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The legend of Elizabeth I, the untouchable, charismatic Virgin Queen, is a powerful and enduring one. Most biographies focus on the years of her reign, during which she proved herself as adept a ruler -- and as shrewd an operator -- as England had ever seen. But while the history of her rule is fascinating, the story of how her remarkable character was forged seems vital to a full understanding of the woman who led England into a new age of prosperity, power, and artistic achievement. David Starkey's Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne explores the terra incognita of Elizabeth's early years, and the result is nothing short of captivating.
Starkey finds that Elizabeth's early years ran the gamut from days of snug security as the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and Henry's heir apparent, to the years of uncertainty after her mother's execution when
Elizabeth was separated from court and virtually forgotten. She received a first-rate academic education, excelling in languages and rhetoric and exhibiting a strong interest in the Protestant religion her father had established in England. But the education she received from life itself would prove far more valuable for the monarch-to-be. After the death of Henry VIII and Edward VI (Elizabeth's half brother), Elizabeth's status as sister and would-be successor to the Catholic queen Mary put her in a dangerous position.
It also put her in prison at Mary's command -- and perilously close to execution -- after plots to place Elizabeth on the throne were revealed. Starkey makes it clear that while others may have actually done the dirty work, Elizabeth was usually in the thick of these efforts. Her imprisonment taught her to cover her tracks, but it did not stop her maneuverings. While fervently professing her Catholic faith, she surrounded herself with Protestant advisers and attendants, and bided her time.
She evaded another snare of her sister's when Mary attempted to neutralize Elizabeth by marrying her off to a Catholic Spaniard in exchange for naming Elizabeth her successor. Perhaps Elizabeth had learned early on from the plight of her mother that marriage had its drawbacks. Starkey, however, suggests that Elizabeth, in a moment of true regality, would not accept the crown if it came through bullying and capitulation. Again, Elizabeth bided her time.
Her seeming patience -- for Starkey reveals that Elizabeth continued to plot -- paid off when Mary, never robust, entered her final illness. Elizabeth managed to convince the now irrational queen that she was, indeed, a staunch Catholic and vowed to preserve England as a Catholic realm. Upon Mary's death, Elizabeth ascended to the throne with no meaningful opposition, thereby beginning what would be a golden age, one of the most legendary reigns in history. Starkey lets us understand, for the first time, the forces that made her into the formidable woman -- and brilliant ruler -- that she would soon prove to be.
Times Literary Supplement
Vivid...Striking and original...Most impressive.
Elizabeth both thrills and convinces... Indeed this is very much an Elizabeth for our times.
Fresh and lively...Starkey brings the princess Elizabeth out from the shadows of mid-Tudor history.
The best account in English of the early years of Elizabeth... Both a racy read and a first-rate history...A tour de force.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Virgin Queen's posthumous retinue of admirers is threatening to outnumber the acolytes who surrounded her in life; here, in a very accessible way, Cambridge University historian Starkey (The Inventory of King Henry VIII etc.) addresses Elizabeth's young life in all of its "aching vulnerability," following her from childhood into the earliest years of her reign. Eschewing the evocative extravagance of Alison Weir's Life of Elizabeth I, this book's 44 brief chapters move crisply. Starkey's account is innocuously populist: he aspires to telling "a wonderful adventure story," in which allegations of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Elizabeth's stepfather, Thomas Seymour, remain more spicy than disturbing. Still, despite his admission that he himself has half fallen for Elizabeth, what separates Starkey from other popular historians of the reign is his resolute avoidance of sentimentality. He presents us with a hard-headed queen, quite capable of chopping off the right hand of an obstreperous pamphleteer. He steers clear of the temptation to romanticize her as a national savior, suggesting that the restored Catholicism of the preceding reign (once described by a historian as "the least English episode in our history") was no less quintessentially English than Elizabethan Protestantism, itself eventually destined to degenerate into intolerance. 16 pages of color illustrations not seen by PW. (Dec. 2) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
In this impressive biography of Queen Elizabeth I, Starkey (Henry VIII: A European Court in England) concentrates on the first 25 years of the life of this fascinating woman. Starkey, who believes that insufficient attention has been paid to the years before Elizabeth became queen, finds these years of "apprenticeship" most interesting. Readers will likely agree, for this beautifully written and intelligent history takes a familiar story and makes it fresh. The author doesn't hesitate to question widely accepted stories about Elizabeth, tracing many a tale back to unreliable "histories" published years after the fact. Thus, even those widely read in Elizabethan history are likely to learn something new. This very entertaining biography is highly recommended for public and academic libraries, even those that may have recently purchased Alison Plowden's fine The Young Elizabeth (LJ 7/99). High school librarians will also want to take note--any author who mentions Adrian Mole in a scholarly biography of Elizabeth is certain to appeal to discerning teen readers.--Elizabeth Mellett, Brookline P.L. MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Read an Excerpt
Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was born on Sunday, 7 September 1533 at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. It was an easy birth: mother and daughter were well and the child took after her father with his fair skin and long nose. But she had her mother's coal-black eyes.
These are the ordinary, human details that might characterize the birth of any baby. But Elizabeth was royal. That meant that her entry into the world was vested with ceremony and hopes that went far beyond the ordinary. Indeed, as far as the hopes were concerned, they went far beyond what was usual even for a royal birth.
Royal births, like other royal events, great and small, from marriages and deaths to dressing and dining, were the object of an elaborate ceremonial. This was set out in the handbook of court etiquette known as The Royal Book. The ceremonies were already old when the Tudors came to the throne, though with his love of display, Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII, had added a few finishing touches. The result combined religious and courtly ceremony; it hid the pregnant queen like a mystery and it paraded the new-born infant like a pageant. For successive generations of Plantagenets, Yorkists and Tudors, this entry into the world had lent a little magic to even the briefest royal lives. In the case of Elizabeth, it formed a magnificent prologue to the superb royal performance that was to be her reign.
The preparations had got underway in earnest in early August when it was decided that the birth would take place at Greenwich. This was the lovely, Thames-side palace where, forty-two years before,Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, had been born. It was the favourite palace of his mother, Elizabeth of York, and it was to become his and his daughter's favourite too.
First, the Queen's bedchamber was prepared for her confinement. The walls and ceiling were close hung and tented with arrasthat is, precious tapestry woven with gold or silver threadsand the floor thickly laid with rich carpets. The arras was left loose at a single window, so that the Queen could order a little light and air to be admitted, though this was generally felt inadvisable. Precautions were taken, too, about the design of the hangings. Figurative tapestry, with human or animal images, was ruled out. The fear was that it could trigger fantasies in the Queen's mind which might lead to the child being deformed. Instead, simple, repetitive patterns were preferred. The Queen's richly hung and canopied bed was to match or be en suite with the hangings, as was the pallet or day-bed which stood at its foot. And it was on the pallet, almost certainly, that the birth took place.
Carpenters and joiners had first prepared the skeleton by framing up a false ceiling in the chamber. Then the officers of the wardrobe had moved in to nail up and arrange the tapestry, carpets and hangings. At the last minute, gold and silver plate had been brought from the Jewel House. There were cups and bowls to stand on the cupboard and crucifixes, candlesticks and images for the altar. The result was a cross between a chapel and a luxuriously padded cell.
By the third week of August all was ready, and on the 26th there took place the ceremony of the Queen's 'taking her chamber'. First, she went in procession to the Chapel Royal and heard mass. The company then returned to the Queen's great chamber, which was the outermost room of her suite. There, standing under the cloth of estate or canopy that was the mark of her rank, she took wine and spices with the assembled company. Her lord chamberlain now called on everyone present to pray that 'God would give her the good hour', that is, a safe delivery. Another procession formed and accompanied the Queen to the door of her bedchamber. At the threshold, the males of the court took their leave of her and only her women entered.
Her confinement had now begun. The Victorians used the word as a euphemism, but the etiquette of the English court confined a pregnant queen indeed in a sort of purdah. Thenceforward, until the birth and her 'churching' thirty days after, she dwelt in an exclusively female world, attended solely by women.
These ceremonies were ambivalent. They emphasized that childbirth was a purely female mystery. And they paid the tribute of the dominant male world to that mystery. But they did so on strict conditions: the queen, literally, had to deliver. They also underscored how inconceivable, how monstrous even, was the notion of an unmarried and childless queen. For a queen was a breeding machine, or, as the Spanish ambassador put it only a little more elegantly, 'the entire future turns on the accouchement of the queen'. Elizabeth's career was to mount a magnificent challenge to this received wisdom; her mother's, on the other hand, was to be an awful example of its truth.
But at least on this occasion, Anne Boleyn did deliver, going into labour less than a fortnight after having taken to her chamber. Immediately, work was started to prepare the very different stage set that was needed for the christening. This was as public as the confinement was private. It was to take place, not in the Chapel Royal, which lay at the east end of the river facade, but in the Church of the Observant Friars, which was situated at some distance from the main palace, to the northwest. Once again Elizabeth was following in her father's footsteps, as this was also where he had been christened. The chosen route, which led from the great hall to the west door of the church, was turned into an outdoor corridor. Holes were dug for posts on which were mounted frames and rails and the whole was hung with tapestry. In view of the distance, hundreds of pieces must have been used...