Sunday, May 25, 2014

Book Review
"Elizabeth the Queen"
by Alison Weir
"Elizabeth the Queen" is a lengthy biography meticulously written by Alison Weir. It is a detailed portrayal of a remarkable queen whose reign spanned nearly 45 years (1558 to 1603). The author succeeds in conveying the uniqueness of the monarch, the dangers -- foreign and domestic -- that she consistently confronted, the grandeur and extravagance of the royal court, the connivances of courtiers, the jealousies of competing counselors, Elizabeth’s unwavering affection for her subjects, and her people’s reciprocal devotion.

Elizabeth was remarkably strong-willed. She had to be. Men of noble birth believed that queens, being women, were inferior decision-makers. Her advisors thought initially that they knew better how the country should be administered and protected. Exceedingly knowledgeable about her foreign adversaries (and just about everything scientific, cultural, religious, and historical), Elizabeth rarely acquiesced. She would delay taking any action she had misgivings about. Much of this biography chronicles how her equivocation about marrying foreign princes postponed King Philip II of Spain’s attempt to dethrone her with a Catholic monarch. Two tenets guided Elizabeth’s decision-making: her trust that God directed her and her desire to benefit her people.

I was amazed at how forgiving Elizabeth was of certain individuals she favored. Although she could be very abusive verbally -- her displays of temper were legendary – her nature was not to be cruel. Virile courtiers took advantage of her. She loved masculine attention and flattery and reveled in the rituals of courtship. Two men stand out: Robert Dudley (eventually the Earl of Leicester) and Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex. Dudley had known Elizabeth before she became queen and was closer than any male to have been a lover. Well into the 1580s his ambition had been to marry her and become king. This motivation led him to take policy positions in the Privy Council more favorable to himself than to the welfare of the realm. Essex was much more dangerous. He was an egomaniac. Placed in government and, later, military positions of authority, obdurate and paranoid, he disobeyed repeatedly Elizabeth’s orders; yet, after her fits of rage, she succumbed always to his exhibitions of counterfeit remorse and devotion. Ultimately, she recognized the serious danger he posed to her sovereignty and stripped him of his powers. Determined to have his way, he staged a coup, failed, was convicted of treason, and was executed.

Elizabeth’s tolerance of Mary Stuart’s machinations to become Queen of England impressed me. For years the former Scottish queen had been complicit in Spain’s, the Pope’s, and Catholic subjects’ plans to elevate her. Elizabeth knew about Mary’s participation, but resisted repeatedly her councilors’ admonitions to have Mary tried, convicted, and executed. Elizabeth believed absolutely that legitimately ascended monarchs should not be interfered with. Mary had been deposed. Executing such a monarch, however treacherous thereafter she had become, violated her sensibilities. Only when her life was seriously threatened and King Philip’s anticipated invasion of England seemed imminent did Elizabeth authorize Mary’s trial and execution.

I was touched by Elizabeth’s emotional responses to her declining health during the last year of her reign. Most all of her friends and all of her old councilors had died. She felt alone amongst a younger generation of self-seekers that were weary and dismissive of her and eager for a male successor. She had struggled mightily to ward off the encroachments of old age and had failed. The onset of what was probably tonsillitis became either bronchitis or pneumonia. During her last hours she took comfort in the prayers delivered over her, she unable to speak, with each reference to God raising her eyes skyward.