Review: The Life of Elizabeth I

As I age, I am more and more drawn to history. Surveys report few students these days find history interesting. The 1998 book, The Life of Elizabeth I, by Alison Weir will dispel this notion. The book, which covers the 45 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, is a page-turner. It is hard to put down and provides a fascinating, intimate and detailed look into the life of the last of the Tudor sovereigns, as well as the many fascinating characters that populated her court.

Elizabeth was born in 1533 to Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s many wives who he found convenient to have executed. Having your mother executed by your father is a very traumatic thing for any daughter to deal with. Elizabeth herself once came close to being executed too and spent many months in the Tower of London. She was imprisoned by her half sister Queen Mary I for her Protestant faith. In the end, she was released and a dying Queen Mary permitted her to succeed her. She was crowned at age 25 and reigned for 45 long years. She remains one of England’s longest serving sovereigns. England’s current queen, Queen Elizabeth II, is one of the few to serve longer. During her reign, luminaries like William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Bacon were contemporaries.

Those lusting for a female president would find her a great example of a female leader. She was very well educated and spoke fluently in French, German, Latin, Spanish and Italian. She had thousands of horses at her disposal and was rigorous about morning walks and lengthy horse rides. She had one overriding goal during her reign: keep England out of foreign wars. She did not entirely succeed. While she wanted little to do with war, other countries very much wanted control of England. Spain was her principle enemy. She ended up lending support to Protestant governments fighting Spain, including the Netherlands and France. After her success defeating the Spanish Armada, she became proactive dealing with Spain. She periodically sent her fleet to destroy Spanish ships while they were in harbor. She also attempted to rule Ireland, often unsuccessfully. In general, she had little in the way of imperialistic ambitions. She realized that to the extent that England could get along with other countries it would remain at peace.

Known as The Virgin Queen, she remained a virgin in part because she felt it necessary to ensure England’s security. She had a constant stream of foreign suitors, which continued well past her childbearing years. There is little doubt that she was strongly heterosexual and she even fell in love a few times. She nearly married the French Duke Anjou, who was much younger than she was. However, it is clear that for a time their affections were real. It is even possible that their love was consummated. Elizabeth had much to recommend her as a spouse beyond the prestigious position of being queen. She was an accomplished equestrian, dancer, poet and scholar. She was politically adroit. She kept England at peace for so long by constantly leading on foreign suitors and playing them against each other. Playing the game of romance forestalled many military adventures against England.

She was often despised outside England for her militant Protestantism. She codified the Book of Common Prayer used by the Church of England. The Pope repeatedly offered bounties to anyone who would kill her. King Philip II’s Spanish Armada was one of many attempts that he made to revert England to what he said was the true religion of Roman Catholicism.

All these details are widely known. What Weir does is bring history to life. Elizabeth lived a public and very well documented life. She saw being England’s sovereign as a great responsibility. We are accustomed to presidents who are replaced in four or eight years. She led England’s foreign policy for forty-five years with one single and constant vision. She was both conservative and liberal. She was conservative in the sense that she was not anxious for England to change and wanted very much to preserve the status quo for future generations. She was also notorious niggardly, and ensured her royal household lived well within its means. She was liberal in being unusually compassionate. Perhaps because his father had so few problems having his opponents’ heads removed, she reserved this terrible punishment for a relative few. With every execution, she seemed a bit diminished. For decades, she dithered over the chronic problem of her stepsister, Mary Queen of Scots. Near the end, despite being protected in England, Mary was covertly working to violently overthrow her government and restore Catholicism. Equally traumatic was the execution she ordered late in her reign for her close advisor, Robert Devereux, more commonly known as the Earl of Essex. A headstrong young man with boundless ambition he failed miserably in his attempt to subjugate an Irish rebellion. When he returned to England, he tried to blame Elizabeth for his own failings and used his popularity to try to bring about civil insurrection. He paid with his life.

Catholicism was another constant problem that dominated her reign. After the Church of England was established, England remained full of Catholics, and many remained loyal to the faith. For many years, Elizabeth practiced benign tolerance of Catholicism, and even had some Catholic advisors in her government. As plots against her life and the state multiplied, she found it necessary to oppress Catholics. Eventually they were forbidden to attend mass and were required to attend Church of English services or be taxed. Today these actions would seem quite harsh. In the context of the times and the real need to keep England united, they were sensible strategies.

Elizabeth was also blessed with a coterie of top-notch political advisers, including the ever-present Lord Cecil, essentially her chief of staff and Lord Walsingham, who ran a huge spy apparatus for the state. If you have seen the two movies about Queen Elizabeth I starring Cate Blanchett (my motivation for reading this book), you will grow well acquainted with these two men. Movies can only give you a hint at the complexity of being a sovereign. She had many, many more in her cast of characters over her 45-year reign. She made the occasional misjudgment in her appointments, such as with Lord Essex. Overall though her record of appointing competent people to positions of power was excellent, and would be the envy of all politicians. That she did so over a 45 year reign is an extraordinary accomplishment.

This biography also captures the experience of living in Tudor times in a way that makes you feel as if you were alive back then. The prevalence of disease was a sad and overwhelming fact of life. Few people lived past their fortieth birthday. The plague hit London virtually every summer. The queen’s long life was due to being proactive. During the summer season, while Londoners died of the plague she took annual “progresses” into the English countryside to meet with many lords, ladies and the public. Indeed, she rarely stayed in one place very long. She had dozens of castles at her disposal. She and her court frequently moved from one to the other. There was no one place that she thought of as home.

Most kings and queens lived public and well-documented lives. Few though were kinder and acted in what were truly the best interests of her subjects. It is unsurprising that as a result she was so beloved. Alison Weir provides an exceeding intimate look at this remarkable woman that is compelling and brings history alive. I doubt that anyone can get past the first fifty or so pages of this biography and leave the rest of the book unread. Thanks to Weir’s biography, we are blessed with a human and intimate portrait of a truly remarkable woman. There is no question that in the top ten most influential women of all time, she would be on the list.

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