Elizabeth I of England may be one of history’s most written about monarchs, perhaps for the reason that we know so much about her, yet the true woman remains elusive. A great dissembler and brilliant judge of character, Elizabeth was able to portray herself as she wished, hiding the mortal weaknesses she must have possessed. This fascination led me to read yet another book about her, this, by Margaret George, a competent yet somewhat boring account of Elizabeth during her middle years where she actually peaked as Queen (overseeing not one but three defeats of the Spanish Armada) to her last days.
Interwoven is the story of a very different woman, Elizabeth’s first cousin Lettice Knollys. Picking up as the story does during Elizabeth’s mid-fifties, there is a lot to catch up on. Lettice apparently insulted the Queen to such an extent that she hasn’t been to court in twenty years, I gather it’s because she married Elizabeth’s great love Robert Dudley. Their son, another Robert continues to be intertwined in the Queen’s life right up to the end, and because of that I suppose Lettice is a figure of interest, but truthfully she is only presented as Elizabeth must have seen her, a carnal woman who is interested only in social climbing. As an aside: she does have some dalliance with a very fictional version of Shakespeare which is fun to read.
Unfortunately historically Lettice lost everything in the end (although outliving Elizabeth for a good many decades), and from her point of view it must have only been through Elizabeth’s pleasure or displeasure. Seeing the Queen from this helpless point of view highlights the selfish privilege given to monarchs of dictating the lives of others without even realizing it; and illustrates how very much the accident of one’s birth mattered in the Middle Ages.
While a good read, ultimately Elizabeth’s second half of her reign is fairly uninteresting, although it’s impossible to be unimpressed with her unfailing selflessness when it came to governing, and that itself lent to her great and enduring reputation of England’s greatest Queen.