The Queen's Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth's Courtby Anna Whitelock
From the private world of a beloved English queen, a story of intimacy, royalty, espionage, rumor, and subterfuge
Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the throne in 1558, restoring the Protestant faith to England. At the heart of the new queen's court lay her bedchamber, closely guarded by the favored women who helped her dress, looked after her jewels,/p>/b>… See more details below
From the private world of a beloved English queen, a story of intimacy, royalty, espionage, rumor, and subterfuge
Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the throne in 1558, restoring the Protestant faith to England. At the heart of the new queen's court lay her bedchamber, closely guarded by the favored women who helped her dress, looked after her jewels, and shared her bed.
Elizabeth's private life was of public concern. Her bedfellows were witnesses to the face and body beneath the makeup and raiment, as well as to rumored dalliances with such figures as Earl Robert Dudley. Their presence was for security as well as propriety, as the kingdom was haunted by fears of assassination plots and other Catholic stratagems. Such was the significance of the queen's body: it represented the very British state itself.
In The Queen's Bed, the historian Anna Whitelock offers a revealing look at the Elizabethan court and the politics of intimacy. She dramatically reconstructs, for the first time, the queen's quarters and the women who patrolled them. It is a story of sex, gossip, conspiracy, and intrigue brought to life amid the colors, textures, smells, and routines of the royal court.
The women who attended the queen held the truth about her health, chastity, and fertility. They were her friends, confidantes, and spiesnobody knew her better. And until now, historians have overlooked them. The Queen's Bed is a revelatory, insightful look into their daily livesthe untold story of the queen laid bare.
Whitelock, director of the public history program at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College, follows up on her 2010 biography of Mary I, Mary Tudor, with a history of the reign of Mary’s younger sister and successor to the English throne, Elizabeth I. Maintaining the health and safety of the queen’s physical body was essential to maintaining peace within the realm, Whitelock argues, in a monograph that explores both the merging and diverging of Elizabeth’s private life and public persona. It was a process that was orchestrated, not just by Elizabeth herself, but also by the elite women who attended her in her private chambers. Elizabeth’s body represented the state itself to her subjects; thus her private life always was of public concern, from the questions concerning her virginity that arose before she acceded to the throne and continued unabated even after her death, to the unrelenting pressure upon her for decades to marry and bear children. This intimate portrait of Elizabeth’s private life, as refracted through her relationships with the ladies of her bedchamber, will engage any readers wishing for a more balanced portrait of Elizabeth the flawed human being, as opposed to simply another rehashing of the mythical representations of her as Gloriana. (Feb.)
“Unquestionably [Elizabeth] is one of the most powerful women to have ever lived. So is it any wonder that this brilliant, vain, temperamental, wily woman still fascinates centuries later?. . . Elizabethan England was a ribald wondrous realm ruled by an extraordinary woman and Anna Whitelock brings it vividly to life in The Queen's Bed.” Robert Collison, Toronto Star
“As Anna Whitelock's The Queen's Bed proves, there is still a new and fascinating vantage from which to consider Elizabeth I. . .” Kathryn Harrison, New York Times Book Review
“[The Queen's Bed] is filled with fascinating details of life at her court, with eyewitness accounts from diaries, letters and pamphlets. . . a trove of interesting facts.” Moira Hodgson, Wall Street Journal
“Densely erudite, intriguing take on Queen Elizabeth I's very public private life. . .Especially striking is the author's chronicle of Elizabeth's relationships over the course of her long reign; she was never alone, and she had several (probably consummated) love affairs or infatuations, most notably with her beloved Lord Robert Dudley. . . Whitelock's deep reading into the primary sources of this period proves wonderfully satisfying. This chockablock, scholarly portrait invites further interest in this endlessly alluring queen.” Kirkus Reviews
“This intimate portrait of Elizabeth's private life, as refracted through her relationships with the ladies of her bedchamber, will engage any readers wishing for a more balanced portrait of Elizabeth the flawed human being, as opposed to simply another rehashing of the mythical representations of her as Gloriana.” Publishers Weekly
“Fascinating glimpses of Elizabeth I's life behind closed doors. . . [The Queen's Bed] is enriched by Anna Whitelock's eye for the curious and engaging detail.” TLS
“Anna Whitelock's skillful and detailed history will bring you closer than seems possible to this glittering, infuriating, fascinating woman.” Hilary Mantel
“Whitelock's fearless approach to Elizabeth is not unlike that of Essex. She, too, has burst into the bedroom and shown us the Queen in her most private state. This is an intimate history of the court and a brilliant history of intimacy.” Frances Wilson, The Mail on Sunday
“Whitelock makes sparkling use of the eye-witness testimonies of courtiers, who recorded their impressions of the Queen in letters as gossipy and vivid as any tweet or Facebook post . . . The charm of Anna Whitelock's portrait of the Queen and her times is that it shows the monarch and the woman, in all her power and pathos, through the eyes of the people who knew her best.” Jane Shilling, Daily Mail
“A great story, told with wit and verve.” John Gallagher, The Telegraph
“Engrossing and admirably researched . . . Taking us behind the closed doors of Elizabeth's bedchamber, Whitelock builds up a remarkably intimate portrait . . . [Her] excellent life of Queen Mary was published in 2009. With this dazzling portrait of Mary's successor, she takes her place among the foremost--and most enthrallingly readable--historians of the Tudors.” Miranda Seymour , The Sunday Times (London)
This is an intimate history of the court and a brilliant history of intimacy.
Engrossing and admirably researched . . . With this dazzling portrait of Mary's successor, she takes her place among the foremost--and most enthrallingly readable--historians of the Tudors.
The Queen's Bed is filled with fascinating details of life at her court, with eyewitness accounts from diaries, letters, and pamphlets . . . A trove of interesting facts.
Anna Whitelock's skillful and detailed history will bring you closer than seems possible to this glittering, infuriating, fascinating woman.
As Anna Whitelock's The Queen's Bed proves, there is still a new and fascinating vantage from which to consider Elizabeth I.
Whitelock makes sparkling use of the eye-witness testimonies of courtiers, who recorded their impressions of the Queen in letters as gossipy and vivid as any tweet or Facebook post . . . The charm of Anna Whitelock's portrait of the Queen and her times is that it shows the monarch and the woman, in all her power and pathos, through the eyes of the people who knew her best.
A great story, told with wit and verve.
Whitelock (public history, Royal Holloway, Univ. of London; Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen) follows her previous work on Mary I with a life of Elizabeth I in which she attempts to give the standard biographical details a fresh look by way of focusing on the "intimate" side of the queen's life: the world of her private chambers, her quasi-romantic relationships with her male favorites, and her friendships with and reliance on her female attendants. The last of these subjects is the most intriguing, but while one gets an anecdotal sense of the general court life of Elizabeth's ladies, they never quite emerge as full individuals. Somewhat stronger is Whitelock's exploration of the concept of the metaphorical link between Elizabeth's physical body and the political body of her country—while this is not a new idea, she presents a thorough look at the ways in which Elizabeth's beauty, health, and chastity (and rumors about each) were used by the queen, her supporters, and her enemies as signs of the state of the realm overall. VERDICT A serviceable biography, not groundbreaking but decidedly readable and with an interesting viewpoint. Those particularly interested in the women in Elizabeth's court might do well to read this in conjunction with Tracy Borman's Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen.—Kathleen McCallister, Univ. of South Carolina Libs., Columbia
Densely erudite, intriguing take on Queen Elizabeth I's very public private life. Although biographies of Elizabeth and her court are legion, this intimate portrait by Tudor scholar Whitelock (Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen, 2011) delves into the nitty-gritty of the archives, diaries and records of people around the queen who physically knew her person. Indeed, the queen herself acknowledged upon accession to the throne in 1558 at age 25 that she had "two bodies": the natural body of a woman, flawed and corruptible, as well as the "body politic to govern," inviolable and enduring. Moreover, she was regarded as both feminine and masculine, as she famously alluded to in her Tilbury speech of 1588: "Although I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too." Remaining unmarried plunged the queen's body "at the centre of a drama that encompassed the entirety of Europe." The metaphors in poetry or satire of the time, referring to the queen in chaste or erotic terms, reveal the charged, sexual anxiety around her accession and succession. Especially striking is the author's chronicle of Elizabeth's relationships over the course of her long reign; she was never alone, and she had several (probably consummated) love affairs or infatuations, most notably with her beloved Lord Robert Dudley. Her ladies-in-waiting certainly knew the skinny on Elizabeth, but they were fiercely loyal even after her death, when they refused to allow her body to be examined or disemboweled, thereby allowing her to remain regina intacta. Whitelock's deep reading into the primary sources of this period proves wonderfully satisfying. This chockablock, scholarly portrait invites further interest in this endlessly alluring queen.
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Read an Excerpt
The Queen’s Two Bodies
At the heart of the court lay the Queen’s bed. Here the Queen might finally rest and retire from the relentless pressures of the day. Yet it was more than simply a place of slumber. The Queen’s bed was the stage upon which, each night, the Queen would lie. Hers was no ordinary bed; it was the state bed, and at night as by day the Queen was surrounded by all the trappings of royal majesty.
As Queen, Elizabeth would have a number of beds, sumptuously furnished in bright colours and luxurious fabrics, all ostentatiously decorated and individually designed, each fit for a queen. At Richmond Palace, Elizabeth might sleep in an elaborate boat-shaped bed with curtains of ‘sea water green’ and quilted with light-brown tinsel. At Whitehall her bed was made from an intricate blend of different-coloured woods and hung with Indian-painted silk. Her best bed, which was taken with her when the court moved from place to place, had a carved wooden frame which was elaborately painted and gilded, a valance of silver and velvet, tapestry curtains trimmed with precious buttons and gold and silver lace, and a crimson satin headboard topped with ostrich feathers.
In her Bedchamber, Elizabeth could de-robe, take off her make-up and withdraw from the hustle-bustle of the court. Here she was waited upon by her ladies who had the most intimate access to the Queen, attending on her as she dressed, ate, bathed, toileted and slept. Elizabeth was never alone and in or adjacent to her bed she also had a sleeping companion – a trusted bedfellow – with whom she might gossip, share dreams and nightmares, and seek counsel. We know Elizabeth was both an insomniac and scared of the dark. All her worries were magnified in the darkness of her Bedchamber at night. It was here that she might have second thoughts about decisions made in the light of day, be haunted by fears of her enemies and plagued by vivid nightmares. Sharing a bed with a sleeping companion of the same sex was a common practice at the time, providing warmth, comfort and security; but being the Queen of England’s bedfellow was a position of the greatest trust, bringing close and intimate access to Elizabeth.1
The Queen’s Bedchamber was at once a private and public space. The Queen’s body was more than its fleshly parts; her body natural represented the body politic, the very state itself. The health and sanctity of Elizabeth’s body determined the strength and stability of the realm. Illness, sexual immorality and infertility were political concerns and it was her Ladies of the Bedchamber who were the guardians of the truth as to the Queen’s and thus the nation’s well-being.
An unmarried queen heightened fears. Women were expected to marry and Elizabeth’s decision to remain unwed ran counter to society’s expectations. It was generally believed that women were inferior to men and so subject to them by divine law. Women who ignored religious precepts and did not submit to male authority were potentially a source of disorder and sexual licence. Medical discourse regarded women’s bodies as being in a constant state of flux and so possessing dangerously unstable qualities.2 Such medical axioms were influenced by theology, with the belief that Eve’s moral and intellectual weakness had been the primary cause of the Fall of Man and succeeding generations of women were similarly flawed.
Whilst for her male predecessors sexual potency might be a sign of political power, the corruption or weakness of Elizabeth’s body would undermine the body politic. Women were to preserve their honour not only through chastity, but also by maintaining a reputation for chaste behaviour. For a woman to be thought unchaste, even falsely, would jeopardise her social standing. Moreover, Elizabeth was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, ‘the King’s whore’, and so the living symbol of the break with Rome.3 For Philip II of Spain, the Guise family in France, and the Pope, Elizabeth was illegitimate by birth and by religion. For them Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was the rightful queen.4 Mary was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, who had married James V of Scotland and was daughter of Mary of Guise. The Guise was one of the most powerful, ambitious and fervently Catholic families in France. In April 1558, just six months before Elizabeth’s accession, this Franco-Scottish alliance was cemented by the marriage of sixteen-year-old Mary Stuart and François of Valois, the Dauphin of France. From the day Elizabeth became Queen, Mary Stuart claimed the English throne as her own.5 The stakes could not have been higher; the Queen’s body was at the centre of a drama that encompassed the entirety of Europe. In the war of faith which divided Europe, Elizabeth’s body, with her bed as its stage, was the focal point of the conflict.6 Throughout her reign rumours circulated about her sexual exploits and illegitimate children. Her Catholic opponents challenged her virtue and accused her of a ‘filthy lust’ that ‘defiled her body and the country’.7 The reason Elizabeth was not married, they claimed, was because of her sexual appetites; she could not confine herself to one man. Some alleged that she had a bastard daughter; others that she had a son, and others that she was physically incapable of having children. By questioning the health, chastity and fertility of the Queen’s natural body, opponents in England and across the continent sought to challenge the Protestant state. For half a century the courts of Europe buzzed with gossip about Elizabeth’s behaviour. The King of France would jest that one of the great questions of the age was, ‘whether Queen Elizabeth was a maid or no’.8
Over the five decades of her rule, Elizabeth changed from being a young vibrant queen with a pale pretty face, golden hair and slender physique, to a wrinkled old woman with rotten teeth, garishly slathered in jewels and cosmetics to distract from her pitted complexion, and wearing a reddish wig to cover her balding head. As she passed through her twenties and thirties, unmarried and without an heir, and on to middle age and infirmity, the country’s fears intensified. With no settled succession it became increasingly important for Elizabeth to try to disguise the signs of ageing. The physical reality of the Queen’s decaying natural body needed to be reconciled with the enduring and unchanging body politic; only in the Bedchamber was Elizabeth’s natural body and the truth laid bare.
Access to the Queen’s body was carefully controlled, as were representations of it in portraits. The Queen’s image was fashioned to retain its youthfulness, which necessarily obscured the reality of her physical decline. In paintings she needed to appear as she did outside her Bedchamber, enrobed, bejewelled, bewigged and painted; creating this complex confection as she aged was the daily task of the women of her Bedchamber. Such was Elizabeth’s desire to preserve the fiction of her youth that she sponsored the search for the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, the elixir of life which would ensure eternal health and immortality.
Beyond the rumours and the sexual slander, the Queen’s body and Bedchamber were also the focus of assassination attempts, as disaffected religious zealots plotted to kill Elizabeth. The preservation of the Protestant state depended upon the life of the Queen, and the Bedchamber was the last line of defence for would-be assassins looking to subvert the regime. One plan aimed to plant gunpowder in her Bedchamber and blow up the Queen as she slept; others sought to poison her as she rode, hunted or dined. Not only did Elizabeth’s bedfellows, the women who attended on the Queen when she was in bed, help protect her reputation for chastity; they also protected the body of the Queen from attempts to assassinate her; they would check each dish before it was served, test any perfume that had been given to her Majesty and would make nightly searches of the Bedchamber.9 Their presence was for both propriety and security. While the loyalty of her ladies was assured, the families of some of these women sought to use their privileged access to the Queen to serve their own traitorous or licentious ends.
The Queen’s body was the very heart of the realm and so its care and access to it was politically important. By sleeping with Elizabeth and dressing her, the Ladies of her Bedchamber could observe any bodily changes in the Queen, attend to her if unwell, share her night-time fears, her good humour and her confidences and defend her against hostile rumours. Foreign ambassadors managed to bribe the women on occasions for information about the Queen’s life, and despatches reported intimate details, such as Elizabeth’s light and irregular periods, and supposed secret sexual liaisons with individuals such as Robert Dudley, Sir Christopher Hatton and the Duke of Anjou, the alleged ‘bedfellows’ who ‘aspired to the honour of her bed’.10
Copyright © 2013 by Anna Whitelock
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