After Elizabeth, by Leanda de Lisle

The coup that brought a Scot to power
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Succession can be a tricky, backstabbing business, as Tony Blair is finding to his irritation. Once people know you're going, the plotting and whispering begins and can, despite your best efforts, overshadow everything. If the Prime Minister wants a bedtime book to put troubles with his next-door neighbour into perspective, he could do not better than Leanda de Lisle's account of the intrigue that surrounded the succession to the childless Elizabeth I.

History has tended to present the arrival from Scotland in 1603 of James I, son of Elizabeth's cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, as somehow inevitable and uneventful. But de Lisle has dug behind this official picture and rediscovered the treachery, double-dealing and drama of the short but turbulent period when different factions at the court of the ageing Elizabeth switched between rival candidates for the throne in order to further their own agendas.

Despite frequent appeals from courtiers and parliament, Elizabeth refused either to marry or to name her successor. She was, she said, espoused to her nation, and it was for the Privy Council to decide on who came next. Many refused to accept this as the final word and, as their plotting intensified, began to dream of cutting short the uncertainty by organising an invasion headed by their favoured replacement.

Besides James - whose mother had, after all, been beheaded as a traitor by Elizabeth and who was excluded from the succession by the will of Henry VIII - there were many alternatives. One was the slightly demented Lady Arbella Stuart, a descendant of Henry VIII's elder sister, Margaret. Her tragic life appeared to alternate between being exhibited in court and then locked away in Hardwick Hall. One idea was to marry Arbella to Edward, Lord Beauchamp, another candidate: the dull nephew of Lady Jane Grey. Catholics on the continent, and those domestic recusant families who still hoped for reconciliation between the English throne and Rome, had another option in the Infanta Isabel, favourite daughter by a subsequent marriage of Mary Tudor's husband, Philip II of Spain.

Other names, with even more tenuous claims, flitted in and out of the frame. The sheer complexity of the various relationships could easily alienate all but the most attentive reader, but de Lisle - assisted by a series of splendid family trees - manages skillfully to keep you hooked.

This being micro-history, currently a fashionable sub-genre, there is inevitably detail by the royal barge-load. De Lisle cleverly arranges it so as to maintain a central narrative thrust that carries you right through to James's first, uneasy months at the English court as king of two countries. This is a dense, dark story but one where the modern parallels are but one element that keeps you turning the pages.

Peter Stanford's 'Heaven: a traveller's guide' is published by HarperCollins

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