History Books

The Young Gloriana

David Starkey's Elizabeth: Apprenticeship (Chatto & Windus, 2000), like many books that accompany television specials, is an easy read that at times threatens to drift into insubstantiality. The very short chapters, some of which are mere vignettes, combine with a fundamental shortage of documentation for Elizabeth's youth to make a book that begins on a very lightweight footing. Mr Starkey is reasonably disciplined about venturing the sort of speculation that the vacuum of facts inspires, but it cannot be said that the personality of his subject emerges until very late adolescence. This, however, is soon passed. Long before the book's halfway point, Elizabeth is twenty, her older sister, Mary, has succeeded their brother, Edward VI, as England's first queen, and the drama begins with the ill-advised attempt to put Mary's cousin, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne. Elizabeth almost joined the principals of that undertaking at the scaffold, and spent some frightened nights in the Tower of London, the last stop for so many doomed grandees. Nothing if not circumspect, she was careful not to leave much of a record of her thoughts and pursuits during the five years of Mary's reign, but from all appearances she survived because she much cleverer than Mary, who could not induce her to incriminate herself no matter how artfully she tried.

Mary was seventeen years old when Elizabeth was born, in September 1533, the child of another mother, the discarded Catherine of Aragon. Elizabeth's own mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded later in the same year in which Catherine died, 1536; the little princess was not quite three. Her brother, Edward, was born the following year to Jane Seymour, who died shortly thereafter of puerperal fever. So much for the children of Henry VIII. Next in line were the issue of his sisters, Margaret of Scotland and Mary of France. Lady Jane Grey was the latter's granddaughter, also born in 1537; Margaret's granddaughter, Mary Queen of Scots, was born in 1542. This plethora of female candidates was complicated by differing religious allegiances. Dying of tuberculosis in 1553, the passionately Reformed Edward attempted to leave the crown to his cousin Jane, largely because she was unambiguously Protestant. 'Bloody' Mary, who succeeded him instead, and whose Catholicism was unswerving, made herself disliked by marrying the much younger Philip II of Spain, a king who would become her sister's mortal enemy, and so longed to bear his child that she succumbed to two false pregnancies before dying, in 1558 of ovarian cancer. Elizabeth was twenty-five - and queen. She would not be entirely secure until, browbeaten by her councilors, she agreed to the execution of her intrigue-besotted cousin of Scotland, in 1587, but from the start her reign seems to have borne an air of success. This owed in no small part to the ambiguity of her own religious position.

The most robust of Henry's three children, Elizabeth was a naturally popular person from childhood onward. Regal in bearing and possessed of a lightning wit, she also commanded the self-possession of a great actress. "The reign of Elizabeth, we all know," Mr Starkey writes, "saw the birth of the English stage. The [coronation] procession of 14 January showed that its first star was Elizabeth herself." It is unlikely that Elizabeth had already foresworn marriage, but she would make the same case for celibacy that the Roman priests did; married to no one, she could serve everyone. And Elizabeth's principal service would lie in her governance of the English Church. Although the country was not so polarized, between Catholic and Protestant, as it would be a century later, between Anglican and Puritan, the fault line was already deep and dangerous, and Elizabeth worked tirelessly to keep the bridges over it in good repair. At heart a Protestant herself, she nevertheless understood the appeal of the old church's liturgy and ornaments - what a disappointed 'hot' Protestant called 'scenic apparatus.' An extremely well-educated woman - she wrote Greek and Latin, as well as speaking most Romance languages, and at the age of eleven was able to summarize the complexities of the doctrine of justification by faith in two cogent sentences - Elizabeth was able to forge a compromise between the new doctrines and the old pomps. And she never permitted herself to be swayed by her bishops, but rather reminded them at every turn that she was their superior.  

Although Elizabeth has been glorified in popular history ever since she sat on the throne, we should be careful to avoid excessive debunking. Inclined to avarice and enthusiastic about the exercise of power, Elizabeth was nonetheless the right person in the right place at the right time. Mr Starkey has given us what is probably as comprehensive, if imaginative, a portrait of Gloriana in the making, a figure ultimately impossible not to admire.

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