Wednesday, May 21, 2008

You Go Girl


The Life of Elizabeth I
by Alison Weir

Sorry, blog friends, that I have been a long time without posting. The kids are not sick this time (knock on wood), I just got immersed in this big bio of Queen Elizabeth I and it took awhile to get through it. This is a terrific book. As always, Alison Weir has done her homework, and this book has the detailed scholarship of all her others while at the same time bringing the characters and the culture of 16th century England to life. By the time I finished with it, I honestly felt like I knew Elizabeth, and could easily understand why she inspired such love from her people. She lived in a time when even civilized people could still be pretty barbaric, and her own record was not without blemish. However, for the standards and culture of her time, she was remarkably humane. She had a strong belief in the privilege of royal blood but nevertheless cared about all of her subjects and wore herself out trying to improve the lives of even the lowliest peasants.

I would not call Elizabeth an early feminist. She ruled England for 45 years because she was the best option for England at the time of her older sister Mary's death (she took on this responsibility in spite of the fact that her own father, the lovely King Henry VIII, had had her own mother Ann Boleyn executed in 1536 and had their daughter Elizabeth declared a bastard). In spite of her own keen intellect and strong will, Elizabeth made remarks throughout her reign that indicated that she thought of women as the weaker sex and that in most cases they should defer to men. I think, though, that this was her way of maintaining her own power without posing too much of a threat to her male advisers and council members.

Elizabeth I is still revered in England as the famed "Virgin Queen," for she never married. For the first 25 years of her reign, though, she dangled the possibility of marriage before any number of European princes and even a couple of her English subjects. She would spin out negotiations for years before finally cutting the guy off for good. This was her way of building alliances with other countries and keeping threats to England at bay. As I read this whole saga of Elizabeth's life, I thought often of Queen Esther in the Old Testament. Both of these women were willing to use their feminine charms and wiles if it would increase the safety of their people. They both were also shrewd and able to "play" men who fancied that they had the upper hand. Both had their moments of ruthlessness. Elizabeth doubtless had more power than Esther did, but both of them did what they had to at the time to survive and even flourish.

Reading this book really helped me appreciate the religious tensions of the time. If you know British history, you will remember that Elizabeth's father Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic church and established the Anglican church because the Pope would not grant him a divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. During Elizabeth's reign, many Catholics still hoped to have a Catholic monarch restored to the throne, and there were many plots and intrigues across Europe that tried to overthrow her and restore England to Catholicism. Elizabeth was a Protestant, but she established a policy of religious tolerance that remains in England to this
day. It was only when she felt threatened by Catholics that she outlawed the mass and banned other Catholic practices. In the wake of some of the plots against her, there were occasional executions of Catholics, but these instances always weighed heavily on Elizabeth's conscience. Even with the perilous nature of her power, Elizabeth authorized the execution of fewer Catholics in her 45 year reign than the number of Protestants executed during her Catholic half-sister Mary's five year reign. While I abhor executions and torture now, I did have to remember that it was a different time. Compared to other monarchs, she was quite merciful.

It is clear from this biography that Elizabeth I was vain and mercurial. She was also humble and devout. My sense was that she was very lonely in spite of the adulation and attendance given to a Queen. She was complicated, like most of us. She did the best she could. A fascinating portrait of an amazing historical figure. Alison Weir is an acclaimed historian, but in the past couple of years has started writing historical novels as well. Her novel Innocent Traitor, about Lady Jane Grey, is very good. She has recently come out with a new novel about Elizabeth's childhood called The Lady Elizabeth. I look forward to reading it sometime soon.

Reverent Reader

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