29 January 2010

The Life of Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I remains one of the iconic figures of British history - the clothes, the china-white skin, the refusal/inability to marry, the events of her reign that shaped the future of her country.  Even during her lifetime the persona of Elizabeth, gloriana regina, overshadowed the woman Elizabeth.  I always thought she was austere, regal, scary....turns out she was capricious and hot-tempered in her private life.

Like all the other Weir biographies I've devoured over the past year this one is well-written and easy to read.  Alison Weir's The Life of Elizabeth I brings the private life of "the Virgin Queen" to the forefront.  Yes, Britain's navy prospered during her reign.  Yes, she avoided open war with Spain.  Yes, she exhibited a tolerance of religion as long as subjects outwardly conformed to the Anglican faith; she also manged to gain the admiration and respect of Catholic rulers, a true feat when the Pope had declared her excommunicate.  But she really was an awful flirt and prone to jealous fits; her male courtiers didn't usually bring their wives to court and she exacted revenge on those who dared marry without her consent (the wives usually suffered the most).  She also prolonged any marriage negotiations, most past the point of practicability, using myriad stall tactics and diversions to avoid committing herself to actually answering the nagging question: who and when would she marry?

Although Elizabeth is depicted as a strong ruler, one who tried to keep her spending down and rule with Parliament and her Council, she does seem to ascribe to the contemporary belief that a woman was incapable of ruling without a husband (sixteenth-century medical theory also opined that a woman required a husband to remain sexually normal and avoid mental intability).  I said "seems" because, as Weir points out, Elizabeth was known for keeping her own counsel.  Unlike her half-brother, Edward VI, she did not keep a diary and vascillated for quite some time before making major decisions.  She never seemed to express her personal opinions, only those of "the monarch".  Weir brings up the idea that marriage in general may have been distasteful to Elizabeth (not surprising given the marital history of her parents, step-parents, and half-sister); it's not unimaginable to think that Elizabeth never meant to marry but, knowing the decision to remain unmarried would be universally unpopular, invented her stall tactics to hide her true intention.  We'll never know.

There is one thing about Elizabeth I think people forget - she was a scholar.  Her father and guardians had the good sense (and foresight) to have her educated very well, as befitted a "prince" (a word that comes up frequently since female monarchs ruling in their own right are so very rare).  Her education began very early and she was known to be a precocious child (I mentioned the Tudor precocity in my review of The Children of Henry VIII).  I am in awe of her education; rhetoric, theology, Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, music and all started at an age where children of the twenty-first century are learning ABCs.  I wouldn't have wanted to match wits with her in any circumstance but I would have loved to discuss with her the books she read.

Next up in the Weir obsession (almost over): Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley

Current book-in-progress: The Mathematics of Sex (needs to be returned soon)
Current knitted item: baby sweater
Current movie obsession: Peter Pan
Current iTunes loop: Filmspotting

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