Don’t blame him

Jenny Wormald

  • Elizabeth I by Wallance MacCaffrey
    Edward Arnold, 528 pp, £25.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 340 56167 X

In 1603, England went Back to Basics. Unlike their late 20th-century descendants, contemporary Englishmen knew what that meant: an adult king, of the right religious persuasion, and with a family. Fifty years of that abnormal phenomenon, petticoat government, 45 of a monarch without an heir, and, more immediately, ten of the gloom and doom caused by a sterile war, economic distress and mounting fears for the future, were over. Elizabeth, the ruler who had hung on to life for too long, was dead. The reaction which she had feared, she herself having experienced it in 1558 as heir to a dying monarch, happened. Relief, rather than mourning, greeted Gloriana’s passing; and all eyes turned to Scotland and James VI.

Back to Basics, however, did nothing to resolve the structural problems of English government. The issues which had increasingly dogged Elizabeth’s later years – the decline in royal revenue, the falling value of Parliamentary subsidy, the running sore of monopolies, the vexed question of purveyance and its abuses – were not resolved by her death. There were MPs in James I’s first Parliament in 1604 who were sufficiently aware of the problems to compose an ‘Apology’, which was both a rehearsal of past difficulties and a pre-emptive strike to teach a new and foreign king his role. Indeed, the King’s foreignness brought its own abnormality to replace those of the last two Tudors; to have a king of England who was a member of the despised race of Scots was not consonant with English perceptions of glory and prestige, and James’s vision of a kingdom of Britain (‘Great’ not as a qualitative description, but merely to distinguish it from Lesser Britain, or Brittany) did nothing to reassure or restore the morale of his new subjects. The inevitable happened. People began to look back to a different past, the one presided over by Gloriana rediviva; and the Queen’s own strenuous self-propaganda in the last years of her reign, unconvincing in her lifetime, became all too potent once she was dead.

Ironically, the adulation was encouraged in part by James himself. Fulke Greville, whose Dedication to Sir Philip Sidney paradoxically extolled the past queen, who had done so little for his hero, in order to highlight the shortcomings of the present king, was not the recipient of royal favour. But William Camden was; his famous Annales were written with royal encouragement. Far from playing down his predecessor. James played her up, but in a carefully designed role. She was not the militant champion of the Protestant cause – an image wholly misleading yet beginning to gain ground, to the concern of the King, who was now that cause’s pacific champion. She was the wise and astute stateswoman and governor of the Church, a worthy predecessor of the new monarch, and worthy occupant of the tomb James built for her in Westminster Abbey to counterbalance the tomb of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, whose image was softened by Camden into that of the unfortunate princess, rather than the vicious and evil one of earlier English perceptions.

None of this necessarily related to the reality of Elizabeth; nor did the revival of her reputation, whether in reaction against James or encouraged by him, have anything to do with a critical analysis of her reign. What was assured was not only Elizabeth’s posthumous reputation, but her greatness in comparison with her Stuart successor. Even Camden, emphasising and extolling her love of peace, could be used to invoke the glorious days of Elizabethan sea-power, exercised against the hated Spaniard, in sharp contrast to James’s friendship with Spain and refusal to fight for his Protestant son-in-law, the Elector Palatine. From then right up to the present. Elizabeth has gained and James has suffered from the contrast.

Not that her reputation has remained constant. By the 19th century, it was in decline. Even Macaulay had reservations, and certainly Froude did; and generally, not much interest was shown in her. Things changed in the 20th century. Indeed, the modern age has overturned the assertion of White Kennet, an early 18th-century bishop of Peterborough, that ‘Qu. Elizabeth had a Camden, and King Charles a Clarendon, but poor James I has had I think none but paltry scribblers.’ The rise of the historical novel and the popular biography has produced a wealth of scribbling about Elizabeth. Even some of the more distinguished novelists concerned, such as Margaret Irwin, tied themselves in knots when trying to turn their art to those obvious but mutually conflicting subjects, Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots; while the zealous Catholic convert Evelyn Waugh, moving from the novel to a hagiography of Edmund Campion, produced a horrifying portrait of the persecuting queen.

Equally, the rise of gender studies has inevitably drawn Elizabeth into the stormy seas of women’s history. A mere historian can only turn a cautious eye towards the structured, deconstructed, post-structured or new historicist Elizabeth. The nadir for me was reached when listening to an enthusiastic feminist arguing that her greatest failure – her greatest irresponsibility – lay in her refusal to do anything to help the cause of women, and especially (of course) 20th-century women. Elizabeth can be fairly criticised – and was, by contemporaries, particularly her worried ministers and faithful Commons – for her failure to look to the future, short or long-term. But her critics were thinking of immediate problems, and the succession. Genuine scholarship informs the best gender studies, but it did not inform the lecture I heard. Lunacy of that sort does nothing to bring us closer to the historical Elizabeth, who was concealed in her lifetime behind the icon of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and further obscured by Camden, before falling prey to the fevered brains of modern theorists.

All of which makes one turn with some relief to mere history. Sir John Neale’s immensely readable biography of Elizabeth, first published in 1934, heralded a new era in the study of her reign. Neale gave a deeply sympathetic picture of the Queen; even time was kind to her, a notion which she herself had tried to instill in her subjects by having increasingly symbolic portraits painted, but which perhaps persuaded those who actually saw her in the flesh rather less than her future historian. Nevertheless, Neale’s biography was a landmark, not only as the forerunner to his own detailed work on Elizabethan Parliaments, but as a picture so influential that it became the yardstick against which later writers measured their own views. Its brilliant achievement was to capture a personality, and root it in a robust evocation of an England full of promise, pride and achievement. Naturally not everyone agreed; but no one doubted that Neale was the master of Elizabethan studies, and that those who undertook research into her reign questioned him at some peril.

The dominance Neale held for so long can be seen in the publisher’s claim that Wallace MacCaffrey’s new biography is ‘the first by a professional historian for nearly sixty years’. This is unfair: the late Joel Hurstfield and Christopher Haigh would have cause for complaint that their books, Elizabeth I and the Unity of England (1960) and Elizabeth I (1988), are thus ignored; both give a personal portrait of Elizabeth, and in Haigh’s case a refreshingly iconoclastic and often provocative one. Moreover, Paul Johnson’s Elizabeth I: A Study in Power and Intellect (1974) and Carolly Erickson’s The First Elizabeth (1983) may not be works by ‘professional historians’, but that does not mean that they are without research or without value. What is, however, true is that MacCaffrey, the author of a remarkable trilogy beginning with The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime (1968), going on to Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572-1588 (1981) and concluding with Elizabeth: War and Politics, 1588-1603 (1992), has now brought together a lifetime’s research into a single volume of biography.

Or is it a biography? It is actually quite difficult to characterise this book. It has, to begin with, a consistent air of caution, which has the effect of leaving its subject more confined to the shadows than does the enthusiasm of Neale or the riotous criticism of Haigh. One is left with the feeling that MacCaffrey is actually happier with the workings of government and politics than with the personality who presided – positively or negatively – over both; and it is the politician, rather than the translator of Boethius or the sometimes furious, sometimes infuriating woman, who makes her mark here. Of MacCaffrey’s earlier books, the first was the most original and innovative, in showing – as Neale had not – how Elizabeth managed to achieve some sort of stability in the factional politics which had so often been a disruptive force since the reign of Henry VIII; and his second reinforced the message. His biography lacks the same vitality. Indeed, one has the feeling that the very existence of the older books has imposed constraints on the writing of the new one. Any biographer of a popular subject is going to tell a story that is all too familiar, and it is particularly hard if that familiarity comes, in part, from the author’s own books.

This is not the only problem. Another is the book’s organisation. MacCaffrey takes us conventionally through from birth to death, but only 29 of the 293 pages of the chronological chapters deal with the first 25 years of Elizabeth’s life; and one does not need to be a psycho-historian to wish that MacCaffrey had offered more of his views on the effect on the future queen of her experiences under her father, brother and sister. Then, rather oddly, having got to 1603, he returns to the beginning of the reign and goes through it again, dealing this time with religion, Mary Queen of Scots, Essex, Ireland and the succession. This is rather like the chapter on Culture always being relegated to the end of general textbooks, a feeling made stronger by the fact that this part of MacCaffrey’s book contains a discussion of finance – ‘The Economical Queen’ – of astonishing brevity. The limitations of what he calls ‘housewifely prudence’ as an economic principle are all too clear to Britons of the 1990s; and his general praise obscures the fact that Elizabeth kept royal rents and customs revenues low and increasingly out of line with real values, thus showing a concern for present popularity and an irresponsible indifference to the future. In the next reign, Cecil got the opprobrium for trying to right half a century of wrong; and it was all too easy for critical contemporaries – and future historians – to attribute the problem to his extravagant master. It is a good example of the way in which Elizabeth’s reputation has been safeguarded by excessive concentration on her virtues and her successor’s vices. But we know now that Elizabethan vice, as much as Jacobean, had a crucial part in making Crown finance a nightmare.

There is a sense, too, that MacCaffrey has not fully engaged with the most recent scholarship. Writing about the religious settlement in the 1559 Parliament, for example, he describes Neale’s reconstruction as ‘brilliant’, and Norman Jones’s fundamental challenge to it as ‘weighty’; but it is not entirely clear what MacCaffrey himself thinks. Leicester’s Kenilworth and his activities in the Netherlands, Essex’s increasingly frenetic career, raise considerable doubts about his assertion that the late 16th-century French nobility ‘still enjoyed a degree of power which their English counterparts had lost at the end of the Wars of the Roses’: was this how French – or English – contemporaries really saw the matter? Or indeed the Scots: James’s erratic and dangerous Earl of Bothwell was a good parallel to Elizabeth’s Essex, but was dealt with by the Scottish King without the extraordinary emotionalism of the English Queen. MacCaffrey is right to say that until the 1590s, Elizabeth never allowed any one minister a monopoly of power; but he underplays the monopoly enjoyed by Robert Cecil in the 1590s, which Cecil himself looked back on with regret once he had lost it in the next reign. And the depiction of the weak and bullied James VI is frankly simplistic – indeed, arguably simply wrong. MacCaffrey’s footnotes are mainly references to sources and reveal that he is certainly aware of current writing on Elizabeth. He need not be expected to agree with it, of course, but he combines a reluctance to grapple with the personality who is the subject of his biography with a certain old-fashioned air. Refusal to indulge any of the crazier cults in Elizabethan studies may have exacted its price in the excessive disengagement of this portrait.

This is a pity, because it is a book which must be taken seriously. Economics apart, it is a remarkably comprehensive study, especially in the attention it gives to the endless complexities of foreign policy, which MacCaffrey discusses with great clarity. There is something appealing and right in the fact that a historian who has soaked himself in the reign of Elizabeth for so long should now give us his overview, focused on the central figure herself. If that central figure is more shadowy than Neale’s heroine – or Haigh’s strident and ultimately selfish nanny – one might even say that this has its own historical reality.