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.

Isaac Oliver’s unfinished portrait of Elizabeth I (c.1592)
Isaac Oliver’s unfinished portrait of Elizabeth I (c.1592)

Antiquaries and historians have wrestled with Elizabeth from the outset: first there was William Camden’s ponderous official history, then the influential courtier biographies by Robert Naunton, Froude’s probing critique, the rigorous constitutionalism of A.F. Pollard, and so on to John Neale, his pupils and colleagues, and beyond to Peter Lake and John Guy. So often studies of Elizabeth’s reign are impossible to disentangle from the moment when they were written, whether from Victorian and Edwardian confidence in robust parliamentary government, or from post-imperial decline, or the ideological strains of the Cold War, or even our present fixation with sex and celebrity. Historians these days aren’t afraid to try their hand at psychoanalysis, or to unlock Elizabeth’s bedchamber.

From the beginning Elizabeth did her best to resist scrutiny, protecting her privacy as best she could. She wrote as a teenager in about 1548: ‘It is … rather characteristic of my nature not only not to say in words as much as I think in my mind, but also, indeed, not to say more than I think.’ And yet for a long time that blank mask of royalty, essential to the Renaissance prince, has been slipping. The woman modern scholarship gives us has been neatly summed up by David Cannadine: ‘A workaday regnant queen, shorn of her glitter and her gold, her glamour and her greatness, with a false face, a disturbed psyche, a heart of stone, a barren womb and feet of clay; and as such a woman trying to do a man’s job, but not always doing it very happily or well.’

From this continuous rewriting of Elizabethan political history, a number of themes stand out. The first is life at the queen’s court, for so long and for the most part made sense of in terms of faction-fighting between courtiers, but now understood in terms of ripples disturbing otherwise calm political waters, at least in the early decades of her reign. If equilibrium was occasionally upset by a new court favourite or power broker (Robert Dudley, say, or Christopher Hatton), or sometimes a policy (on military intervention abroad, perhaps, or, most divisive of all, on marriage alliances for the queen), much of the time the court functioned well. The challenge was to keep things going: to make policy and navigate differences of opinion; to keep an eye on the management of Elizabeth by her advisers and their management by Elizabeth, on courtiers’ hopes of preferment, promotion and patronage (and pique at not getting it); on gossip, rumour, etiquette and protocol, reputation and ego. In all of this William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) was the master. ‘The court hath the trees of paradise,’ he wrote in 1569, from which grew the knowledge of good and evil – courtiers could flourish or fail, and staying power counted. To make sense of the bubble in which Elizabeth and her servants lived, scholars accept the coexistence in Elizabethan court politics of essential harmony and potential rivalry.

Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of Robert Dudley (1576)
Nicholas Hilliard’s portrait of Robert Dudley (1576)

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