Free Life 16, April 1992, Review of Book about Elizabeth I, by Sean Gabb

From Free Life, Issue 16, April 1992
ISSN: 0260 5112

Anne Somerset, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1991, 636 pp., £20.00
(ISBN 0-297-81178-9)

Near the start of her reign, Elizabeth I told Parliament how she longed to have her fame spread abroad in her lifetime, “and after occasion memorial forever”. This is, of course, the pious wish of even the cheapest politician. Far more often than not, that is all it remains. The judgment of history is like a threshing floor, producing much chaff but little grain. Who will blame Elizabeth’s audience had they received her words with a secret smile?

England had known few more unlikely monarchs. Her parents had married under circumstances that made her a bastard in Catholic eyes. Her father himself had then bastardised her by Act of Parliament; and her subsequent debastardising had been reversed by her elder sister. Her childhood had been passed in obscurity, her early adulthood in continual fear of execution. She had only succeeded to the throne because her brother and sister had both died without issue. Her right was disputed by the Queen of Scotland, with French support. Her most powerful allies were Philip of Spain, who detested her as a heretic, but needed an England independent of France; and her own Protestant subjects. These chafed at her moderation, but accepted her as the best monarch available. All expected that she would consolidate her crown by marrying, and then resign both actual power and any resulting fame to her husband.

Yet they were all wrong. Even now, almost four centuries after her death, and in an age when the teaching of our history is formally discouraged, her name and the memory of English greatness are indissolubly linked in the public mind. The details may be forgotten. Few know how or with what success she strove during 45 years to keep this country free of the civil and religious struggles that were tearing Europe apart. But everyone knows something of what Drake did to the Spaniards; and the memory lingers – perhaps with embarrassment among our federalists – of how the Queen addressed her troops at Tilbury:

My loving people, We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourself to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself, that under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and goodwill of all my subjects, and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God, and for my Kingdom, and for my people, my honour, and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any Prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which, rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

As for her own lifetime, the Pope himself testified to her fame: “She is only a woman, only mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all”. To Francis Bacon, she was “one of the most judicious princes in discerning of spirits that ever governed”. To the fullest possible degree, her wish was granted.

Given such a thrilling subject, it would be hard to write a dull book. It is no great flattery, then, to say that Anne Somerset has avoided dullness. But she has done considerably more: while retaining all the usual scholarly apparatus, she has written a very good. Its popularity seems assured. It will appeal both to the student and to the much larger reading public whose knowledge of the period comes normally from historical novels.

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She tells all that can reasonably be asked about Elizabeth, both good and bad. We read about the great public triumphs of her reign, but also about the caution and plain vacillation that preceded almost everything she did. Certainly, she presided over the defeat of the Spanish Armada. But she only came late to realising that the country would have to fight; and her appointing Leicester to command in the Netherlands was a very costly mistake. Again, by comparison with those of her father and sister, her rule was remarkably humane. She never persecuted for the sake of dragooning men into Heaven. But she did often authorise the use of torture and other shameful or illegal acts. Yet again, she made the institution of Monarchy more visible and popular than it had been in centuries. But her ramshackle finance and constitutional ambiguities did much to bring on the great crisis of the next two reigns. Miss Somerset gives us Elizabeth as a whole.

I find only one fault in the book really worth noting. This concerns James VI of Scotland and I of England. We read that “[a]ll his life he craved the affection of glamorous members of his own sex”. This is an understatement. He craved, and usually got, rather more. There was no need to give us all the salacious details. But this strange descent from historian to governess creates ambiguity elsewhere in the text. We read earlier, for example, that Bishop Gardiner was “extremely fond” of young Edward Courtenay. Thinking back from what is said about James, we are led to infer a kind of relationship that did not in this case exist. On the other hand, it is welcome to see James portrayed as the effective politician that he often was. He was not always a pathetic old despot, one moment whining against tobacco, throwing public money at his lovers the next.

I could mention Miss Somerset’s prose. While enviably clear, this is defaced by the occasional split infinitive and by endless fused participles. But this, I accept, is not so much criticism as the cry of the pedant that lurks in every reviewer.

Marian Halcombe

© 1992 – 2018, seangabb.

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