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.

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