A Virgin roadshow

Star of pageant and progress, stage and screen, Queen Elizabeth I still dazzles historians and readers. Diarmaid MacCulloch sizes up her latest portraits
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Anyone wanting to teach history still makes a smart career move by going for the Tudors. The English have a seemingly unquenchable interest in this highly strung, brilliantly talented set of Welsh adventurers who acquired a soupcon of Plantagenet royal blood, took over their colonial masters and remoulded themselves as the most English of monarchs. It is as if Lloyd George had acquired a handbag and pearls, taken the name Margaret Thatcher and then left another two generations of Thatchers to stalk the corridors of Chequers.

Of all the Tudors, the last and the most Thatcher-like has always had the best press. Apart from a few noises off from disgruntled papists and the entire Irish nation, Elizabeth I has remained Gloriana, Good Queen Bess, and assorted beauties in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. Even the Roundheads, who killed Charles I and made England a republic, adored her memory. Today, unlike her moody father with his string of failed marriages, she can appeal to Thatcher-lovers and feminists alike. Film producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner are about to follow up Four Weddings ... with her life story.

So people go on writing her biography, though we need a new life of Elizabeth just about as much as Elizabeth needed Mary Queen of Scots. Alison Weir has not done a bad job with Elizabeth the Queen (Cape, pounds 18.99). This is a well-written, sensible book, which could have been produced any time in the past century. Everything is there that the well-disposed reader expects: some murky early frolickings with Lord Thomas Seymour, bad times under Bloody Mary, plenty of dallyings with Robert Dudley, jolly progresses with Merrie England on show, a terrific performance during the Spanish Armada and a downbeat coda when Elizabeth became the original Tired Old Queen.

There are some gloomy people called Puritans who turn up from time to time and try to spoil the party by making the Church of England serious, but Elizabeth always sees them off. Weir's Elizabeth still rides off to Tilbury in 1588 and tells her Armada defence force that she may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, etc, etc, even though it is quite likely that these famous words were invented some years after James I had laid her to rest in Westminster Abbey.

For Weir, Elizabeth is still very much the Virgin Queen who made a speech to Parliament at the beginning of her reign in which she proclaimed: "I am already bound unto a husband, which is the kingdom of England." The trouble is that, like the Tilbury speech, these touching words may have been made up after her death, and, in any case, this sort of thing was what everyone expected an unmarrried female monarch to say - up to the time when she found her man. In reality, Elizabeth spent quite a lot of time in the first half of her reign trying to get married. Her problem was getting a large enough collection of her male councillors to agree on the right husband.

In the late 1570s, with middle age rapidly limiting her options, she got very serious about a French Duke, Francis of Anjou, but his fatal drawback (apart from being French, pockmarked and possibly syphilitic) was that he was a Roman Catholic. A powerful group among the nation's leaders could not accept all the religious complications Anjou would bring to Protestant England, so they began perhaps the first mass publicity campaign in English history in order to stop the wedding. During Elizabeth's 1578 progress, they turned Norwich's welcoming pageants into a roadshow on the glories of virginity.

Then one of the gloomy Puritans, John Stubbs, wrote a vicious anti-French and anti-Catholic pamphlet, The Discovery of a Gaping Gulf, which proved a bestseller (possibly because Elizabethans recognised a reference to the vagina when they saw one). Stubbs also said that the Queen was too old for the bridegroom. Elizabeth was so furious that he and his publisher had their right hands cut off, but this was a public-relations disaster for her. The punters liked Stubbs, particularly when he shouted "God save the Queen" before fainting with pain. As a result, the marriage was off.

What is so impressive about Elizabeth - what proves her real political genius - was that she turned this defeat to her advantage. If she could not get married, she might as well become the Virgin Queen and get the credit for it. The legend of Gloriana was born, and Weir retells it with a certain panache, in the way Elizabeth wanted it to be heard.

Dissing Elizabeth: negative representations of Gloriana, edited by Julia M Walker (Duke University Press, pounds 16.95), is a very different type of book: a collection of learned essays with the praiseworthy aim of getting past the legend. You can always tell that street-slang has run its day when academics start using it. Gloriana would not have known what "dissing" was, but American professors do.

The contributors' brief is to study the theme of abuse or criticism of Elizabeth - perhaps not so novel an idea as the editor suggests. You don't need a gaggle of dons to tell you that royal PR can be a roller-coaster business. Ask the second Elizabeth, or her organic and carbuncle-hating son and heir.

Some of the essays are very good: Susan Doran unlocks the story of Elizabeth's failed efforts to get married and her adroit late conversion to virginity. Peter McCullough gives a fascinating analysis of a single sermon, to remind us of an age in which sermons mattered. This one needed to persuade a frenziedly guilty Elizabeth that she had done the right thing by executing Mary Queen of Scots after dithering for 20 years. The preacher, Richard Fletcher, who was eyeballing the Queen from the pulpit across the Chapel Royal while he spoke, was the only man at Court who could get away with this necessary piece of political psychotherapy, and he eventually got the bishopric of London out of it. After such gems of historical analysis, one can forgive the inclusion of an EngLit essay that takes one passage and one grotesque drawing, and fails to prove that either of them has anything to do with criticising Elizabeth.

It is sobering to read of the way that the Irish dealt with Elizabeth, in revenge for rendering their land steadily more ravaged and their lives more miserable. Since she was not around to insult in person, the people of Connaught made a statue of her, towed it around on a cart for a while and eventually got so cross with it that they hacked it to pieces in a church.

This is not an isolated incident. A memorable exhibit in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a portrait of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, rescued from a government department in Jakarta when the Dutch fled their East Indies empire after 1945. The majestic lady is several degrees less gracious as a result of being slashed from top to bottom by Indonesian freedom fighters. It's a risky business, being an icon for the nation.

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