You do have to wonder if there is any need for another book about Elizabeth I, especially one like this which provides little in the way of new sources.
Barely any monarch has been so written about and, in recent decades, depicted so variedly on film and television.
It therefore comes as something of a shock to learn in Lisa Hilton’s work how different things were in Elizabeth’s lifetime. Then the Queen kept such control over her “brand” that before her death no painting, for instance, was permitted of her looking old. Instead metaphor and imagery – the language of “courtly love” as Hilton puts it – was often deployed. This could clearly get rather tiresome in its heavy-handedness, not least for Elizabeth herself.
One nice story told here is of a production put on by Robert Dudley, still pressing for marriage even after such a match became diplomatically impossible when the convenient death of his wife in a stairway left tongues wagging across Europe. In it, Jupiter exhorted the importance of marriage as Juno and Diana sought to celebrate chastity, prompting a wearied sigh from the message’s intended subject.
Such details make this biography. We learn that it was cock-fighting and bear-baiting that really fired the Queen’s passions, how she kept a portrait of Philip II in her bedroom, and how that famous white complexion was the result of the slapping on of a foundation made from a “foaming mixture of egg white, borax, alum, and poppy seed.”
Hilton is perhaps at her best when dealing with her subject’s gender. She is convincing in depicting how the mentality of the age – a time long before the biological detail of reproduction was determined during the Enlightenment – had a far more fluid interpretation of masculinity and femininity than we can now conceive. Elizabeth’s subjects really could view her, despite her obvious womanhood, as their “prince”.
Less convincing is her insistence on how the Renaissance shaped the reign. Elizabeth did take styles in her imagery, and the coupling of learning with authority from the mores of the time. But hers was in many ways a backward looking reign, that prided conservatism above all, not least in her fixed position on religion, and over which the greatest shadow was cast by her father, Henry VIII. Her official motto was the unambiguous “I Never Change”.
Hilton falls on the side of she probably didn’t, rather than she possibly did, in the “Virgin Queen” debate. Yet there is one particularly arresting moment when we find Elizabeth, still a teenager, after Henry’s death, living as her stepmother’s ward and having her head turned by Katherine Parr’s new husband.
So flirty did this get that she used to let him “spank her on the buttocks” and even let him tear her gown “into a hundred pieces”, on that occasion as his wife excitedly looked on. It inevitably ended badly – him executed and Katherine disgraced – but it is such surprises that make Hilton’s book a satisfying page-turner, and show why our fascination with this age cannot help but continue to endure.
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