On a par with Nixon

Stephen Alford

  • Bad Queen Bess? Libels, Secret Histories, and the Politics of Publicity in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I by Peter Lake
    Oxford, 497 pp, £35.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 875399 5
  • Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years by John Guy
    Viking, 494 pp, £25.00, May 2016, ISBN 978 0 670 92225 3

In 1948 Allan Wingate published British Pamphleteers, a collection of tracts assembled by Richard Reynolds and introduced by George Orwell. The first pamphlet in the book is John Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet (1558), which begins: ‘To promote a woman to beare rule, superioritie, dominion or empire above any realme, nation, or citie, is repugnant to nature, contumelie to God, a thing most contrarious to his reveled will and approved ordinance, and finallie it is the subversion of good order, of all equitie and justice.’ The sentence is like a jolt of electricity, both for Knox’s contemporaries (though few would have disagreed with him in principle) and for us. His arguments – and those of the other writers, known and anonymous, Reynolds gathered together – were angry, exposing the faultlines in Tudor thought about religion and politics, and speaking for a world much less settled than we might imagine. A manuscript satire from the 1590s included in the book shows Queen Elizabeth I as a puffed up hen: the only concession to Her Majesty’s dignity is the steady eye that peers out from a great ruff of feathers. More ridiculous than glamorous, Elizabeth’s pretensions are reduced to the vanities of an ageing queen. Sharp and subversive, the image is gritstone to the polished marble of the Elizabethan reputation.

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