Bloomsbury £20

Review: Elizabeth's Bedfellows, By Anna Whitelock

The men who tarried with a Virgin Queen

Sex sells. The publishers must have thought this when offered Elizabeth's Bedfellows: an Intimate History of the Queen's Court. Whitelock's book proposes to look at Elizabeth I's reign through the bedchamber, her ornate rooms in her palaces, guarded by 30 women. Their duties – tending to a sick Elizabeth, emptying the chamber pot and helping her dress – belied their true power. They were the intermediaries who had to be wooed for influence, and the holders of the secrets.

The many men who wanted to get close to Elizabeth had to penetrate this circle to reach her. Whitelock's book should be full of sexual intrigue, thwarted desire, and jealousies. But the historian never quite throws off her academic inhibitions.

One of the great unresolved romances of our history concerns Robert Dudley, tall and dashing, who met Elizabeth when both were imprisoned in the Tower by her predecessor Mary I, and carried on their deep friendship after their release. On hearing of the accession of Elizabeth after Mary's death, Dudley rode to her at Hatfield House on a snow-white horse. Heart-stopping stuff. But love was not straightforward. Dudley was already married, and even when his wife died suddenly, Elizabeth never took him for herself. Indeed she even offered him to Mary, Queen of Scots as a husband, in a manipulative political exchange which Mary declined.

Dudley and Elizabeth stalked around each other for decades, jealous of each other's romantic links, but parted only upon his death, over which she was inconsolable. This affair, even if never consummated, should provide dramatic tension for much of the book. But the pulse never races in the detail-laden prose.

The question of who would marry Elizabeth was a serious one. England was still riven by her father Henry VIII's divorce from the Catholic Church, and with counterclaims for the throne from all corners, what was required from Elizabeth was a clear line of succession.

There were the official suitors, the kings of Spain and Sweden, but the fun was with the flirtations – with the Scottish ambassador; the manservant of the Duke of Anjou, who had been sent to win her for his boss; and the young Robert Deveraux, the Earl of Essex. Three decades her junior, he not only replaced Robert Dudley as Master of the Horse, but also master of her attentions, until he entered the ageing queen's bedchamber and saw the queen unadorned and wigless. That was the end of him.

One cannot fault Whitelock for her meticulous research, but there is little mention of the Elizabethan culture of love, played in the miniatures of her lovers, in the sonneteers, and the depictions of the queen in Shakespeare – think Titania in A Midsummer's Night Dream. Elizabeth's romantic adventures extended far beyond the bedchamber, into the popular pysche, and the inclusion of that could have lent some passion to an otherwise fairly dry history.

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