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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.