashley, who had herself behaved dangerously. Such loyalties, some of the few sentimental streaks in her character, were perhaps related to the insecurity of her parental relationships: a mother decapitated, a father she almost never saw.
More lessons from life followed: the fall of Somerset is that rare event in early modern Europe, a bloodless transfer of power, and soon the death of Edward and the failed coup d’état in the name of Lady Jane Grey, followed by the successful coup and triumph of Elizabeth’s Catholic sister. The Protestant princess, seen as her father’s true daughter and ‘mere English’, was now at the centre of plots, and dabbling in treason herself, just like her Scottish cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, thirty years later. This was Elizabeth’s nadir, for she could well have shared the fate of the 17-year-old Jane Grey, groping blindfolded for the block on which her head was about to be struck off. ‘Where is it?’ Starkey’s account of what the martyrologist John Foxe called, in the short novel included in his Book of Martyrs, ‘the miraculous preservation of the Lady Elizabeth’, is detailed and thorough, one of the most insightful short histories of the reign of Mary, and it corrects many supposed facts and a good many legends. And the narrative is punctuated with nice aperçus: e.g. Calais was ‘Tudor England’s Suez’.
Starkey is more impressed than earlier historians with the extent of Elizabeth’s complicity in the plots against Mary, and especially in the Dudley conspiracy of 1555, which makes her survival even more of a miracle than it was for Foxe, who chose to know nothing about such things. But it was more a matter of policy than of providence, since what saved Elizabeth’s bacon was the fact that for Mary’s Habsburg consort, King Philip, she was more valuable alive than dead. And that enabled her to outwit her sister, who would have liked to exclude her from the succession. If Macbeth was up to his knees in blood so that he could wade no more, by November 1558 Elizabeth was so far up to her neck in constructive conspiracy that with Mary dead, she and her friends were well poised to seize power in their own swift and bloodless coup.
Starkey’s account of the new regime which now took shape insists that it was the Queen herself (and William Cecil) who in its very early days proved capable of boldly decisive action. (But by that very token, surely it was Paulet, the Marquess of Winchester, not Cecil, who said that he was sprung of the willow rather than the oak, ‘ortus sum ex salice, non ex quercu’?) And it looks as if the sequel to this book will not have much truck with the currently fashionable idea that Elizabethan England was some kind of ‘monarchical republic’, which, Starkey says, contains only a ‘grain’ of truth.
Elizabeth’s responses to the lessons of life had been those of outward conformity and submission, prevarication, great tactical skill and a certain ruthlessness. As Edward’s reign advanced into an austere and extreme Protestantism, she had given up ostentatious dress and had adopted what one of her tutors called ‘maidenly apparel’. The more ardent of Protestant subjects, including members of her household, would hanker for those simple days; but not for her outward conduct under Mary, when she heard Mass and professed herself to be a good Catholic. Starkey finds himself in defensive contention with Elizabeth’s Victorian biographer, Bishop Mandell Creighton, who tut-tutted his disapproval of these pretences. The implication is that Creighton was fortunate not to have had to live in the 16th century. There were also lessons in personal aggrandisement, as Elizabeth exploited the rare advantages offered by the Edwardian regime to become the second largest landowner in the kingdom (she later told her interrogators that she could not remember where all her houses were), an estate which she administered with the stinginess she would later apply to all England.
Except for little codas on the eternally unanswerable question of Elizabeth’s intentions with regard to marriage, and her sexual life, to which he is tempted to give a somewhat Clintonesque answer, and on Mary Queen of Scots, Starkey ends his first volume with a sensitive but in length disproportionate account of the Elizabethan religious settlement, ‘a Goldilocks settlement, neither too hot nor too cold’. Again, his knowledge of inventories and protocols scores points. He shows that the Puritan rejection of ceremonies threatened a ceremonial which was as much courtly as ecclesiastical, and was therefore a direct threat to monarchy. But we also learn, I think for the first time, and from the inventories of Elizabeth’s jewels and plate (where else?), that the highly controversial cross which we had thought stood on the altar of Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal for ever was at some point replaced by a gilt-covered English Bible.
Students and other readers sharing Starkey’s love of Elizabeth and admiration for Gloriana have never before had anything like the resource provided by Marcus, Mueller and Rose in their Elizabeth I: Collected Works, which consists of all the full-length speeches, prayers and poems, as preserved in reasonably reliable texts, and a generous selection of her letters. The letters take us from the most important she ever wrote, a declaration of innocent loyalty to her sister, dated 2 August 1556, to her reaction to the Bartholomew Massacre (‘a thing of a terrible and dangerous example’), to her rebuke to her favourite of favourites, the Earl of Leicester, for exceeding his powers in the Netherlands (‘we could never have imagined ... that a man raised up by ourself and extraordinarily favoured by us, above any subject of this land, would have in so contemptible a sort broken our commandment’), to the letter written to James VI after the execution of his mother (‘I would you knew though not felt the extreme dolour that overwhelms my mind for that miserable accident’). The poems include such fugitive pieces as the verses supposedly written on a window frame and inscribed with a diamond on the window itself, during Princess Elizabeth’s detention at Woodstock (‘Much suspected by me,/Nothing proved can be’). As for the prayers, we are supplied with the entire texts of the 1563 Precationes privatae, and of the tiny prayer book (2 inches by 3) with miniatures by Hilliard, associated with the Anjou courtship of 1579-82, which sadly survives only in facsimile, the original having gone walkabout in the early 20th century.
Most of the speeches, and especially the Parliamentary ones, exist in multiple copies and variant versions. As someone who helped collate these texts for the late Sir John Neale as long ago as 1955, I must admire the excellence of the editors’ archival scholarship, which in noting many variations must now supplement, at the very least, the versions printed by Neale himself, and by T.E. Hartley in Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I. These speeches are notorious for their ‘answers answerless’, which, as Starkey points out, turned on its head, for good political reasons, the plain style which Ascham had inculcated. What, for example, do we make of this?
The greatness of the cause there of and need of your returns doth make me say that which I think the wise may easily guess: that as short time for so long continuance ought not to pass by rote (as many tell their tales), even so as cause by conference with the learned shall show me matter worthy utterance for your behoofs, so shall I more gladly pursue your good after my days than with my prayers whilst I live to linger my living thread.
Only Oliver Cromwell was more obscure, and in his case it was unintentional.
Everything in Collected Works is in English, with many items translated, but the editors promise to follow this collection with Elizabeth I: Autograph Compositions and Foreign Language Originals. One has, I think, to regret the omission of her translations, since, a point already made, it was mainly through translation that Elizabeth, like other great ladies, engaged in what she herself would have acknowledged to be a literary pursuit. Her translations were not confined to her teens but were carried on into old age, when she translated Boethius, Plutarch and Horace (see Queen Elizabeth’s Englishings, 1899). When Sir Henry Savile published in 1591 his groundbreaking translation of the histories of Tacitus, a difficult author, he congratulated Elizabeth on her own Tacitus translations, which he said were rather more than translations: flattery, of course.
This is an invaluable work of reference, which does favours for lazy historians, but it really needs a companion book of commentary. The diplomatic background and provenance of the letters and speeches are covered in learned footnotes, but nothing has been done to place them in context or to explain their significance. For example, the point is not made that the different versions of the speech to Parliament in 1559, responding to the request that the Queen marry, may reflect not only different memories of her words and gestures but the intention to emphasise more or less her commitment to lifelong virginity. But the editors are not historians, although in the loosest sense of a vague and much abused term they are New Historicists, and their prime interest is in these documents as texts. It is a new and more generous critical aesthetic, a million miles away from F.R. Leavis, which enables this generation to acknowledge the literary status of such mostly occasional writings, in spite, or rather because of the gender of their progenitor. And yet the editors offer little guidance in the reading of these texts for someone not schooled in Renaissance literature, who needs to understand at least the basics of the rhetorical construction of the letters and speeches.
George VI can rest in peace. Not so Elizabeth. Many more books are promised, or threatened, as we approach the fourth centenary of her death in 2003, including at least one more biography concentrated on the early years, not to speak of the sequel to Starkey’s book, which he proposes to call ‘Queenship’, eschewing the Thatcherite resonances of ‘The Regnal Years’. I am even supposed to publish a biography myself. The word ‘flood-gates’ comes to mind. We have been given an irreverent collection of essays called Dissing Elizabeth (1998), which is much better than its title suggests, and another symposium is projected, to be called ‘The Myth of Elizabeth’. Sheridan could be forgiven for saying: ‘Not yet another book about Queen Elizabeth I hope?’