Sunday, February 12, 2012


A review of J.E. Neale’s Queen Elizabeth I (1934, original) (2001, my copy)

(Rating 5 of 5)

When this book was first published in 1934 it was titled simply, Queen Elizabeth since there were no other Queens regnant named Elizabeth to distinguish her from. Nor were their signs of any to come. The future Queen Elizabeth II was then just the daughter of the Duke of York, who was the second son of the reigning King George V. When the new Elizabeth ascended in 1952 they had to republish this book under a new title, which made Neale really happy because now he could sell more books! Known as the book on Queen Elizabeth I, it does live up to its reputation.

A princess at birth and bastard by the time she could walk. Elizabeth’s early years were like riding in a modern roller-costar. An interesting irony of her life was her very existence was the result of her father’s desperate attempts at creating a male heir to inherit his throne. And that obsession led to England’s first two woman rulers, the second would be the one of the greatest rulers in all of history and arguably history’s greatest female ruler. From a historical perspective it made perfect sense for King Henry VIII to be so concerned with having a son. No King of England had ever successfully passed his throne to a daughter. The last who tried, Henry I, failed and England went into civil war. King Henry VII had ended the most recent civil war—the Wars of the Roses—and his son was not going to try to set stage for a new one. However, Henry VIII did give England something new to fight over, religion, and his second daughter would strike a victory to put Protestantism in place as England’s religion and Catholicism was sent on the defensive.

(Queen Elizabeth I)

It did not look like she would be the champion in the early days. Her younger brother, King Edward VI, showed no signs that he would not live as long as their father. She simply minded her studies and probably expected to married off in some way to support her brother’s regime.

“Events revealed another Elizabeth than the girl poring over Saint Cyprian, Sophocles, and Cicero. Her father died in January, 1547, when she was thirteen and a half years old. She was spared the harrowing sight of a death-bed, and as she precociously indicated in her letters to her brother, she was able to take her loss with Christian and philosophic fortitude. The future seemed bright. She shared the religious and intellectual outlook of the new king. Protestantism was in the saddle and the uncertainties of the old reign at an end. It might mean, it did mean ill for her sister Mary, but that was calculated to throw into even greater relief the perfect harmony between Elizabeth and Edward.” (p.17)

Destiny would decide on another role for her. Edward’s death brought their sister Mary to the throne of England. Mary I would try to restore the Catholic faith to England and Elizabeth would have to be at her most cunning to survive her sister’s reign as the Queen of England. But Mary’s reign was shorter than their brother’s and soon Elizabeth would begin one of the most glorious reigns ever. Key to the new Queen’s success was her intelligence, cunning and her ability to pick the right people to aid her in her rule.

(Queen Mary I, known as 'Bloody Mary')
“There was no greater tribute to the tolerance, sagacity, and masterful nature of Elizabeth than her choice of such ministers as Walsingham. She chose them for their ability, their honesty, and their unshakable loyalty. Even in their intensity they were the expression of the England she was nurturing, and if like thoroughbreds they were hard to ride she was the perfect horsewoman. Like them she covet glory, but thought it true glory to maintain the good yeoman, living in the temperate zone betwixt greatness and want, who wore russet clothes but made golden pocket. With a lively sense of the limitations of English resources, she preferred to trim the countries sails to the winds when and how they blew, rather than set them at once for a storm that might not come.” (p.234)

One area where Queen Elizabeth was extremely successful was foreign policy. She never developed a rivalry with any of the kings of France while she was Queen, like her father did with King Francis I. This probably had something to do with the fact that there were five men during her reign that were the King of France (Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX, Henry III, and Henry IV) therefore there was no time for any rivalry to develop.

(Queen Elizabeth I)

Like many English monarchs before her she had to deal with Scotland. Queen Elizabeth was the last Queen of England who would have to deal with a Scottish Monarch, for after her reign the crowns would unite in the person of her rival’s son. The main rival of her life was the Queen of Scots and her own heir presumptive, Mary Stuart. This Queen Mary would be Catholicism’s champion in the same way Elizabeth was Protestantism’s. Mary would become Elizabeth’s prisoner and Elizabeth would sign her death warrant to prevent a conspiracy from assassinating herself and bringing her rival to her throne. Elizabeth’s decision in some ways echoes Henry II’s decision to have Thomas Becket killed. It was probably the right decision, but both lived to regret it.

(Mary, Queen of Scots, executed by order of Elizabeth)

“On November 16th, Elizabeth sent to warn her of the sentence against her, of the Parliament’s petition, and the possibility of death. She did not flinch. No repentance, no submission, no acknowledgement of her fault, no craving for pardon could be drawn from her. She sat down to make her appeal to the world and posterity in eloquent and impassioned letters. She was playing her last act, still with a great heart, still without scruple. Her declarations to the Pope, though written in the solemn, confessional mood of death, are, some of them, sorry lies. And yet there was a sound instinct in the presentation of herself as a martyr for the Catholic faith. The Catholic struggle in England had been personified in her. She wished to die in that role. When Paulet down her cloth of state, she now being a woman dead to the law and in capable of all dignities, she set in its place pictures of Christ’s passion and a Cross.”(p.286-7)

Mary’s execution would mean England would have two consecutive monarchs whose mother had been executed for treason. Although James had no emotional attachment to his mother—she may have killed his father, parent slaying parent is also something Elizabeth could relate to—he tried to have her death prevented however his objections had limits.

“It was only a few months since James had finally concluded a league with Elizabeth, and his vigorous intercession for his mother’s life seemed at first to invaluable alliance. But Master James was still first and foremost interested in Master James.” (p.287)

(The defeat of the Spanish Armada)

Elizabeth’s most famous rival was her former brother-in-law, King Philip II of Spain. Although the two saw eye to eye on a lot of things in their early days, Elizabeth’s support of the Protestant rebellion in the Netherlands and Admiral Sir Francis Drake’s pirating ways set Philip against her. Philip would send his famous Spanish Armada after her kingdom to reclaim it for the Catholic faith. The battle was one the most important in history.

“Much had been at stake in the great fight; nothing less than the future of Protestantism. And throughout Christendom, Catholic and Protestant had been praying, hoping, fearing for champions of their faith.” (p.310)

Elizabeth’s reputation was probably equal to both her father’s and her famous ancestor King Edward III. Even those who hated her had to admit that she was very impressive.

“Hated by her enemies, feared or loved by her subjects, at times the utter despair of her councilors—she might be all these, but no one could deny her success. ‘She is certainly a great Queen,’ said the new Pope, Sixtus V, ‘and were she only a Catholic she would be our dearly beloved. Just look how well she governs! 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.”(p.294)

Queen Elizabeth I is great book about a great individual who I personally believe was the most important woman who ever walked the Earth.

{Video is a preview for the 2006 movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age}

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